May 2005

Arts & Letters

Getting human

By Kerryn Goldsworthy
Andrew Denton and the art of interviewing

It’s well known that Andrew Denton is the son of Kit Denton, author of the book on which Breaker Morant was based. It’s less well known that radio, TV and even the ABC itself are in Denton jnr’s blood, if not his very genes; his father worked as an ABC announcer from 1951 to 1965, as a producer/director of radio and TV documentaries, and as the true identity of The Australian’s feared and respected TV critic ‘Janus’ during the 1970s.

So Andrew Denton and Australian TV are practically siblings: they were nurtured from the same source and grew up together. “When I came into the industry,” said Denton in a Rolling Stone interview in 1994, “I had a really strong view on television. I have been brought up, like most people my age, on a diet of Don and Bert and Don and Bert and Don and Bert and Ernie. It seemed to me it was the same cosy group of people that were doing each other’s chat shows and crawling up each other’s rectums … The first time I ever saw anything on Australian TV that had a go at this was Norman Gunston, which I still rank as one of the finest pieces of television I’ve ever seen.”

Denton turns 45 this month and it’s hard to imagine many ways he could get much better. Everyone who has worked with him describes him as a perfectionist, if a true perfectionist ever dares take the kind of risks he has. After disappearing from Australian screens for a few years in the late 1990s he returned to host, of all things, the Logie Awards for Channel Nine in 1999 and 2000, a gig widely feared as a highwire act with no net. Credited in both years as creative director and head writer as well as presenter, Denton transformed the event from a cheap, cheesy, sub-Oscars semi-fiasco into a brilliantly produced, glossy extravaganza with a dangerous edge and a distinctly Australian feel.

He came back to the ABC in 2003 with Enough Rope, his unique mixture of interviews with the famous, the infamous and the not famous at all. Denton’s refusal to accept celebrity as a no-brainer criterion for guests on his show produces a rich, unpredictable mix of personalities and stories every Monday night, from ex-presidents and Nobel Prize winners to someone like Norma Allen, long-time cake judge at the New South Wales Royal Easter Show: “A lot of people don’t read their schedule. This is a big problem with people competing in shows … they don’t read it. The orange cake, it might say ‘iced on top only’, and they ice it on the sides, don’t they? Well, I disqualify that.”

In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald’s Alexa Moses on the weekend before the first Enough Rope of 2005 went to air, Denton spoke about the way his interest in TV has evolved to a stage where he no longer fancies doing comedy: “I reached a point where I wanted to do interviewing in its pure form … and speak to a wide range of people in depth.” He did not get unqualified audience approval for that first episode of the year, an interview in Copenhagen with the Danish Crown Prince Frederik and his newish Tasmanian wife Mary. Denton’s courtesy to the couple and his appropriate attention to palatial protocol prompted viewers to accuse him of grovelling; one punter posted a comment to the program’s website calling him a “synchophant”, unintentionally conjuring up a Fantasia-like image of multiple high-kicking pachyderms whooping it up in the chorus line.

Numerous others complained bitterly about the fact that Denton, in the course of a conversation with the Danish Crown Prince and Princess, had been nice to them and addressed them by their titles. It is a puzzle as to why this should have been cause even for comment, much less disapproval, but the impression given by most visitors to the website’s guestbook is that they would have preferred Denton to address the couple as Freddie and Maz while asking them hard-hitting questions such as: “Who do you two rich wankers think you are?”

But the interview was probably not regarded as one of Denton’s best even by those who sympathised with the special difficulties of conducting it, who shared his sense of appropriate behaviour towards one’s hosts, who understood some of the reasons for the gentle line of questioning, and who found the couple genuinely endearing. The most interesting thing about it was the way it made Denton’s rarest and most characteristic skills conspicuous by their absence. Because of where he was (the Amalienborg Palace) and who his subjects were (two members of an ancient European royal family), he found himself in a situation where he was unable to use any of his best gifts.

One of these is the way he lures his subjects into moments of frankness and vulner-ability. How he does this is a bit of a mystery, not least to his guests as they find themselves spilling beans as yet unasked-for and letting feral cats out of bags. It has something to do with his physical stillness in conversation, which is both an extreme contrast to his energy when on his feet and the most visible manifestation of his intense focus: he seems to be one of those people who make you feel, when he talks to you, as though you are the only person in the world. This quality was apparent in his recent moving exchange with a very out-there Michael Slater, the rambunctious former Australian opening batsman, which must have cost more than one of Slater’s old team-mates a bit of sleep that Monday night. But with Frederik and Mary of Denmark, there was not only a sense that if Denton asked a question on a sensitive subject he would be hauled out of there by large security guards and hung in chains from the castle walls, but also that in any case there was nothing to be revealed, no secret humiliation or ancient pain, just a lot of un-complicated happiness about being young, healthy, rich, royal and nauseatingly in lerve.

Another of Denton’s rare gifts is the calm, watchful empathy with which he establishes and maintains intimacy, sometimes through straight talking and sometimes through jokes. These are not Letterman-type, boom-boom jokes that play for laughs at the subject’s expense. Rather they are personally addressed jokes that have grown out of the conversation and act as a signal to his subjects that he is on their wavelength. So does his technique of avoiding the ubiquitous journalist’s question “how did you feel?” and instead saying “that must have felt …” awful, enchanting, ludicrous or whatever – a move that assures his subjects he’s got some idea of their feelings while at the same time giving them an opening and a chance to gather their thoughts. There was no possibility of establishing this kind of connection with the Danish royals; the already-existing intimacy between Frederik and Mary was so intense that it was almost visible, a sort of humming pink cloud of pheromones, and it formed a closed circuit from which Denton was wholly excluded.

Finally there’s his intellectual clout and subtlety, which is put to its best use in interviews with such people as Bill Clinton or Professor Susan Greenfield, the world-acclaimed neuroscientist, who are able and willing to talk dazzlingly about ideas. But in an interview with royalty about their romance, their honeymoon, their wedding and their, well, royalty, Denton’s intellect really didn’t have much of a role to play. More stimulating was his interview weeks later with another “love story” couple, former Curtin detention centre inmate Shahin Shafaei and his partner of three years Gaby Schultz, who met while she was working as a guard at the centre. This was a world away from celebrity gossip, grounded in gravitas and true drama.

The damning response to the Danish royals in the Enough Rope guest-book is symptomatic of a widespread cultural disease. In the eyes of most journalists a good interview is essentially a contest: an adversarial, aggressive game of Gotcha, critiqued as either “hard”, which is a term of approval, or “soft”, which is the opposite. The rhetoric used in and about interviews, especially political interviews, is that of the arena and the boxing ring. Interviewers push relentlessly for answers to coercive, slanted questions – answers (and this is the sinister bit) that can then immediately be spun and packaged by their own networks as “news”.

So not only is the guiding spirit of these exchanges belligerent and negative, it is sometimes corrupt as well. Of course, most politicians bring it on themselves; in an era when nobody seems to mind being constantly lied to by politicians and the press, the mindless activity known as “staying on-message” is often the only response a politician is prepared to give to all but the most devious or the most unrelenting questioning. In the article by Alexa Moses, Denton directly addressed this question of interviewing as a gladiator sport. He does not see it that way, “and therein lies the nature of the show. I actually don’t see that being adversarial is useful.” He prefers the more neutral concept of challenge. “At some point you challenge people. Sometimes it can be a really basic question, like ‘who do you trust?’”

Some of the most dramatic responses Denton gets are not to the question “who do you trust?” but rather to the question “why do you love X?” Talking to actress Rachel Ward about how she met her husband Bryan Brown, Denton asked: “Why him? Why Bryan?” And Ward, to her own astonishment and horror, burst into tears; she quickly recovered enough to launch into a heartfelt tribute to her husband, in between cursing Denton and blowing her nose. Toni Collette, sitting in the audience during the interview with her friend Rachel Griffiths, got the same question: “So, what’s to like about Rachel Griffiths?” Collette replied, “She’s incredibly smart, incredibly brave ... I’m gonna cry,” and did.

Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett – who clearly didn’t even want to be in the same room as Denton, much less be interviewed by him – responded quite differently though with equal emotional violence when Denton asked him: “Why do you love Felicity?” It was as if Kennett had been publicly insulted: “I can’t explain that to you, Andrew. You can dig away as much as you like. Why do you love Jennifer?” Denton was clearly pleased by this opportunity to pay public tribute to his wife Jennifer Byrne. “Because Jennifer is a warm, vivacious, wonderful, sexy, hilarious, tremendous woman.” Kennett was reduced to a me-too mumble: “They’re exactly the words I would’ve used of Felicity,” he said, which left the viewer wondering why he hadn’t.

This exchange illustrates another of Denton’s gifts as an interviewer: he is willing to expose his own feelings and failings should the need arise. If you look up the word interview in the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the derivations it gives is the French verb s’entrevoir: “to see each other”. Like Michael Parkinson, himself a great and generous subject on one of the best shows Denton has ever done, Denton treats his interviews as mutually transparent conversations between equals, as in his exchange with fellow comic Wendy Harmer, or when swapping fatherhood moments with Russell Crowe and Sir Bob Geldof. He is prepared to give, to engage, to make himself vulnerable and visible.

More commonly, though, he gets things out of people by offering them conversational elbow room. The show’s sinister title is an allusion to the fact that if you create an inviting silence, people will talk into it, and Denton has a gift for making a space into which people feel willing to speak. Often it isn’t a matter of him giving them enough rope; it’s more a case of them falling over themselves to take the rope off him. To read the transcripts of his interviews is to look at a long list of truly astonishing, frequently unprompted revelations: Steve Irwin and Dave Hughes on their experience of impotence, Toni Collette on menstruation, Jimmy Barnes on his alcoholism, Michael Slater on his bipolar disorder and Hugh Jackman, unforgettably, on how he once wet his pants on stage. “I managed to hold onto it. But by holding onto it and stopping the flow, I also stopped the note, so I was, like, ‘Oh, my God. It’s piss your pants or sing. This is my Sophie’s Choice.’”

Despite Denton’s dislike of the adversarial style, his “challenges” can be firm. He hangs on like a terrier, sinking his teeth into the sock of some issue while the subject weaves. In conversation with Germaine Greer, who apart from anything is about eight inches taller than he is, he picked her up when he thought she was being condescending and challenged her whenever she claimed certain experiences as female-specific. In an exchange about young love, Greer interrupted him for the third or fourth time to say she thought boys were only interested in “cybergirls … girls you don’t have to talk to. Are you following me here?” Denton answered: “I’m following you here. And I’m talking to you as well. And I’m curious about this concept that love is what you have to receive, that you have to wait on the end of the phone, that it’s what someone else does to you. Love is also about what you give to someone else.”

Greer, as intellectuals are usually prepared to do, conceded some points and gave some ground, but the politicians have mostly stayed on-message. In his interview with Amanda Vanstone, the immigration minister, Denton pushed her repeatedly on the question of children in detention, and she held the party line to his obvious frustration. In his 2003 interview with then shadow treasurer Mark Latham, which now makes for tragic reading, he pushed Latham unsuccessfully on the topic of his personal feelings about Tony Abbott.

Denton’s motivation, whether he is talking to canny politicians or to vulnerable punters with tragic stories for “Show and Tell”, is always the same: to arrive at some human truth, eloquently and honestly expressed, and straight from the heart or the mind. In the interview with author Nikki Gemmell he “challenged” her with a question she didn’t want to answer. How had her relationship with her husband been affected by her exposure as the author of the erotic novel The Bride Stripped Bare? They danced around this question for a while and then Denton made a mildly dirty joke, to which Gemmell replied: “Andrew! Please! I’m keeping it literary.”

Denton’s response? “But I want to get human here. You’re still ducking around this question. This is why I’m coming back to it.”

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