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Friday, November 09, 2007

The Sounds of Aus: needs a stronger accent

Whaadaihate? Whaddaihate? I hate it when someone has a good idea, carries it through, and doesn't do it well enough. Why do I hate that? Because it can make it very difficult for someone who comes along and who can do the job well, to get the project off the ground because the response is "That's been done!"

That's how I feel about The Sounds of Aus which was on ABCTV last night. It was presented by John Clarke - and ipso facto was entertaining. It was written by Lawrie Zion so there were good bits. But, overall, it missed the boat.

Now, I'm sure there's a very good reason. Australia is a small market. Insufficient funds. All the usual problems of getting Australian stuff on the big or small screen.

So where does one begin?

Firstly, something called The Sounds of Aus, a documentary about the Australian accent, should have a national focus: an informed - fully informed - national focus. This did not. It was Melbourne-centric. According to this program, Ray Lawler and Barry Humphries are the ones responsible for launching the Australian accent into the mainstream. Amazing that! The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll hit the boards at the end of 1955. Already in production were A Town Like Alice (from the book by Nevil Shute) and soon to come was the adaptation of D'arcy Niland's book, The Shiralee. Both of these movies, which were well supported by Australians, starred the hottest Australian accent in town, Peter Finch.

While there was discussion about how it was thought that the Australian accent would not be accepted in film, the popularity of Finch and Chips Rafferty as arguably the two dominant Aussie accents in film in the late 40s and early 50s, was completely overlooked in The Sounds of Aus. Too Sydney?

Also too Sydney might have been the on-screen contribution by two other hot Australian accents, Bryan Brown (who has also starred in a re-make of The Shiralee) and Jack Thompson.

But for such a Melbourne-centric doco partially funded by Film Victoria, a very significant contribution to the Australian accent - that of C.J. Dennis was missing. Emphasis was given to the rural contribution to the Aussie accent completely omitting Dennis's recording of the early 20th century urban industrial working class accent through his characters Ginger Mick and The Bloke. Dennis wrote these characters while living at Kallista, just up the hill from Miss Eagle's domicile at Upper Gully.

But then, there was limited discussion of the written word and its impact on the Australian identity, accent, and voice. No mention of Marcus Clarke, Rolf Boldrewood, and Joseph Furphy. While national identity got a bit of guernsey on The Sounds of Aus, the literature undergirding it got scant mention apart from The Bulletin and Banjo Paterson but no mention of Lone Hand and Henry Lawson.

Included in the discussion was the accent of Sir Robert Menzies. The doco would not have been complete without it. How good it would have been to contrast Menzies' voice with that of his opponent, H.V. Evatt whose mangled vowels and broad Australian accent were in striking contrast. Equally, a good contrast could have come from another Menzies opponent, John Curtin: a broad unmangled accent remembered with an iconic Australian phrase, Men and Women of Australia.

And the good bits:
  • Discussion about British and American influences on the Australian accent. While there was discussion about absorption of American phraseology, it would have been good to hear more.

  • Highlighting Aboriginal English. It would have been good to hear much more of this. Miss Eagle has a question. So many Aboriginal people seem to say ahks for ask (some whitefellas do too but it seems to Miss Eagle to be more widespread among Aboriginal people), does this constitute a legitimate form of Aboriginal English?

  • Involvement of non-celebrity people across the nation in some very entertaining clips in the documentary.

English writer and television personality, Melvin Bragg, a few years ago produced a wonderful series titled The Adventure of English. It was superb. Now, discussion of the Australian English/Accent would not have the rich and long history of English but could probably run to a three or four part mini-series.

So the verdict: please do a remake, try harder and be broader.