Monthly Archives: January 2019

New York police throw a ‘temper tantrum’ against City Hall

Cold shoulder: Police officers turn their backs on a live video monitor showing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as he speaks at the funeral of slain New York Police Department officer Rafael Ramos.Over Christmas a cold, crackly tension beset parts of New York City.
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A grand jury had failed to indict a police officer who choked an unarmed black man, Eric Garner, to death. They had stopped him on the street for selling “loosies”, single cigarettes. Protests against police killings that had been boiling away across the country – particularly in Ferguson, Missouri – spread into the five boroughs.

Then a black man claiming vengeance for police violence shot two cops dead in their squad car, execution style.  Struck with grief and fury many officers turned on the new mayor, Bill de Blasio, who they believed backed the protesters, who were now, more than ever, the enemy.

Men who should have known better, former mayor Rudi Giuliani among others, took to the air to add fuel to the fire, pointing fingers at de Blasio.

Then suddenly in the midst of all this, petty crime across New York appeared to simply stop.

In the week leading up to January 6, in a city of eight million people, police officers arrested or ticketed just 22 people for jumping the turnstile. In the same period a year ago, nearly 1400 fare-beaters were caught. Across the city only 347 criminal summonses were written during those seven days, compared with 4077 a year before. Clearly the scofflaws had not left town.

Rather police in America’s largest city have quietly gone on strike.

Tension between police and minority groups is neither new nor unique to New York, but the current febrile state is worse than it has been for years.

It did not begin with Eric Garner’s death either. In part it is bound up with the tough crime-fighting strategy known as Broken Windows policing.

In the 1980s and early 1990s New York was struck with violent crime as a crack epidemic swept across the nation. At the height of the violence in 1990 there were 2245 murders in the city.

That year a Bostonian called William Bratton was hired to head the New York City Transit Police. Bratton had served in the Military Police in Vietnam and climbed the ranks fast on his return. By the time he landed the job in NYC he had embraced the social scientist George Kelling as an intellectual mentor. Kelling was one of the co-authors of a paper that became the basis for Broken Windows policing.

The theory holds that crime spreads when social order is allowed to fray. In response authorities tackle petty crime. On the New York subway system Bratton cracked down on the fare evaders, graffiti artists, drinkers and the panhandlers that made the system a misery for other users.

His hard line attracted favourable attention and in 1994 Mayor Rudi Giuliani made him NYPD Commissioner. Together they prosecuted a “zero-tolerance” policy.

Skip forward a generation and crime in NY has plummeted. Last year there were just 332 murders.

In the intervening years Bratton had been poached to lead other police forces but his Broken Windows strategy remained in place, supported doggedly throughout Giuliani’s term as mayor and then that of his successor, Michael Bloomberg. De Blasio has poached him back from Los Angeles.

While many in Manhattan celebrated the new life in the city, others, the targets of the policy, grew frustrated and hostile.

Broken Windows demands that crime managers track infractions and flood targeted areas with police, who in turn are encouraged to make their presence felt.

To that end the NYPD had adopted a tactic to match the strategy – Stop, Question and Frisk.

Under this tactic patrol officers stopped tens or even hundreds of people during a shift, whom they had “reasonable suspicion” might be about to commit a crime.

What constitutes “reasonable suspicion” is not clear.

By 2011 the policy was at its peak and 700,000 people were stopped and subjected to sometimes humiliating street searches. Between 2004 and 2012, police had stopped 4.4 million people, 87 per cent of them black or Hispanic.

Despite that “reasonable suspicion” the vast majority were innocent of any crime, and just 6 per cent of the searches led to arrests.

By then a protest movement against the Stop and Frisk policy had begun and concern about the NYPD’s tactics had grown to the extent that a federal government monitor had been appointed to watch over the force.

Social scientists were beginning to question Broken Windows impact on crime. Some noted that the fall correlated with a 35 per cent drop in the city’s unemployment rate. Others wondered if demographic changes were the cause, noting similar falls had been seen in other cities that did not practise Broken Windows.

In August 2013, a federal judge found Stop and Frisk to be unconstitutional. “No one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of daily life,” Judge Shira A. Scheindlin wrote in her decision, noting that when minorities were stopped, they “were more likely to be subjected to the use of force than whites, despite the fact that whites are more likely to be found with weapons or contraband.”

