Play All: A Binge-Watcher’s Notebook by Clive James


Play All is James’ reflection on binge-watching box sets (yes, he says ‘box sets’.  Perhaps he eats ‘fry rice’ while watching).  He differentiates between a television drama in the “old sense” of a network weekly serial which just happens to have been boxed-up (box up?) such as The Good Wife, and a box set drama in the “new sense”, such as Game of Thrones. He adores both and watches 3, 4, 5 episodes of either in one sitting with his daughter. He sees “the main advantage that a long-form tv show has over a movie” as affording “room to search souls”, and explains the addiction :“very soon the show works the magic trick of any successful myth, and convinces you that the phantasmagoria you see in front of you is real and inevitable, and that the major characters are aspects of your own complex personality”. As he says so very rightly, proper grown-up adults are no longer interested in going to the cinema because “most of the new movies are blockbusters scaled-up from Marvel comics or video games”.

Is “binge-watching” a thing? you may ask. James puts the term and its critiques into context : “We have merely labelled part of an evolutionary process with an ad hoc descriptive term, an only slightly less than usually misleading specimen of the academic nomenclature that divides up the history of anything into manageable chunks”. “There is a bad tendency among instant commentators on the media to suppose that all qualities began with the new wrinkle: but most of those qualities wouldn’t have gone there without being inherited from the old wrinkle”  In that vein, James puts the ‘new sense’ box-set drama into its place in the evolutionary grind from movies through made-for-tv-series to wherever this whole streaming thing is going. And here’s one of his arbitrary and personal theories – he quite seriously asserts that the ultimate tv genetic ancestors of these box sets with their long narrative arcs and linear themes are – wait for it – you won’t believe it – The Rockford Files and Shogun. By the time we get to “NYPD Blue you can watch the single-episode procedural story morphing into the over-arching serial story of the complete season, and the seasons themselves becoming chapters in the total narrative arc.”

Like Giles De’Ath in Love and Death on Long Island, James’ open-mouthed adoration of certain actors seems to have arisen from not having really understood the idea of acting until quite recently.

De’Ath – “For is it not the case that when we are in the habit of viewing a film…more than once, assisted by that technological aide-memoire the video player, then a remarkable phenomenon presents itself. We see…that what, at first, appeared to be merely accidental or unrehearsed…becomes on subsequent viewings an indelible part of the film’s texture. A distant landscape,
a blurred face in the crowd, even a banal message on a T-shirt. So, the largely unrecognized art of film acting…depends entirely
on the ability of the actor–or, indeed, actress–to make everything about himself–, or herself–seem equally permanent. When, thus, an actor is called upon to smile, he must try to select a smile from a collection–a repertoire–a whole file of smiles, as it were. Naïve, rueful, sly, sarcastic…and so on.”

James (on Peter Dinklage in Game of Thrones) – “he suddenly made all the other male actors in the world look too tall…his face is a remarkable instrument of expression over which he has complete professional control, and his voice is a thing of rare beauty, as rich as Chaliapin singing Boris Godunov…Tyrion is the embodiment, in a small body, of the show’s prepolitical psychological range.” James admires them all – Gandolfini, Michael Imperioli, Martin Sheen, Kevin Spacey and Dennis Franz (NYPD Blue). Just think if Giles could see Charles Dance in Game of Thrones through James’ eyes: “you get enough of him and it still isn’t enough…There never was a more profoundly thoughtful transmitter of bitterly cured wisdom”. Or James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. His “face is creased with effort on its various levels and terraces. He is wondering where the ducks have gone.  Is he reflecting that they must have left for the winter, or has it occurred to him that he too, might be subject to divine will?…It helps that the face belongs to James Gandolfini. It is massive.”

That’s the male players. Some of the female ones are really excellent, James says, even though they are not attractive to him, and so there is no real reason for them to be there – Nancy Marchand, Allison Janney and Robin Wright – are  honoured. It has to be dealt with, so I shall do it now. James waxes lyrical and ridiculous about women whom he sees as sexy. He has no reason to watch a show if there is no-one in it for him to drool and swoon over. His language is typically excessive. Here are just a few of his paens –

The young Lorraine Bracco in Someone to Watch Over Me, “played a cop’s wife so attractive that not even Mimi Rogers in distress could tempt him away for long”

Olivia Munn has the face of a “wicked angel…her bewitching eyes and her figure fit for the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated”.

Milla Jovovich has “the most beautiful face in creation”, although the “equally striking” Julianna Margulies is “built to walk on clouds.”

Kari Mathett is “pitilessly arousing.”

Sofia Helin is “very comely.”

Nathalie Baye is “divine.” “(be still, my beating heart).”

Keri Russell is “impossible not to adore.”

Ammet Mahendru is “insanely lovely.”

Claire Danes is “beautiful “and in Romeo and Juliet “was a lyric poem all by herself.”

Kate Mara is “alluring.”

Carole Rousseau is “cool and graceful” and apparently, if it weren’t for her we might not watch whatever it is that she hosts, just as apparently, we might not watch The Good Wife if it were not for the striking Julianna Marguiles strolling about on water vapour.

Natasha Henstridge in a teddy is the only reason to watch John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars (and the only reason to mention it at all, apparently).

