The Guardian 24 August, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun August 28 — Sat September 3

This week begins with a really interesting episode of Broadway: The American Musical (ABC 7.30pm Sundays). The period covered is the onset of the Great Depression to the onset of WW2.

In the grim ’30s, even Broadway shows were influenced by realism. Bing Crosby had a big hit when he recorded a song from Broadway — about breadlines, the poignant Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

The frothy shows of the ’20s just weren’t suitable any more. True, Cole Porter soon had another hit show with Anything Goes (thanks in part to its unique way its star, Ethel Merman, could belt out a song).

But the more typical Of Thee I Sing satirised the whole American political system, from dumb Vice-Presidents to corrupt and self-serving politicians and even the old fogeys of the Supreme Court (who were trying to torpedo Rosevelt’s New Deal at the time, until he called their bluff).

The New Deal not only created jobs building roads and dams and flood mitigation systems; it actively created jobs for writers and actors, too, through the Federal Theatre Project. One of the remarkable fruits of that project was The Cradle Will Rock, a musical play (with a Kurt Weill sound) about a steel strike, directed by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman.

Actor-director Tim Robbins recounts the attempt by the management to prevent the play being presented (they actually used armed guards to padlock the theatre), and how the performers moved it and the audience to another theatre where it successfully went on without sets, orchestra or props. Extracts from Robbins’ feature film about the event give some idea of what it was like, and Broadway’s cold feet were clearly political!

It was a great time for Broadway shows (especially those with substance), with memorable songs and music by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rogers and Hart, but the really interesting work in the ’30s was not in the big commercial ventures on Broadway but in the smaller theatres "off Broadway". That, however, is outside the scope of this series.

Nevertheless, except for Julie Andrews’ rather gushing and forgettable introductions, this series is another reminder that American public broadcasting can be as good as any in the world.

Directed by Varcha Sidwell and Stephen Thomas, the four-part Australian documentary series Real Life Water Rats (ABC 8.00pm Tuesdays) is much better than its pedestrian title would suggest.

The film crew followed the men and women of the Marine and Rescue division of the Tasmanian police over five months as they went about their duties in an often wild and dangerous environment. Tasmania is the only state that combines search and rescue work with fisheries enforcement and the marine police spend an enormous amount of time at sea.

The result is down to earth real-life drama, beginning on Boxing Day when the 23-metre police launch takes up a position on Tasmania’s north-east coast to be "handy" in case they are needed when the Sydney to Hobart yachting fleet enters Bass Strait.

The weather is good and they don’t expect any trouble, so they check fishermen’s licences and take a look at the local seal colony in case there are any injuries evident. But conditions can change quickly, and a few hours later they are battling through 10-metre seas to rescue the crew of the disabled maxi-yacht Skandia.

How wild the seas are is all too evident: the two film crew are so seasick they have to be hospitalised when the boat reaches port. Even members of Skandia’s crew are sick all over the police boat.

Frankly, theirs is a job the Marine and Rescue coppers can have all to themselves.

The largest investment project currently underway in Africa is the oil pipeline from Chad through Cameroon to the coast, a project run primarily by US oil giant Exxon Mobil.

Three quarters of Chad’s nine million people exist at present on less than less than 90c a day. Petrodollars will, it is claimed, transform the country.

They are more likely to play a part in installing a strong military government opposed to nationalising the country’s oil and dedicated to looking after the interests of Exxon Mobil!

As Africa: America’s New Oil Target (SBS 8.30pm Tuesday) shows, in its feverish search for new sources of oil, America has set its sights on the whole of the coastal sweep of West Africa. Tiny Sao Tomé, in the Gulf of Guinea, alone has some 24 billion barrels of oil off its coast.

To secure these new oil sources for itself, and in a merging of foreign and energy policy, the US plans to establish new military and Marine bases in West Africa. For the US is becoming desperate about its future energy supplies.

The USA leads the world in per capita energy consumption. The country’s demand for oil is constantly exceeding supply and more than half the oil required by the USA now comes from overseas.

However, it has to compete with an increasingly successful and aggressive major competitor in the global hunt for oil — China. And at some point in the next 20 years all the oil wells in the USA will have been pumped dry.

The US military also relies on access to a secure oil supply. Securing an alternative energy supply is therefore an issue of urgency for the world’s military superpower.

The invasion of Iraq has not relieved the situation as the price of crude oil remains high. The American military in Iraq is currently importing the oil it needs.

The term documentary was coined to describe films that depcited reality, that were not fiction. But reality is not real enough anymore; now such films must if possible be "interactive" and have a dash of the very unreal "reality TV".

Such is the "documentary" series Spitfire Ace (ABC 8.30pm Thursdays). Not content with combat footage of the Battle of Britain and the compelling first hand accounts by veteran aces, the series must waste its time, and ours, with a competition as four young aviators compete for a nine-hour training course in a rare two-seater Spitfire.

I found it quite tiresome.

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