They’re an odd couple, that’s for sure. There has never been a partnership on Australian television that has lasted as long, nor been as passionate. They are Margaret and David. No surnames necessary. The news that they will hang up their spurs at the end of the year reminded me of that story of the kid in Chicago, dismayed that the White Sox had thrown the 1919 World Series. He turns to ‘Shoeless Joe’ Jackson: ‘Say it ain’t so, Joe’.
Life without Margaret’s understated ear-rings and David’s black shoes, of which there are many identical pairs, is hard to contemplate. Some adults in Australia have never known life, let alone television, without them. Whole generations have grown up looking to them for guidance, entertainment and film news. We got more than that. David and Margaret represent something good in our culture: stability, longevity and a relationship based on mutual respect. For some people, they are the only functional couple they have known – even though they are not now, nor have they ever been, interested in each other that way. Perhaps pairing is a better word. They are famous for their arguments and Lord knows they have been entertaining, but the reason they are still going after 28 years is mutual affection. They fight, then they put the differences aside for the good of the ship. I’ll tell you a secret: they bicker even more off-screen. Margaret is even more passionate and explosive in real life and David is more emotional and stubborn. But they are also kinder with each other than anyone outside their circle knows. Margaret alluded to that when they appeared at the 2011 Happiness Conference in Sydney. ‘In the tough times, David sings to me. He sings these funny little ditties to cheer me up. He has a great kindness in him.’
So does she. Margaret is attracted to compassion. She appears to be all heart, while he is all head, but it’s more complicated than that. David is a sook in sad movies. Like the best critics, he takes it seriously. His way of talking with detachment on the show is a smokescreen, in case he might sob. Margaret displays the emotions he feels, but would prefer not to show. He’s English: enough said. They have grown old together in our lounge rooms, although Margaret would hate that word. David admits to having just turned 75, and Margaret’s age is nobody else’s business. I have known both since before that first show in October 1986, and I’ve seen them at close quarters, taping the show, attending festivals, and at many thousands of movie previews. He’s always at the screening ahead of time, ready and prepared. She blows in at the last minute, but he has usually saved her a seat. They will often have round one in the theatre after the lights go up at the end – a free and frank exchange of views that would make a more unexpurgated version of the show. David stays till the end of the credits, because he times every movie: that way he can check the running time against the published time from overseas. If it’s two minutes shorter, he knows it has been cut and he will find out why. That comes from his passionate opposition to censorship, which is one of the important legacies of his career. Within 24 hours, he will have made full notes, which he keeps forever. He has done this all his life.
When they started the show, Margaret was a writer and producer at SBS, and he was introducing and selecting movies for the SBS movies of the week. He was responsible for SBS buying and showing most of the classics to Australian audiences, and he had been director of the Sydney Film Festival for 18 years. He was somebody. She was unknown, with a great love of movies, rather than a great knowledge. They modeled the show partly on Siskel and Ebert in the US, and partly on the idea that male and female would make a better mix. She resisted being on camera, but they couldn’t find anybody strong enough to balance David’s frighteningly complete knowledge. Moj, as he calls her, was the show’s producer at SBS and that was important, because that gave her power. He might have had more movie knowledge, but she controlled the show for the first 18 years at SBS, and she knew more about television. They needed each other. At the ABC, they have been produced and pampered for the last few years by Claude Gonzalez – one of the few who can match David in movie knowledge.
As they head towards the final show on December 9, let us consider what they have given us, in terms of cinema. For 28 years, Australians who loved movies have had a show that validated that love, and informed and extended it. We’ve had high quality information and more importantly, contested opinion. We’ve seen that debate about what you love is a good and holy thing, and respect for your opponent is important. We’ve seen that they had blind spots, but each exposed the other. Lars von Trier and Romper Stomper were blind spots for David, and Margaret wouldn’t let him get away with that. She sometimes went soft on Australian films and he wouldn’t let her get away with that. They remind me of Jagger and Richards, Astaire and Rogers, a meat pie and sauce. Each is good on their own, but they are magic together. David and Margaret, we will miss you.