By then police tactics had become a political issue. After a generation of Republican rule in which police were used to the unquestioning support of law-and-order government, the Democratic Party’s Bill de Blasio won office having campaigned on ending Stop and Frisk and repairing the relationship between minorities and police.

Worse, from the point of view of many on the force, and in particular from that of the police union, de Blasio backed laws against racial profiling and the creation of an inspector general to oversee the NYPD.

Police, and in particular Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, were furious.

Cops, he said, need the unwavering support of the City Hall. Lynch encouraged his members to sign waivers that said,

“I, as a New York City police officer, request that Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito refrain from attending my funeral services in the event that I am killed in the line of duty,” they said.

“Due to Mayor de Blasio … consistent refusal to show police officers the support and respect they deserve, I believe that their attendance at the funeral of a fallen New York City police officer is an insult to that officer’s memory and sacrifice.”

When in December a grand jury decided not to indict the cop who choked Eric Garner to death, protests spread in New York. On December 4 the NYPD arrested more than 200 people, mostly on charges of disorderly conduct.

As the protests continued Lynch told his members to do their jobs “with extreme” discretion, claiming that police might not have the full support of the City Hall. Many interpreted this as an instruction to engage in work slowdowns.

Two days later, Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley, a 28-year-old black man, shot and killed two on-duty NY police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, as they sat in their car on a Brooklyn before fleeing into the subway and committing suicide. He had declared his intent earlier, writing on an Instagram account, “I’m putting wings on pigs today. They take 1 of ours, let’s take 2 of theirs.”

Hours earlier he had shot his ex-girlfriend.

In the end de Blasio attended the funerals, but as he spoke thousands of police officers turned their backs as they stood in ranks outside the funerals. They turned their backs too as he addressed a press conference in a hospital where the officers lay dead.

Lynch held his own press conference outside.”There’s blood on many hands tonight,” he said. “That blood on the hands starts at City Hall in the Office of the Mayor.”

It was around this time that the crime figures evaporated and a police force ostensibly wedded to proactive Broken Windows policing abandoned its city.

While sympathy for the murdered officers and their families is universal, many are now losing their patience with Lynch and the Benevolent Association.

“The implied threat to the city’s elected leadership and electorate is clear: Cede leverage to the police in the course of negotiating labor agreements or risk an armed, organized army rebelling against civilian control,” wrote The Atlantic in December. “Such tactics would infuriate the right if deployed by any bureaucracy save law enforcement opposing a left-of-centre mayor.”

Many commentators have referred to a police “temper tantrum”.

The New York Times railed in an editorial, “The problem is not that a two-week suspension of “broken windows” policing is going to unleash chaos in the city. The problem is that cops who refuse to do their jobs and revel in showing contempt to their civilian leaders are damaging the social order all by themselves.”

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Walking the Pyrenees – the summer I summoned the courage to do the best thing ever

Young and fit: Stephanie Bunbury resigned from her job to hike the Pyrenees with friends. Photo: Pam Wood Young and fit: Stephanie Bunbury resigned from her job to hike the Pyrenees with friends. Photo: Pam Wood
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Young and fit: Stephanie Bunbury resigned from her job to hike the Pyrenees with friends. Photo: Pam Wood

Young and fit: Stephanie Bunbury resigned from her job to hike the Pyrenees with friends. Photo: Pam Wood

The first day of our Pyrenean crossing, Bear confessed later, he thought he just wasn’t going to be able to do it. We only walked for a few hours and, as I remember, stopped for rather an extended lunch in one of those local restaurants the French do so well, but it was hot, very humid and very much uphill. It was also true that we hadn’t had the best night’s sleep, given that were under a bridge in Hendaye on the French coast – four of us in a row in our sleeping bags, with rain washing in and centuries’ stench of urine around us – after arriving too late to find the campground. Most of all, however, he knew we had an entire mountain range before us.

