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Monday musings on Australian literature: Arnold Haskell on the arts (3)

February 20, 2017

This should be my last post on Mr Haskell’s survey of the arts in Australia, and it focuses on Radio and the Movies. First though, in his section on literature, he talked about Australian readers and bookselling. He wrote that the average Australian “is a great reader; more books are bought per head of population in Australia and New Zealand than anywhere else in the English-speaking world”. He admires Australian booksellers who can’t quickly acquire the latest success. So, “they buy with courage and are true bookmen in a sense that is becoming rare in this [i.e. England] country.”

I believe Australians are still among the top book-buying nations, per capita, but I couldn’t find any supporting stats, so I may be making this up! However, I did love his commendation of the booksellers of the time, and his sense of their being “true bookmen” (as against their peers in England). He certainly wasn’t one to look down on the colonials!

“an admirable institution”

He writes about the “admirable” ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission). He recognises that wireless has become a necessity “in a country of wide open space” because it is, for many, “the only form of contact with the world”. He says the ABC “supplies much excellent music, and at the same time appeals to the man-in-the-street through its inspired cricket and racing reports”. You all know how much I like the ABC.

BUT radio is a vice too, he says, when it is left on all day “in every small hotel, seldom properly tuned and dripping forth music like a leaky tap”. He is mainly referring here to commercial broadcasting which he describes as “assaulting popular taste by their dreary programmes of gramophone records and blood-and-thunder serials … Unlike America, they cannot afford to sponsor worthwhile programmes”. Hmm, my old friends at National Film and Sound Archive might disagree given Australia’s large and by all accounts successful radio serial industry, though perhaps much of this occurred from the mid 1940s on – i.e. after Haskell did his research.

“isn’t Ned Kelly worth Jesse James?”

Haskell has a bit to say about Australians’ love of cinema, with “the consumption per head being greater than anywhere else”. Film theatres are “the largest and most luxurious buildings” in Australian cities, but

the films shown are the usual Hollywood productions. There is as yet no public for French or unusual films.

Poster for 1906 movie (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Poster for 1906 movie (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Australian films are being made, he said, “in small quantities” but are “not yet good enough to compete in the open market.” He is surprised that given Australia’s “natural advantages”, it had “produced so little in a medium that would encourage both trade and travel”. He goes on to describe how much people knew about America through its films -“we have seen cowboys, Indians, army, navy, civil war and Abraham Lincoln”. He suggests that Australia had just as interesting stories to tell and places to explore:

What of the Melbourne Cup, life on the stations, the kangaroos, the koala bear, the aboriginal, the romance of the Barrier Reef and the tropical splendour of the interior, the giant crocodiles of Queensland? What f the early history, as colourful as anything in America? isn’t Ned Kelly worth Jesse James?”

He suggests that films could do more for Australia in a year than his book, and yet, he says it seems “easier and safer to import entertainment by the mile in tin cans and to export nothing”!

He makes some valid points but he doesn’t recognise that Australia produced, arguably, the world’s first feature film, back in 1906, The story of the Kelly Gang – yes, about Ned Kelly.  It was successful in Britain, and pioneered a whole genre of bushranging films that were successful in Australian through the silent era. Three more Kelly films were made before Haskell visited Australia – but films were pretty ephemeral, and he clearly didn’t know of them.

At the time he researched and wrote this book, 1938 to 1940, there was still an active film industry. Cinesound Productions produced many films under Ken G Hall from 1931 to 1940, and Charles Chauvel made several films from the 1930s to 1950s, but the war years were lean times, and it was in those early years that Haskell did his research. It’s probably also true that then, as unfortunately still now, Australians were more likely to flock to overseas (that is, American, primarily) productions than their own.

Anyhow, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little historical survey of an outsider’s view of Australia as much as I have – though I guess it’s all rather irrelevant, and even self-indulgent, if you’re not Australian! Apologies for that!

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2017 12:31 am

    The problem is that even expensive films (and tv shows) which cover their costs in America, can be sold very cheaply everywhere else, rendering local industry unviable.

