Anyone who settles in to watch the ABC’s four-part series Great Australian Stuff and expects a nostalgic clip show of grainy commercials for Hills Hoists and Vegemite, with sound bites from comedians, is in for a shock.

Sure, host Tony Armstrong spends much of the first food-themed episode tucking into a meat pie with sauce and fondly recalling his childhood doing exactly that at the football. And Jean Kittson, Nazeem Hussain and Benjamin Law reminisce about the flavours of their youths. But as the AFL player turned ABC News Breakfast sports presenter explains, not everything that is iconically Australian has a happy story.

Tony Armstrong expands his repertoire once again, hosting Great Australian Stuff on the ABC.

“I like all the weird and whacky, wonderful stuff that makes us, us, warts and all,” says Armstrong, a Barranbinya man. “It’s interesting to look at these things deeper than the surface. The team workshopped some ideas that we all agreed were important. I wanted to make sure there was blackfella representation. That was important to me.”

Along with the marketing campaigns of classic snacks such as Freddo Frogs and the Chiko Roll, and the legend of the Granny Smith apple, is a segment on bush food, with commentary by Indigenous chef Nornie Bero.

“The stuff around the macadamia nut and how important a food that was for the blackfellas, and how it’s ended up being a massive export, I never thought about,” says Armstrong. “So for me, to find out something about my own culture, was pretty cool.”

There are unpalatable facts relating to the introduction of fish and chip shops and milk bars, largely operated during the White Australia Policy years by postwar Greek immigrants, whose national cuisine wouldn’t be appreciated for decades to come. And it’s explained how the history of the Chiko Roll is tainted by racist attitudes towards Chinese Australians.

Tony Armstrong with his 2022 Logie for Most Popular New Talent.Credit:Chris Hyde/Getty Images

“This show is about telling the truth, but trying to keep it celebratory,” says Armstrong. “Obviously, some shocking stuff has happened here, stuff that directly impacted my people, but I didn’t want to be involved in something that was necessarily only talking about that kind of stuff. Because as important as it is, there are people who are better positioned to tell those stories.”

After branching out from news and sports commentary into factual entertainment with the ABC miniseries A Dog’s World in 2021, Armstrong is keen to keep expanding his repertoire. He would love to try his hand at acting and says winning the 2022 Graham Kennedy Award for Most Popular New Talent at the Logies was a career turning point.

“[A Logie] puts you in mind of people who puts shows together, for sure,” he says. “I still can’t believe I’ve got one. It wasn’t on the bingo card. It’s still weird to me, but I’m very humbled, and that was very much a vote for [ABC] News Breakfast, so my success is only as a result of the people who I’ve been lucky enough to work with.”

He confirms the News Breakfast team is as tight off camera as on, having supported Armstrong when he received a racist email from a viewer in 2022, and more recently Lisa Millar, when she was the target of sexist online abuse. “We all deeply respect each other. If someone’s having a bit of a shit one, be it something that you don’t see on air, or be it very publicly, we’re always there for each other,” says Armstrong.

The latter episodes of Great Australian Stuff move towards themes of land, home, and, finally, sport, tracing AFL back to its Marn Grook roots.

“We wanted it to be more than one of those bitzy little shows, and I think that’s what we’ve done,” says Armstrong. “That was one of the things that drew me to the project, the ability to shine a light on some of these things without that being the hook. We can kind of sneak it up on people, which is nice.”

Great Australian Stuff premieres on Tuesday, April 11, at 8pm on the ABC.

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