We laughed when he admitted that initial fear, because Bear was by far the youngest of us – only 22, if I am doing my sums correctly. It was 1989. Pam and I were both 10 years older, Matthew a bit younger than us. We had all fetched up in the same South London squat and spent most weekends hiking somewhere or other in Britain, hitching to the start of a long-distance path with our tents and our little gas burners, packets of pasta and an emergency Twix, walking through rain and shine and hitching back with the Sunday night trucks.  None of this could hold a candle to six weeks in the Pyrenees, however.

I don’t know why we chose the Pyrenees. Perhaps it was the comprehensive sweep of a mountain range that ran from one sea to another: the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. There were some unmarked paths on the high route that were 2000 metres above sea level. Only Pam – a New Zealander whose parents were both mountaineers – had walked at such altitudes. There was the sense that we had to do this now, while we had the strength and endurance to carry tents rather than rely on mountain refuges. I resigned from my job to do it.

At my insistence, we weren’t going to do anything involving crampons and ice-axes; this meant there were only six weeks in summer we could do the walk with a near-certainty we wouldn’t have to cross frozen ground.  We bought maps and new gear. I love gear: show me a lightweight torch or some new kind of sleeping mat and I’m there. Other than that, we didn’t plan very much.  That’s the great thing about walking: whether you plan or not, it’s basically just one foot in front of the other until you stop.

Two paths follow the range on the French side of the border – the Haute Route Pyreneenne and the GR10; a third path, the GR11, runs the length of the Spanish side. The GR10 is waymarked and a little lower although, as we discovered, they coincide much of the time.   The guide to the HRP was written by Georges Veron, clearly a titan among men who had actually designed the route himself in the ’70s and was known to us as Hercules; over the whole trip there was only one day we managed to walk the day’s stage in the time he said it would take.

Walking in high places shifts your mind somehow. Many memories of specific places have since faded, but I remember the eagles flying below us as we followed a long ridge, the mountain falling away steeply on either side; I remember how the plants would change abruptly every couple of hours as we descended a mountainside, exactly the way one belt of vegetation gives way to another in the illustrations in geography textbooks; I remember the fierce cold the night we camped in the snow next to the Vignemale glacier.

Above the treeline, you could see across mountain crags and the shadows to the point where the sky and snow blurred into each other. Occasionally you would see a group of chamois goats picking their way over scree that would have crumbled under a human foot. It was as if you had left the world.

Of course it was hard, too. On the second day, when we were still really only in the Basque foothills, I recall curling up in the only bit of shade on the sun-beaten slope: the small shadow cast by a single rock.

A passing middle-aged French woman wishing me “Bon courage!”: to this day, I tell myself those words whenever I feel myself flagging.

I was glad to spend the next day in a soft mist of rain; less glad when it poured relentlessly the day after that. We were all drenched by the time we reached Col de Roncevaux, where Roland’s defeat by the Saracens is marked by an outdoor chapel used by Santiago di Compostela pilgrims.

The chapel was open to the elements, but it had a roof. The altar made a good cooking table; surely any decent God wouldn’t begrudge us that. Matthew, the lapsed Catholic, did draw the line when Pam hung her wet underwear from the crucifix on the wall.

Five weeks later, more or less, we were descending through the extraordinary horseshoe of rock that is the Cirque de Gavarnie towards Lourdes, where we would wander the trashy religious souvenir shops and marvel at the knots of nuns and priests whooping it up outside the cheap hotels.

But all the villages were somehow extraordinary; on the days we didn’t walk – one in three or four, depending where the path led – we could spend hours in outdoor cafes doing no more than savouring the fact we weren’t wearing hiking boots.

In a town called Cauteret, I was so dazed by modernity that i walked straight into a car – fortunately, it was moving at about five kilometres an hour – because three straight days in the wild had made me forget how to cross a French road.

Some slightly larger towns had beautiful swimming pools constructed so that you couldn’t see any other buildings from the water, only the forested mountainsides from where we had recently descended like wolves; we would float about, trying to pick out the next part of the path. At each of these stops, we knew we were stronger. It was in Cauteret that Bear proposed we double back by a different route – the mountains are threaded with paths, not just the two main ones – to a restaurant we had all fancied a few days ago on Lac d’Estaing, a notable beauty spot accessible by car. And so we did: up and down thousands of metres to get a meal of duck with cepes. After that dinner, what did we do? Went for a walk, of course, around the lake. The flat tourists’ path felt so easy after the mountains, that we might have been floating.