Alexandra Daddario is “extravagantly gorgeous”.  Not only is it a “relief” when she takes her shirt off, it has “startling visual impact.”

Archie Panjabi from The Good Wife “keeps us, and half the characters whether male or female, erotically fascinated throughout the show: a vamp for all seasons, and it isn’t even her fault.  Her eyes were made for us to drown in, and for her to watch us struggle.” 

This drivel from just a few pages, made this reader feel queasy, inadequate, bored and annoyed. James invokes his daughters to show us that he knows what woman like; he praises women’s increasing importance in production; he calls out the inequities in nude presentation still invoked by the Hollywood rules, and he even occasionally refers to a man as ‘handsome’. But it’s hard to see why, in James’ world, any human who is not simply an adolescent (heterosexual) boy would want to watch anything at all. The one and only reason he had for watching Breaking Bad (more of this later) was Jane Margolis as played by Krysten Rittter. He pretends to address the “vexed question of eye candy” but his heart isn’t in it. It’s just possible that Lena Dunham may not be as flushed with joy as she should be to read that James describes her as adventurous and brave for daring to go on the telly despite being “not especially amazing to look at“.

James’ prose is overwrought, easy to read and fast. He is funny – “Very few of [Frank] O’Hara’s poems get far beyond the condition of not being prose”. Steve Buscemi’s teeth are “so clearly designed for biting the head off a live chicken”. The Coen brothers “can make you wonder if even George Clooney is quite all there.”  Kevin Spacey’s features “just happened, like a Rorschach blot”. Despite her beauty, Claire Danes as Carrie in Homeland attempts “to be unobtrusive by looking around like a Tourette’s victim and shaking her head like a dervish”. Having praised The Wire for (what he considers to be) a rare attempt to explain technical matters, James says of Enigma“Nobody cracks the actual enigma code except by looking tense. They might as well be sucking pencils.”

James is particularly scathing and funny about Scandanavian programmes, which he says are basically clean. “Basically but not reassuringly.  Far from it: under the cleanliness there is a current of angst, like someone weird softly reading aloud from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling”. He says, “I blame Wallander, who has been boring the world for so long now that three different actors have played him if you count Kenneth Branagh. Of the two Swedish Wallanders, Rolf Lassgard tries to make the character interesting by looking around a lot often approaching the looking-around record that Ben Kingsley established in Species…”

Frighteningly, but not surprisingly, given the place in history which he assigns to The Rockford Files, James adores (and I mean adores) those mediocre ‘old form’ programs, NYPD Blue, The Good Wife and The West Wing and their players.  Did I say overwrought?  James considers Martin Sheen as The West Wing’s President Bartlet to be “an exemplary use of the charismatic central hero…an intellectual president …bringing articulacy to his tightly argued humanist speeches“. “All these real-life presidents [Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, FDR, Truman, LBJ, Nixon and Obama] were smart, but even with their reputations rolled together they don’t add up to Jed Bartlet, who in any number of illustrative scenes, gives us an account of exactly why developments in the cultivation of wheat present a decisive objection to Malthusian theories about imminent world starvation”. “The only comparable presidential figure in American history is Lincoln, whose brilliance was confined to the English language“.  Sorry Abe, you suffered the disadvantage of being real.  Barlet can orate in Latin, is “omniscient, energetic, an ethical giant, a poet king.”  Forget elections, political science and gravity – “The West Wing has taken the supremacy; it is our first frame of reference for thinking about the presidency”. “Martin Sheen is terrifically good at being classy; he can’t make himself tall, but he knows just how to make himself look as if he has a connoisseur’s respect…” Sheen’s Barlet is “so intensely human”, “he pays for his superior gifts with high anxiety…he has an aching sense of responsibility”. “He knows he is the best man for his job because he is the best qualified for analysis and decision; but…he knows history too well”. At least, unlike Giles D’Ath, James is aware that there is a writer or writing team behind all this searing wonderfulness.  The West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin is his favourite, being “inspiringly good at making a questioning, troubled intellect….with its probing dialectical treatment of every liberal issue…”

When it comes to the ‘new sense’ of long-form content, James adores (yes, I use the word judiciously) The Sopranos, Band of Brothers, Mad Men and other series which are not widely known in Australia.  He holds out on the big one –  “Like anybody both adult and sane, I had no intention of watching Game of Thrones…”  When describing the worlds of Game of Thrones he says, “There is icy cold instead of sandy heat, but still the level of tediums is very high..”  I understand this, having a violent aversion to any film with a lot of sand in it (a permanent effect from having watched The English PatientandLawrence of Arabia in the same century). Nor is James a fan of George R R Martin: “I picked up one of his books and fell down shortly afterward, and I wasn’t even ill that day.”  But of course he succumbs and watches an episode or two. Horrifyingly, he sees “a not especially stunning princess” with a “not especially maddening form”. What’s she doing here?  Why go on? “I’m still looking for all the reasons why it would have been right not to watch”, but it’s alright because he does persevere and is rewarded with a reason to do so – “As for the top woman of the realm, she is a beautiful expression of arbitrary terror, which is probably the first way to think about female beauty, if not the best. In a cast list where almost everyone stands out, the evil queen Cersei Lannister stands out most among the women, for she combines shapely grace with limitless evil in just the right mixture to scare a man to death while rendering him helpless with desire.”  Oh, hang on, perhaps James hasn’t made himself clear. Being “superbly equipped by the cold edges of her classically sculpted looks to incarnate the concept of a femme fatale, Lena Headey beams Cersei’s radiant malevolence at such a depth into the viewer’s mind that she reawakens a formative disturbance.”  But wait. It’s really really ok because when it comes to sex in Game of Thrones, “some of the female participants looked too gorgeous to be probable, but the same improbability occurs in everyday life, where chance dictates that you will sometimes see Venus Anadyomene at the supermarket checkout counter.”  Oh for God’s sake, Clive.

