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Wednesday, 2 April 2014


The most viewed post on this site was Ben Smith's introduction to the 1950s. We may post it again one day as it's now dropped off the list. So we urged Ben to write another post, this time concentrating on his experience of the first years of television in Australia when he worked at ABN Channel 2, Gore Hill, Sydney. He's obliged and here it is. (Ben Smith, by the way, is the author of the hilariously bitter sweet memoir No Time for the Smiths, now available from Buzzword.)

It's been a long journey. And most of you are too young to remember the beginning.
For me, it began in 1958 when I scored a job as a studio hand at ABN Channel 2, Gore Hill.

TV, in this country, was black and white and around two years old. We had ponderous equipment and transmitted shows live.

Yes, we had videotape, but only just. It was so old-fangled that its two-inch wide strip couldn't be edited successfully. (We'll, you could cut it on the diagonal with a knife.) It was so bizarre, even then, that I've kept one dub - still have it here on the bookcase in the study. It should be
in the Powerhouse Museum. The format was then called 'broadcast quality'.

And yes, we had telecine. But the cost of film restricted us to a ten minute insert for every one hour program. So we used it mostly for location shots.

 For instance, opening and closing credits were printed on a long strip of thin green cardboard and loaded into a machine with two rollers that scrolled it in front of the camera. While the opening scene appeared on Camera One, and Camera Two was cued for shot two, Camera Three was locked off on the titles which were then supered over the Camera One image.

Imagine. No way to rely on tape. No editing. No VCRs. No CGI. Nothing in the can. Just ominous real-time calls from the control room. 'Ready on Two. Take Two. Ready on One. Take One.'

And if you, Mr Cameraman, tangled your cable or botched your transition and weren't in position for your next shot, (written on a cue card clipped to the pedestal-based behemoth in front of you) then God help you - and the production!

A TV studio was expensive, but the ABC, of course, had the best equipment for the time. Two sixty by forty foot studios with lighting grids, elevated control rooms. An extensive props department. A contingent of carpenters and painters to make sets - which, by the way were coloured. (But those colours were chosen to transmit properly in black and white.)

It also had a presentation suite for small cooking programs and the news. The cream on the cakes was shaving cream. It was more stable under hot lights.

Oh, and there were a couple of enormous Steinways - mounted on Y shaped metal frames with castors at each end. Each time you moved one into a studio, a man had to come in and re-tune them.

At Channel 2, we had children's programs, women's programs, tilts at science, current affairs. And a whole range of BBC programs as back-up. Remember Z Cars? You do? Then happy 80th birthday.

There was Six O'clock Rock featuring the energetic Johnny O'Keefe. He was always hoarse because he yelled his voice to bits. It was considered a daring program for its time.

There was the Lorrae Desmond Show starring that always excellent and then youthful trouper and her dapper wingman, Colin Croft.

There was the inimitable puppet program, Mr Squiggle, with the delightful Pat Lovell as Miss Pat. 

The Children's program had an art section hosted by a young and serious Jeff Smart.

There was also Gaslight Music Hall. I vaguely remember the proscenium arch with the  studio audience seated in front - at small tables, I think - watching a tired list of faded tragics.

And there was the irascible Professor Julius Sumner Miller who asked 'Why is it so?' as he created vacuums in milk bottles so that peeled hard boiled eggs sitting on top of them were sucked irretrievably in and down.
Talking of tired acts, there was also Cafe Continental - a cabaret show that sometimes featured circus refugees. You never knew who or what the producers would drag in.

One act I remember with sheer joy. It involved a short, powerful, cheery man with a wooden peg-leg who dressed as a pirate. Aided by his somewhat larger, underdressed and besotted female assistant, he placed a three-pronged candlestick on a restaurant table and did a one-arm handstand on top of it - supported only by two fingers and the thumb of one hand.  That was his entire act. And memorable it was. 

A few of the big names had a difficult transition. They were used to static radio work or declaiming on stage and found the underplaying required for TV drama difficult. One lifted eyebrow and you labelled yourself a ham. Quite a few icons from stage and radio had trouble. Sometimes because the appearance didn't match the voice.

The brilliant but, by then ailing, Jack Davey was one. This was so long ago that Nick Tate, a fine actor with a notable career, was then an eighteen-year-old studio hand working in the scene dock with us. At that time, his mother and father, Neva Carr Glynn and John Tate, both well-known actors, were ABC regulars.

TV receivers of the time were cumbersome and expensive. They were basically veneered wooden boxes with two big knobs and a few smaller ones hidden behind a flap.

They had tiny screens framed by an inordinately large surrounding frame. And, because of that tiny screen, CUs, ECUs and over-the-shoulder 2SHOTs were practically the only effective way to frame things.

As for resolution. Dreadful. Grainy scenes were our window on the world.

ABCTV had the resources and charter to be ambitious. It presented one-hour plays, ballets and even operas. But don't imagine this was simple.

Remember, each went on live. And the usually sixty strong crew - studio hands, lighting tecs, cameramen, cable operators, boom operators, control room staff , wardrobe people, make-up people, actors - had to be right on the ball.

Make one mistake - forget to change the clock dial, drop something that made a noise, miss a boom cue, be too late with a wardrobe or make-up change, botch a lighting switch, miss a reposition or set change  - to mention just a few of a the thousand hazards - and you blew  the whole production.

The actors, by the way, had to do it all in one go. No thirty-second takes that you reshoot if you fluff. They had to know the whole script. No missed cues, botched entrances. The bleeding thing was live. And the time-slot was the peak viewing slot for the week. One false move and those six weeks of rehearsal, money and expertise went south.

They did Petrushka. They did Shakespeare. They did Operas. Nothing was too steep to tackle. All terrifyingly live.

Terrifying for the crew on the production, of course. The instruction, 'Go to telecine,' was the only relief. It meant valuable breathing space for noisy transitions.

Historic days. But we didn't know it then. It was the job.

As for the commercial programs - yes, there was commercial television, too - we had the oleagenius and gynecian Liberace beloved of elderly matrons who had never heard of alternative sex. There was the hilarious Phil Silvers and Jack Benny. And Hector Crawford's police potboilers - well constructed for their time.

Curiously, the land of moving wallpaper is resurgent again. As the multiplexes languish - decimated by the expansive household LCD screen - as they writhe around with 3D and make more comic book sequels of sequels - television is hitting its straps.

Not in the vast LCD welter of constipated programming, certainly. And not on the balance sheets of the TV stations which are, at best, now static. But in the persistence of brilliant people who have been prepared to take a chance.

Consider: NYPD Blue. News Radio. Seinfeld. Fawlty Towers. Pride and Prejudice. The Sopranos. Big Love. The White House. Mad Men. Breaking Bad. Nurse Jacky. Spooks.

This is no definitive list. Just a few programs that come to mind and prove that Television, when it cares enough, can produce exceptional work.

Want local examples? Mother and Son. Sea Change. But those, you say, were at the level of soapies and sitcoms. Not quite. They had rare qualities. The first - empathy.  The second - bathos. And what about the recent updated Rumpole knock-off, Rake? Its engaging, adroit and accomplished enough to ring most gongs.

The small screen still lives, even in Australia.

And, once, each few years, the now not so little screen (favoured at last by the correct aspect ratio) produces something tremendous.

It presents a superlative commercial program where casting, script, empathy, production values, psychological insight and all other factors coalesce  supremely well.

An example of this Mozart-like juxtaposition? You guessed it.

Foyle's War.

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