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America From Abroad : Australia Stays Glued to 'The Civil War' : The 11-hour PBS series is now showing down under. The ratings and reviews have been extraordinary.

August 13, 1991|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WENTWORTHVILLE, Australia — Leonard Traynor's garage guards an unlikely American treasure behind its unmarked gray door.

Twenty Civil War muskets hang on the walls. Mannequins wear authentic Union and Confederate uniforms. Gleaming swords and saddles, dogeared diaries and letters, and bullets and belt buckles from America's bloodiest war are crammed into plexiglass cases.

With about 1,000 items in all, Traynor owns one of the largest private Civil War collections outside the United States. He also has nearly 1,400 books in his Civil War library, has visited every major American battlefield and has seen "Gone With the Wind" 30 times.

"I maintain that because 24% of those who fought in the Civil War were foreign-born, it wasn't just an American war," explained Traynor, 54, who works as a government vocational training officer in this Sydney suburb when not studying the war. "It belongs to the world."

That, perhaps, is one explanation for Australia's current fascination with the 11-hour series "The Civil War" now running on SBS television. Ratings and reviews are as lofty here as when the PBS epic was first broadcast in the United States last year.

"It got the highest ratings of any program we've ever run," said SBS spokesman Stephen Cook. "In fact, our rating here in Australia is higher than PBS's rating in America."

He said PBS drew an 8.8 average rating when the series ran over five weeks. The government-funded SBS network is showing the series on nine successive Mondays here, and in the first four weeks it has drawn an average 10.2 rating.

Cook credits the quality of the production and Australia's interest in almost all things American. "Australians may not agree with everything America does, but there is a fascination for America here," he said. "And this series helps explain why the American psyche is the way it is."

It also helps explain why crowds gather each day at the main Angus and Robertson bookstore in Sydney to watch tapes of "The Civil War" series. Someone invariably buys a copy of the $55 book or the $212 video series.

"It gives insight into the U.S. today," said clerk Ross Lamond.

Fascination with things American obviously isn't new. Nearly a million Americans passed through Australia during World War II, when the vast country had a population of only 7 million. Today it has 17 million.

In any week, Australian TV runs more than 60 American-made shows. Even some locally produced shows are thinly disguised clones, from "Good Morning Australia" to "Family Feud" and "Wheel of Fortune."

American TV even influences sports. Baseball, once unheard of here, is growing faster than cricket in schools. Recently formed professional rugby teams were named the Raiders, the Steelers and the Broncos, even though broncos are called brumbies in Australia.

But few American programs have sparked as much public interest as "The Civil War" series. One reason is publicity of Australia's own previously obscure ties to the war.

One of the Confederacy's most famous seagoing raiders, the Shenandoah, anchored for 25 days near Melbourne in January, 1865. The English-built ship was on its maiden voyage with orders to disrupt Union commerce by attacking Pacific trade and whaling fleets. As the American consul protested in vain, Melbourne's elite feted the rebel officers and crew. Thousands visited the rebel ship, and by the time it set sail, 42 Australians had enlisted to serve and fight aboard the Shenandoah.

That summer, the rebels captured or sank 30 Arctic whalers, taking more than 1,000 prisoners. The war, however, had ended in April. Rather than face piracy charges in the United States, the ship sailed back to England to surrender in November, 1865.

The Shenandoah thus was the only Confederate ship to circle the globe, and the last to surrender. Six years later, a Geneva tribunal found Britain liable for $15.5 million in damages caused by the Shenandoah and two other British-built rebel raiders.

No one knows what happened to most of the 42 Australians aboard the Shenandoah. But Roy Parker, a 71-year-old retired pilot who emigrated to Sydney from New York in 1947, has compiled profiles of 93 Civil War veterans whose graves he has found in Australia.

"Australia had more connections than people realize," he said. Since the series began, he's gotten more than a dozen phone calls and letters from Australians who had forebears in the war.

Such details are grist for the 60 enthusiasts who belong to the American Civil War Round Table of Australia. The Melbourne chapter says its library of 2,000 or so books forms the largest Civil War literary collection outside the United States. Still, the group's president, state payroll clerk Barry Crompton, says that not enough Australians know about "the last of the romantic wars and the first of the modern wars."

"We had to call our group the American Civil War Round Table so people wouldn't think there was an Australian civil war," he said. "There wasn't, you know."

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