It’s curious now to look at the blogs and walking holiday guides online that cover the paths we walked 25 years ago. Anyone of normal fitness could walk the GR10, says one holiday company encouragingly. The GR10 is supposed to take something like 54 days of walking, while the Haute Route is divided into 46 day stages. A keen blogger writes about doing it in 23 days: that means 35 kilometres with vast ascents and descents every day without a break. Hardly anyone could manage that or, indeed, would want to. Even “normal fitness” is too vague to mean much. Fit for what? Climbing mountains day after day is not part of many people’s normal life.

We were all better than normally fit when we left Hendaye, thanks to long hikes with packs every weekend. Pam ran most days; I did aerobics. Even so, what with our rest days and our variants on the prescribed route, we only made it about half way along the range in roughly five weeks.

We were profoundly tired by the time we stopped in Lourdes; we must have been, because we had begun to make bad decisions: we walked when we should have stopped, just because changing direction was too hard.

Even so, we knew we had done something stupendous. And just a few years ago, when Bear and I were remembering the day I was stung by a wasp while I was making dinner and thought I’d been bitten by a snake – a dramatic highlight, in retrospect – he suddenly said: “That trip was the best thing I’ve ever done.”

And it was. The best thing I’ve ever done.

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MH17 air disaster: demand high for sunflower seeds

Sunflower seeds face an uncertain path to grieving crash victims. Sunflower seeds face an uncertain path to grieving crash victims.
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Sunflower seeds face an uncertain path to grieving crash victims.

Sunflower seeds face an uncertain path to grieving crash victims.

These emails are heartbreaking – sons and daughters; uncles and aunts; nieces and nephews; friends and colleagues, all reaching out for a little something by which to remember those who perished in the MH17 air disaster in July.

Relatives and friends of nearly all of 38 victims from Australia have written, asking for some of the sunflower seeds harvested by hand at the Ukrainian crash site by myself and photographer Kate Geraghty – hopefully to be grown as self-regenerating mementos of their lost loved ones.

Dozens more requests are coming from abroad, in response to a diplomatic ripple which began when the Dutch embassy in Canberra included Fairfax media reports in which we offered the seeds in dispatches to their head office. The embassy requested that the stories be circulated to the next of kin of 197 Dutch citizens who died when the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 was shot down, and also to embassies in The Hague of other nationals lost in the crash.

New requests come in each day. The running tally is for 130 packets of seed, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, but dozens are from The Netherlands, Britain, Italy, Malaysia and Indonesia. At that level of demand, we have sufficient seed for each packet to contain about a quarter of a cup of sunflower seed.

I don’t think it breaches the privacy we offered to all who might ask for some of the seeds to allude here to oft-repeated references in the emails to the solace to be had from sunflowers, fields of which carpeted the sprawling crash site in the disputed eastern region of Ukraine.

“The sunflower has become somewhat a symbol of their memory,” one writer said of parents lost in the crash. Another writes of a grieving relative: “Believe me when I say how wonderful it would be for my dear cousin to have something tactile to see and touch relevant to her loss.”

By far, the victim names we see over and over in the emails are those of the Catholic nun Sister Philomene Tiernan, from Sydney, and the Melbourne writer Liam Davison and his wife Frankie.

Some of this family-and-friend correspondence is tightly written and emotionally taut  – little more than a name for the victim and an address to which seeds can be mailed. Many become a homage to the author’s lost friend or relative, with a good number of them steeped in love and a few in regret for not having spent more time with the victim.

“We are bewildered and shattered by what has happened,” a parent writes of the loss of a son in the crash. “I dreamt of both his life and death last night.” Another writes baldly: “Our son was blown to pieces by the missile.”

A couple of them came in as blank emails – fired off even before a message could be included. But when I went back to the senders, they indeed wanted some seeds. Most endearing was a writer who was so overcome that it took four emails to convey just the basics – a name, that of a deceased relative and an address.

