Blithe spirit

Television - Andrew Billen revels in Robert Hughes's landmark tribute to Australia

In BBC2's superb Beyond the Fatal Shore (Sundays, 8pm), the newspaper world's greatest art critic, Robert Hughes, declines to blind us with erudition. In his previous series American Visions, in 1996, Hughes beavered furiously to prove what was obvious: that he knew more of his host country's culture than the natives.

Back in Australia, 35 years after he left, Hughes does not need to show off. His only concern is to present a primer on a culture both richer and more contradictory than foreigners assume. Perhaps the road accident that nearly killed him midway through filming ("Robert Hughes critical", said the headlines - what else was new?) encouraged him to take things more easily. In this series, which is more an investigation of a national sensibility than of an expressed culture, there is a sense of Hughes savouring both his locations and his arguments, an enjoyment communicated by the startlingly beautiful photography of Jeremy Pollard and Sion Michel.

Usefully, Beyond the Fatal Shore assumes no knowledge at all on behalf of the viewer (the only exception to this being the title, which he should have mentioned is taken from his 1988 history of transportation, The Fatal Shore). Episode one, "Body and Soul", defined for us Australia's twin everymen, the "larrikin" and the "wowser". The larrikin is the jolly swagman, the convict, the boozy, irresponsible, anti-authoritarian joker who thinks his newfound land a playground. The wowser is his nemesis, a Puritan reformer, aware of white Australia's dubious origins and determined to suppress them.

The warring spirits, Hughes demonstrated, cohabit the great Australian beach, on which his first programme loitered. Despite appearances, the hedonists are recent arrivals. Until 1903, there was a total ban on daylight bathing, and beach inspectors, searching for lewd conduct and dress, patrolled well into the Fifties.

Even today, the free-spirited surfers are matched by civic-minded lifesavers. Hughes concluded that both versions of this Australian machismo, the bravura and the Puritan, unite in the national obsession for sport. More surprisingly, he thought they did so, too, in the crowds at Sydney's annual gay Mardi Gras, a "binding social ritual" of a sort all too rare on the continent.

Hughes's strength here is that he himself is a cross between a larrikin and a wowser. A left-wing critic of political correctness, Hughes can booze and lust with the best of them. It is hard to imagine any British arts commentator who could conduct interviews with sheep-shearers and miners as easily as Hughes does, or who could demonstrate such an unembarrassed interest in sex: on the first episode, there were not only bare breasts, but erections; later, he conducted an interview while, behind him, a hardcore sex movie was filmed al fresco.

But the man is also a wowser: not in the sexually Puritan sense, but in his anti-philistinism, his quest for self-improvement and his need to master the universe through intellect. Like Clive James and Germaine Greer, Hughes emerged from the wilderness with a preternaturally high brow, but with his hormones at normal levels.

Some, although not enough, background on this extraordinary man was provided by The Shock of the Hughes, a profile preceding the second episode of the series. This confirmed the story told to us on Beyond the Fatal Shore that he was first inspired by art when a master pinned a postcard of a de Chirico to the school noticeboard.

It also pointed out that the only art degrees Hughes holds are honorary. Christopher Porterfield, his long-suffering editor at Time magazine, thought that Hughes cultivated his role of outsider. He meant as an immigrant, but his critical clarity, it strikes me, comes from being an art- outsider, too.

The second Beyond the Fatal Shore was called "The Dead Heart" and focused on the "pre-historic seabed" of the outback. It lacked the breast count of the first, but was even more rewarding, perhaps because, as an international city-dweller, Hughes, like most Australians, was an outsider to the outback. His theme was Australia's disassociation from 90 per cent of its own territory, a disassociation ironically encouraged by environmentalists and land rights campaigners, who could not mask their guilt that the white man had come to Australia at all.

In an acute throwaway, Hughes reminded us that the Aborigines themselves arrived from Asia 50,000 years ago. He agreed with a Queensland farmer whose territory was now in dispute. Why should white people, too, not be at one with the land? Tourism to Ayers Rock, with its daily 7.30pm Ulura traffic jam, was no substitute.

Hughes's car ran foul not of that commute, but of a long straight road in north-western Australia after a day's fishing. We can but speculate over the larrikin (or otherwise) causes of that crash, but it has certainly served the series' personal tone and, for all the panache, its seriousness. Struggling on his sticks, Hughes has become a human memento mori.

In The Shock of the Hughes, we were told that the flooding of Florence in 1966 convinced him of the fragility of old artistic edifices. Hughes has been making programmes for the BBC for 30 years. It is one of the corporation's proudest acts of patronage.

That we almost lost him - never mind this luminous series - must haunt anyone who watches it.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard