Margaret and David’s farewell message
After 28 years on television, Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton will record the final episode of At the Movies on December 9. ABC TV
September 16, 2014
“I’m very ordinary,” is pretty much the first thing Margaret Pomeranz says to me as we sit down to lunch at Ruyi, a modern Chinese restaurant off Little Bourke Street that favours light sauces and subtle flavourings – lots of fresh ginger, the house’s own delicious tofu – rather than those you might normally find in this part of Chinatown.
“My generation never thought about a career in film,” she continues. “You could be a secretary or a teacher or a nurse. My parents would be amazed at where I am now.”
Margaret Pomeranz makes her point over lunch at Ruyi Chinese restaurant, Melbourne. Photo: Luis Ascui
She’s a First Fleeter on her mother’s side, and Welsh on her father’s (her maiden name was Owen-Jones). “Convict background: that’s about the most interesting thing about me, really.”
But while Pomeranz, 71, is adept at talking herself down, she’s also quite prepared to pipe up for what she believes in. She has long been one of this country’s most passionate campaigners against knee-jerk censorship, an advocate for freedom of expression in the arts and decency in broader society, and a movie critic whose views have held uncommon sway for more than 30 years.
That feistiness was to the fore in the very public break-up with SBS in 2003-04. “David was treated appallingly,” she says of the run-in to the split. “I was taken out to lunch by the managing director and told they were going to drop hostings,” – the pre-recorded introductions to programs, including Stratton’s intros to foreign-language movies, that had been part of the station’s identity since its launch in 1980. “I said, ‘You’re not talking about David are you?’ He said, ‘Yes, we think they’re old-fashioned’. I was a bit taken aback.”
With her long-time screen partner David Stratton.
Stratton was in the dark; management’s plan was to announce it to him as a fait accompli. “I wasn’t going to let that happen,” she says, “so I had to ring him and tell him. He was so hurt.”
In the midst of all this, she bumped into Sandra Levy, who was then director of television at the ABC. “She said ‘How’re you doing’, and I went ‘Don’t ask’, and she said, ‘Let’s have lunch’.”
In a cloak-and-dagger move, Levy proposed poaching The Movie Show from SBS (a rare example of the ABC snaffling a show from, rather than losing one to, a rival network). “It was completely secret,” Pomeranz recalls. “It was going to be announced on a certain date, and I had to go down to the SBS managing director’s office and deliver the news that we were leaving, and at the same time the ABC was going to put out a press release. Everybody at the ABC said, ‘They’re going to say they didn’t want you’. And I think that’s what the implication was.”
With Village Roadshow boss Joel Pearlman at the 2014 Melbourne Film Festival. Photo: Francine Schaepper
Pomeranz doesn’t tell this story with any great relish, but rather with a kind of sadness; it’s been more than a decade since The Movie Show switched channels and became At The Movies, and she and Stratton have since left the ABC too (on rather better terms), but the memory of it is still bound up with a great sense of loss.
She’d been at SBS from the beginning, hired by Bruce Gyngell a week after it first went to air to write and produce those hostings whose axing a couple of decades later would prompt her departure.
She’d heard about the gig from her then-husband, Hans Pomeranz, a Dutch immigrant who gifted her the appropriately ethnic-sounding name as well as her earliest exposure to the industry through his editing and post-production house (50 years after he founded it, Spectrum is still going, run by son Josh; their other son, Felix, works in visual effects).
Tingling prawn dish at Ruyi. Photo: Luis Ascui
“Hans rang me to get the name of a girlfriend of mine who was working in advertising,” she remembers. “I thought, ‘I could do that’.”
At SBS she found a place staffed by very bright people with little or no experience of TV. “It was this giant learning curve for all of us – and you could do anything.”
Like any start-up, it was chaotic. After the people who made the station promos were sacked, Pomeranz spent 24 hours teaching herself how to do their job, then cut her first one. “I’m still very proud of that promo,” she says.
Fried tofu at Ruyi: ‘I’m not usually a fan of tofu,’ says Margaret, ‘but this is delicious’. Photo: Luis Ascui
It was a “fabulous” time, being part of an organisation that helped shape the idea of a multicultural Australia. “When I first started there I’d get in a cab and the driver would abuse me for working at ‘that wog station’,” she says. “Three years later, all they wanted to do was talk about the Greek movie they’d seen on Saturday night. It was magical, really.”
