My best most grateful memory of Peter Craven comes from a few years ago, when I was exec producing future retro-cult classic arts chat show Vulture. In order to create a lively pilot episode we had asked the panel to see Nine Songs, Michael Winterbottom’s “real sex” film. After various learned contributions from others, Peter’s first comment was “My god, I’ve never seen so much come in all my life.”

That was what we hired him for. In The Spectator Australia last week, he has delivered another type of Craven special, the OTT whelming on Godzone, the latest show I did with Max Gillies — but above all on my friend and colleague, Gillies himself. For Peter, assessing Max’s performance, a falling short in the vocal mimicry department was not so much a minor problem with the show as evidence of a grand metaphysical collapse, a

“Max Gillies can no longer ‘hear’ the voices of Australian politics … It’s such a crippling disability that you wonder how anyone could have persisted with a project so toxic with the blight of disappointment and failure.”

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Peter is entitled to his opinion, but this is a very strange article, for innumerable reasons. For a start, it comes at an odd, late stage in the proceedings. The MTC tour of Godzone has all but finished, and further touring is months away. Peter was at the premiere in December, yet the article is written as if he had just seen the show. But principally, it seems to be a Craven special, a critique that got out of hand and became a mildly hysterical fatwa.

To be up-front about it, Max and I have discussed the matter of impersonation in the course of rehearsals.   Max has never claimed to be a literal vocal mimic in the manner of Gerry Connolly, and is aware of the effects of age on physique, appearance and vocal chords, frankly dealing with it in many published interviews.

And it’s of course relevant to mention in a review. But to build some notion that this physical problem is somehow deep evidence of an inability to read middle Australia is nonsense. It seems more in the service of creating a grand theory about the show, and finding a repository for some free-floating angst. It goes on and on, in a way that seems to be about something else other than the show (about which, as a whole, Peter is half-positive).

Peter does this from time to time. It’s feast or famine, simper or sledge. One moment he’s drooling on your jacket, the next planting the knife. In the process he gets carried away. Some people think Godzone is the best show Max and I have done together. I don’t, but I think it’s pretty good (I would) and certainly within the range of the other shows.

So why the huge turnaround? Peter’s reaction to our caricature of Tony Abbott might give a clue:

“When it comes to Tony Abbot, Gillies gets the simian walk and the slightly sinister, self-deprecating laugh but nothing of the man’s verve or boyishness, his disarming, leering Catholic charm.

“It’s one of Rundle’s better bits of writing and in its cartoon way it tries to get inside the Tridentine worldview and the Jesuit sophistry …”

Yes, Peter like many a, erm, louche bohemian, is not only walking barefoot back to Mother Church these days, he also has, like many a, erm, louche bohemian, been taken by the boyish verve of Mr Tony, a lot of political maidenheads being given up to Mr Brideshead. Given the dull municipality of Krudd, many types who would abhor a fair slew of Abbott’s policies — whatever they happen to be that day — identify with the Mad Monk, and attacks on he and his religion count as a wound of sorts.

That’s part of it, and it connects to a driving envy that demands outlet. I’m not about to go into the old “critics, eunuchs at the orgy” thang — criticism is a legitimate activity of itself — but at some point these sorts of critical flame-outs come of rage at those who create bodies of work, from someone who has tried and failed to produce something larger than a dictated screed.

The result is either embarrassing flattery — if Peter gets any closer to one artistic director of the STC, then Cate and Andrew Upton are going to wake up one night with a hefty woolly man-baby between them — or the flame-out, on former friends, employers, flatterees, etc.

In between those there’s words. Lots and lots of words, dictated into a machine, and then reeling out of the paper. They’ve have long since become a single bolt of cloth, from which one cuts the length required, and no one really knows whether they have a public following or not. Tired, overstretched editors simply know that they can be cut to fit, and they have that literary feel. They come after a world-class magazine was allowed to falter after the working editor left, after the books unwritten, after flame-outs with Simon During, Richard Flanagan, Morrie Schwartz among others. No wonder he gets narky.

The timing of the piece, appears to be a kind of Hitler-Stalin pact with new Speccie editor Tom “Heidi” Switzer, who is determined to turn the magazine into the same Moonie-style culture war sheet that worked so well in the Australian’s op-ed pages in 2006-07. We’ll see what it does here, or if Switzer gets a longer lease than the last editor. I suspect that, as the CIA, sorry Congress for Cultural Freedom, told their employees, the Quadrant editors, in the ’50s, the whole point of a front is to actually conceal n-ked political mugging behind a facade of cultural reflection.

Why go ahead with a project of such “toxic disappointment”? Well not only because the audiences kept coming, but because they seemed to enjoy it — and because adults don’t throw tizzies and collapse on the divan when presented with new difficulties. Peter let Scripsi fall apart out of that response, failing to get grant applications in on time, and then running an international campaign to denounce Australian philistinism because its grant was being “cut”.

So, yeah, that sort of performance is kinda funny, when it’s not you or people close to you, but in the end it’s just destructive without being incisive, wearying and, it must be said, distinctly queenish, the Gossip Girl school of criticism.

The degree zero of that style was Peter, on Blanchett in Streetcar, Blanche on Blanche. Or in other words, come everywhere. I’d employ the man on a talk show any day, but he has always depended on the estrangement of kindnesses.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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