James doesn’t like Breaking Bad.  Here are his ostensible reasons – he finds Walt dull and hard to sympathise with; doesn’t like to see Walt walking about in his underpants with his mouth open (I feel that way about women, strangely enough Clive); Jesse is an unbearable punk with too oft-bared and unnaturally perfect teeth. He also says it is ‘underpopulated’ and neither light nor quick, unlike – and here he gives himself away – the “witty beauty” Jane Margolis, played by Krysten Ritter, upon whose death James says, “I could just about put up with the loss of cheesecake”. He complains too that it turned into a “bad action movie” at the end. To the real reason for James’ derision – the lack of female nudes – we can add James’ overwhelming preference for bad-guy heroes of the Don Draper sort, “tall, handsome, enigmatic and effortlessly dominant”, or Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) in The Wire, not Walter White. Remember what James said earlier about wanting more technical exposition? He says that Nucky’s organisation in Boardwalk Empire “burgeons to little purpose and with not much in the way of planning. We need to see the criminal mastermind’s superiority as a strategist…For dramatic purposes, it has to sound intricate even if it isn’t”. There’s plenty of technical show-and-tell in Breaking Bad and a long, subtle strategy unfolds, wrinkle by wrinkle, in Walter White’s brain; but it’s just not worth sitting-through if it is presented by Walt and not Jane, or even Idris Elba, if we must.  Similarly, James dismisses the British House of Cards because Ian Richardson’s female victims are (in James’ mind) insufficiently alluring to attract his fatal intentions”.  There’s no Beatrice, in other words, to Clive’s Dante.

Yes, it is all a matter of personal preference, but any real critic should be able to pick the fault in James’ high opinion of Underbelly and Rake, two Australian series. He says, “the reason is simple: they’re gripping, and that always has to be the first consideration. Without that, complication and sophistication count for nothing, or else you’d actually be enjoying the later novels of Henry James.”  Clearly this is objectively and patently wrong. Anyone with a scintilla of sensibility would indeed rather eat the later novels of Henry James or indeed Henry James himself, than watch such turgid, clichéd trash.

James makes some perceptive points about ‘box-set’ shows. The advertising executives in Mad Men don’t question their methods and ethics, although James points out that those would have been active issues at the time depicted. His explanation for this has the tang of reality – “we revel in the opportunity to look back and patronise the clever for not being quite clever enough to be living now.” “Mad Men is a marketing campaign and it sells a sense of superiority.”  And he has cleverly picked up that “the daughter is often the moral pivot in a box set drama, and all too often she is the irritating daughter.”  He develops these into the “category of Irritating Daughter and the category of Possibly Kidnapped Daughter.”

James says that this form of show will be popular around the world because of its “globally recognisable frame of reference“.  Ironically he says that exotic geography isn’t necessary if the story is strong enough (but says nothing about female nudity not mattering).

Finally he has something to say about the geo-political situation today. James opines that the “popularity of the gangster show in the Western countries might have something to do with a growing fear that in a battle against absolute evil a leader without an evil streak might get us killed.”

[Peter adds: I love Clive’s TV reviews of the 1970s and early 1980s.  Alas, I fear that Clive has degenerated into a horny boy again, whose TV is a joy forever. He has always had an unerring and hilarious sense of cant, but a fatal weakness for a pretty girl (much like Otis Elwell in Sweet Smell of Success). Lesley tells it like I fear it is, but we both hope he gets better soon.] Continue Reading →

The Night Manager

March 23, 2017 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Dir. Susanne Bier) (2016)

Once upon a time, John le Carré wrote an excellent book that was made into an excellent film, The Spy Who came in from the Cold.  Alas for John, the Cold War ended.  Since then, he’s been grumpily looking for an appropriate villain, and railed interminably in vapid fashion against untrammeled capitalism, a crusade revealed in a series of highly lucrative books, films and TV series.

In The Night Manager, a 6-part serial adapted from the Carré novel by David Farr, a hotel desk-jockey, Jonathan Pine (the fervently wholesome Tom Hiddleston) decides to take on international armaments dealer Richard Roper (a sinuous and daunting Hugh Laurie). Roper poses as a benevolent, philanthropic capitalist (don’t they all?) but actually he is fixing to sell a bunch of proscribed weaponry (e.g., Sarin gas, Kalashnikov rifles, rocket launchers, napalm) to help the Arab Spring and other adventures along.  (He is called “the worst man in the world” – Carré needs to get out more.)