A good number are from extended family members and relatives, asking for seeds on behalf of immediate relatives of victims, which they intend to offer to them at a later stage – in the case of adults, if and when the pain of grief becomes more bearable; and in the case of small children or grandchildren, when they are older and can better appreciate the seeds.

This week some of the seeds are back in the air. But the quarantine issue made me pause before dropping the seeds at the Australian embassy in Washington, for dispatch to quarantine officials in Canberra – with so many requests coming from outside Australia, I figured I should hold some of the seed to send to families and relatives in countries with less rigorous quarantine regimes.

As a result, two Ziploc bags, containing almost 1 kilograms of seed, are on their way to the office of Nicole Hinder, the Canberra-based quarantine official who first drew my attention to quarantine rules and regulations. I still have one bag, containing less that half a kilogram, to send to victim families and friends outside Australia.

Confirming she had been advised by embassy staff that the seeds were in transit, Ms Hinder said by email: “I am planning to send the seeds to one of my plant pathologists who will do a viability test on them, and also confirm the ‘type’ of sunflower.

“Once we have this established (this initial test is pretty quick) I will come back to you with some advice about timings and what is happening with the seeds – as they transfer to one of our Post Entry Quarantine Stations or we discuss other options if they show evidence of non-viability.”

Subsequent emails from some Australia-based relatives and friends have revealed a range of emotions on the implications of the intervention by quarantine officials in our memorial seed venture – acceptance, suspicion or a hint of anxiety.

A woman in ACT writes: “Hang in there. It is awful but predictable, how ‘authorities’ are thwarting your wonderful effort, seemingly making light of it; as if there is any biosecurity hazard.”

And in the case of a couple in rural NSW, there is a touch of defiance. Underscoring their support in the face of the quarantine threat, they invoke a quote, which they say is from the movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel –  “It’ll be all right in the end – and if it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.”

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Lunch with TV writer and actor Dario Russo

Off-the-wall genius: Dario Russo, star of the SBS television show Danger Five in animated conversation during lunch at Chiara at Docklands in Melbourne.
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Off-the-wall genius: Dario Russo, star of the SBS television show Danger Five in animated conversation during lunch at Chiara at Docklands in Melbourne. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Dish: Traditional Margherita at Chiara at Docklands. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Dish: Special: Hibiscus Cured Kingfish with yellow carrot and loco rice crumb at Chiara. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Off-the-wall genius: Dario Russo, star of the SBS television show Danger Five in animated conversation during lunch at Chiara at Docklands in Melbourne.

Off-the-wall genius: Dario Russo, star of the SBS television show Danger Five in animated conversation during lunch at Chiara at Docklands in Melbourne. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Dish: Traditional Margherita at Chiara at Docklands. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Dish: Special: Hibiscus Cured Kingfish with yellow carrot and loco rice crumb at Chiara. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Off-the-wall genius: Dario Russo, star of the SBS television show Danger Five in animated conversation during lunch at Chiara at Docklands in Melbourne.

Off-the-wall genius: Dario Russo, star of the SBS television show Danger Five in animated conversation during lunch at Chiara at Docklands in Melbourne. Photo: Chris Hopkins

The bill: Receipt for lunch with Dario Russo at Chiara.

Dish: Traditional Margherita at Chiara at Docklands. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Dish: Special: Hibiscus Cured Kingfish with yellow carrot and loco rice crumb at Chiara. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Chiara 705a Collins Street, cityMon-Fri 10am-10pm; 9252 7909

“Mad” is one way of describing the TV work of Dario Russo and his creative partner David Ashby. The words crazy, silly and hyper-imaginative fit equally well, especially when it comes to explaining the small-screen worlds of their retro series Italian Spiderman and Danger 5.

Think dinosaurs firing cannons from the back of monster trucks, Adolf Hitler running amok in a 1980s-era disco, hitmen disguised in chicken suits, libidinous bears and exploding body parts, and you’ll still have only half the picture.

Reality is not exactly on the duo’s radar, which is why it seemed odd when the launch of a return series of Danger 5 on SBS in late 2014 was delayed on account of events unravelling in the Middle East.

The potential problem was the beheading of a central character, which happens in a moment on cartoonish violence and turns into a running gag. It had the potential to drag the show and its broadcaster into a media maelstrom, all the more so when the depiction is removed from its absurd, comic-book context.

