Howard Jacobson has been telling a joke for a quite some time about his first trip to Australia back in 1964. "As the boat I was in was passing the equator, we passed a ship going the other way and Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer, Clive James and Barry Humphries were on it. They were all shouting from the deck, 'you're going the wrong way mate'. In reality they weren't all on the same boat and they all arrived in Britain at different times. But I have always thought that my life was in some way running parallel with these people."
Now 50 years on, Jacobson has cemented this link by making a two part documentary - Rebels of Oz: Germaine, Clive Barry, and Bob - which tells the story of these four fiercely ambitious and intelligent Australians who landed on ours shores just as Jacobson was arriving in Sydney to take up his first lecturing job at the age of 22. He had already met Greer in Cambridge. "Someone had said, 'you should meet this woman, she has just come from where you are going'. I met her and I thought bloody hell, if they are all like her this is going to be interesting. She was very impressive, very confident and very beautiful. She is the kind of person who can take up the oxygen in a room."
You could say the same thing about all four. Robert Hughes was a larger than life art critic who made his mark in London and New York both on television and in print with a directness that shocked the establishment. Humphries is an iconoclastic comedian who shot to fame with comic creations including Dame Edna Everage. James ruled the airwaves in the 80s and 90s with his prime-time shows but has also found time to write novels, poetry and to translate Dante. And, of course, Greer rocked the world in the early 70s following the publication of her feminist work The Female Eunuch.
"The one thing they all have in common is words," Jacobson notes. "They are all very good with language. They are good writers and good talkers. Every one of them is great on television. They can all hold an audience. The qualities they brought over here were very Australian qualities. They had no fear of authority."
The four were from a generation which took its energy from a feeling of cultural inferiority. Jacobson feels they went in search of culture because of the lack of it at home. "They got over this inferiority complex by being cleverer than us and showing us how to do it. The ones I know are still like that. Australians know more about European art than Europeans do. They have read more books and listened to more serous music. It was in Australia that I started listening to Mozart and Schubert and it was there that I started looking at paintings even though there weren't that many paintings."
The qualities they brought over here were very Australian
When they came over here, they made their mark by managing to be intellectual without being posh - quite an achievement in the 60s and 70s. "They took us by storm," he recalls. "We were very sleepy. The satire thing was just beginning to happen but it was very much a public school satire. We were still a class-ridden society. They turned up with their accents and their lack of respect for authority and were funny and rude. They were just what we needed."
While young Australians left in the 60s thinking their nation a provincial backwater, to a 22-year-old Mancunian Sydney was packed with excitement. "I found it thrilling. I suppose there comes an age when you have more fun if you leave home and that is what we were all doing. I was bored out of my head at Cambridge - it was my fault, not Cambridge's - and this was my great adventure. It was a glittering, shimmering country and remains so in my imagination. I idealise it and I think that amuses the people who made the film. They said to me: 'Do you really like Australia as much as that?'"
It was Jacobson's obituary of Hughes in the Independent in 2012 which alerted the programme makers at the production company Mint Pictures - one of whom, Dan Goldberg, became the series producer. Himself an immigrant to Sydney from his native Glasgow, Goldberg doubles as the JC's Australian correspondent. He was "amazed" at Jacobson's take on Australia. "It is always revealing when an outsider looking in says something about your country. It was very complimentary about Australia and in particular about these four figures. We were taken aback and thought it was worth pursuing. I made contact with Howard, I think through the JC, and asked him whether he would be interested in making a programme about these four people. As he joked at the premiere in Sheffield, he said yes but thought nothing would happen."
In fact, the project impressed commissioning editors at both the BBC and Australia's ABC network and it was commissioned as a two-part international co-production, with filming in London, Sydney and New York. Ultimately there was enough material for a four-part documentary series had it been required.
Goldberg says that despite the complications in arranging funding and the inevitable delays involved in a project of this magnitude, it came together largely through Jacobson's efforts. "Howard not only approached the three main characters but also people like Martin Amis, Simon Schama and Melvin Bragg came on board through his work. It took two years almost to the month from when we had the idea to the programme being screened on BBC4."
He adds: "I'm a journalist. Give me a couple of phone numbers and I'll have an article with you by the end of the day. I'm still coming to terms with the glacial pace of the television business. But of all the things I've done in my life, this is one is right up there. It has its challenges but I enjoyed every moment."