The Australians do suburbia well. We seem to be interested in the working classes and the poor (EastEnders, Coronation Street, searing one-off dramas about sink estates), Americans like the rich (Dallas, Dynasty) and well-to-do urban folk (Frasier, Friends). But in Oz they are fascinated by the people who live in medium-size houses in leafy streets — think of Neighbours and the sublime comedy Kath and Kim, which was set in the Melbourne ’burbs. In Britain, a dramatic moment comes when someone rapes their ex-wife. In America, it’s when you manage to steal $10 million of oil shares from your brother-in-law. In Australia, it’s hitting a brat, who’s not your son, at a barbecue.
I guess it is the halfway status of the suburbs which fascinates. Australia is a tremendously egalitarian country; people who regard themselves as ‘better’ than anyone else are generally ridiculed and despised (I once heard a woman who acted grand dismissed with the remark, ‘You know what she can do with the rough end of a pineapple’). At the same time it is aspirational. People want to improve their lives without seeming to stand out from the pack. The richer an ocker is, the more down to earth he’s obliged to be. Whether this has something to do with a folk memory of convict days, when everyone started at the bottom of the pile, I have no idea.
The Melbourne suburbs are also the backdrop for The Slap, which began this week on BBC4 (Thursday). The novel it’s based on, by Christos Tsiolkas, was a huge international success. It had good, if mixed reviews. Some of the writing, particularly in the sex scenes, is dire. But it got praise for the skilful handling of racial, generational and even class conflicts in the new, multicultural Oz. The Independent called it ‘a compelling journey into the darkness of suburbia’, which is one of those reach-me-down remarks you find in bien-pensant newspapers. Why are the suburbs so dark, compared to the inner city or the countryside? No reason at all, but it clearly pleases some people to imagine that behind every neatly trimmed lawn is a terrible secret, probably involving incest.
The events in the TV series, as in the novel, are seen through the eyes of the various participants. We started with Hector, the son of clinging Greek parents, caught between them and his beautiful Indian wife (Sophie Okonedo) whom he loves, everyone else adores, but who, in the local demotic, can be a ball-breaker. She and the parents are fighting for control of Hector, who is on the brink of having an affair with his wife’s much younger colleague. The parents have bought tickets for a surprise family holiday in Greece, which sounds generous, but is an act of aggression, designed to peel him away from his anniversary trip to Bali with the lovely, if bossyboots wife.
It’s Hector’s 40th, and the wife has organised a party which he doesn’t really want, and which he approaches with the help of beer, cocaine, Valium and masturbation in the toilet, which we see — luckily — only from behind. You’d imagine this would stop him noticing, still less remembering, anything that goes on, but no such luck. Also at the party — along with an artist, an Aborigine, a soap star and various other representative figures — is Hugo, a horrible, loutish three-year-old who is still breastfeeding. When he kicks Hector’s cousin, he gets slapped in the face, hard. The boy’s feckless parents suddenly discover meaning in their lives; they are going to drag the cousin through the courts for assault, though most viewers would think that being thrown on the barbecue would be a fit punishment for the ghastly little brute. But this, it’s implied, is the grave sin in modern life: not adultery, not drugs, but chastising a minor.
The party breaks up and the shock causes Hector to realise he must drop his affair. He has sex with his beautiful (if ball-breaking) wife on the kitchen counter, which looks fun, if uncomfortable.
So, really this is a cross between Grand Guignol and a soap opera — a very high-class soap opera, crisply directed and convincingly acted. But it’s the suburb that’s the star: the pool, the barbie, the scrubby hedge, the whiff of modest ambition about to be frustrated for ever.
Frozen Planet (BBC1, Wednesday) is as different from an Aussie suburb as it’s possible for somewhere on the same planet to be. The scene in which a desperate male polar bear walks for days across trackless snows searching for a female to mate with (no kitchen counter for them) was deeply affecting, though I only felt sorry for the crew, who must have been gravely tempted to ship a female in from a zoo and get warm somewhere.