It’s fitting that the first review for 2018 breaks from the pack, with SBS “slow TV” event The Ghan.
Inspired by a Norwegian TV trend with fireplaces, reindeers, ferry rides and knitting marathons, this is billed as Australia’s first foray into Slow TV. Everybody has probably forgotten Channel 31’s cult Fishcam in which a video camera was pointed squarely at an aquarium instead of a test pattern.
The Ghan makes considerably more use of camera angles over its 3 hour broadcast -an edited-down version of the 54 hour journey from Adelaide to Darwin.
But it remains true to the form. There is no narrator and there will be no ads over the entire broadcast, allowing you to “lose yourself” in the mesmerising simplicity of it all. The SBS audience is already addicted to train documentaries, but this time Michael Portillo will not wander onto screen.
For the record I watched the first hour of this 3 hour event, armchair-travelling from Adelaide to Port Pirie. Whilst I am tempted to say viewers will either love or hate this, I was actually neither, but I appreciated a meandering hour nonetheless. TV isn’t usually so gentle and understated as this.
There are few characters and voices in what is ultimately a TV romance with the rolling stock and the land itself. Train Manager Bruce Smith is the train’s own announcer, occasionally dishing out the facts and scenic highlights. It’s a 2979km journey, 902 metres long, with 38 carriages, at capacity the world’s longest passenger train.
Once the train gathers momentum out of Adelaide metro area it’s as if nothing will interrupt her journey. She proceeds snake-like across the terrain with countless rail crossings where busy cars have come to a halt. There are just 2 stops along the route, at Alice Springs and Katherine (driver changes take place at select spots). Numerous drone shots from above -and even in front of- the train add perspective.
Social, economic and even political history are highlighted along the route with text superimposed on the screen and ‘ghost-like’ imagery to remind us of what once was: Adelaide gaol, devastated Indigenous communities, Goyder’s Line, Camels from Karachi in Port Augusta (a nod to how the train got it’s name). Snowtown is famous for its wind turbine farms, but not for anything far more sinister it seems.
Cameras capture the trip from every conceivable angle: from the front of its 2 locomotives, the driver’s cabin, the dining car, through passenger windows, above, side and even below the great train. There are shots through barbed-wire fences as the train goes whizzing by.
The land becomes a character, whether shifting in colour and texture, or the distant topography and the unmistakeable Aussie red dirt under a big sky. Viewed through the limitations of a media web portal, I can only imagine how this resonates in High Definition.
Sound is equally important with the constant rocking playing as a soothing, reassuring soundtrack. And then you hear it blasting, externally as a force of power for anyone standing close to the track.
Across the sleepy but hypnotic trip the viewer’s mind will wander. How did pioneers cope with this tyranny of distance? What would it be like to work on The Ghan? Did that bug on the lens of a track-cam survive the train running overhead?
Whilst I’ve only armchair-travelled for 1 of the 3 hours, there is no denying this will prompt a flurry of people to turn tourist and make the trek for themselves.
Obviously one wouldn’t want this to become weekly programming, but good on SBS for taking a punt on something different, and sensibly screening it without ads. TV is a broad spectrum and it rarely slows the pace outside of endless Cricket broadcasts. You’ll be lucky to see anything else like this on TV all year, unless of course it is a big drawcard and everybody tries to jump on board.
8:30pm Sunday on SBS.