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Brilliant Creatures (ATOM study guide)

SKU: SG1103

    Robert Hughes – firebrand art critic.

    Clive James – memoirist, broadcaster, poet.

    Barry Humphries – savage satirist.

    Germaine Greer – feminist, libertarian.

    Exiles from Australia, all of them.

    With these spare, impeccably chosen words, the voiceover of Howard Jacobsen opens the BBC/ABC documentary Brilliant Creatures and encapsulates the essence of four Australians who, having sailed away from their native shores in the 1960s, achieved spectacular success in art criticism, literature, social critique and theatre. These Australians became cultural icons – and sometimes iconoclasts – in the great cultural kingdoms of London and New York. Katrina Sedgwick, Head of Arts at ABC Television, says that Greer, Humphries, James and Hughes represent 'a high-water mark in Australia's social and cultural history. That four such towering intellects could emerge from a country largely defined by a strange combination of brash confidence and cultural cringe is a remarkable thing.' The story of the Australia in the 1960s and the impact they would have on the world stage is worth reflecting on.

    But why did they leave? What explains their spectacular success? Was it because they were Australian that they were able to conquer London and New York? And why does it matter so much to me?

    So asks our narrator. This is a deeply personal journey for Howard Jacobsen, an intrinsic character in this story. Academic and Booker Prize–winner, he reflects on his own experience of Australia and how overwhelmed he was by the positive qualities he immediately sensed when he arrived in this country. Why, he asks us, would Australians ever choose to exile themselves from such beauty and exhilaration? What were they sailing away to find?

    In wonderfully rich archive and musical sequences that reflect a fond 'take' on the era, director Paul Clarke has also juxtaposed interviews from past and present days. An older Germaine Greer declares: 'I wanted to go to a place where there was beauty; I did believe in the Australian ugliness'. The mature Robert Hughes is far more direct: 'You can tow Australia out to sea and sink it for all I care.' Barry Humphries, in typical ironic style, says: 'I was a banned writer (and) most of me enjoyed it.' Later in the episode, Clive James will reflect that 'Australia felt like a little place far away.'

    In collaboration with filmmaker Paul Clarke, director of the landmark series Whitlam: The Power and the Passion, Howard Jacobsen explores the role this 'gang of four' played in making Australia 'intellectually inhabitable'.

    The fact that there has never been a television series about them to date is surprising, but also opportune. Moreover, the timing is perfect. Robert Hughes died in mid-2012. Clive James is ill and may be dying. Barry Humphries is on his 'farewell tour' with iconic comic figures Dame Edna and Sir Les. And Germaine Greer is still working, challenging taboos and writing.

    Howard Jacobsen was drawn to the way Australians use language and how critical they were as a nation. That directness of language and criticism has been at the heart of the success of Brilliant Creatures in Britain and the United States. The Australia he was introduced to in 1965 – its beauty, its freedom from class barriers, its outspokenness – will be explored throughout Brilliant Creatures as a different reaction from our four. And we will see the conclusion that Howard arrives at – that Australia was, in a sense, 'too comfortable' to be challenging enough for some of its residents.

    The cast of this documentary also includes those who knew our four Australians in their London and American lives – famous authors, artists, critics, historians and television personalities. University colleagues Simon Schama and Eric Idle, TV host Michael Parkinson, authors Martin Amis, Melvyn Bragg and Peter Carey – to name but a few – all reflect on the prodigiously gifted quartet whose 'fresh, cheeky and new' scholarship and intellectual brilliance 'got London by the throat' and helped change England and Australia.

    Curriculum Links

    Brilliant Creatures is applicable to senior secondary studies of English and The Arts.

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