October 2013

  • Patrick Allington

The Show Must Go On

Of all the far-fetched provocations that the Abbott government dreamt up in the first weeks and months after it came to power — the history wars, the climate wars, the Citizens’ Campaign to Make Political Correctness Illegal, Vegemite or Promite, Play School versus the Wiggles — none captured the nation’s attention like the Royal Commission into Meryl Streep’s Rendition of an Australian Accent in the Motion Picture Evil Angels.

Prime Minister Abbott personally appointed country music singer John Williamson as Royal Commissioner. It proved an inspired choice: if anybody was qualified to probe the authenticity of Streep’s Aussieness, it was ‘True Blue John’. Even the Greens, upon hearing the news, spontaneously murmured ‘oi oi oi’.

Williamson’s genius was to make the hearings an open-mike affair. Sure, that’s also the reason that the Commission took 9 years, 4 months and 11 days to hand down its sole recommendation — about as long as Abbott lasted as PM — and why the costs blew out past $398 million (noting, however, that Tourism Australia paid Streep’s US$25 million appearance fee in exchange for footage of her cuddling a crocodile).

Things started bumpily. When the first witness, Cate Blanchett, expressed her admiration for Streep — ‘Out of Africa is a classic’ — Counsel assisting the Royal Commissioner branded her a hostile witness (not to mention a Kevin Rudd fan). Subpoenaed to read the entire filmscript aloud in order to ‘remind us what true Australianness sounds like’, Blanchett instead channelled Streep channelling Lindy Chamberlain. ‘An act of homage’, she called it.    

Blanchett’s brilliant performance divided critics and the public. Thousands of patriotic citizens descended on the Royal Commission, claiming they could do better. In his now-famous speech to the National Press Club, Williamson declared that ‘the people must be heard’. He ruled that anybody who wanted to have a go could speak, but only for one sentence. So it was that 40 people an hour for 6 hours a day for 74 days shuffled up to the stand, gave an oath, offered their best rendition of ‘A dingow’s got my bay-bee’ and stood down. It was riveting stuff.

Things carried on in relaxed and comfortable fashion until Day 68, when a wannabe muso — singlet, King Gee stubbies, weeds-and twigs-infested beard, the whole kit — smuggled in a twelve-string guitar and broke into song. The guards hauled him out despite Williamson’s plea to ‘Set the music free’. Later, Williamson used his influence to get the singer-songwriter-offender released from custody without charge. The two of them promptly sat down under a ghost gum in a public park and composed a ditty called ‘Me & Meryl Got Something Going On’, which appeared on Williamson’s 2018 album Live in Nauru.

In the years that followed, the Commission sought, without fear or favour, to love and laud America, to denounce and whinge about America, to laugh at America, to wonder at America. No two witnesses seemed ever to agree. Streep’s woeful acting had brought Australians closer together in the same way that Hurricane Katrina had galvanised community feelings in New Orleans, but nonetheless she deserved a custodial sentence. No, her pitch-perfect performance was the best compliment Australia had ever received. Streep’s sinister infiltration of Australia proved that we should kick the Yanks out of Pine Gap (and Joel Madden out of Sydney). No, we need US protection and, really, we should offer to store some of their nuclear weapons (and invite Miley Cyrus to emigrate). And what the hell sort of sport is baseball, anyway?

Meryl Streep herself was the Commission’s final witness. Friendly and relaxed — and yet as grand as a castle — she enthralled her audience with anecdotes from her career. But despite Williamson’s pleas, backed by a petition of half a million signatures, Streep declined to utter her famous line from Evil Angels.

‘When the curtain falls, my work speaks for itself,’ she said.

And then she stood and left the witness box. Even the way she glided towards the exit was a work of art.

‘But where are you going?’ Williamson said. ‘Please don’t go.’

‘Say you’ve knocked off for a smoko. And you’ll be back later on,’ Meryl replied. Williamson could have sworn she’d stolen his voice.

The applause died down, the crowd shuffled out. Williamson retired to the pub, sipped a VB and wrote the Royal Commission’s single recommendation: ‘The show must go on.’





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