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NEWS | Wednesday, 13 May 2009

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Cult TV moments

JAMES DEBONO digs into the collective subconscious to uncover the defining moments of the past 25 years of TV history

1977 – Rita elopes with Fra’ Marjanu
Screened under a Labour government eight years after the ecclesiastical sanctions against the MLP executive were lifted, TV serial ‘Il-Madonna tac-Coqqa’ reopened the wounds left by a decade of religious and political conflict.
Based on the novel by Guze Diacono, the series recounted the story of Karmnu ta’ Randu, a farmer who ends up evicted from the church-owned land he worked all his life after coming to blows with a youth, whose father was very influential with the church authorities. His land was sold, and the profit used to decorate the village statue with gold.
But more than the evident anti-clerical bias, what scandalised the nation was the elopement of Karmnu’s daughter Rita with a novice called Marjanu, who left the priesthood to get married.
The reaction against the play had very real consequences on its actors – forcing Jane Marshall, who played the part of Rita, to flee the island to search a new life in Australia.

1980 – Who shot JR?
As Prime Minister Dom Mintoff preached the virtues of socialist autarky and austerity, the Maltese get a glimpse of ruthless, extravagant capitalism as they get seduced by ‘Dallas’, shown on Xandir Malta every Monday evening after the news.
In the final scene of the 1979-1980 season of Dallas, the character JR Ewing – played by Larry Hagman – is shot by an unknown assailant. Viewers had to wait months to learn whether J.R. would survive, and which of his many enemies was responsible.
In the meantime, many Maltese babies conceived in the 1980s after christened after various members of the Ewing household, including J.R’s wife Sue Ellen, his mother “Miss Ellie”, or his brother Bobby’s wife Pamela. Others start aspiring to own a villa as large as the Ewings’ Southfork Range, while some Labour ministers actually realized the dream and acted as if JR was their mentor.

1981: Run Rabbit Run
The song, a World War II ditty originally meant to poke fun at the Germans, remains forever ingrained in the collective psyche as the anthem playing on Xandir Malta while the electoral results confirmed Labour’s controversial 1981 victory, in which the PN had won 51% of the popular vote.
With its obvious reference to the PN leader’s surname, it is an image that evokes a host of bad memories, such as the test card greeting viewers the morning after the election (fittingly, Republic Day), with the MLP emblem and the mocking inscription: “Bongu Malta Socjalista” (Good morning, Socialist Malta). The Labour hymn was played and clips of Mintoff’s rallies aired.
In the Nationalist psyche, the episode also remains indelibly associated with Eileen Montesin: then a children’s TV presenter on such programmes as “Karamella, Karamellu” and “Larry ix-Xadin”. However, Eileen later successfully sued over allegations that she had presented the offending programme.

1985: Bongu Malta in Bahrija
Pressure group ‘Tan-Numri’ – an assortment of young leftist idealists and a crop of future political careerists, led by Joe (Peppi) Azzopardi – interrupts popular Sunday programme Bongu Malta, presented by Charles Xuereb.
After not being allowed to speak during the live programme, the young people surround the presenter and started shouting, “Inridu xandir hieles” (“We want free broadcasting”). After a few seconds the transmission is cut and the protestors are savagely beaten up by the police.
1981: PN launches pirate TV
Before the 1981 election, Eddie Fenech Adami asks AZAD director Richard Muscat to go to Syracuse to oversee the setting up of the ‘Studiorama’ station: a private channel conceived to counterbalance national broadcaster, Xandir Malta.
The reception of the station is so weak that many can only recall a fuzzy and noisy picture on their black and white TV sets. Muscat even claims that a Sicilian was hired to try to block the signal. In August 1982, Studiorama is closed down by the Italian authorities. Fearing arrest, Muscat remains in Italy till 1987 when the PN was elected to government.

1981: The Boycott
Following the perverse election result and its shocking coverage on Xandir Malta, the Nationalist Party organises a boycott of the national station which will last ... years. Nationalists are urged not to buy any products advertised on Xandir Malta, and government responds by drafting a law which compels private companies to allocate as much in advertising budgets to the national station as to any private newspaper . As a result, local entrepreneurs devise new products specifically to advertise on Xandir Malta, while advertising their established products elsewhere.
At the height of the Xandir Malta boycott, the pre-news time slot - traditionally the most sought-after advertising space on any TV station - will appear devpid of advertising.

