As LP Hartley observed in the opening sentence of The Go-Between, ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ Indeed, they do and did, but as the ABC’s latest Annabel Crabb production demonstrates, the national broadcaster will be forever the same — until, that is, someone fixes it
Propaganda can be subtle when the underlying message is delivered by a kind of seeping osmosis that, were we not by now so familiar with the way advocates of fashionable causes operate, might go largely unnoticed by those whose wish is simply to be entertained. What inspires this thought is Annabel Crabb’s new ABC show Back In Time For Dinner, billed as a romping exploration of the way our forebears lived in the far-off Fifties and Sixties. “That might be fun,” said my wife, so we watched what turned out to be both an exercise in feminist victimology and viewing the past from an entirely contemporary perspective.
Not content with the sort of stock documentary built around images of ice chests, FJs and footage of Footscray winning the 1954 Grand Final, Ms Crabb’s latest vehicle is a total-immersion exercise featuring the Ferrones – dad Peter, mum Carol, eldest son Julian, teenage daughter Sienna and ten-year-old Olivia — the show’s human guinea pigs. A mock period house, apparently their real-life home transformed, is the setting, with every decorating cliché of the period included. The aim, we are told, is to ‘discover how the food we eat changed the way we live, the fabric of the nation and defined family roles, starting in the post-war 1950s. But there is a bit more to the show than that.
Episode One quickly establishes that a housewife’s life was a labor-intensive ordeal of preparing tripe and vegetables for dinner and washing the family’s clothes in a copper. She was up before everyone else, preparing breakfast and lunches for all, with the show stressing the poor woman had no time to rest during the day. And it must have been pretty rough because it reduced Carol to tears after day one. To punctuate all that domestic hard labor viewers were treated to a visit by June Dally Watkins who advise, if memory serves, on how to host an afternoon tea to celebrate the opening of the Melbourne Olympics.
By contrast, life was pretty good for patriarchal Peter. With absolutely no domestic chores to do, he stooges off to work in the morning and comes home at night to find dinner laid before him. The only downside for Dad, it seems, is that sometimes he has to eat alone, as Carol had already eaten with the kids, who also, it seems, had little to do in the way of chores. We got to see Julian getting used to the idea and life of a pampered male, having absolutely nothing to do at home except complain about the meals put in front of him.
Episode Two, the Sixties, gave us more in the same vein, emphasising how Mum’s burdens hadn’t eased that much, despite washing machines and other labour-saving innovations. The culturally oppressed Sienna’s lot wasn’t upbeat either, forced to leave school and begin work as a secretary while brother Julian is encouraged to continue with his studies. Relishing his role as an individual ordained by chromosomes to dominate, Julian points out that further education would be wasted on Sienna, who will marry and devote her life and human potential to preparing the next generation of tripe. He does have one worry, however, as he is portrayed as approaching the age where he might be conscripted to fight somebody else’s futile war in Vietnam. As conscription age back then was 20 and Julian is still at school, he must be a slow learner — either that or the show’s scriptwriters were taking liberties to deliver a Lefty “lesson”.
Why am I wasting my time on all this, I hear you ask? Well, as I said earlier, the show is clearly an attempt to weave yet another thread into the ever-evolving narrative of feminist victimology. Look how far the modern woman has come, what hurdles she had to overcome! What debt do we still owe womanhood for the alleged sins of the past?
I don’t have to look very far to see two counter examples of this narrative: my parents.
Yes, my mother was a housewife, but I don’t believe she ever thought of herself as a victim. As for Dad, he did rather more than push off to work every morning and return in time for dinner. He gave up his metallurgy studies, joined the RAAF and never made it back to uni, instead becoming a weather forecaster. From the time I can remember he cut our hair (six kids) and tailored our clothes. Dad built the garage to house our Vauxhall Wyvern (just like the one pictured above) and when it needed a new gearbox, Dad put it in. When we decided to upgrade from an outside dunny to a septic system, he dug the hole and built the add-on room to house it. I could go on. Not quite the waited-on lordly lifestyle Dad Ferrone enjoys.
My other example is my wife, who transitioned from teenager to young woman during the late Fifties. Her father did, indeed, send her to work as a secretary and this grated on her. Nonetheless, she persevered and, at age 21, undertook nursing training. Following graduation she travelled to the UK where she worked for a year before driving a Kombi van around Europe. Then she took a bus trip from London to Colombo across the Middle East and central Asia. She subsequently gained certificates in midwifery, which she practiced in a remote village in the highlands of PNG, and community health, which she practiced in the Queensland Aboriginal Health Service in Queensland, including a stint at Kowanyama. Definitely not a victim.
Which brings me to my own experience. I prefer to think of the Vietnam War as, rather, the Battle of Vietnam, thus putting it in the context of the wider conflict we know as the Cold War. I believed then, and I still believe, that what we were doing was helping to prevent the spread of communism. To what extent the resolve shown by the West in maintaining its efforts for such a long period in South Vietnam, albeit ultimately unsuccessful at the local level, contributed to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall we will never know. That’s an academic point I’m probably not qualified to debate. However, what infuriates me is the the show’s portrayal of Diggers who served in Vietnam as hapless victims.
I was a professional soldier, so in no way could I claim to be a victim. Most of my Diggers were National Servicemen and they were bloody good. It’s true that many, if not most, eligible young men of the time dreaded being called up. But once in, the vast majority embraced the experience and were proud to take up the tradition of their fathers and grandfathers. And I was proud to lead them, those men who remain my friends to this day. Nobody who did not want to serve in South Vietnam was compelled. I had one Digger who came to me and said he didn’t want to go and I was happy to transfer him out. I made no judgement about him personally, but no sensible officer would want an unwilling combatant under his command. Those National Servicemen who were killed, wounded or suffered PTSD were indeed victims in one limited sense. But they were not victims of our society and depicting them as such demeans their service and sacrifice.
“The past is a foreign country,” LP Hartley observed in the opening sentence of The Go-Between, “they do things differently there.” Indeed, they do and did, but as Back In Time For Dinner demonstrates, the ABC will be forever the same — until, that is, someone fixes it.