Those Early Days at Gore Hill

It was June 1959 – on ABC television there’d be the national anthem, God Save the Queen, at the end of the night’s transmission and the last person out of the studios at Gore Hill would join the commissionaire who’d lock up making certain that all the lights were switched off.

The tram tracks on the Sydney Harbour Bridge had been ripped up to prepare for the city bound Cahill expressway. At Gore Hill, the Pacific Highway was lined on one side by a number of factories (Speedo, Mortein) and the Technical College. On the other side, there was a row of sturdy cottages, as they were called then (but they were to be razed one by one for apartment units and motels).

The ABC occupied the most prominent site along the Pacific Highway. But Gore Hill seemed to be unruly. There was the transmission tower of rival commercial Channel Seven on the hill above the ABC, the department of the PMG (the Postmaster General) occupied an assortment of buildings, and the ABC had the biggest building on the site.

But for most of us who worked there, Gore Hill was a fairly desolate area. There were no shops around Gore Hill and no staff canteen. There was a disused shop front on the Pacific Highway but for our lunches we used to make up a list of sandwiches which were delivered from a suite of shops at St Leonards railway station. At weekends someone would come in and earn a little pocket money in cooking a meal (from my memory it was often a stew or casserole) from a shed perched on the edge of the ABC site.

At the front of the studios was the parking lot with a ditch that ran across it. If you came early you could bag a spot on the driveway leading to the entrance. There was the excitement when one of the film staff drove his little Austin Seven into the car park and the ditch. We were all called out to help hitch the Austin out of the ditch – very successfully. The hapless film assistant went on to greater ventures as a film editor initially on Four Corners and producer of some of our best film dramas.

At that time, it always seemed that the ABC was scattered among a number of buildings in Sydney – Broadcast House in Pitt Street, there was the oddly titled National building (it was never the National building for the ABC but it occupied some floor space there), the News Department shared the most dishevelled site in Kings Cross with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and radio dominated William Street.

The public service tradition was strong. There was yet another building above a menswear shop in Sydney where a personnel officer witnessed my oath of allegiance on a Bible and there were public service rules which seemed to govern all the activities.

Women were paid less than men, she couldn’t work in the same department as her husband, and women lost their permanent status on marriage. Public service rules governed the curious classification of employment – there were the permanent staff, there were auxiliaries and right at the bottom of the list were the temporaries. Permanent employment was for those who could work in radio – it wasn’t for those whose work was exclusively in television.

With all of this, communications were cumbersome. We had chauffeurs and even a dispatch rider who used to collect and deliver film at Mascot. Occasionally we could book a commonwealth car which came with a uniformed driver bearing a crown in his cap. There were teams who used to distribute the memos and mail

The ABC at Gore Hill had three studios – the larger 21 and 22, but most of the nightly frenetic activity was in the small Studio 23 which was the presentation studio as well as the production hub for news, newsreel, weather, sport and the procession of presenters who ensured the continuity of programs.

Presentation in the cramped Studio 23 gave us some spontaneous personality which thankfully the commercials could never envisage. We had live presenters - the early female presenters were carefully chosen and groomed but there was also a roster of announcers each with their carefully crafted individual style and personality.

My first years at the ABC were with the News department. In the early days of the ABC, News resisted the temptation of naming and recording the reporters. The film cameraman (never a woman) might go out with a reporter who was there for both radio and television – the reporter put through the copy to Kellett Street and it would pass through the subs desk for distribution to television.

Once we had written the script, we would creep into the studio to cue the reader or announcer with a tap or a shove on the shoulder. After about 15 minutes of news we went to newsreel - a feature that probably should not have been included in television news. It closely followed the style of the older cinema newsreel of Movietone and Cinesound. Much of the overseas film was outdated by the time it reached us but with accompanying music and a racy style of commentary it could last days after the event.

In fact, it went on for more than 20 years. The rule was that the news had to follow the same order of headlines on radio and television, and the Commissioners ruled that there should be no more than two minutes of film. The excess film was consigned "live reel" which headed the newsreel.

That changed in 1974. The Federal Director of Television, Ken Watts, wanted to take over newsreel as an entry into nightly current affairs – but this was opposed by News chiefs. I was in a difficult position because I was working in News when I was asked to join the new Tonight program which was due to be launched in April – some said 1st April but that was a joke.

We studied photographs and quarter-inch audio tape to get an idea of the program. We were assigned to one of the big studios and were told : "You wanted this program – now put it on." And so we did – from Monday 10 April 1964 for 12 years after that.

Ken Chown joined the ABC as a journalist in June 1959 and became Federal Head of Public Affairs Television before retiring in November 1987.


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