Portrait

Maxine Beneba Clarke reflects on the interviewer as she appears on One Plus One. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

ABC host Jane Hutcheon

The familiar infinity-sign-on-steroids logo signposts the ABC’s headquarters. A full-scale replica of Doctor Who’s navy blue Tardis has landed in the centre of the foyer. A life-sized cutout of ABC Kids host Jimmy Giggle grins emphatically in a corner, jazz fingers mid-waggle. The receptionist scans the guest list; checks off my name; passes over the sign-in clipboard; hands me a numbered plastic pass strung through with a branded lanyard. The lift rises; halts abruptly. My pulse throbs in my temples. I walk, with faux-calm slowness, down the long carpeted corridor, to a heavy-swing door.

The room is dark. Windowless, or at least seeming so. Camera operators and a make-up person quiet-bustle by. The producer’s polite introductions fall away to white noise. My eyes are drawn to the centre of the room. Two chairs face each other, perhaps two-and-a-half metres between them, spotlit by blink-bright studio lights. I swallow hard. My mouth goes dry.

A shadow passes across my line of vision. One Plus One host Jane Hutcheon fills the frame: bright eyes shining from post-make-up-room face. She’s smaller than I imagined; there’s a quietness about her. “Hi Maxine. Nice to meet you. I really enjoyed reading your memoir. Thanks so much for agreeing to do the interview.”

Steady gaze. Tailored white dress, printed with blue owls. Heels. Straight wisps of shoulder-length chestnut hair falling just so. I smile, and discreetly wipe my clammy hand on my skirt, before shaking hers. I backed out of our first interview, which is what her gratitude might refer to. There was that phone call. Me, listing my concerns. Hutcheon’s earnest response: “You know, years ago I might have tried to convince you to come on the show, Maxine. But… not these days. If you’re not really up for it, then the interview’s unlikely to be any good.”

Hutcheon sips delicately from a cup of water as a make-up person dabs at my forehead-shine. I wonder, for a moment, if she’s figured it out: this audacious watching her, watching me business. That I’m telling her story as she’s telling mine.

There’s a gentle artistry to Hutcheon’s interview invisibility, far more evident in person than through the screen. How did it feel, when you bullied her? The way her carefully unjudging eyes rarely leave your face, lock and keep hold, examining every eyebrow-raise and flinch. “In that exact moment? Powerful.” My stomach lurches with anxiety and shame. I wonder, instantly, what the close-range camera is catching. Hutcheon physically reins in her surprise, even as her eyes quick-flicker at my unexpected response. “But then afterwards…”

I frantically file her questions away; mentally recap my responses, hoping I’ll be able to recall them properly later. I glance wistfully at Hutcheon’s notepad, right hand flexing for a pen. Hutcheon’s voice holds evenly, is what I’ll write. As if she’s asking, with every question, how many sugars you take in your tea. Slight nod. Lip twitch. Tight smile. I’ll report her posture: Straight back. Minimal blinking. A considerate trying-not-to-startle-the-talent stillness.

Occasionally, just when her subject is getting comfortable, Hutcheon shoots across an off-track comment, quickly batting the conversation into another space altogether. “… And your dad left the family…” As an interviewer, her manner is deliberate. Direct. Leaves little room for decoy, if ever a subject were so inclined. And yet, there’s a superb restraint about her provocations that somehow elicits exchange rather than withdrawal.

Halfway through our interview I suddenly realise: the microphones, cameras, crew, notebook – all of them have edged out of the frame. I’m not thinking about the questions, or my response. I’ve stopped obsessing over what the final interview edit might distort, or whether I really trust this amiable, seemingly earnest woman with my story. Something’s turned on its head. Hutcheon is watching me, watching her, watching me talking.

“If you had an inspiration wall, who would be on it?” I pause to properly consider the question. “A lot of writers I guess. Maybe Lionel Fogarty. Melissa Lucashenko...” I curve ball. “David Bowie. Prince.” Hutcheon pauses for a moment. “Really? ” She shrinks into herself somehow, hollowing out space for whatever explanation I could follow this with – vacating the air between us for story, even as her head leans slightly forward, probing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 11, 2017 as "Watching you, watching me". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.

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