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