Bobbing down under

The fatal shore - Christopher Spencer on why Robert Hughes is tempted to throw in his Australian cit

Bob had promised us bluefin tuna. On a winter's evening in Broome, Western Australia, we waited for his return from a fishing trip to celebrate the end of the first week of filming Beyond the Fatal Shore. The news came drip by drip from the locals: a bad head-on crash about an hour and a half out of town . . . a rental car involved . . . that bloke with the Pommie TV crew.

Out on the road, Bob was bent double, his face forced through what remained of the Nissan Pulsar's floor pan, as he watched a pool of petrol forming on the tarmac. Arriving at the scene of the crash, his mate Dan O'Sullivan agreed to Bob's pleas to put a bullet through his (Bob's) head if it caught light. Bob counted, fighting the overwhelming desire for sleep that threatened to take him down. The firemen took more than four hours to cut him out. "You're the bravest man I know," said Dan, as they lifted Bob into the ambulance. "Really? Surely not?" (Bob can be easily flattered.) A moment's reflection: "Well, the bravest art critic I know." The ambulance doors closed and Bob lost consciousness.

The fate of the tuna comes later.

Broome's general hospital has no surgeon. The X-ray plates revealed that nearly every bone on Bob's right-hand side had been smashed. Some had exploded under the impact - "like a nut hit with a sledgehammer", as the doctor remarked. In the grey-green light of Accident and Emergency, Bob regained consciousness. "Call Doris for me, would you?" The telephone number he gave for his girlfriend was almost right, except the code was for Saudi Arabia. The doctors said that Bob's accident called for the flying doctor (wasn't this a TV series?), as the nearest suitable hospital was Perth, a five-hour flight away.

With a crude lash-up of ropes and ratchets, they started to lengthen his crushed leg. My role was to signal when each limb was the same length. (One leg is now an inch shorter . . . I'm sure when I'd finished they were equal.) "I'll be fine for filming tomorrow, mate." Then Bob blacked out, only to surface five weeks later.

The news media were full of the crash and the fate of their National Treasure. (Australians may still cling to the Queen, but they abolished knighthoods in favour of National Treasures - many of them, like Bob, expatriates. They include Germaine Greer and Clive James.) Anxious reports voiced what seemed a genuine national sympathy. People paused in bars to watch his shrouded body being lifted from the plane and wheeled into Perth General Hospital. I soon appreciated how much Australians revered this man who had made good overseas, who had made them come to terms with their convict roots by setting down their penal history in the long, scholarly Fatal Shore.

In the intensive care unit, Bob continued with our project in surreal dreams - never-ending pieces to camera requiring the insertion of stout rubber tubes into his orifices. Would he want to continue with the series? I took weak squeezes of the hand as a "yes".

We didn't start filming with Bob for a further nine months. He was still hobbling on crutches. He could manage short takes with a walking stick: a wheelchair and a nurse had to be on standby, ready to catch him after we cut. His siesta (he has always had an "afternoon rest" built into his contract) would see Bob back in a state of semi-coma as he succumbed to the enormous fatigue that follows a serious accident or illness.

Bob should have died in the crash; it is a measure of his immense strength, intellectual as well as physical, that he survived. Those qualities got him through the hard course of filming. Often, he was in great pain - made worse as a result of a life-threatening infection in his leg two months before we resumed filming. The upside (if such a thing is possible in this situation) was Bob's renewed vigour for the project: "You don't feel the full gamut of your feelings about a place unless you feel you are about to die in it."

The shoot lasted nine weeks, taking Bob across Australia, to all the major cities and to the back of beyond. We pushed him into road trains (vast trucks with several trailers), flew him upside down during a sheep muster, and wedged him on the front of a convict ship in a storm-force gale. As the Lady Sarah Nelson pitched and rolled its way towards the ruin of the old penal colony at Port Arthur in Tasmania (Bob calls it Australia's Parthenon), I circled erratically above in a helicopter. Below, I could see the crew forming a scrum over Bob and his wheelchair as the seas threatened to pitch him overboard.

The day after we completed the filming, Bob had to fly back out to Broome to answer charges of causing grievous bodily harm to the occupants of the other car - and to face the press. He was deeply depressed and preoccupied, convinced that he would be sent to jail, even though there was little evidence for a conviction. His agitation about the pending trial increased when he learnt that the Director of Public Prosecutions for Western Australia had decided to take on the case personally. Bob had been touched by the immense show of love and sympathy towards him that welled up after the crash - even among hacks. But that honeymoon had passed, and it was back to business as usual - kick the elitists, scythe the tall poppies, "who do they think they are?". (This is a favourite Australian gauntlet that all expats have to run on their return, accompanied by shouts of "So this country's not good enough for you, eh?".) The tide turned when Bob genially told reporters that the tuna (the one we had been waiting for) had been abducted and eaten by the Broome fire department. This was reported in the national press as an act of deep ingratitude, as if Bob were seriously accusing them of stealing the fish. And there was more to come.

The charges against Bob were dropped. As he left the courtroom, almost a year to the day after the crash, he was instantly swarmed by hacks. Reports the next day quoted Bob as calling the Indian prosecutor a "curry-muncher". If you rewind the tapes, you find Bob saying: "What really gave the prosecution curry [Australian vernacular for trouble] was that they were ill prepared, which I guess is appropriate because one of the lawyers is Indian." No prizes for political correctness, but that has never been Bob's strong point.

The story ran across the front pages for days; the outpouring of venom was out of all proportion, and it didn't stop there. When Beyond the Fatal Shore was released in Australia, the series was roundly and rudely condemned as an outsider's view. There was little, if any, critical review of the films, just criticism of Bob: "Who does this Mr Hughes think he is, telling us who we are?" Bob was devastated at the viciousness of the attacks, which he believes are being stepped up not because of his work, but because of Australia's ambiguous relationship with its expatriates.

Now the whole Aussie experience has left him seriously considering throwing in his citizenship - renouncing the country he has so often defended. (With the series, he hopes to dispel some of the stereotypes and prejudices that surround Australia.) "What's the point of going back? It's like a dog returning to smell its vomit," he told me in our most recent telephone call.

I have to agree. The pettiness leaves a sour taste. Australians might like to consider what they would lose: his rich, original voice, often gruff and belligerent, is a rare commodity to find anywhere in the world these days. Beyond the Fatal Shore, is, in its genre, the first and only sustained critique of Australian culture, identity, nationhood. For all its flaws, Hughes is probably the only Australian who could have attempted such a project convincingly.

Australians love to tell us that they have come of age as a nation, the colonial cringe a thing of the past. We might wonder. Why are they so oversensitive to an "outsider's" view of their country? Have they just lost their sense of humour, or is the chippy, provincial mindset that Bob fled 35 years ago still alive and kicking?

Christopher Spencer is the series producer of Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore (Oxford Film & Television), which is shown on BBC2, Sundays, 8pm, until 1 October