A new doc­u­men­tary se­ries ex­plores the mass me­dia that changed the coun­try, writes Graeme Blun­dell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

AL­MOST ev­ery year for most of a cen­tury some­one has an­nounced some­thing that will fi­nally kill ra­dio. Sound movies, colour television, records, iPods, MPEG com­pres­sion, the in­ter­net, even Der­ryn Hinch, were all go­ing to fin­ish off the good old wire­less.

Video may have killed sev­eral ra­dio stars but thou­sands clam­oured to take their place, as Thanks for Lis­ten­ing , a cap­ti­vat­ing and de­fin­i­tive doc­u­men­tary look­ing at the medium in Aus­tralia, il­lus­trates so joy­fully.

The His­tory Chan­nel’s five- part se­ries doc­u­ments how those stars with their won­der­ful voices, echo­ing away in the ether on mys­te­ri­ous os­cil­lat­ing elec­tro­mag­netic waves, have been there for us through­out our lives.

And they won’t be dis­ap­pear­ing any time soon, as ra­dio crosses the dig­i­tal di­vide. An­nounc­ers will tell us how to view, nav­i­gate and store vis­ual and au­dio con­tent on de­vices while we nav­i­gate the ca­coph­ony of their com­pet­ing voices.

Com­mis­sioned by Fox­tel and pro­duced by Gra­ham McNe­ice ( who also helms the com­pelling Crime In­ves­ti­ga­tion Aus­tralia for the pay- TV CI Net­work), Thanks for Lis­ten­ing is a class act. It’s a long way from the mur­ders, back­stab­bings and mug­gings McNe­ice usu­ally deals with, but they may be in the se­quel when he goes fur­ther be­hind the in­dus­try’s of­ten blood­thirsty scenes.

As the great Jack ‘‘ Hi- ho, ev­ery­body’’ Davey might have said, it’s all here, folks: the plays, se­ri­als, sound ef­fects and voices, the elec­tro- mag­netic his­tory, com­mer­cials, quizzes, con­tests and co­me­di­ans. And how ‘‘ a word from our spon­sor’’ made per­son­al­i­ties into mil­lion­aires and turned talk­back spruik­ers into tabloid kings.

McNe­ice’s for­mat is sim­ple: a care­fully or­gan­ised bun­dle of in­for­ma­tion, a mix­ture of nicely sourced archival footage and not too many talk­ing heads, which makes it rel­a­tively easy to re­call the sig­nif­i­cance of those who reap­pear.

Of­ten in this kind of highly edited his­tor­i­cal doc­u­men­tary you have no idea who some of the craggy, mut­ter­ing peo­ple are as they bat­tle to tie se­quences to­gether where no vis­ual segues ex­ist.

In this case many of the still liv­ing are un­known by face; while they ob­vi­ously had good heads for ra­dio, not all made the tran­si­tion to TV. And the var­i­ous sur­viv­ing writ­ers, pro­duc­ers and ad­ver­tis­ing peo­ple are of a cer­tain age and start­ing to look the same.

But the voices of the an­nounc­ers, news­read­ers and ac­tors McNe­ice fea­tures have sur­vived. They are the nat­u­rally shar­ing, op­ti­mistic, sunny tones of a long- van­ished Aus­tralia.

Bert New­ton, Noe­line Brown, Bud Ting­well and Roger Climp­son are es­pe­cially ef­fec­tive, all won­der­fully res­o­nant and still in­de­cently adept at tim­ing, that mys­tery of space be­tween words, sen­tences and re­ac­tion.

McNe­ice disc- jock­eys his way through a lot of ma­te­rial. Shows such as this of­ten col­lapse un­der the weight and re­stric­tions of their con­cepts. But he sim­ply presents a se­ries of self- con­tained se­quences ( plays, se­ri­als, his­tory, com­mer­cials, women, coun­try, break­fast and so on) with their par­tic­u­lar nar­ra­tives and fun facts, like points in a tra­di­tional story out­line.

