Howard Jacobson’s documentary on Australia’s propensity to send its intellectuals packing. By Helen Razer.

The Brilliant Creatures of Australian culture

Barry Humphries, left, with Brilliant Creatures interviewer Howard Jacobson.
Barry Humphries, left, with Brilliant Creatures interviewer Howard Jacobson.
Credit: Adam Lawrence

Australians are nothing if not terribly good at misrepresenting themselves. We’re an urbanised people sustained by rural myth; an obese people entranced by hard physicality; an obedient people made more obedient still by the delusion of our “larrikinism”. On screen and in text, we transplant our soft, urban neurosis into hard-wearing trousers with a 28-inch waist. One way or another, we almost always end up lying our way into the faux-colonial moleskins of Crocodile Dundee.

Thank goodness, then, that we have once again let an Englishman describe us.

Hosted and largely conceived by British novelist Howard Jacobson, ABC1’s Brilliant Creatures is a two-part look at the endowments to and departures from Australia by four of its very best minds: Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes, Barry Humphries, Clive James. Even in the very peculiar case you don’t much fancy these subjects, you’ll fancy the hell out of what is, at times, an exquisitely frank look at the present intellectual life of a deluded nation.

Jacobson, now a Man Booker winner, took up an academic post in Australia in 1964. Months before, he’d been dazzled by the cool intellect and long limbs of our brightest feminist (“She sat on the floor! At Cambridge!”), and he was so dazzled by our emerging sun of intellectual discovery, he was led to describe it half a century later. As warmly as Jacobson remembers his mid-century stretch on the quad at Sydney University, his is not a holiday in nostalgia. It’s a look, however chipper, at the twilight of an intellectual era.

Of course, and thank goodness, there is plenty of visual nostalgia here. It’s not all miserable glances at a nation that now writes itself into a paralysis of swashbuckling fiction. We see footage of Humphries’ irrational Dada artworks, and moments of a naively brilliant James on local TV trashing the Beats. This intellectual retro-porn of the very best order is only bettered by glorious minutes of the gorgeous young Greer and Hughes. God, they were good-looking. Bliss it must have been to be alive in the Sydney Push, but to be in the company of these young stars was surely heaven.

Jacobson was and clearly remains hypnotised by the time, its players and their charm and erudition. He nonetheless has managed to make a program whose ideas describe the present even as its images flatter a sunny past. When you remember the grey stink of last year’s easy ordure Whitlam: The Power and the Passion, with whom this series shares its director, that’s quite a feat.

Paul Clarke, who has now redeemed himself quite utterly by involvement with Brilliant Creatures, dressed the corpse of the Australian ’70s up in the usual way in 2013’s Whitlam. It was all Valiant Chargers and easy liberalism and cuts of go-go girls taking the pill. Lively, affectionate anti-intellectualism is how we tend to kill the memory of our best thinkers and thoughts, and the ABC lost little time in taking a moment of agonising social change and turning it into a sentimental shit-show.

Jacobson, however, saves us often enough from the bright despair best left to a Channel Ten network anniversary special that we can appreciate our national darkness. That he does so in a spirit of obsequious geniality – at no time in his interviews with Greer, James and Humphries do you believe him to be anything but a humble fan – is to his credit.

But it is also largely to Greer’s. To call her observations dark would do great disservice to midnight. She talks with no affection for the brutal silence of the Australian suburbs that produced her and with real affection for the idea of her death, which she hopes will be occasioned by a hungry goanna. Of these four Australians, it’s hard to pick a significant favourite. But it is Greer’s great refusal to enjoy her place in history that gives these hours of television the kind of reasonable despair so often lacking on Australian screens. She’s the Cassandra we had to have.

Humphries is a marvellous dandy. When he talks about his nation, he does so with glossy detachment. And James, although plainly ill, produces maxims about his birthplace with the speed and confidence of an undergraduate who will soon create the English salons he had long imagined. What Bob Hughes had to say about Australia, of course, must now be read in The Fatal Shore. But what Greer has to impart feels bleak and is important. A nation that fails to look with candour at its past can have no intellectual future.

Ours is not so much a case of cultural cringe as it is of bad romance fiction. Greer tears up its pages and resists every one of Jacobson’s attempts at seduction. He doesn’t appear to take her milk for gall, but what he does do is allow the production of a program that looks far more critically than it does fondly at a nation that still chases its bravest thinkers away.

Hughes is gone. Humphries has long since ceased to use Australia as anything but exquisite drag to mock the preoccupations of a world enamoured of celebrity. James, having just finished his translation of Dante, will die far from the “abundance of natural blessings” he described in Unreliable Memoirs.

But Greer wants to perish in the jaws of an Australian reptile. She’s not afraid of them. And neither is Brilliant Creatures, which mourns the bloody, difficult death of our greatest intellectual lives as much as it celebrates it.

You really ought to watch it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 13, 2014 as "Howard’s Australia".

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Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.

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