    • February 21, 2017 8:09 am

      Yes, I know Bill, our market is small which makes it hard but it would be good to see more Aussies support more local films.

  2. February 21, 2017 8:13 am

    Interesting what he says about the lack of appetite for “French or unusual films”, I think that’s still mostly true today. I don’t have any stats for that either, just my observations: go into a JB store or similar and you’ll be lucky to find a single “foreign film”. Readings has a few but they don’t generally advertise them in their catalogues so you have to go in and browse to find them. There used to be a shop in Brighton where I could get them but they’ve closed down.
    Strangely, what has turned out to be a great source of foreign film for me has been QuikFlix. Most of what they have (and everything they promote) is American film but if you hunt around you can find their ‘shelf’ of FF which has a fantastic variety of films from Europe, the Middle East and Asia. I have dozens of them in my Q, so twice a month I get to see the sort of films I wouldn’t have a hope of finding anywhere else.

    • February 21, 2017 8:20 am

      Yes, I agree Lisa… I reckon more people would enjoy them if they tried them, but they’re put off I suspect by subtitles – and by the fear that they are difficult because that’s what, I think, a lot of people grow up hearing. And of course, they don’t have the marketing that the American product has.

  3. February 21, 2017 10:41 am

    I so disagree with this man re: movies in Australia. I can think of films in each of the categories he listed. I think it is comparing apples to oranges (re; USA & Aus). Our population and source of funding is very much less. Cheap imports also hurt us. The USA has nothing like SBS related to multi-culturism in films. There are many foreign films that can be downloaded through their online services and Foxtel (though subscriber based) has a whole section of foreign films through their world movies section. I do agree with him about the ABC being very good. I listen to the ABC every night to interviews, books and arts reports and general talkback for entertainment (though many callers are much more conservative than I am). It helps with sleepless nights. I get very annoyed with music being played where no one is listening to it. Loud music in almost every restaurant I go into (with my hearing impaired elderly friends) that causes no end of problems for conversation. Airplane music while boarding drives me nuts as it is only droning noise. I didn’t realise I had such strong feelings on all of this. Great review. Lol PS-Did I mention Australia’s quirkiness in films that Americans can never hope to match?

    • February 21, 2017 12:27 pm

      Love your passion Pam. He was writing in 1940 so things were different then. I agree re our contemporary industry though I do think Aussies don’t go to local product as much as they should. As for noise in restaurants, I hear you – just 😄

      • February 22, 2017 9:19 am

        Oops the 1940 date went over my head. That is all together different. 😉

        • February 22, 2017 11:29 am

          Yes, Pam, I thought so. You were clearly so passionate to defend our industry that you didn’t notice. I can live with that.

  4. February 21, 2017 12:11 pm

    i gather Quickflix is the same as Netflix here? interesting comments, although judging by the current state of the U.S. media, i’d be, if i were Australian, thankful if imports were kept to a minimum…

    • February 21, 2017 6:35 pm

      Yes, mudpuddle, it is. We also have Netflix (and some other services, but you probably do too). But oh dear, I’m sorry about the state of your media – for your sake (and for ours!)

      • ian darling permalink
        February 21, 2017 8:51 pm

        As usual Haskell seems fair minded and well informed. I do like the sound of those blood and thunder serials on the radio! Haskell couldn’t have foreseen that extraordinary flowering of Australian cinema in the 1970s- whatever happened to that?

        • February 21, 2017 9:35 pm

          Whatever happened to the 1970s flowering you mean, Ian? It lurches on. There have been fits and starts, particularly regarding government financing. However, I think there have been some great films every decade since – though perhaps not as many as we’d like.

  5. February 22, 2017 4:05 am

    Don’t apologize! I’ve enjoyed these posts! For some reason I am really tickled that your broadcasting organization is the ABC. Is it public broadcasting or is it privately owned?

    • February 22, 2017 7:52 am

      It’s government-owned, like the BBC in Britain, Stefanie. Thanks for saying you enjoyed the posts.

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