Dedicated spy-master Angela Burr (Olivia Colman playing a cross between Connie Sachs and Judy Dench as ‘M’) is thrilled when the night manager sends over a purchase order for mass destruction linked to Roper, which he obtains and copies in his office at the “Nefertiti Hotel” (one would think Roper would run his shop a little tighter).  She decides to recruit this concerned citizen and turn him into Super-Mole (Ray Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel he ain’t) so he can nail Roper and bring him down.  After all, we can’t have a nasty chancer dealing on the arms market, can we?  That franchise is limited to our democratically elected and un-elected governments.

Bier is vaunted as an actors’ director.  Certainly we get many close-ups of Pine’s green, staring eyes, widened impressively when he is emoting.  There is a lot of heavy exposition in pretty surroundings (the scenes in Cairo aka Morocco, Zermatt, and Mallorca aka Majorca are superb, although Bier must get over her obsession with the Matterhorn – we saw 19 different views of it in the first episode). Handsome people consciously coupling, international locations, swanky hotels, extreme violence, virtue-signalling – really, this series is the Higher Trash – staged, fake and meaningless.  But a diversion every week for 90 minutes or so, plus commercials.  Unlike our very brief fling with Newton’s Law, we may stick with this one for a few more episodes, just to see if L’s predictions of the story’s outcome prove true. (That’s the problem with people like us.  We know all the plots.)

"I'm the night man..."

“I’m the night man…”

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Gwen by Goldie Goldbloom

Gwen by Gwen


It is difficult to see, from reproductions of Gwen John’s paintings, why her lumpy daubs are thought by many to be better than the skillful if dull portraits painted by her brother, Augustus John.  Goldbloom is at pains in Gwen, her novelised version of Gwen John’s life, to say that it was so, that even Augustus knew it.  Nor is it easy to understand, at this distance, just why women found those lumpy bawds Augustus and the sculptor Auguste Rodin to be utterly irresistible, but again, apparently they did – or at least the artistic ones like Gwen and Dorelia (the mistress shared by brother and sister) did.  There is a great deal of sex in this book, everyone is panting with desire rather nauseatingly all of the time.  Goldbloom turns Gwen – who was surely mentally unstable and delicate – into a clairvoyant who can see but not quite understand the future of the Jews in wartime Europe.  This is intriguing at first but comes to dominate in a heavy-handed manner. One suspects that this is more an obsession of Goldbloom’s than of John’s.  A nice idea about how Gwen can help a group of Jewish children by reaching forward through time is finally pummelled to death in an unnecessary Epilogue.

So, those are the quibbles. But Goldbloom’s prose is how we are told Gwen’s paintings are – rich, lovely, limpid and evocative.  Somehow (dare we say it?) European – more Patrick White than Tim Winton. Read Gwen if you like your artists bohemian, your woman hungry, and your worlds translucent.  We at TVC are most interested to see what Goldbloom does next.

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Lincoln in the Bardo

"Why, some asked, was a child riding a pony about in the pouring rain, without a coat?"

(by George Saunders).

Saunders’ first novel, a heroic retelling of the death and laying to rest of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie, chops and hops, like a play or the flea on a dead man’s nose, commented on by a Greek chorus of the dead and the living. Contrived though it is (the voices include the obligatory offended-against homosexual, mulatto slave and illiterate), Saunders gathers all together in a tender and mellifluous rotting pyre, at the centre of which Lincoln (handsome, homely, noble, ignoble, guilty, arrogant) burns, while others fly and roil like sparks around him. The enveloping Images of horror and grief are well-leavened by reflections on the beauty of the world and the goodness of redemption, and, best of all, by the hilarious, f—–g, G—–n, s—-y, a—–e  Baron couple.  Read it for those f—–s, if nothing else.

(photo by Mathew Brady)

(photo by Mathew Brady)


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The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five

Venus and Mars....It's been said.

(by Doris Lessing)


‘Yes, well, I might have phoned this one in…’





The first book in Lessing‘s Canopus in Argos: Archives series, Shikasta, is unimpressive upon reading, but impresses upon reflection. Lessing puts a thoughtful and intriguing spin on our understanding of humankind’s origins. The second volume, The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five is unimpressive upon reading and almost impossible to reflect upon with interest. The bellicose inhabitants of Zone Five are unsophisticated, ‘masculine’ and heavy. The arty inhabitants of Zone Four are loving in an all-inclusive creepy way, ‘feminine’ and smug. So let’s marry the dopey queen of Zone Four to the blustering king of Zone Five and see what happens. Galadriel sets about doing good works, and thinking maybe she should toughen-up a bit. Sauron gets all confused by his feelings. End of story.

"Venus and Mars" (Elsa Dax)

“Venus and Mars” (Elsa Dax)

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The Secret River

March 15, 2017 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | THEATRE, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |
Heidrun Lohr

(Dir. Neil Armfield) (Anstey Quarry, 12 March 2017)

[Memo to the traditional custodians: “How annoying, when you’ve got the place looking right, some great floating vector retches into view, bone in her teeth, lusting for dry land and croaking with violent anticipation. White folks revise and revise; you, in your pleasant way, make no objection. Naturally, the latecomers take it for granted that you know your place in this new world.”]

This is the scenario of imperialism and it has played out (variably) on every inhabited continent from time immemorial.  It is a powerful but overworked theme. In the capable hands of Kate Grenville, it made a lovely novel (2005). As adapted by Andrew Bovell and produced by the Sydney Theatre Company, it was violently overpraised by people who (bless ’em) have probably never heard of, let alone read, The Invention of Terra Nullius by Michael Connor.

