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What’s your favourite tree? Mine is the paperbark.

I realised it today when I was glancing idly out of the passenger-side car window. It was growing on a nature strip next to the shop where we’d stopped to get milk and bread. It was a feast of graceful complexity, its endless frilled layers catching the sun, its holes and crannies full of webs and seeds and pupae and busy, busy little creatures going about their business. It exemplified the glory of Australian wildness even in our suburban deserts, its colours shading infinitely through every possible aspect of grey, cream, ivory, charcoal, sand, beige, stone—in delicate play of light and shade. I could look at it a long, long time without tiring.

If only I could say the same thing about most of the stuff on the telly. I watch probably more than you do—always did like the telly more than was good for me—but frequently as I churn the remote through umpty-five digital cable channels I find nothing that’s any good.

Indeed, the very fact that I keep turning back to the ABC and SBS might argue that I’m wasting a great deal of money on cable, especially when I stop to consider that the ad breaks on cable are, if anything, more frequent and intrusively insensitive than on the networks. It seems like a great big scam to make us pay for TV and then show commercials. If it weren’t for Ovation I’d stop. Ovation is great, showing operas, ballets, fabulous jazz concerts and book programs. You really don’t get its like anywhere, except on Sunday afternoons on the ABC.

Anyway, something that the ABC has got its hands on before Ovation is a fabulous seven-part series, The Blues, which will be showing all through July and into the middle of August at 10.10pm on Saturdays. If you’re going out, get your teenager to program the VCR for you, because you won’t want to miss it. Each episode is a 90-minute personal exploration of the blues, its history and performers, a different director taking on the task each time. The first one is Martin Scorsese, who takes us to the banks of the Niger and thence to the Mississippi Delta, looking for origins. He explores Delta Blues—as significant to our musical culture as Mozart; the thudding heart of the music of experience won in pain and contemplated in performance art. And such art, such performances: Son House, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker. All I could say was wow. And that was just the first episode. Wim Wenders (who directed that wonderful movie The Buena Vista Social Club) does the next episode as a fictional story, interwoven with amazing archival footage and contemporary blues performers such as the great Bonnie Raitt. The third episode (Richard Pearce) is fabulous, concentrating on Memphis and B.B. King.

There will still be some Black Books episodes stretching into July, thank heaven. This third series may grow on me; I worry that it’s become a little too self-conscious at times, perhaps overdoing Bernard’s domestic chaos. That’s being picky, but I loved the first two series so much that I bought them on DVD.
I was always stumped when trying to pick a favourite from a show so fertile, so replete with Moments: Bernard unable to get back in his shop after the builder has set the alarm code; Manny playing brilliant piano with spoons from inside; the drinking of the wine meant for the Pope, with a cash-meter at the side of the screen measuring their consumption at five quid a drop; Fran’s bossy vegan New Age friend letting her have a ‘naughty rice cake’. I haven’t been able to pick a similar peck of beauties from the third series. But it is still so much better than anything else you care to mention that it matters nowt.

Comedy is so precious that we need to promote and nurture it. Seven’s dismal failure to persist with the Let Loose Live show was an indication of how difficult it would be to make a Black Books or Father Ted or Little Britain in the philistine climate that persists on commercial TV here. It’s still the ABC, curtailed and cramped as it is, that gives us the brave, creatively driven experiments like Kath and Kim; someone was willing to take a risk with comedy-drama, not just some weaselly catchpenny false-reality show that is run through focus groups first. (Focus groups forsooth; just stand to the side while I spit on the floor. No—I’m not being grumpy, it’s just that neither I nor anyone I know has ever been asked to be in a focus group. The bloody marketers probably pick out the focus groups they want anyway, so that they don’t get any inconvenient results such as, ‘What the hell is this crap you’re showing me?’)

OK, so I’m grumpy. But I have company. Again on the ABC (8pm Tuesdays) during July and August there will be Grumpy Old Women, the sequel to Grumpy Old Men, which to me was simple camaraderie, even when I violently disagreed with what they were grumping about. The women are marvellously appalling, which is what you want: Janet Street Porter, Jenny Éclair, Ann Widdecombe, Germaine Greer, Annette Crosbie and Sheila Hancock.

And for the rest of the time I will be watching the paperbark tree.  

Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer.



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