March 2016

The Nation Reviewed

Holy flark

By Paul Connolly
Illustration
The Watson family take on ‘Family Feud’

The set of Channel Ten’s Family Feud has all the subtlety of Las Vegas at night, and as we take our seats within its glow the crowd-warmer fills us in on game-show audience etiquette: in essence, smile no matter what. The studio crew, wearing hospital booties over their shoes to prevent scuffing, all but skate over the polished floor. In the wings, having their microphones and hair adjusted for the last time, are the two competing families: the Britos, on a three-game winning streak, and new challengers the Watsons.

Slim, bespectacled, curly-haired Catherine Catarinich (née Watson), 50, is a long-time fan of Family Feud, and she can’t quite believe she’s here. Her love of the show was one reason why her younger sister, Jo, encouraged the family to audition, which they did months earlier, attempting to appear as fun, quirky and interesting as game-show contestants are expected to be.

Catherine, her twin, Sharon, and Catherine’s 22-year-old son, Mat (who wore Harry Potter robes to the audition), dusted off some anecdotes for the show’s producers. Jo had one about seeing, and following, Madonna in Manhattan in 1996, and buying a jacket the star tried on in a store and rejected. Catherine recounted competing as an 18-year-old in the 100 metres and 400 metres at the 1984 Paralympics in New York. The producers were impressed enough to invite the Watsons onto the show, and pushed back the family’s scheduled appearance to allow the creaking public dental-health service time to fit Catherine with new dentures. The gap between her teeth was not going to look good on TV.

Catherine’s Paralympics tale was a mere side-story in a life impossible to turn into game-show patter. Suffering mild but lasting brain damage and partial blindness after a haemorrhage at birth, Catherine went to a school for the vision impaired until Year 9, by which time she’d started athletics training. At 27, after marrying a man with profound disabilities, she had a son, Mat. He was 11 months old when the couple split, leaving Catherine, with the considerable help of family, to raise him alone in a small public housing unit in Melbourne’s outer east. Mat’s father suicided when Mat was 14, by which time Catherine had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and breast cancer. She underwent chemotherapy and a double mastectomy.

Mat, an effervescent young man who speaks as if every sentence ends with an exclamation mark, is now an arts and science student at Monash University. He lives with the ever-resilient Catherine, and is now more carer than cared for.

None of this, of course, is apparent to the audience, who might be inclined to overlook Catherine’s slight, unobtrusive presence in favour of Jo’s bright orange hair or Mat’s traffic-light red pants. In any case, the enthusiastic crowd is soon distracted by the arrival of host Grant Denyer, who is so small, polished and cheerful he looks like an escapee from the Myer Christmas windows. After he greets and charms the audience we’re underway, Denyer taking his position at a central podium flanked by team captains Jo and Gilda. As Jo found out while chatting in the green room, Gilda Brito is one of four sisters whose father came to Australia after fleeing Chile’s Pinochet regime. I can’t help feeling that these families should be on Australian Story, not Family Feud.

“Name something that will take you over snow,” Denyer begins. Jo slaps the buzzer first and gets on the board with “a sled”, but Gilda trumps her with the higher ranked survey answer “skis”. At this point the Britos pass – a common tactic – giving the Watsons the opportunity to guess the remaining answers on the board. The Watsons strike out, allowing the Britos to confer and “steal” the points with “snowboard”.

Answers, we are later told, are usually obvious, though there are outliers. No wonder. During a break we fill in surveys for use in future episodes, and judging by the surrounding laughter, the temptation to be creative is irresistible. How do you resolve a family argument? “With capsicum spray,” I write.

After the Watsons bounce back to win the second round (“Name something most families wish they had”), Catherine gets her opportunity at the buzzer in the third round. “What would you find growing in a field?” Her answer (“wildflowers”) helps the Watsons surge to a 279–76 lead, just 21 points short of victory, with one round remaining. This brings Mat to the podium.

“Name a word that rhymes with ‘mark’.”

Although he misses the buzzer entirely – “Mum’s meant to be blind, not me,” he quips, earning a laugh from Catherine, the most animated she’s been all evening – he redeems himself with “bark”, the top answer, and the Watsons choose to play.

After Denyer prompts her to share her Madonna anecdote, Jo tries “hark”, eliciting the internationally recognised sound effect for failure: bah-bow. But then the Watsons guess four straight. “Park!” says Sharon. “Shark!” (Catherine) “Lark!” (Mat) “Stark!” (Jo) One more will win them the game, and they have two guesses up their sleeve.

Sharon responds. “Cark?” Bah-bow. All the pressure, and attention, is now on Catherine.

After an awkward pause she lifts her head.

“Flark?”

The crowd laughs, and groans. Denyer adopts a look of stunned amusement. “Holy flark, can you use it in a sentence?” Catherine can only grin sheepishly. The game is up. She knows it. Everyone knows it. But the board, like an oracle, must be consulted.

Bah-bow. When the Britos’ answer, “spark”, flashes up on the board, they steal the points and the game. The Watsons are going home.

In the foyer afterwards, mingling with the crowd who never got to hear of her Paralympics adventure, Catherine smiles shyly and tells me she enjoyed the experience.

“I just wish I hadn’t said that at the end,” she says. “But they told us that it’s better to say something – anything – than nothing at all.”

Paul Connolly

Paul Connolly is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist and author, and is the editor of the essay collection Father Figures.

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