I binge watched the Australian TV series Upright this weekend. I’m not much for TV, but there was a reason I was interested to watch this particular show. That would be Tim Minchin. I am a huge Tim Minchin fan. Like, an I-live-in-Canada-and-I-went-to-Scotland-specifically-to-see-him-perform type fan. An I-listened-to-nothing-but-Thank-You-God-for-a-week-to-learn-the-lyrics fan. An I-want-Not-Perfect-played-at-my-funeral fan.
But I’ve not seen much of his acting. I did see him play Friar Tuck in Robin Hood a couple of months back, but I was kinda drunk and the movie was kinda forgettable, so that barely counts. I’ve got Californication on a to-watch list somewhere, but like I said, I’m not a huge fan of television, so I’ve never gotten around to it.
Normally Upright wouldn’t even have been on my radar. But Tim Minchin spoke about it a lot on social media, and his enthusiasm and obvious pride piqued my interest. Mostly, though, it came down to my friend Bron, who is Australian and therefore saw the series a couple of months before it was available in Canada. She strongly encouraged me to see it.
I’m glad I listened to her. Everything I heard about it called Upright a comedy, and I find so much of modern comedy to be juvenile and stupid that I tend to avoid it. Bron assured me that while it has its comedic moments, it’s by no means a comedy. And she’s very right.
The basic story (no spoilers) revolves around Tim Minchin’s character, Lucky, and Milly Alcock’s Meg. They’re both at low points in their lives, and are thrown together while Lucky is transporting an upright piano through the Australian desert. The series’ eight episodes tells of their adventures, if you want to call them that, in their week together. And while neither of them seems to be particularly admirable, or even likable, the show skillfully reveals a little bit more of their histories each episode, making them more and more relatable as time goes on.
While they become more relatable, their backstories, especially Lucky’s, have an almost soap opera-y feel to them. Plus many of the show’s events feel surreal. A lot of it takes place in small, isolated towns, which are portrayed as being somewhat lawless and populated by strange people. Bron assures me that the the general weirdness is “totally exaggerated,” but also that, “on that road lots of shit would go on.” And yet, as I watched the strange goings-on as the plot advanced, instead of devolving into eyerolling, I always found something relatable, keeping the often off-the-wall story grounded.
I could relate to the road trip aspect, to the idea of big animals stepping out in front of little cars going too fast, to loyalty, to loving and hating family at the same time, and lots of other big themes and little events in Upright. But what spoke to me the most was the piano.
I’m now going to say something that I know bugs the hell out of Tim Minchin. I know this both because I’ve heard him say so, and because it’s a running joke in Upright. But I really, truly need to say it to provide some context. So, ummmm … Sorry Tim?
I used to play the piano.
Around the time I was born (1970), the school in the village where I grew up was getting a new piano, so they put the old one up for sale through a silent auction. My mother bid $25. And that’s how I came to grow up in a home that had a scarred and battered and oh-so-beautiful upright in the spare room. My mother instilled a love of music in me from a young age, when she taught me the basics of how to play the piano before I was even in school.
I stopped playing when I left home and even when, a few years later, my mother gave the piano to me, I never really picked it up again. But over the next ten years, every time I moved, I dragged that big, heavy old upright with me. So more than anything, I get why Lucky is so focused on getting his piano – his grandmother’s piano – home again. I’ve never done anything so extreme as loading it onto a trailer and driving across the country through the desert, but that’s not to say I wouldn’t have.
I eventually gave my piano away. Telling the story behind that decision, I realize it could be considered as unlikely as some of the events in Upright. Driving to work one morning, I had a random thought. My friend and co-worker Cecilia had a young daughter, and I wondered if she’d ever considered having her take piano lessons. If she ever did, I thought, I’d offer her my piano.
When Cecilia and I went for break together later that morning, she told me how excited she was because she’d just signed her daughter up for piano lessons.
So I gave Cecilia my upright. She had it for ten years or more, and when her daughter stopped playing, she passed it onto another family whose young son was beginning lessons.
There’s a lovely moment in Upright where Lucky says of the piano, “And I know it doesn’t look fantastic, but it still sounds good, believe it or not. It’s got its own special sound, right, and all these dings and scratches and broken bits, they’re all part of why it sounds the way it does.”
Sometimes I miss my old piano. I’m a little weepy right now as I write this, but I’m ultimately happy that I passed it on. Because instruments should make music, not sit collecting dust. Several times in Upright, Lucky climbs into the truck bed to play, and every time, something special happens.
And that’s the real beauty of the show – that thread of music, as personified by the piano, connecting the characters while they move through their dramas and upsets, their loves and hates, their highs and lows. While they move through their lives, making their music as they go.