I am a creature of television. I was born in 1956, the same year as television. I was breast fed to the grainy flicker of a cathode tube and soundtrack of a tap dancing Toni Lamond. As if fate demanded it, I have spent a lifetime staring at the idiot box. And a good part of my working life feeding it.
Asking me to choose my favourite Australian television character is like asking me to choose my favourite child. Harder. I have only five children. And they know their pecking order. Yet over the decades I have loved or laughed at thousands of my television comrades. I was there when Uncle Norman broke his leg. I gasped when Happy Hammond slipped then gallantly jumped back up to continue his finger-clicking toe-tapping reprise of “I want to be happy”.
The best television is like the best literature. As the rotund schoolmaster Hector observes in Alan Bennett’s mesmerising masterpiece The History Boys: “you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours”. Such is the camaraderie and wisdom of the very best television characterisation
Asking me to choose my favourite Australian television character is like asking me to choose my favourite child.
Sadly I’ve tried to justify my selection of a mere 10 by reference to some criteria. In the light of day, in black and white, they now seem a bit flimsy. Humour me. I’m committing genocide here.
One, the character has got to be from a show made in Australia for Australian television. There goes Seinfeld, Fawlty Towers, Homeland, The Singing Detective et al.
Two, the character has to be fictional. Which excludes some of our most unwittingly hilarious television offerings. I’m thinking of Derryn Hinch here.
Three, the character must have appeared in a television series (as opposed to a one off telemovie or a mini series) I’ve arbitrarily picked a minimum number of eight episodes. No science, just seemed right to speak of ongoing characters. There goes Brides of Christ, Heartland, the Fourth Wish, Scales of Justice, Cloudstreet, Waterfront, Underbelly.
Four, the show in which the character appeared must have achieved some level of ratings success. I’m interested in shows and characters which have in some visible way impacted the Australian psyche and captured something of the time and place in which they were borne.
Lastly, unarguably, I’ve picked characters that appealed to me. Me alone. I’ve been capricious. In the case of a couple of the final choices I was involved with the shows that spawned them. Tough. These are my best choices.
The results are an idiosyncratic grab bag of our television history. For almost all of the characters I could easily have picked several alternative characters from each of their shows. The Slap for example, could easily throw up Essie Davis’ stunningly portrayal of an ageing beauty or Alex Dimitriades’ intensity in the role of the twisted Harry. Which simply demonstrates that great characters, like great footy teams, do not exist in isolation but are synergistic melding of great ensemble performance, exceptional writing, considered casting and investment in production. And, often overlooked, brave programming. Takes two to Tango – think Frontline’s Marty Di Stasio, Brooke Vandenberg and Mike Moore.
I also see a disproportionately weird mix of flawed but strangely humorous souls. Perhaps for a nation that weirdly mythologises heroic failures and giant stuff ups, makes heroes of Ned Kelly and Burke and Wills, the preponderance of laughable anti-heroes is inevitable.