Last night saw the premiere of the ABC’s hotly anticipated new arts show Vulture, hosted by TV’s mister nice guy Richard Fidler. It’s one of the final fruits of Sandra Levy’s grand re-imagining of what the national broadcaster could offer Australian viewers interested in Australian culture – that is, a vast array of detective shows, science documentaries and period dramas bought job lot from the BBC. Levy’s other major success was the introduction of a number of new shows with almost identical formats – a loose panel discussion hosted by a comedian or “funny man” in front a live audience. This second stream of programing includes such dubious entertainments as The New Inventors hosted by James O’Loghlin, The Einstein Factor hosted by Peter Berner and Spicks and Specks hosted by Adam Hills. These shows are cheap to produce with not much more needed than the talent, the set and a studio. A host with a quick wit and a handy ability to banter with the guests is also desirable, but not essential.
Vulture follows this format closely and last night included as panel members writer/journalist/token conservative Peter Craven, artist Lyndal Walker, some guy with a beard named Michael Williams and art curator/stand up comedian Helen Thorn. The talk ranged from a discussion on whether HSC students giving up studying Shakespeare for an analysis of advertising or blogs would lead Australians to become the illiterate white trash of Asia to the panelists’ thoughts on Primavera at the MCA. The show also had some moments of supposed comedy; a satire of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours films in a skit called Three Colours: Green, that completely missed the style of what it was supposed to be satirising; a “news break” with Jason Marion that was also laugh free, forced and painful to watch; and a “live cross” to a pre-taped segment of an on-the-spot reporter named Toby Sullivan which found him camply making fun of people at a furniture design exhibition in Melbourne.
Richard Fidler, nice guy…
Vulture was simply terrible. The discussion was too brief and quick to cover a topic in any real depth. If the show was meant to deliver opinionated sound bites instead of a real informative discussion, the producers are going to need to find a new panel and fast. The panelists were lost in the format and couldn’t get what they wanted to say out in less than 30 seconds. Craven, as the cranky old man, leant back in his chair guffawing at Walker’s PC talk asking “but what is that supposed to mean – ‘the landscape is political’?” Williams managed a couple of funny lines but had no voice or authority while Thorn had a huge piece of round gold jewellery sitting on her enormous bosom that was so distracting you couldn’t concentrate on her hairstyle. Fidler, meanwhile, gamely hosted the show trying to keep the discussion on track but even he had to stop and ask Walker what on Earth she meant by having “a dialogue with wallpaper”.
The real shock and horror of Vulture is that this is what the ABC is doing for its coverage of the visual arts. There had been talk of all sorts of new formats for arts on the ABC – reality style TV shows to 15 minute shorts filling in programming gaps. Sandra Levy staged a conference in Melbourne in early 2004 to discuss with program makers the possibilities of making art for television and its results were kept secret. Whenever a complaint was voiced in the press about the complete absence of Australian arts on the ABC, the response was invariably “just you wait and see”. Well, we’ve seen it now and it’s crap. Vulture is little more than a reheated version of Sunday Afternoon’s Critical Mass, a panel discussion on the arts that was hosted by funny man Jonathan Biggins. The only difference between the two shows is the age of the host and the panelists, the number of topics covered in 30 minutes, and the time slot.
Sandra Levy has resigned from the ABC to go to Nine in October. She leaves behind a program guide filled with infotainment and not a single serious visual arts program. It’s a completely deplorable situation and not one that’s going to change any time soon. In the meantime, the ABC tantalizes our televisual taste buds with the promise of an Australian version of the English Operatunity in which budding opera singers – ‘ordinary’ men and women who think they can sing – who are given the opportunity to sing opera on stage. Now that’s great arts television!