Bob Hawke: the Larrikin and the Leader

Graeme Blundell – The Australian 10 Feb 2018

“Australians have never been so distrustful of politicians, but there was a time when things were different,” says narrator Richard Roxburgh, introducing the splendid new two-part documentary Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader. It is billed as the story of how Australia ended up with a charismatic larrikin in the Lodge — the man who according to his friend Kim Beazley “was struck in the backside with a rainbow” — and the way he brought a sense of carnival to the top job.

The title sequence sets it up beautifully: an artfully constructed montage contrasting how we view politicians today with many of Hawke’s most colourful moments in politics, what Paul Keating called “vaudeville”. There are lots of the Hawke colloquialisms, the “you beauties” and the melodious “maaaates”, the muscular drinking of countless beers, and the lascivious posing with scantily clothed young women.

But don’t be alarmed. This is no hagiography and this polished series pulls few punches.

Graham Richardson is there from the beginning, sardonically revealing the other sides to the man seen as the rock god of politics. “If Bob Hawke today behaved in the same manner he would never have become prime minister,” he says. “He did some appalling things, shocking, just plain, bloody shocking.”

There’s a lot of Richo in this series and as they say in TV he is great talent, a smouldering independent who asks no pity and who at times presents himself with an eccentrically conceived and harmless sense of vengeance. He is dramatic and combustible, lacerating both the right and left, with some fine cruelty in his wit.

The series is produced by some heavyweight doco-makers. Producer Geraldine McKenna’s long list of credits includes the Logie-winning Dynasties, Talking Heads and Family Fortunes for the ABC; senior researcher Patricia Drum worked on the award-winning ABC series The Killing Season; and series consultant Sue Spencer, former executive producer of Four Corners, was the guiding hand behind the same series, and also produced The Howard Years and Labor in Power.

Roxburgh himself was a brilliant Hawke in Richard Keddie’s superb telemovie Hawke in 2010 for the Ten Network, getting the Hawke mannerisms of voice and gesture right without overdoing the impersonation, though his narration occasionally has more the tone of his rapscallion creation Cleaver Greene from Rake.

The executive producer is the redoubtable Laurie Critchley, whose credits include the successful prime-time Australian history format Dynasties, which ran for six series, Family Confidential, also for the ABC, and more recently the SBS series The Mosque Next Door. Her TV biographies represent a stylish body of work, a bunch of intense, short feature films, visually arresting, and often as inventive as fiction in their use of storytelling conventions, but inhabited by real people.

Critchley always gives the impression she is adept at inveigling her subjects to do things they would otherwise never do.

Here, she and her colleagues bring us often trenchant accounts of the Hawke ascendancy from sources ranging from John Howard and Bill Kelty to John Eales, Peter Garrett, Max Gillies, Meredith Burgmann, Blanche d’Alpuget, Dennis Richardson and Susan Ryan (who at times in the archival footage is the only woman, surrounded by a mass of hefty Labor blokes, a tight smile on her lips).

“What fascinated all of us about the project — besides the chance to revisit a time in Australian history that, regardless of whether we lived through it or not, remains indelibly etched in our collective memories — was the portrait of leadership that Hawke’s story provides: a story that in retrospect seems all the more remarkable, even as it may never be repeated,” says Critchley.

The first part covers Hawke’s 25-year apprenticeship for the leadership. The second looks at how the infamous larrikin gave up the grog, rode to power on the loyalty of the trade union movement, and used that allegiance to bring unions and business to the table for the first time, cutting a series of deals and hard bargains that would transform this country.

The first episode is book-ended by the clamorous election night in 1983. Prime minister Malcolm Fraser had rushed the nation to the polls, hoping to catch the opposition off guard. But Labor changed leaders that very day and the hapless Fraser found himself facing the most popular man in the country. The story begins decades earlier with the academic outsider who returns from Oxford to join the trade union movement as an advocate, with the young Hawke facing off against the bosses in countless commissions and inquiries, matching wits with the well-paid silks representing them.