“The show is not a political satire and we were never directly referencing anything in the real world. Danger 5 is probably the most removed from real-world programs you could find,” says Russo, adding that the episodes in question were written in 2012.

“Every bit of violence, of which there is a lot, is well and truly embedded in the world of ’80s splatter.”

The idea of re-editing the show was never canvassed or considered, and Russo and Ashby accepted SBS’s decision to hold back the premiere.

At 27, Russo has managed to channel a typical child’s interest in movies, TV, fantasy animation and puppetry into arguably the most distinctive and off-the-wall TV comedy of recent times – all the more notable given the tendency of local comedy to mine self-deprecation and suburban colloquialism rather than fantasy and adventure.

He lives in Adelaide and describes himself a “World War II mongrel”. His father was born in Italy and emigrated when he was several months old. He returned to his native Naples when he was 11, but the reminder of life on the land saw the family return two years later. His mother is of Estonian-Latvian descent.

Chiara is a new addition to the otherwise bereft Docklands end of Collins Street. Located on the ground floor of Collins Square and overlooking the former Spencer Street Station’s Goods Shed, it’s spacious and roomy and a welcome change from the noisy, elbow-jammed set-ups of most CBD eateries.

Russo has arrived early and studied the menu, his taste buds set on a traditional Margherita pizza, which we share. We also choose an antipasto platter, a wooden board with three mounds of fleshy and sweet eggplant, earthy artichoke and sweet peppers, cured kingfish accompanied by a yellow carrot puree and licorice, and a roquette salad, washed down with a glass of refreshing Peroni.

A member of the YouTube generation, Russo started making films in his teens, Jaws-style creature features “shot by teenagers in a creek in the Adelaide Hills passing off as somewhere in America”.

He and Ashby met via mutual friends at high school during what he says was the golden age of house parties. They were 15. “David was making ridiculously ribald Flash animations and I was making short films because my dad bought a Powerbook, as it was back then, and a Handicam and supported my bizarre desire to make weird shit.”

Their collaboration started in earnest at Flinders University.

Italian Spiderman, says Russo, grew out of a “harebrained” uni project, a fake trailer for a preposterous 1960s superhero series that drew on his love of “giallo” and B-grade serials.

It was 2007, Facebook was on the rise and Twitter had not yet hit our shores, but the meticulously crafted – and tear-inducing hilarious three-minute trailer – took off.

With $9500 of funding, they made 10 mini-episodes of Italian Spiderman, most of which he says was spent on kebabs for the crew and moustache glue.

But people kept watching and it became a phenomenon, generating a viral internet mime, an unlikely offer from a condom company wanting to use the flabby hero (who was played by Ashby) as a mascot (it didn’t eventuate) and eventually notching up an estimated 5.5 million YouTube views; small fry by today’s standards, but notable at the time.

A bitter dispute over the chain of title saw Russo and Ashby shut the door on any further adventures of their masked superhero and ladykiller, so SBS invited them to submit three concepts for a development deal, one of which was Danger 5.

It took three years of scripting and execution to make the first series, which found a vast and appreciative audience both here and abroad, among them fellow Adelaide-ian Shaun Micallef, who contacted the pair when the first episode aired. “I still say it was the funniest thing I’d seen in 10 years on TV,” Micallef has said.

His appreciation was repaid, when Russo and Ashby offered the polymath author, screenwriter and performer two roles in the new Danger 5.

A “textbook only child”, Russo credits his “highly artistic and theatrical” parents for supporting his passion.

“They never encouraged me to get a real job and as far as I know I don’t have one. I was never encouraged to get the fall-back career and for that I have to be eternally grateful.

“Mum was an art teacher, dad a guitar teacher, both into creativity. They’re incredible, model parents. I feel guilty.”

By the sounds of it, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. “Dad used to be an art teacher where he would give high school art lessons on Dadaism that would basically be an entire performance where he would hang from the top of a ladder and throw chopped-up bits of news script on the ground and everyone would assemble poems out of them.”

When it came to the teen rite-of-passage of rebelling against his parents, “I had to make stuff up”.