What shine in this production are direction and design.  Hats off to whoever suggested the Anstey Hill Quarry, in Tea Tree Gully, north of Adelaide: it is a brilliant setting, providing a natural backdrop to this bijou tale of transported settlers carving out farmland, their interaction with the local indigenous people, and the havoc wreaked among them when violence erupts.  As the rain thankfully subsided* and the sunlight faded, clever and effective (but restrained) use of lighting, and superb musical accompaniment from virtual one-man-band Iain Grandage, created powerful and vivid colours and atmosphere, lit also from afar temporarily by a full moon. Gorgeous directorial touches revealed the deft hand of Mr. Armfield – white and black lads fool about with a home-made water slide; the advancing men blow puffs of dust to represent the firing of muskets; ropes are twirled en masse to suggest cultivation or bush construction; the settlers huddle in a small lit square to portray a gathering in William Thornhill’s hut.  The violence is presented without undue flourish (although the settlers advancing in formation, singing “London Bridge is Falling Down” reminded us of a scene from Full Metal Jacket). The aboriginal men and women enter and depart magisterially. The finding, and losing, of common ground between the locals and the visitors are done with wit and compassion.


The performances were adequate but overripe on occasion. Wisely, as much of the story is internal, a narrator was invented (Dhirrumbi). This performance (by Ningali Lawford Wolf) was outstanding.  There was a modest amount of needless repetition.  Some characters strayed into archetypes. The ‘flashback moments’ failed to convince – in fact, they were a little cringe-worthy, something you might see staged by ‘Legs Akimbo.’ But mostly pain was avoided. We feared being lectured and hectored.  The Secret River avoided that.

[*The Varnished Culture took their cheap plastic ponchos to keep out the drizzle, and sat there like Kath, Kel and friends at the Boz Scaggs concert.]


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The Hitler Club


(by Gary Gumpl and Richard Kleinig) (2007)

It’s not easy being a Kraut. Hitler saw to that. He took more than two thousand years of German contributions to the world – legacies from sources such as Beethoven, Bonhoeffer, Brahms, Charlemagne, Marlene Dietrich, DürerEinstein, Friedrich, Goethe, Hesse, Hoffmann, Kant, Kleist, Liebniz, Luther, Mann, Mozart, Schiller, Schubert, and yes, Wagner (especially Wagner) – and sullied them, perhaps for ever.  The ‘don’t mention the war’ running joke in that Fawlty Towers episode is closer to the truth than we care to admit. In modern Germany especially, the shadow cast by Nazism is long.

Grotesque irony abounded in the Nazis’ world.  For example, Himmler rattled around in a special train that served as both his billet and his office, all the while trying to prove scientifically that the Reich’s Japanese allies were really Aryran.  The mottos hanging above some of the infamous death camps were “Arbeit macht Frei” – Work will set you Free (at Auschwitz and elsewhere), and “Jedem das Seine” – To Each Their Due (at Buchenwald).  “The Nazis are a joke all right, but they are not yet a joke to make lightly. They are history’s joke on the human race, and will remain so until the last of their victims has gone beyond the reach of being hurt further by a casual insult.’*  And yet, as Jakov Lind pointed out, there were no Nazis.  Just people, with terrible views, empowered to do terrible things. Plenty supported them. Or joined them. Gunther Grass recalled that “[a]s a member of the Hitler Youth I was, in fact, a Young Nazi. A believer till the end. Not what one would call fanatical, not leading the pack, but with my eye, as if by reflex, fixed on the flag that was to mean ‘more than death’ to us, I kept pace in the rank and file. No doubts clouded my faith…I saw my fatherland threatened, surrounded by enemies.”^


The authors of The Hitler Club have grasped this essential point. In this fine, important and gutsy book, they demonstrate that many Anglos, as well as Germans, here and abroad, thought for rather a long time that Hitler was the cat’s pyjamas. Indeed, the early warnings by the likes of Churchill were an exception. Germany had, after all, been devastated by the Great War and had salt rubbed in its wounds by the Treaty of Versailles. Demilitarisation and the Great Depression sowed the seeds of reaction; then along came Adolf, in the guise of the Man of the People, promising a chicken in every pot and a VW in every garage. The local Australian press echoed and amplified the naivety of the English press: “Hitler’s methods of violence were…provisionally sanctioned by British and ultimately Australian press sources as necessary, but only temporary, evils that were really masking palliatives. They were legitimised, because they were thought to be correctives being applied by a sick body politic which was somehow engaged in the tolerable process of healing itself.”^^

When Nazi Germany set itself against the world, leading inexorably to self-immolation, the reaction was, inevitably and understandably, savage. But at a local level, there tended to be an overreaction, bearing a lack of proportion and an arbitrariness emblematic of foolish figures of authority.  The Hitler Club is the story of the impact of Nazism in the German settlements of the Barossa Valley in South Australia, and the victimisation of a man who (like so many) believed in Hitler, but who appears to have committed no crime. It is described as “a story of immigration, of an Australia in formation, of the complexity of loyalties and the juggling of the old and newmost of all, in the hands of two South Australian magistrates, it is a story of injustice that must never be allowed to be forgotten.”