1986: Lorry Sant vs Eddie Fenech Adami
Year after year, just before Christmas, people would be regaled with live transmissions of parliamentary budget debates. In November 1986, Fenech Adami uses his budget reply to decry the fatal shooting of Raymond Caruana, and the subsequent arrest of Peter Paul Busuttil: a PN activist framed by the police.
“The budget is irrelevant to the Maltese people,” Fenech Adami says. “Defending liberty and democracy is what the Maltese people will be voting for.”
The parliamentary session is interrupted by animated Labour MPs, led by ministers Wistin Abela and Lorry Sant, who almost assault Fenech Adami with the latter managing to grab the papers from the leader of the opposition hands. Transmission is briefly interrupted, showing the Republic coat of arms while the commotion can be still be heard in the background.

1985 – Anima breaks the sex taboo
A self proclaimed socio-educational programme ‘Anima’, presented by lawyer Emmy Bezzina, horrified conservatives by graphically discussed oral sex, anal sex and orgasms for the first time on Maltese TV.

1988: Ahna Ahna jew M’Ahniex
For arguably the first time ever, the Maltese find themselves laughing at themselves on TV as the candid cameras exposed people signing a “public decency” petition to cover up the genitals of the Neptune Statue in Grand Master’s Palace Courtyard, while others were filmed buying ice-cream after having it licked by Joe Azzopardi, doubling as an ice-cream vendor.
Apart from Azzopardi, the programme’s cast included Joe Saliba, who went on to become PN general secretary, Mario Mallia who later joined Alternattiva Demokratika, and musician Vince Fabri.

1990s – ‘Ha nghoqod quddiem’
The nauseating voice of a mischievous child insisting on taking the front seat, in an advert instructing parents that “post it-tfal huwa wara” (children should stay in the back), still resonates in the collective memory perhaps for evoking a sense of rebellion in children insulted by the idea of always being asked to take the backseat.

1998 – Mintoff lecturing Pierre Portelli
It was the long, hot summer of 1998: politically heady days for a dying Labour government, when Pierre Portelli appeared on the TV screens as a NET journalist trying to interview Dom Mintoff, as the veteran of filibustering asked him hold up plans of the Cottonera project in the courtyard below Parliament, where Mintoff gave a ‘lecture’ about the ‘bungled project’ (progett bazwi) which would ultimately bring down Alfred Sant’s shortlived government.
The episode immortalized the unholy alliance between the PN and Dom Mintoff.

2006 – Charlon Gouder chasing Tony Abela
The image of a drenched Tony Abela, chased by One TV journalist Charlon Gouder in a thunderstorm outside Parliament remains a classic gem of ridicule in the collective memory.
Gouder carved his own niche on the national landscape as an icon forged on the persistent and relentless hounding of Nationalist figures. Come rain or shine – literally – Gouder has chased one minister after the other in hostile territory.
“Ħarab milli jwieġeb” (“he evaded the question”) was his favourite catchphrase, used in virtually every daily broadcast – making Cabinet ministers and PN functionaries look like a bunch of fugitives from every question that holds them accountable for anything.
Communications Minister Censu Galea once even turned around and stopped to wave for Gouder’s camera, immortalising the moment.

2008 – Mintoff vs PBS cameraman
While calling at the Electoral Office in Valletta shortly before the 2008 election, Dom Mintoff found himself the centre of attention for the cameramen of all four local stations.
But it was PBS cameraman Charles Ghirxi who bore the brunt of Mintoff’s proverbial wrath. Stepping into Evans Building, where the former Labour Prime Minister was still waiting for an appointment with the Chief Electoral Commissioner, Ghirxi proved to be the last straw in a string of unwelcome interruptions.
“Issa le”, Mintoff remonstrated, shortly before whacking the PBS camera on the back with his walking stick.
Mintoff then left the room and walked briskly out of Evans Building and straight to the car with the PBS journalist and cameraman, who took him back home.
Asked by a reporter if he had submitted his nomination to contest the election, Mintoff refused to comment and simply said: “Nothing, nothing, When I call a press conference, come.”

2008 – Even big men cry
At a meeting in Mosta, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando burst into tears, as he denied any personal connection with the application to develop a 2,000 square metre nightclub on his land in Mistra valley. Wiping his tears in front of the party audience and TV cameras, Pullicino Orlando was the one factor that could have toppled the Nationalist administration, but ended up gaining more votes for himself as the party machinery kept pushing him to stage his tear-jerking drama. Another episode saw Pullicino Orlando confronting Sant at what was supposed to be a Broadcasting Authority press conference, to which the former presented himself as a “journalist” holding a hurriedly-issued temporary DOI press card.



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