So the idea of casting his father Carmine – first as an absent-minded scientist in Italian Spiderman, then as Johnny Hitler replete with atrocious moustache in Danger 5 – is not a form of catharsis for childhood issues.

The new Danger 5 updates the setting from the 1960s to the ’80s. Inexplicably, though perfectly in keeping with the show’s peculiar mindset, the debonair Pierre has transformed into a black man, played by Pacharo Mzembe.

“David and I felt we’d run out of ’60s jokes and were sick of watching Sean Connery, Bond movies, The Avengers and Thunderbirds. We wanted to preserve the characters and refresh the entire show.”

That meant more dynamic camera work and lighting, as well as having to reproduce period props.

Presenting Danger 5 at a film festival recently, Russo was asked about the prevalence of characters wearing animal masks. The questioner was sounding out Russo’s interest in “furries”, a worldwide, fetishistic community of people who derive sexual excitement out of dressing up as animals.

Furries turn out to have little to do with it, even if Russo seems happy with the association. He says that creatures who have no justifiable reason to be anything else have always been part of his work. It goes back to Power Rangers, where most of the villains have animal heads and watching Jim Henson, “where children grow up with huge affection for talking animals”.

Whether or not the show provokes controversy remains to be seen, though Russo insists that has never been his mission.

“But the nature of comedy is controversial. It challenges ideas and often pushes people well and truly out of their comfort zones and that usually provokes a level of laughter in some people … and can also affect people with more fragile sensibilities.

“Not once in Danger 5 are we shooting to target any ethnic groups or real events. We just want to make comedy that includes memorable jokes and scenes that David and I haven’t seen before.

“Some of my favourite comedies ever are regarded as some of the most offensive ever. Look at how inflammatory Monty Python’s Holy Grail was when it came out. Or Borat, who uses cultural groups to make jokes. I don’t want to live in a world where comedy isn’t allowed to offend people because it should be our canvas to examine things”.

That said, however, Russo says there will be no more Danger 5 after the current series. “I’m keen to move onto my next project”.

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Triple J’s 40th birthday: High times with the department of youth

Double Jay in 1975In October 1974, more or less by fluke, I got the best job going in Australian radio. With Ron Moss, I was appointed to set up the ABC’s fledgling “young people’s” radio station. This, of course, was Double Jay, which would evolve into Triple J and an Australia-wide network of stations.
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The release of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in 1967 signalled a change in the music industry and everything else to do with electronic technology. é

Suddenly things were different. The music changed, radio changed, everything changed. But not in Australia, still sleepwalking along on the coat-tails of Bob Menzies.

Australian kids only had high-rotation commercial radio stations to listen to for their pop music. Then ABC TV brought in Countdown and the gap widened a little.

With 2 Double Jay in 1975 the floodgates opened and the whole gamut of the world-wide music industry suddenly became available, ushering in a cultural change of massive proportions.

Gough Whitlam’s gung-ho government was leading Australia on a merry dance and one thing they were determined on was media reform.  There had been loud calls for change in the media and the media minister, Senator Doug McClelland, wasn’t handling it very well. Suddenly he announced that the ABC was to be given a couple of new licences, one of which was to be for “young people”.

The next day,  I was sitting in a meeting with a couple of ABC executives and Ron Moss, whom I’d only just met. Ron was the producer of Room to Move, an ABC program which had achieved cult status.  Presenter Chris Winter’s huge afro and “cool”  style ensured maximum identification as ABC radio’s  music guru for the new venture.

I was a presenter and producer of various talk shows on Radio 2 (now Radio National), an unpromising qualification to run a rock station. But I had a reputation as a supporter of new directions for radio. Within the week Ron and I had begun work on ideas for the new station.

Fortunately for us, the ABC music library had a huge back catalogue of records, many of which had never been played, but like any library they had a policy of collecting everything. All we had to do was take them out on permanent loan and put them on our shelves.

We had to take a lot of shortcuts. We simply abandoned public service practice and began to beg, borrow and steal.

