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ABC TV's Rewind or The Way We Were:
which is the history show?

history versus entertainment - but which is which?




The right of Bruce Baskerville to be identified as the moral rights author of this work is hereby asserted in accordance with the Copyright Amendment (Moral Rights) Act 2000 of the Commonwealth of Australia.

ABC Television has recently been broadcasting two weekend history programs: Rewind (10pm Sunday), hosted by historian Michael Cathcart, and marketed explicitly as a history program, and The Way We Were (9.30pm Saturday), hosted by comedian Mark Trevorrow and usually described as a variety show. Regular viewers of these programs will have been moved to ask at least once the question 'which is the history show?' Setting aside questions such as 'what is history?', the answer is obvious to this reviewer.

Comparison of the two programs broadcast on the weekend of the 4th and 5th September, each fairly representative of its usual form, makes the issues clear.

The Way We Were tackled the broad theme of work, especially paid employment, and how it has changed over the last 30-40 years. Changes are plotted through a combination of archival film and television footage and interviews with people who have witnessed and taken part in the changes, woven together by a number of sub-themes. In this episode these included the role of women in the workforce, especially the increase in women working and the diversity of jobs now occupied by women; new technologies, especially computerisation; the decline in trade unionism; the impact of immigration through the example of the hard work ethic demonstrated in 'open all hours' shops and small businesses; the changes that have allowed working at home to increase, especially electronic communications and the return of domestic help; and the impact once felt through national development projects such as the Snowy Mountains scheme.

A panel discussion with the interviewees rounded off the archival and oral segments. The changes over time were identified as the change from long weekend to lost weekend, the dominance of market forces and the cult of individuality, the out-of-control nature of consumption, and the interesting observation that these phenomena are (largely) restricted to the English-speaking world.

A complex topic was handled over some 60 minutes with relevant imagery, good interviews and useful research, a clear continuity between past and present was established, and all was leavened with a little campish humour in a time-honoured Australian way. Television critics have been mixed in their views. Greg Hassall in 'The Guide' (Sydney Morning Herald, 30 August-5 September: 20) acknowledged that there was some good material, but "The variety-show format doesn't work for me and the audience's laughter at the archival footage jars, but the guests ... get this over the line". Michael Idato, reviewing next weeks episode ('The Guide', Sydney Morning Herald 6-12 September: 20) wrote of "this brilliant series" that "taps gently the early modern life of Australia" using a "part chat-show, part-documentary" form in which "the archival material is the real star" and "Trevorrow is perfectly cast" .

Rewind has no unifying theme, other than perhaps titillation. The first of two main stories covered a dispute between several of Sydney's surf life saving clubs (SLSCs) as to which was the first to be officially established, with an intrepid reporter seeking to "separate fact from fiction" that was "a question of testing the evidence", involving the identification of primary and secondary evidence, will allusions to missing or stolen records (if only they could be found - a smoking gun may yet be uncovered). The conclusion was that history, like any other competition, is a race that will be won by the successful SLSC.

The second story was the main story in the 50 minute show, featuring the public humiliation of Sir Eugene Goossens. "Sex, magic, and a taste for the bizarre" were the main ingredients in this story, with plenty of lurid photographs from the Vice-Squad files, references to the criminal offense of 'scandalous conduct' (apparently still a crime), extra-marital affairs, divorce, witch covens, pornography, and just in case the viewer missed the point, direct quotes from the police files of Goossen's 'admissions' of his sexual adventures, all set in sleazy Kings Cross.

The two main stories were interspersed with teasers: why was Sister Kenny's home town called Knobby; an Australian had patented a flying machine (which didn't work, and of which all models were tragically destroyed) ten years before Lawrence Hargreave or the Wright Brothers flew; and film of A Sentimental Bloke, all thought to have been destroyed, was rediscovered in the 1950s in a film vault in the USA where the ignorant Americans, not understanding Australian slang, had miscatalogued it, but whose discovery sparked a great interest in early Australian films and film making.

The preoccupations are obvious: firstness, especially if disputed; smuttiness, stolen documents, greatness thwarted, strained Australian-ness (the 'larrikin' meter registered 3 hits in this episode). The Goossens' story was justified, it was claimed, because "historian's have a legitimate interest in scandals - they are a window on the mores of a time" - in this case, the social conservatism and what would not be tolerated fifty years ago. How that squared with a revival of interest in Australian film history and film making at the same time is not explained. The long tradition of bohemianism centred upon Kings Cross is lost in attributions of sleaziness that came nearly two decades later. The 'first SLSC' dispute oozes middle-aged testosterone, but no understanding of early 20th century beach culture (a topic covered several weeks ago to great effect on The Way We Were). Next week, we were promised, would feature "a most macabre story ... the Minister for Murder". Again, television critics have been divided: Bernard Zuel in 'The Guide' (Sydney Morning Herald, 30 August-5 September: 22) says that "This series is an overdue (and not merely worthy) fossicking through Australian history with (mostly) genuine historians is a good start. That it has managed ... to be both revealing and entertaining without resorting to any serious flicking of the switch to vaudeville is some achievement." Next week's episode is not reviewed at all in 'The Guide'.

The Way We Were has focused on a series of social themes of contemporary resonance, and shown the historical continuity of these themes and their changing expression over time. The interviews allow the role of human agency in historical change to be explored. The themes are presented in a fairly seamless production that has been informing, sensitive and entertaining. Rewind, on the other hand, has presented us with a Daily Telegraph or News Ltd version of history: scandalous, disputatious, mysterious, faux-Ozzy, evidential veracity is never questioned, a set of disconnected stories that have said little about the value of history in today's society.

For my money, The Way We Were clearly wins the gong for being 'the history show'.