Gary Gumpl and Richard Kleinig, present and former Stipendiary Magistrates of long experience and sound reputation, have uncovered a shameful example of extra-judicial overreach and institutionalised prejudice. Dr Johannes Becker (born 1898) served his country in WWI, heard Herr Hitler at Hofbrauhaus over pretzels and beer in 1922, migrated to Australia in 1927, commenced medical practice in the Barossa, joined the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in 1932 and became, upon Hitler’s ascension, state leader for the South Pacific and head of the Tanunda branch of the party. There seems no doubt that he was a strident and committed Nazi. The photo of what became referred to in local intel circles as ‘The Hitler Club,’ showing several men with the swastika in front of a vineyard near Tanunda (see main image) is attributed to Becker.  What is missing is evidence of crime or criminality, despite exhaustive searches of previously classified government security files and many other accurate sources.

It is true that he practised as a medical practitioner in Australia without obtaining registration, although his patients thought well of him. He sued the publisher of Smith’s Weekly for its article, “German Quack runs riot on the Murray Flats” and won a judgment in the SA Supreme Court (the publisher’s appeal to the High Court was dismissed in 1932, although the damages award was reduced). Apart from that, there seems to be nothing against him. Yet following the outbreak of World War II, Dr Becker was interned (for 7 years!) as an enemy alien, in SA and Tatura in Victoria. He was arrested the day after England and thus Australia declared war on Germany, yet the local cop, in defiance of authority, did not house him in the police cell on his last night before internment.

We should notice, as the authors establish, that the power to imprison without charge, let alone trial, was a historical right reserved to the Crown and recognized by the High Court as apt in times of war…but nevertheless, a pretty raw deal. The authors quote Alexander Hamilton on the hallowed taste of tyrants for arbitrary imprisonment, and The Varnished Culture has itself spoken of the dangerous and formidable powers to imprison per se. In Becker’s case, the Crown banged-up a man who had done no crime and had lost his official post a decade earlier. And yet…and yet…

He made pleas for release during his confinement, which fell on deaf ears.  Eventually he got a ‘hearing’ before the Aliens’ Deportation Tribunal – its very name a grim portent – in late 1945 (note: half a year after Hitler’s fall had left Germany without any pots or garages). There had been no real case for internment and there was certainly no case for deportation. Naturally therefore, His Honour, Justice Simpson (former Director-General of the Australian Security Service, hence combining a former prosecutorial role with his judicial one), acting upon nothing but what C.P. Snow memorably termed “the brilliance of suspicion”, ordered deportation. To call His Honour’s judgment flawed would be putting it mildly.  As Magistrates Gumpl and Kleinig put it, “the Judge’s impressionistic, loose-woven, unfair and unsubstantiated reasons…did not even bother to mention the fact that Becker had never come under suspicion for criminal conduct that was prejudicial to national security. …his permanent exclusion was infinitely easier than trying to prove a case against Dr Becker, especially where such a case did not exist and the Australian authorities knew it.”^*

On Becker’s release in 1946, pending deportation, he embarrassingly went AWOL, and was eventually arrested as a stowaway on a ship lying off Watson’s Bay, Sydney, bound for Panama. He was deported to West Germany, where he got exoneration by a ‘denazification’ tribunal in December 1948 despite (of perhaps because of) the disappearance of a dossier on his Australian activities. In 1953 Becker’s marriage was dissolved in South Australia. Survived by his son and daughter, he died on 21 February 1961 at Bremen, West Germany.  He never saw Australia or his family again.

new-germanAs might be expected from authors steeped in the traditions of the Law, the book separates the fact from the fancy, with forensic exactitude, and is informed by an instinctive feel for natural justice.  This story is manifestly of relevance today; indeed, it is timeless, in that human societies must continually watch over (and re-set where necessary) rules of human conduct and liberties, always balancing social cohesion against individual freedom. Freedom comes from common consent among society as to what constitutes fairness and decency.  Societies are judged by their actions having regard to such criteria.  Australia failed that test in this case.  Its deprivation of Becker’s fundamental civil liberties was done with actual malice and absent “some compelling evidence implicating him and his cohort in behaviour that was at least preparatory to the commission of some serious criminal offending…the case against Becker was a will-o’-the-wisp.”^^^


[*Clive James, “The Observer”, 30 March 1980.] [^Gunther Grass memoir, Peeling the Onion (2007).] [^^The Hitler Club, page 33.] [^*The Hitler Club, pp.  311, 312 & 346.] [^^^The Hitler Club, pp. xv-xvi.] [Postscript Notes: “…any submission to, or dependence on Great Britain, tends directly to involve this continent in European wars and quarrels; and sets us at variance with nations, who would otherwise seek our friendship, and against whom, we have neither anger nor complaint.” – Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776).  (Okay, we accept that Nazi Germany didn’t fall into that category but the general observation still seems apt.)

Perhaps the most significant moral characteristic of a nation is its hypocrisy.” – Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) p.95.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” – Thomas Jefferson, “Declaration of Independence” (1776)

The implication underlying totalitarian democracy, that freedom could not be granted as long as there is an opposition or reaction to fear, renders the promised freedom meaningless.” – J. L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (1952) p.254.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” “Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.” “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” – U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Articles 9, 10, 18 and 20 (1).] Continue Reading →

“Shoot Straight, You Bastards!”