Ron immediately signed up his friend from the ABC’s music library, Margot Edwards, to start choosing records and my secretary suggested a friend of hers who knew a lot about music and had just returned from the UK. The next day Ron and I interviewed Arnold Frolows for the first time. He was able to come in on a break from his job delivering flowers. We were impressed and asked,  “When can you start?” and he went on to shape  the musical sound of the station, perhaps more than anyone, as music director until 2003.

Within a week or so we were busy siphoning records from the ABC’s collection and re-cataloguing them for our own.

Next thing the hunt was on for announcers. We already had Chris Winter. Iven Walker was doing a short pop music program and reading the ABC News, and was ready to drop some of the more proper ABC mannerisms. We advertised for staff and, in a break from convention, said we were looking for people who had  a “sense of the ridiculous”. This short phrase reaped rich rewards.

Our next recruit was more or less self-selected. Ron told me we were having lunch with a mystery announcer from a rival station and the whole thing had to be handled with the utmost secrecy. It turned out to be the well-known “Bill Drake” from 2SM – only his real name was actually Holger Brockmann and he’d been given the name Bill Drake by the program director who thought a German-sounding name would put off a predominantly Anglo audience. We thought the Bill Drake thing was ridiculous and told Holger that if he worked for us he could use his real name. An hour after lunch, we had a call to say that when Holger got back to work he’d been challenged about where he’d been, fessed up and was sacked on the spot. And so we acquired our third announcer, who spoke the first words on the new station.

Another of our recruits, Mike Parker, decided to be shrouded in mystery, chose to broadcast under the alias of “The Magus” and was only ever pictured behind a mask.

We  desperately needed a good breakfast announcer. We did not have huge amounts of cash, but we could offer one of the most interesting gigs going, with virtually unlimited creative freedom. One of the airchecks we had was from a loose cannon in Newcastle   and we knew he was our man.  We found Alan McGirvan, who was nothing like anyone on Sydney radio, and who would set the scene for years to come. McGirvan would be joined on air by Captain Goodvibes, the Pig of Steel and a cast of characters too ugly to spit at.

By November we had begun to gather a small group around us. We had some office space, no furniture to speak of, but some nice empty offices where we could begin stacking records. Once the phones were on we were really away.

We were given a frequency almost off the radio dial – 1540 Khz – and then told by the sad old men in grey cardigans at the Broadcasting Control Board that we could only broadcast for 12 hours a day. They’d discovered a transmitter at Blenheim in New Zealand broadcasting on the same frequency. We might interfere with their broadcast and cause an international dispute.

By this stage our excitement levels were high and our growing team was not impressed. After we discovered that the NZ station only broadcast a few hours a week, we  threatened to go on strike and not open the station – even though we had no secure jobs. More headlines and the edict was rescinded.

We had a hell of a time trying to decide on the call sign. As the deadline of January 19  approached, we had a number of committee meetings to consider it. We tried 2 RK (sounded a bit like rock) but nothing  seemed to jell.   I thought the double letters would be original if nothing else. And so we tried “AA” and then “BB” and so on. I think that by the time we got to “JJ” we were all so bored with the process we thought that would have to do and we went to lunch.

Naturally 2JJ, or 2 Double Jay as it was known, immediately became the stuff of legend. People thought it was meant to represent everything imaginable about the drug culture prevalent at the time, because a  “jay”, of course, was a “joint”.

The rush to the final countdown was marred by the fact that the ABC suddenly decided it would have to censor the rocket ship design we had on advertising billboards.  It was meant to symbolise the out-of-this-world experience to be provided by the station but was deemed to be a bit too phallic.  But at a a press conference with ABC management  to announce the station opening the following week, we quietly arranged to have the artwork in the background for journalists to see. Nobody even mentioned it and the ABC bosses quietly dropped the whole thing.

The studios were still being worked on when we began broadcasting from the old wartime bunkers below the ABC’s building in Forbes Street. Ron said the secret first track was going to be a “ripper”.  A crowd of hangers-on and executives cheered as the final countdown reached a crescendo.

The atmosphere was electric as the clock struck 11am, Holger welcomed us to the world of 2JJ and we thrilled to the opening chords of The Skyhooks’  You Just Like Me ‘Cos I’m Good in Bed.

Triple J celebrates 40 years  with the Beat the Drum concert in the Domain on Friday.

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