Sunday, August 16, 2009

Yes, riotous

An immediate reaction to Life’s a Riot, the Dean Parker
play that has just screened on TV1. Knowing Dean’s
strong left-wing beliefs, and knowing the difficulties he
has had over the years in trying to get his work produced,
I find it hard to believe that he himself could be satisfied
with the way this came out in the end—this almost one-
dimensional depiction of New Zealand in 1932, when the
Queen St riot erupted out of economic depression and the
worst unemployment the country has known. The title
alone is wince-making, as was director Ian Mune’s use of
Keystone Kops-like action scenes and chirpy jazz music,
both of which had the effect of trivializing the era. At any
moment I half expected the unemployed to kick up their
legs and swing into a Busby Berkeley-type production
number, complete with chorus girls. But if politics is the art
of the possible, then television drama these days is the art
of the commercially presentable. You can only get away
with what the networks, and more crucially the advertisers,
are willing to tolerate. My guess is that TVNZ, in its current
enfeebled state, would not have accepted for Sunday-night
prime-time screening a serious production that genuinely
reflected the political situation in 1932, and had to be
appeased with a more simplistic romp through the life of
merry Jim Edwards, leader of the unemployed marchers up
Queen St that April day. I’d be happy to be told I’m wrong
about this, and I get it that a play about the movement of
historical forces needs to be personalized and presented
entertainingly—otherwise, just make a doco—but the total
absence of any reference to the causes of the Depression,
the policies of the New Zealand government and the role
of big business was striking.

Still, you might say, better to have a TV drama based on
real New Zealand events than not at all? Maybe. And I'm
pleased that a Dean Parker script got produced—unlike,
unforgiveably, his brilliant play Greek Fire, about the last
days of John Mulgan in 1944-45, which no theatre has ever
had the gumption to stage. But anyone not knowing much
about the great depression of the 1930s would surely come
away from Life's a Riot with the idea that sure, times were
hard for some, but wasn't it all such fun?

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