Sunday, November 30, 2008

Melbourne Sojourn: Conference Day One

This is the second post in a short series about my trip to Melbourne last week to attend a conference, Television and the National, hosted by La Trobe University at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI).

Conference on Television and the National

Melbourne 19th - 21st November, 2008

What an excellent conference! I'm not sure if I'm channeling novelty factor with this statement, since it's been a long time between conference drinks for me... But, no! I will be assertive: this conference rocked. Sam puts it down to the fact that the Ladeez organised the conference and points particularly to Sue Turnbull who sat in each session generously chortling away (amidst the pain of being mid-ginormous-tattoo application) and offering interesting questions and comments. There is much merit to this argument, there was a spirit of generosity in the air and not more than a little bit of fizzy excitement about being TV nerds together.

If one was inclined to make comparisons, one might say it was a small conference, but from my perspective it made the whole experience far more manageable than the onslaught of people and sessions of much larger conferences I've attended. I think that you could have spoken to everyone in attendance at Television and the National if you put your mind to it and weren't too shy in the face of the rather star heavy composition of the delegates (I wonder what it would be like to be au fait with people quoting you while you sat in the audience?).

The other factor worth mentioning is that the conference had a variety of textures. It wasn't simply one paper after another. It began with a day on comedy, which feeds into the ARC funded work being undertaken by Sue Turnbull and Felicity Collins into the history and role of Australian screen comedy. There were key note speeches, a special guest presentation, a book launch, and plenary sessions that brought all of the delegates together, as well as a number of parallel sessions to round out the three day event.

On the first day I was particularly taken with Sue Turnbull's paper: 'It's like they threw a panther in the air and caught it in embroidery': Australian Television Comedy in Translation. The quote in the title is from Kath & Kim and so Turnbull gave an insightful analysis of the failure of the US version of Kath & Kim. She noted that it wasn't inevitable that the adaptation failed in view of the successful adaptation of The Office by the same creative team. Much of the problem with the US Kath & Kim derives from the bodies of the various performers: Selma Blair just can't push her flat stomach out enough to come anywhere near Gina Riley's embodiment of Kim. As well, much of the joke in the Australian Kath & Kim is down to the fact that this mother and daughter duo are played by women who are around the same age. Someone noted in question time that Australian television comedy draws much more from a theatrical/vaudeville tradition than US television comedy. When thinking about Kath & Kim that argument made sense to me. I also have a theory about the success of the US version of The Office, which wasn't successful straight away. I think, perhaps, that the US version built in popularity because Steve Carrell also appeared in a number of successful film comedies that almost certainly sparked more interest in him: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and, especially, The 40 year Old Virgin.

Brett Mills presented the first key note of the conference: Comedy/Nation: Which Came First? It focussed on British self-understandings of themselves as funny and sought to interrogate that in view of the quite exclusive set of programs that are deemed British both in the UK and abroad. We were all in fits of laughter as Mills showed excerpts from Welsh comedies that weren't incorporated into the 'British'. Alas the programmes aren't even on YouTube, because you know I would have embedded a bit of Boyd Clack if I could.

The last session on the first day was a bit exciting for me as Robyn Butler of The Librarians gave a presentation and took questions. It wasn't so much her work with The Librarians that interested me so much as the excerpt she showed us from Very Small Business which she also co-wrote and starred in. It was a scene where Don Angel was in a therapy session with a psychologist. I got to ask about the creative reasoning for including the therapy sessions. She really gave me the best answer I could have hoped for: so detailed and thoughtful.

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