• Mitch McTaggart, host of ‘The Back Side of Television’. (SBS)Source: SBS
Only Mitch McTaggart has the guts to explore what TV has really been telling us over the years.
By
Dan Barrett

11 Nov 2021 - 11:17 AM  UPDATED 11 Nov 2021 - 11:17 AM

At the end of last year, SBS VICELAND audiences were hosed down with a firehose of truth about the TV they had watched throughout the year. Mitch McTaggart held back no punches with his special, The Last Year of Television, an eye-opening, cynical look at TV in 2020.

But his work isn’t done. Heavens no. McTaggart has returned with a 3-part series that has examined all of Australian TV from the 1950s to today. Why would he do such a thing? Is McTaggart so brazen as to believe that by considering how our country has broadcasted itself, it would reveal truths about Australian culture and how we have viewed ourselves through the decades?

Just what is Mitch trying to say with these specials? The only way to know for sure was to force him into fulfilling his promotional obligations and answer some questions for us.

SBS Guide: What is The Back Side of Television and how is it different from The Last Year of Television?

Mitch McTaggart: So, when we were working on The Last Year of Television, we kept coming up with bits or discovering little segments that we thought would be great to drill down into a little bit more, but we were restricted with time. With any TV event, there’s so much more content that comes with it. So, we put them all to one side and then looked at all the things that we had accumulated there at the end and thought it’d be really cool to flesh out in a longer form. 

It’s built out of wanting to drill down more into TV history because a year in television is never just a year. It’s always everything that’s come before and so The Back Side of Television is all about how we got to where we are.

TV isn’t like movies or books where it’s a singular thing, a complete work. It’s regularly informed by other elements in the culture and because it runs over multi-year serials, TV operates on a continuum. It’s not necessarily a stand-alone art piece in itself.

Absolutely. I think that’s the kind of vibe of The Back Side of Television. I think the difficulty in trying to explain what the show is to someone who hasn’t watched it is clarifying what the show isn’t.

It’s not about finding a five-second clip where someone’s racist and just saying, “Look, that’s racist”. I don’t think that really counts as criticism.

What we wanted to do was flesh out a clip, explain how it happened, what happened afterward and the long-term effects of the clip – how it impacted TV. We’re drilling down a lot more and filling in a lot of gaps for people who may not be aware of how things have happened. It’s nice to have an opportunity to present things a certain way and say, “Here’s how this is. Maybe it’s not as good as what you thought it was.”

A very good example of that are recent conversations about Hey Hey It’s Saturday. Some people have fond memories of the program. It may not be as great as they remember it being, but there’s also a context to it. A lot of people who look at a clip in 2021 may see something considered these days to be fairly racist or sexist, but don’t perhaps appreciate the context and the spirit intended at the time of broadcast.

For sure. The Back Side of Television is not about dredging up the past and humiliating people who did this thing X number of years ago. It’s looking at longer term moments and asking if those kinds of things are influencing TV now. That’s more interesting than surface level “This bit sucks.” You already get that on Twitter. Our approach is more of a video essay presenting a case.

How far back do you go into TV history?

I think we mention a newspaper article from 1949, so pretty far back. At three episodes we’re barely scratching the surface of what there is to talk about.

In the first episode we talk about the history of true crime and we bounce around all over the place. It’s really quite interesting to be able to just have an excuse to dive back into stuff, because there’s so much stuff.

People give Australian TV a bad rap for any number of reasons. But people don’t think there’s as much of it as there is – so much stuff has happened.

I grew up in a time where if you were on telly, you were royalty. “Mitch McTaggart”

People today might look at Hey Hey It’s Saturday as being the only variety TV show that ever was. But with the recent passing of Bert Newton, all these clips are coming up from the vast number of variety shows that he starred in over the years. It is a reminder that we don’t have regular access to those clips; they’re lost to the dustbin of history.

The reality is that history is only brought up when a celebrity passes. It’d be great if there was some way to be able to access that in a more permanent sense and not just save it for Memorial packages at the Logies.

Does The Back Side of Television just look at Australian TV or do you go global?

Just Australian TV. I think that’s important because no one else does an exclusive focus on Australian TV.

I definitely get sick of seeing the same old clips in the static retrospectives and all that kind of stuff. I’ve seen that dog take a shit on In Melbourne Tonight, you know. Or Molly dying on A Country Practice. I don’t need to see those clips again. We see them every five years.

Every time one of those famous clips gets pushed in our faces we lose a little bit more of the obscure past, which, I think, is worthy of keeping and preserving.

What do you like about Australian TV?

Honestly, everything. It’s such a strange, beautiful beast, and as much as we mock it, it definitely comes from a place of love.

I definitely grew up in a time where if you were on telly, you were royalty.

Let’s finish up with some rapid fire questions. Jeopardy! or Letters and Numbers?

Letters and Numbers.

If Adam Liaw invited you onto The Cook Up what would you cook?

Some kind of dessert. I like sweets. Anything sweet, like a cake or a tart.

The Handmaid’s Tale or The Good Fight?

The Good Fight.

The best saucy SBS programming you’ve ever seen?

When I was a kid I saw the Coffin Joe trilogy. It was about this amoral undertaker who’s driven by his desire to have a son by the perfect woman. And for some reason there’s three films about it. The three films were on at midnight. I remember it was, like… he needed to have sex with a woman. And then there were Satanic visions… It ticks a few boxes.

Is there a show you’ve desperately recommended to people that you can’t get them to watch?

It used to be The Good Fight, but now I feel like a lot more people are on that bandwagon.

I caught Dead Set, that Charlie Brooker zombie show when it was on SBS years ago, and I was trying to make people watch it because I was so into it. 

Mitch McTaggart hosts The Back Side of Television, a 3-part series exploring the outrageous and ridiculous moments of Australian television you might have missed.

The Back Side of Television premieres Monday 15 November at 9:20pm on SBS VICELAND and is available to stream at SBS On Demand after going to air.

Catch The Last Year of Television at SBS On Demand till 15 December 2021:

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