Superlatives get thrown around rather a lot when you’re chatting with Margaret Pomeranz. Her effusiveness is at the very core of her appeal. On TV, she was always the emotional yin to Stratton’s rational (some would say buttoned-up) yang. She played it up for the camera, I’m sure, but in person it’s still very much in evidence.
It has the effect of making people feel they know her. At the restaurant, strangers wander over to say hello, to let her know how much they’ve enjoyed watching her over the years. I witnessed it, too, after a panel at the Wheeler Centre during the 2014 Melbourne Film Festival, when a guy in his late 20s approached her on the steps outside the State Library and confessed he’d been unsure what to wear to the event. “I do an impression of you, and I thought about coming dressed as you, with the wig, but wasn’t sure that you’d approve,” he said.
“Oh, I’d have loved that,” she said, cackling heartily.
With your presence at the birth of the local industry, and on-screen since the 1980s, you’ve been something of a pioneer, I suggest. Were you conscious of that at the time?
“No,” she says. “I thought I was witnessing a pioneering moment. I was there right at the beginning of it, that explosion. Picnic at Hanging Rock and Newsfront came through [Spectrum]. It was exhilarating. I was up close and personal but I wasn’t part of it. I was the wife.”
Did you resent that?
“No, but I realised I was going to have to make my own way.”
She got into the playwriting course at NIDA, then started writing scripts. She was on the fringes of the great explosion of the Australian New Wave, but became “very disillusioned” after a terrible experience writing a telemovie whose name she won’t now reveal.
“That’s a deep dark secret,” she says. “It was sort of a dodgy old-style Hollywood scenario where the director turns up with some woman he’s obviously had a late night with and says, ‘Can you write her into the scene?'”
Being on screen was never part of the plan – when she first started doing The Movie Show she was so nervous she’d have to start the recording day, at 7am, with a large Scotch – but after so many years of talking about movies she’s not sure she can imagine it any other way now.
“It’s an identity crisis,” she says. “If I’m not ‘Margaret Pomeranz at the movies’, who the hell am I? I’m going to be a beach bum, sort of having an existential crisis?”
Of course, she and Stratton officially retired from TV last year, but it didn’t take long before another gig – with Graeme Blundell on Foxtel – came along.
She’s got other things to occupy her too. She likes fishing, though she considers it an activity for “contemplating the day at sunset” rather than putting dinner on the table. She used to play tennis, but the aches and pains have put that to rest. “I was hit by a car when I was 20,” she says. “I survived pretty well, but it meant a lot of damage was going to come back to haunt me later on.”
She’s part of a rather well-connected committee that’s trying to get a cinematheque for Sydney (other members include producer Jan Chapman, director Gillian Armstrong and the aforementioned Sandra Levy). “It’s pretty outrageous that Sydney does not have a film centre of some sort,” she says, firing up. “I don’t know that I’ll live long enough to see it established, but it doesn’t matter.”
She’s also taken on a role with the National Film and Sound Archive, “to bring attention to this fabulous Australian resource”, and to let the general public know they have access to a treasure trove of film, television and audio recordings online, free of charge (though if they’d like to donate…).
She’s still close to David. He’s happy in retirement, she says. “He’s got this Ingmar Bergman retrospective, he’s writing another book on Australian film. He’s got his cruises [where he presents movies with live intro for the passengers]. God help me, I’m going on one of them.”
And she’s still at the movies more often than most of us could dream of.
Do you still enjoy that thrill of sitting in a darkened room with the prospect that the flickering light is about to generate a little magic – even when you’re doing it hundreds of times a year, knowing most of them will leave you disappointed?
“By the end of the year I really mind having to see a bad film: ‘What am I doing here?’,” she says. “But I always start the year full of optimism.
“You couldn’t do this job,” she adds, “if you didn’t have that love of the medium.”
CInema Nova will host the Margaret Pomeranz Hollywood Retro Film Festival from November 26-December 13.
Visit the National Film and Sound Archive collection at nfsa.gov.au
Follow Karl Quinn on twitter: @karlkwin