Saturday, May 15, 2010

This Rugged Coast: The Coral Sea

Due to the myopic vision of the clowns in control of Channel Seven's programming schedule, This Rugged Coast is no longer being aired. It ceased without warning several weeks ago and I was lucky enough to tape the final precious episode: 'The Coral Sea'. Unsurprisingly, I wasn't disappointed. This episode had everything I had come to expect from Ben Cropp and his team - and then some; shipwrecks, an underwater funk soundtrack, the hand-feeding of sharks and a camera-man who lingers a little too long on a bikini-clad Lynn when he's supposed to be filming manta rays. (Although, the continuity is a shambles; last week they had a ship's cat named Skipper and now they've got a different cat named 'Streaker' and a ship's dog named Scruffy??)

The music this week is slightly more sophisticated and subtle than previous episodes and occasionally even reaches Libaek-esque heights of excellence. For example, there's an incidental harmonica melody which is very much in the vein of Libaek's 1965 Nature Walkabout soundtrack. There is also a pervasive funk influence consisting of electric guitars with wah and overdrive, various vintage synths and dominating, sea-snakey bass-lines. The earlier tunes were adopting a faux-Latin American folk sound (You know the drill: “Strum some major chords on that acoustic guitar and get the flute guy to play some bullshit on this pan-pipe I bought on holiday, ”) which is very reminiscent of some of the tunes from The Peter Thomas Orchestra's soundtrack to Chariots Of The Gods?.

The aforementioned scene featuring Lynn diving with manta rays starts with this lite Latin feel – acoustic guitar, trumpet melody, a bit of primitive sounding percussion – and then segues into a great female vocal melody which leads into haunting choral harmonies not dissimilar to Martin Denny's Enchanted Sea. It's a gorgeous piece of music which works brilliantly in its context. It's also that rare section which is almost uninterrupted by the show's narration, although admittedly there is a brief, cringe-inducing moment when narrator Leonard Teale effuses “Maiden and monster frolic together in a scene of breath-taking beauty”. Will someone please track this stuff down and release a remastered version on CD?

I was specifically looking forward to this episode because I read in the TV guide that our fearless crew were going to be hand-feeding sharks. This activity was instigated by Wally, last week's expert whose expertise apparently involves needlessly handling the most lethal organisms on earth. It takes a special breed of man to seek out a shark and then, almost suicidally, attempt to feed them by hand. Wally Gibbons is that kind of man.” Teale informs us, “The kind of man with balls the size of Giant Sea-urchins,” Well, I obviously made that last bit up, but that's what he would have said if he wasn't too busy ad-libbing crappy attempts at comic relief every five minutes.

[Prime example of crappy attempts at comic relief #1: A brief scene shows Scruffy ("an old sea dog") wearing glasses and "brush[ing] up on his techniques" from the Ben Cropp authored 'Handbook For Skindivers' as Leonard chuckles – not only not funny, but also gratuitous product placement.]

Anyway, Wally starts hand-feeding sharks, an act that has, for some unknowable reason, “never before been attempted”. The sharks eventually work themselves into a frenzy. Everything gets a little heated and, as I've come to expect from this show, Wally's hand is slightly lacerated. The hand-feeding is cut short (no pun intended) and the crew resurfaces.

In a rare example of practical insight, the crew moves away from the sharks and into the safer world of shipwreck exploration. They find the wreck of the SS Yongala, a passenger ship which sunk off the coast of Queensland in 1911. While some great ambient background music is played, a number of different relics are found including intact glass lanterns, porthole frames and china plates. [Prime example of crappy attempts at comic relief #2: Cue shot of barnacle encrusted toilets on shipwreck. Cue Leonard: “Perhaps for the convenience of passing divers?” You see what he did there?] The best item is the ship's bell recovered by Wally and slowly revealed to the viewer as the crew clean off all the seaweed and corals. It's a really amazing moment of marine archaeology and I tip my hat to the Rugged Coast crew for their achievements in this area. Let's hope Channel Seven have a gap in their late-night schedule soon, so this fascinating show can once again enthral Australian audiences.

This Rugged Coast interesting facts:
  • Crew member Neville Coleman has a species of commensal shrimp named after him which lives exclusively on a particular species of poisonous sea-urchin.
  • Lynn Patterson is the sound engineer.
  • If you put your hands into a shark's mouth, you will almost certainly sustain some kind of injury.

Dedicated to the memory of Wally Gibbons 1930-2006.