If you’ve ever seen those flicks Hollywood makes about itself you’ll know the key to selling a movie script is pretty simple: corner the handiest studio boss in an elevator and pitch that winning plot. Zombies, planet-smashing comets, killer pandemics, global warming — whatever your theme, to bag the big bucks it needs to tap the popular fascination of the moment, what the bum in the seat is talking about with his girlfriend and the people at work. Cartoon characters also seem very popular of late, a trend which cannot help but bring ABC General Manager Mark Scott to mind.
So, should you happen to spot the national broadcaster’s self-declared “editor-in-chief” stepping into the lift, leap to join him before the doors slide shut. There’s big money to be made just now for the right idea, and the ABC’s emotional, unrestrained coverage of Australia’s greatest loss since Phar Lap suggests Scott will be a sure and generous touch.
Drop the small talk. Spare those sympathetic lines about grouchy columnists who don’t appreciate being depicted in flagrante delicto with a Labrador. Cut straight to the sales spiel.
“A dying civilisation packs its brightest baby into a space cradle and blasts him off to Earth, where the visitor’s superhuman radiance inspires all with whom he comes in contact,” you begin.
At this point you cannot afford to pause, not even for a second, because Scott’s natural inclination will be to say that just such an incomparably gifted specimen sparkles already on his roster of talent. Don’t let him utter a syllable. Star-struck palaver about the all-round awesomeness of Tim Flannery, his profound gifts and noble humanity, won’t earn your own vision its green light, so stop it cold with a proscenium framing of the hands and two booming words.
You’ll now have Scott’s full attention, emotion sloshing like Pavlovian saliva in his ABC heart as you sketch a verbal storyboard. He’ll be putty if you play it right, for he must surely have been affected by those knots of ABC staffers howling in the corridors as the grim news broke. Quietly he’ll be priding himself on the tough decision not to replace all scheduled radio and TV broadcasts with 48 hours of funereal Chopin. By the beard of Phillip Adams he was proud of them all, his ABC family and all their family members on the payroll, especially that terrier Jon Faine’s magnificent hissy at guest Greg Sheridan’s blasphemy. Fancy suggesting that Australia’s twenty-first Prime Minister might have been less than the ideal! Must remember to see about Faine’s salary, he will be thinking. At a paltry $290,000 a year, the poor man just isn’t taking home anywhere near enough.
Notice that rheumy look in the managing director’s eye? You’ve got him now. He’s hooked and flapping. So in for the kill.
“Shaun Micallef as the Great Gough and Marieke Hardy as Margaret, just picture it,” you cry. And picture it he certainly does, delighted at the thought of keeping two ABC limpets forever before the cameras. Where would those lovely people work otherwise, not to mention so very many others?
“And the Chaser boys as the Whitlam cabinet!”
Know that you’re thisclose to nailing the deal when Scott volunteers that Waleed Aly might do for Tirath Khemlani, but don’t let him go there. You’ll need to gently redirect, explain the series’ conceits.
“The Iraqi loans business, Rex Connor – no reason to mention any of that. We need to be positive, to make the series about Super Gough’s gifts to humanity, to hoist his legend atop the plinth of greatness so that high school kids can raise their eyes and believe in his legend with every fibre of their impressionable hearts.”
A cloud of incomprehension darker than his norm clouds Scott’s brow. It is as if the embers of some vestigial respect for truth and fact are flaring in an uncomfortable corner of an otherwise corporatised conscience.
“And that means we save on casting,” you continue, “no Jim Cairns and Junie, no Lionel Murphy kicking down ASIO’s front door, no Al Grassby and his Griffith drug lords …”
Scott has caught the bug, no doubt about it, for he is making like a big-time producer. The pitch is easy now; you can see that hand inching toward the cheque book. Unlike most producers, the ABC’s chief and happy obligation is to spend money – around $1.2 billion a year — not to make it, so whims and righteous narratives are very easily indulged. Just look at the ardour and budget invested in promoting the perils of climate change.
“So here’s the drill: Super Gough gives women the vote.”
“Yes!” cries Scott, cherishing the footage of the North Sydney Girls High student who revealed that formerly unrecognised achievement earlier in the day.
“He vanquishes disease with Medibank.”
“Oh-ah,” cries your interlocutor, face flushing.
“He sows Australia’s fruited plain with journalism schools and women’s studies grads by the genius expedient of simply re-naming tech schools as universities…”
There is sweat dripping from the MD’s fevered brow. He is in a ecstasy of delight and the cheque book is emerging, a handsome Mont Blanc with it.
“There’s just one thing,” he says as nib touches paper, “what do we do about Malcolm Fraser?”
That’s easy, you reply as the ink flows.
“We start with the evil Malcolm of those ‘Shame, Fraser, Shame!’ days and follow his rise to redemptive acceptance of everything his former enemy represented.”
“Brilliant!” cries Scott as he fills in the last of many zeroes, “but we had better begin production straight away.
“Given the time these things take to get to the screen and the way Fraser is going, he may have embraced Islam and become a radical imam by that stage.”
“No worries,” you reply. “He can take over Divine Service on a Sunday morning.”
Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online. His rage dissipated quite some time ago.