February 27, 2017 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

Breaker Morant (1980) (Directed by Bruce Beresford)

1899-1902. The Boer War. The South African veldt, once overseen by the Dutch East India Company, is now in the tender mercies of Queen Victoria and her successors.  Afrikaans farmers (‘Boers’) are grumpy about that, and in rebellion. Lord Kitchener has assumed command, with the command (possibly implicit) to put down the unrest, if necessary very roughly.  Where England fought, so did Australia, and in this dirty little war, the Bushveldt Carbineers are at the coalface.  Experienced soldier and poetaster Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward) and his men, Lieutenant Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) and Lieutenant George Ramsdale Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) are mopping-up the area.  There’s some collateral damage, the kind that obtains in a war where the enemy isn’t in uniform, riding to formation.  The three end up before a court-martial, and the trial forms the basis of the film.

Breaker_MorantWhilst this event at the time became something of a real cause-célèbre, and the film’s deserved success created a myth of martyrdom, as told in the film itself, there is really no heroism on offer.  It is pretty clear that the three were guilty as hell, although the provision of natural justice during the trial left something to be desired.  In fact, the stirring performance by Jack Thompson as the accused’s bush lawyer (hitherto versed only in wills and conveyancing) easily outstrips the work of any other lawyers in the courtroom, whether they’re from the bush or not. Procedurally-speaking, it wouldn’t even pass muster in that superb forensic legal drama, Newton’s Law.

Breaker profile

“It’s a new kind of war, George. A new war for a new century. I suppose this is the first time the enemy hasn’t been in uniform. They’re farmers. They come from small villages, and they shoot at us from behind walls and from farmhouses. Some of them are women, some of them are children, and some of them…are missionaries, George.”









Woodward and Bryan Brown are fine as the doomed, knowing perpetrators of crimes performed by many and punished as an exception, not a rule.  Lewis Fitz-Gerald is aptly sheep-like and callow.


Whilst the supporting roles fall into rather florid, narrow categories of “good,” “bad,” and “neutral,” the piece really rises and falls on Woodward and Thompson, who keep our interest high throughout.

"'s just the Vibe...of the thing..."

“Er…it’s just the Vibe…of the thing…”

They shot Morant and Handcock at dawn on 27 February 1902.  As shown in the film (though there is not universal agreement on this) Morant’s last words were his instruction to the firing squad:  “Shoot straight, you bastards! Don’t make a mess of it!”

In the end, Breaker Morant has much to tell us about military life and doings: simple, brutish and short – wending from ennui to terror, and in hindsight, not signifying very much.


“Don’t make a mess of it!”



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The Lobster

February 23, 2017 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Comedy Film, Drama Film, FILM, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |
Out of the frying pan...

(Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) (2015)

At the commencement of the film, David’s unseen wife has told him that she is leaving him for another man.  “Does he wear glasses or contact lenses?”  David (Colin Farrell) asks incongruently for us but entirely reasonably for him, as will become apparent.

A magnificently affectless Colin Farrell is booked into a dreary hotel for the purpose of finding a mate. He is told that the “bisexual option is no longer available”. No, it’s not a swingers’ or lonely hearts’ hotel, not exactly.  In this dystopian state (filmed in Ireland) it is unlawful to be single.  David and his fellow singleton “guests” each must fall in love within 45 days (which can be extended by murder) or be turned into an animal. To be matched, one must find a partner with a similar “defining characteristic” which might be a limp, a lisp, a beautiful smile or having “absolutely no feelings at all”.  This begs the question of why the guests are simply not grouped according to these characteristics, or why one partner would reveal that the other was faking affection, (which will result in their own singledom).   A faker is turned into the animal “no-one wants to be”.

Olivia Coleman is superb as the appallingly creepy Hotel Manager.  She croons songs at the awful dances, tells new couples that if they have any problems, they will be assigned children because “that usually helps” and oversees the torture by toaster. Lea Seydoux is also marvellous as the equally sadistic and hard rebel leader. But these are just two stars in an excellent cast.

It doesn’t look like David will “make it”.  He runs and joins the rebel Loners who hide in the woods.  In this similarly strict community, Loners who enter into romantic relationships risk horrible tortures, one of which is having a hot boiled egg in the armpit.

Rachel Weisz (a Loner, “The Shortsighted Woman”) provides the voice-over in a flat, strident voice and very odd it is too.  Similarly the dialogue is stilted and often oblique.  This is a drear and tragic world, not unlike that in “Never Let Me Go” or “Eraserhead“.  The nods to “1984” are patent and fitting – David stays in room 101 (of course) and is betrayed by his lover in a very similar manner to that in which Winston betrayed Julia.

This is an absurd and funny film.  Dialogue gems include, “I just remembered I left some batteries by a tree down there and the last thing I want is to lose them”, and “there’s blood and biscuits everywhere”. The cast must have had a hard time not laughing while filming the horrible pantomimes illustrating the dangers of dining or walking alone. The funniest moment of all is when David and The Shortsighted Woman tie themselves up in knots gesturing wildly and falling over, making increasingly bizarre “secret” signals in an attempt to keep their couple status hidden.  Yes, there is humour in this weird and wonderful story, but it is black and Lanthimos does not spare us some ghastly scenes.