‘‘ We just wanted to tell the story,’’ says McNe­ice, who once called grey­hound races for Syd­ney ra­dio sta­tion 2KA. Af­ter work­ing at the Ten Net­work as a sports pro­ducer, he was cred­ited with pi­o­neer­ing the use of mu­sic to high­light and en­hance vi­sion. He’s a con­sum­mate doc­u­men­tary maker. This show was de­vel­oped with a charm­ing blend of al­tru­ism, pas­sion and a high sense of ro­mance. Like an emo­tional arche­ol­o­gist, McNe­ice ex­ca­vates the past, merg­ing sto­ry­telling and jour­nal­ism.

Ian Parry- Oke­den’s script con­veys a kalei­do­scopic sense of nar­ra­tive un­fold­ing, his seg­ments book- ended by per­son­al­i­ties such as for­mer king of Syd­ney break­fast ra­dio Gary O’Cal­laghan, ac­tor Ross Hig­gins, sports com­men­ta­tor Johnny Tapp and the mel­liflu­ous John Black­man. Stylis­ti­cally, McNe­ice uses a sim­ple de­vice to segue be­tween pho­to­graphic ma­te­rial, archival sound and his of­ten touch­ing in­ter­views. He al­lows his cam­era to move, Ken Burns style, around a gor­geous se­ries of highly var­nished old­time ra­dios. ( Th­ese were con­trib­uted by re­searcher Ian Dodd and are prob­a­bly priceless in the col­lec­tors’ mar­ket, McNe­ice says.)

The in­ter­views, too, are framed in a nicely for­mal and painterly way, the em­pha­sis on static com­po­si­tion, of­ten evok­ing the vis­ual vo­cab­u­lary of the eras McNe­ice ex­plores.

The se­ries is full of lovely facts, hardly all that im­por­tant in their own right but adding to the al­most po­etic sense of his­tory McNe­ice presents. The first paid com­mer­cial was for a butcher’s shop; Josie Melville, Aus­tralia’s first ra­dio per­former, got stage fright when told about the pos­si­ble size of her au­di­ence; and in the ABC’s first year more than 17,000 mu­si­cians con­trib­uted to the broad­casts. And the all- time high­est- rat­ing per­former was Davey, who through the war and into the 1950s broad­cast reg­u­larly to more than five mil­lion peo­ple, al­most half of Aus­tralia’s pop­u­la­tion. The clips are priceless: Davey’s wit, tim­ing and ma­chine­gun ad libs kept his lis­ten­ers in stitches.

There’s a nice clip of the great co­me­dian Roy Rene work­ing a stu­dio dur­ing a broad­cast of the hugely suc­cess­ful McCackie Man­sions . Rene in­hab­ited the bur­lesque Jewish char­ac­ter called Mo, his tongue al­ways threat­en­ing to lick the tip

of his nose, his high- pitched, lisp­ing voice ef­fort­lessly con­vert­ing sense into a con­vuls­ing liq­uid splut­ter. Rene turned the grotesque stereo­type of the vaudeville Jew into a na­tional em­blem of un­con­trolled ad- lib­bing lar­rikin dis­re­spect with his ra­dio shows. The clip here makes him seem star­tlingly mod­ern, with an earthy ir­rev­er­ence for all things stuffy and staid, and an al­most con­fronting las­civ­i­ous­ness.

Like McNe­ice, I grew up with the voices of Rene and Davey, when ra­dios stood in the cor­ners of rooms, large con­soles on spin­dled legs, or sat on lead­light crys­tal cab­i­nets be­neath printed sun­sets. I can still re­mem­ber the se­ri­als such as Tarzan, King of the Apes and Leonard Teale’s ‘‘ Up, up and away’’, which he al­ways bel­lowed as Su­per­man.

And even the live ra­dio plays my mother lis­tened to in our new Laminex kitchen, and the way she leaned in to­wards the dark- brown wire­less set as though those ac­tors were ac­tu­ally inside the Bake­lite, talk­ing only to her.

Much of this se­ries seems to come from an­other space, too, a par­al­lel uni­verse of won­der­ful sound, fan­ci­ful bur­lesque and larger- than- life per­form­ers never glimpsed by their vast au­di­ences.

It shows his­tory doesn’t have to be painful or even learned. It’s of­ten enough just to lis­ten. Thanks for Lis­ten­ing, The His­tory of Aus­tralian Ra­dio, pre­mieres to­mor­row at 7.30pm on the His­tory Chan­nel.

Golden ton­sils: Gary O’Cal­laghan now and in his hey­day, right, and coun­try star Smoky Daw­son

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