Hawke came from a staunch Labor family; his father was a minister. “My father said to me as a very young bloke, if you believe in the fatherhood of God, you must necessarily believe in the brotherhood of man,” Hawke says in remembrance. “I based my life on it.”

This sense of destiny sees him become the leader of the union movement, propelled by his deep-seated ambition, talent, luck, political cunning and ruthless strategy. “Hawke was brilliant, you know, in a Machiavellian way, pure genius,” observes trade unionist and long-term ally Bill Kelty.

Hawke was aided by his natural understanding of TV and an uncanny ability to manipulate it. “I can remember very clearly the first impression he made on me in my living room, watching television — he suddenly exploded on to it,” says the great satirist Max Gillies, who created bountiful mischief with his uncanny impressions of Hawke. “This young, abrasive, compelling presence was speaking truth to power in a way I had only dreamt of.”

We spool through the Whitlam years, the infamous dismissal, and the publication of the biography in which Hawke confessed his sins, and his affair with his biographer. He becomes a celebrity and with that come accolades such as being named father of the year, a cause of much derision among his colleagues. Kelty recalls Hawke’s first wife, Hazel, telling her husband, “I don’t know who those judges of father of the year were, but they must have been on opium.”

While the treatment is relatively conventional — interviews with eyewitnesses, experts and persons related to the subject, archival footage, and a “voice of god” narrator moving the narrative along — it is a fascinating example of the documentary form as civic inquiry, translating the complexities of politics in this case into a readily understandable and entertaining story.

The show is really is like an epic political novel, chronicling the march of political events and the shifting character of the nation’s political imagination. There’s all the mystery and drama you would expect in a blockbuster, a surprising amount of profanity and, more than occasionally, a little comedy — but, alongside the laughs, quite a few tears.

At its centre are grabs of a two-hour interview with Hawke, holding court at a long table surrounded by bookshelves, conducted at his home by writer and journalist George Megalogenis, who lived through the Hawke decade as a cub reporter and has a keen appreciation of its legacy. “His bird’s-eye view was indispensable in trying to tell the Hawke story in two hours,” says Critchley.

Even if the form is relatively conventional, produced with entertaining artfulness and directed with composed stylishness by Bruce Permezel and his cinematographer Simon Morris, what is nevertheless fascinating is trying to read between the lines, chasing subtext while longing for candour.

Ryan, who watched intimately as so much of Hawke’s career unfolded, is direct, clear and appealing, that ironic smile suggesting she is only just in control of her memories. D’Alpuget remains a beguiling storyteller, charmingly letting emotions wash over and around her, still bringing some dignity to the melodrama of much of her life with the Silver Bodgie.

The clips of Hawke are fascinating: that abundant narcissistic energy, that political outlaw’s gift of extending licence to himself to follow whim and moment; the way he was never afraid to drop the mask of dashing rogue and allow his fans a glimpse of vulnerability.

His appeal to women, so much remarked upon, was a curious mixture of genuine chivalry and sexual aggression, his charm and impudence mesmerising the ladies. He still has that charm in spades, that unique vitality and a sensitivity that marks him as different to other men, someone who like a film star can reveal his thoughts by the look on his face.

Howard is presented in rather dominating set pieces of mise-en-scene, framed as though with a kind of papal authority, presenting himself as he usually does in these docos as a man of reasonable argument, tolerance, patience and equality.

As is always the case with a documentary series such as this one there is something undeniably poignant about seeing moments from the relatively distant past preserved, knowing that so many who appear are now dead and buried, such as the decent Hazel Hawke, so loyal and so stoic. And Bill Hayden emerges sadly, though with that quiet dignity that always seemed to characterise him as a politician, the man who watched the prime ministership slip away and, as Keating said, was the unsung hero of the Hawke ascendancy, modernising the ALP and ushering in changes in thought, policy and culture that transformed the country.

Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader

Sunday, ABC, 7.40pm