The enigmatic ending is in keeping with the film and just as good as it could be. It leaves us wondering.  What does David do?  We at TVC think that the answer lies in the title and the final sounds over the closing credits.


Art by Nicola Kemp


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February 17, 2017 | Posted by Lesley Jakobsen | Drama Film, THUMBNAIL REVIEWS |

(Dir. Lars von Trier) (2011)

Some compare this film to Terence Malick’s  Tree of Life.  Here’s my comparison – one of these films is overrated tedious pretentious twaddle and the other is a stylish wonder directed by Lars von Trier.

In Part 1 of the Trier one, Melancholia, a handsome couple, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) arrive at their wedding reception in a weird Maxfield Parrish twilight.  Everything is beautiful in the castle guesthouse, but the newlyweds are two hours late and a whiff of despair accompanies them.  We don’t know why. The bride’s sister Claire (a careworn Charlotte Gainsbourg) is exasperated but not surprised. Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) is beyond exasperated and wants to be sure that Justine knows how much this wedding is costing him; Claire and John own and operate the guesthouse. The bride is alternately smiling delightedly and morosely detached.  We learn that she has promised Claire that she will not make a scene on this night. Justine suffers from melancholia, in the medical sense of a deep and persistent soul-eating misery.  The night does not go well.  Justine’s rakish father (a spoon-stealing John Hurt) stolidly avoids the heart-to-heart his daughter wants.  Her mother (a sour Charlotte Rampling) loudly deplores marriage and tells Justine to get out while she can.  Kind, unsuspecting Michael is way out of his depth.  Justine’s ghastly boss (Stellan Skarsgard) and his newly-employed nephew Tim (Brady Corbet) – well, the less said the better.  In short, the marriage doesn’t take.  Justine sleepwalks, alienates and insults her way right out of it, just as mummy suggested.  It’s a night that everyone will remember – for the rest of their lives.

Some time later Justine, now virtually catatonic, goes to stay with Claire,  John  and their son Leo (Cameron Spurr) in the same guest house – although there are no guests.  The red star Arcturus, which Justine noted on her wedding night, (one such sighting heart-swellingly coinciding with a crescendo in Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde“) has disappeared behind a planet called Melancholia, which in its turn has been “hiding” behind the sun and is now approaching the Earth.  Scientists are divided – Melancholia will fly by the Earth or it will collide with it. One or the other. But that “hiding” suggests motive and malice.  We know from the wonderful opening sequence of slow-motion shots of birds falling, lightning, Justine dragging grey muddy snares and planets colliding, that this will be no fly-by. We later recognise  these Peter Greenaway-like moments of surreal heaviness and profundity as perhaps the experience of those who inhabit the infinitesimal and eternal, liminal space of the final moments when the laws of physics of this planet are blown to pieces.

The three adults and Leo are strangely isolated – no phones ring, there is no television or radio, the internet is rarely used, no helicopters fly over, no ravening hordes of final-dayers or doomsday preppers climb over the fence.  When Justine twice tries to ride her horse across the bridge to the village he baulks and will not cross, nor can Claire cross in the golf buggy.  We are told that a character whom we know to be dead has “gone into the village”.  Where is this mansion on a bay with an eighteen (sometimes nineteen) hole golf-course and formal garden?  Some of the characters have English accents, some American, some Scandanavian.  But it’s the end of days.  We are nowhere.

John, all bluff optimism, reassures Claire that they are in no danger. Justine, reminiscent of another enigmatic, doomed, blonde beauty, Miranda, “knows things”.  Like the girls on Hanging Rock – Claire, Leo and Justine spend much of their time sleeping.  John watches the skies with his telescope.  Melancholia approaches and recedes. Then approaches. “There’s your fly-by” Justine says nastily. Justine is a nihilist, certain that life is “evil”, “‘life is only on earth and not for long”.  She awaits the end with a cold, bitter fury. The last scene – one of the best movie endings of all time – emblematises her incandescent rage, in all its tragic glory.

Certainly Melancholia is not flawless – Trier’s symbolism is not subtle (yes, lily of the valley is creepy); the wedding scene is too long; why is John paying for the wedding?; Kirsten takes her clothes off a bit too much; the “surprise” death of a major character is not plausible and is flagged with blinking neon lights; we wonder how Justine could ever have succeeded in advertising; Leo is there simply to provide “a child” for the end of the world scenario – he’s curiously characterless and listless. Critics witter on about whether the two parts of the film (Justine / Claire) represent imagination/reality, or capitalism/religion v science, or internal destruction/external obliteration, or male reason/female feeling, or the fruitlessness of human activity/the magnificent indifference of the cosmos, and I too could witter on about these things.  But to get bogged down in these grey muddy snares is to try to make the film more than it is, or needs to be.


[P reluctantly agreed to watch this again, although he is not disposed to change his views about consigning it to his list of Anaesthesia. That wedding scene is deadly – it’s as long as The Deer Hunter and serves less of an expository purpose.  What’s the right ‘tag-line’ for this film?  How about…er, Bright Young Things Waddle through Pretentious Twaddle?  No, let’s be grown up about this.  How about: Hold Your Wang before the Cosmic Prang?] [Note: See a hilarious critique in the form of a “script” by Chris W of here (spoiler warning).]
Kirsten Dunst channelling Miss Haversham

Kirsten Dunst channelling Miss Haversham

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