One of the more pointed – almost poignant – bits of the 1986 Richard Lowenstein film Dogs in Space is the Sunday night when the whole household comes together in mutual fascination over the Australian music TV show Countdown. No matter they’re all countercultural, mainstream-scorning punks: they need their Sunday night fix, connecting them to the wider pop world.
While Countdown (1974–1987) was clearly (even at the time) a group effort, Molly Meldrum was its heart. Meldrum was connected to many scenes and networks but far, far more important than that was the passion he displayed, often for what was clearly old tat that no-one should have made, let alone have had to sit through.
Now we’re halfway through Channel 7’s miniseries Molly, starring Samuel Johnson as Meldrum, and a couple of million of us are hooked. Any of us with any experience of television knows that the producers don’t have to try as hard with the second half of the enterprise, but they still want us to stay to the end if only so advertisers can shift (for instance) more tickets to golden oldies rock concerts.
I suppose that, as I’m 50, Molly is absolutely my demographic: I was nine when Countdown began and 23 when it ended, and I was a devotee for most of that time (whatever you’d call a devotee who was often disgusted, horrified, contemptuous of what was presented – but who, like so many others, always watched).
Meldrum’s autobiography, The Never, Um, Ever Ending Story (2014) – a compilation of numerous false starts over time, with different ghostwriters – was as elusive as it was revealing. Word has it that Molly was reluctant to write a memoir, but surely his near-death experience in 2011 – and the outpouring of grief it inspired among many, as close to reading your own obituaries as most of us could hope for – inspired its completion.
The notorious fall from the ladder is the hook on which the Molly mini-series hangs. Molly is based largely on scenes from the book, with a handy get-out-of-jail card in the framing device of its being the slightly psychedelic memories of a 68-year-old man with brain trauma.
Like his long-time friend Michael Gudinski, Meldrum is obsessive about his privacy – ridiculously, particularly since both men enjoy the spotlight and are clearly celebrities on the basis of nothing but their association with the talented.
Even given that, I felt the presentation of Meldrum’s unease at being in front of the cameras on Countdown, as though this was a major leap for a journalist, was a deception taken too far: Meldrum had been a television personality for close to a decade by the time the show went to air in 1974.
But the rather peculiar idea of him remembering writing the song The Real Thing (1969) as a child in 1950s Quambatook (he didn’t write it, Johnny Young did) was an inspired moment, suggesting perhaps a thwarted talent – or that his drive was, in part, connected to his lack of performing ability.
What is peculiar, perhaps – and is this a particularly Australian thing? – is the way in which viewers of my vintage and older judged the first part of Seven’s miniseries on its authenticity, that is, against that which they already (thought they) knew.
This was particularly so, for me at least, in relation to the recreations of certain Countdown moments, as well as the general ambience of the mid-1970s. Why do we need to have our lives (in this case, our lives as passive viewers of the life/ work of a popular media figure) relayed back to us?
Social media comments on Molly since the show aired have included a wide range of positive, negative and incredulous responses from people who were “there” as consumers or even music industry insiders in the 1970s, interspersed with plenty of praise for Samuel Johnson’s rendering of Meldrum.
All these (and others – there is, of course, a strong voice antipathetic to Meldrum altogether) demonstrate is that Meldrum is a multifaceted character with different meanings for many. His inarticulate and distracted ramblings allow us that kind of imprinting.
It is extraordinary that, even in the era of the always-more-meta, so many of us still expect our television (or any) drama to be “believable”.
(It is also preposterous that, with no irony at all, so many fiftysomethings will express the serious opinion that the music of their youth was better than today’s, as if the concept of “music” was more important than the concept of “youth” in this regard – but let it pass).
Of course one can pick holes in Molly, not least because of the way in which it reframes the 1970s through a lens of what we in 2016 want to believe hip people were interested in back then (I’m thinking particularly of the pitch for Countdown as a show featuring live bands; you have to spend two minutes on YouTube to realise this is a misnomer but more importantly, was it even a concern of Countdown’s producers? I think not).
Of course, I’ll be watching Molly this coming Sunday, if for no other reason than to see the ABC “suit” Wade get his comeuppance (or something; I always thought this particular cipher was two minutes away from donning a kaftan and offering Molly a kiss).
Yes, Molly lacks a lot as a show, and yes, it is entertainment first and historically accurate second – but even the very best history is often “entertainment first”.
Episode two of Molly airs on Seven on Sunday at 8.30pm.
Authors: The Conversation Contributor