Review: The Ex-PM 1×1 (Australia: ABC)

Funnier if you're Australian, but still not great

In Australia: Wednesdays, 9.10pm, ABC
In the UK: Not yet acquired

Comedy is a funny thing. Some of it transfers around the world very well. The less dialogue the better usually – Mr Bean pratfalling is the same in any language – but the delights of Cheers, Modern Family and Blackadder work in pretty much any country you care to think of, either in English or dubbed. 

Satire, on the other hand, is a much trickier prospect. By its very nature, it’s targetting something that it expects the audience to know about already so they can think about it in a new light. It’ll use cultural references that it shares with the viewer to raise a laugh at the same time.

All of which is a slightly pretentious way of saying that I didn’t get a lot of The Ex-PM. But that’s not necessarily the show’s fault. Nor does it mean it’s hilarious for Australians.

Shaun Micallef is one of Australia’s most familiar and celebrated performers, having appeared in TV comedy shows, usually as himself or a version of himself, since the 1980s. Chances are, though, unless you’ve been to Australia or are Australian, you won’t have heard of him, despite Channel 4 (or maybe it was BBC Two) having picked up one of his shows a decade or two ago. I think. I seem to remember seeing it anyway.

These days he’s most famous (in Australia) for his comedy news programme Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell, which has aired on ABC since 2012 but which is the latest in a series of programmes bearing his name (eg Shaun Micallef’s World Around Him, The Micallef Program, Micallef Tonight, Shaun Micallef’s New Year’s Rave). 

But he’s an all-round performer. He appeared in SBS’s 60s action TV show and movie parody Danger 5 for example, and if you cast your mind back to Ten’s Mr and Mrs Murder, he played one half of a husband-and-wife crime scene-cleaning team who solved mysteries together. 

I didn’t really like Mr and Mrs Murder. Neither, to be fair, did most of Australia, judging by the ratings. However, I was told after the fact by TV-literate Australians of my acquaintance that a lot of what Micallef was doing was playing on a shared history of performance with his co-star Kat Stewart in another show, Newstopia.

See what I mean? Sometimes, you need to be in on the joke and the cultural references to really get comedy.

All of which is an even longer way of saying that Shaun Micallef has a new comedy series called The Ex-PM in which he plays Andrew Dugdale, the retired third-longest serving prime minister of Australia. And that I didn’t get a lot of the jokes but that doesn’t mean it’s not funny, if you know what the jokes are referencing. I think.

Written by and starring one of Australias favourite performers, Shaun Micallef, The Ex-PM is a brand new 6 x 30 comedy.

As our third longest serving Prime Minister, Andrew Dugdale (Shaun Micallef) mattered. He dined with presidents and kings, hosted world summits and changed the lives of millions of his fellow Australians.

But now hes retired; a not-so-elder statesman with time on his hands to ponder the question – was it all worth it? Not that he’s asking of course. No, his inquisitive and over enthusiastic ghostwriter Ellen (Lucy Honigman) has an unhelpfully insatiable appetite for the truth.

After the advance for his memoirs is spent, but writing nothing in return, Dugdale must accept Ellen into his dysfunctional household.

There’s his wife Catherine (Nicki Wendt) who loves men, especially her husband’s chief of staff Sonny (Nicholas Bell). Sonny has worked for three Prime Ministers and two Leaders of the Opposition. Sonny knows where the bodies are buried and how to look after the boss’s wife.

Dugdale’s daughter Carol (Kate Jenkinson) has moved back home with her son after leaving her cocaine dealing husband. She didn’t see much of her father growing up and isn’t fussed if that doesn’t change now.

Under house arrest following a tax mix up, Dugdale’s manager Henry (John Clarke) is on Skype every day. The only time they actually see each other in person is when Dugdale puts out Henry’s bins to prevent Henry setting off his ankle monitor.

Curtis (Francis Greenslade) was an ASIO man assigned to protecting Alexander Downer until a hunting accident which left Curtis with a metal plate in his head. Now he’s Dugdales driver who spends most of his time scraping egg off the ex-PM’s car.

So begins a comic tango between truth and spin as Ellen and Dugdale take to the dance floor.

Each of the six episodes is a self contained story. There’s an international diplomatic posting that depends on the success of a Dugdale dinner party; a long time feud with the Governor General; and the casting of an actor (Lachy Hulme) to play Dugdale in a screen adaptation of the autobiography.

Is it any good?
Kevin Rudd? Malcolm Fraser? And, for a final tiebreaker, Bronwyn Bishop?

If you didn’t recognise the first were former Australian Prime Ministers and the latter wasn’t actually ‘Bronwyn from Neighbours’ (that was Bronwyn Davies – you’re getting her mixed up with Harold Bishop) but a former Australian politican who had to resign over a recent expenses scandal involving helicopters…

Bronwyn Bishop walking the dog

…you’re pretty much screwed as far as the funnier jokes of The Ex-PM is concerned. Not all the jokes, but certainly the cleverer ones. And that’s just the ones I got. I’m pretty sure plenty went over my head.

You’ll still probably get Shaun Micallef’s character, though, since it’s one of those precisely observed roles that fit an archetype, rather than a specific object of satire. His Andrew Dugdale is a John Major or a George Bush Sr, a largely forgotten, largely amiable, bumbling politician but not one without a few deeds he’d rather forget about – and wished others didn’t know about. When the ghost writer for his biography turns up, he’s knowledgeable enough to try to be media savvy, not skilled enough politically to avoid gaffs, not self-aware enough to know when he’s gaffing.

It’s an excellent performance that’s not as well served by the script or the supporting characters. While Dugdale compares his family to an Aussie sitcom “but not as broadly drawn”, he’s being a tad optimistic. Everyone, including his wife, daughter, aide and chauffeur, are pretty much stock characters without nuance. I’m not quite sure what’s going on with the mostly-French speaking housekeeper, but it doesn’t seem to be that deep, either. The plotting’s a bit predictable, too.

Which just leaves those satirical jokes. I got some of them. The ones I did get seemed funny and precise, in much the same way as Mad As Hell. But a lot of them I suspect passed me by while I was trying to mentally Google what the reference was. Even if I had understood them, I’m not entirely convinced they’d have been that funny, though.

Whether you’re au fait with Australian culture or not, though, I suspect this won’t totally rock your boat. It’s better than a lot of Australian sitcoms, with better writing, but particularly for outsiders, it’s not something that will have you rolling around in laughter on your living room floor, let alone hunting out more Australian comedies or even Micallef videos. But I wouldn’t blame you for watching it to learn a bit more about Australian culture.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.