The ABC was my University
My three years at Gore Hill (September 1956 – November 1959) qualified me for a forty year career in television broadcasting on four continents.
A beneficiary (some might argue otherwise) of peripatetic parents I left my umpteenth school in the middle of my final year for yet another trip to Europe. At 17 I was back in Australia with absolutely no educational qualifications. It was late 1949.
There followed almost seven years with the Royal Australian Navy as an aircraft radar technician. I did not favour the paternalistic service life and, electing not to renew my term, I was discharged in August 1956.
What are the job prospects for a 24 year old, married, whose only experience was military aircraft radar, at which he was barely competent?
Fortune smiles on the foolhardy. ABC was recruiting television technicians - and there weren’t too many of those in Australia in 1956. The next best thing, it seems, was PMG and ex-Service technicians.
Cameramen were technicians. I was a keen photographer so I became a cameraman and, later, an Assistant Technical Director. Camera work was very satisfying. So, too, was planning the lighting as an ATD.
What a buzz. Working in a new medium. Everyone enthusiastic, improvising, innovating, experimenting and looking forward to work every day. Often, at the end of the day, analyses and discussions at the St Leonards pub (if it was before 6 o’clock) or, a year or two later, at the 729 Club, above a shop in Crow’s Nest. We were the princes of the flickering screens watched by crowds outside appliance shops throughout Sydney.
Happy, happy days. I well remember one day singing Harry Belafonte’s hit, the Banana Boat song. As I rounded the Arcon hut, bellowing at the top of my lungs "day-ay-ay-o, day-ay-ay-o" I collided with the God-Engineer, Lloyd Hatfield.
The exposure to the arts and to those who knew them was exhilarating. All studio programmes were live. Rehearse opera, symphony concerts, Shakespeare for a couple of days and you become a convert. It even made me a voracious reader of the classics.
Opening night in the Arcon - can it really be fifty years ago. Two cameras on tripods with minds of their own. Harry Adams on camera one, Len on camera two. I don’t recall the preamble too well but we did have a break with the cross to William Street for the OB coverage of the official opening whilst we reset for Australia’s first television drama. J M Barrie’s "Twelve Pound Look" with Margo Lee. What an adrenalin rush. I remember as if it were only recently.
We went on to do many other dramas. Amongst them Ray Menmuir’s production of Priestley’s "Rose and Crown", the plot is with me still; "The Multi-Coloured Umbrella" and Royston Morley’s unforgettable "Hamlet".
I can thank Mascagni’s "Cavalleria Rusticana", produced in studio 21 complete with a practical village fountain, for my lifelong appreciation of opera.
There was Harry Pringle’s "Café Continental" and "Country Style" – I was later to meet up with Frank Ifield for a night on the town in London with a couple of showgirls, but that’s another story.
The advent of the higher definition 4½" image orthicon camera tubes fuelled the competition between Harry and I to get closer and closer close-ups of Johnny Gredula’s tonsils and Ruggiero Ricci’s virtuoso bow.
On an October evening in 1957 we broke rehearsals with Margaret Rutherford, accompanied by her husband Stringer Davis, to marvel at man’s first satellite, Sputnik, orbiting like a star across the sky. "Brave little thing", was her quintessential reaction.
Spike Milligan interrupting rehearsals, no two of which were alike, to ask Jim Gussey, "Jim, what year is it?" "It’s 1958", replied the bemused ABC dance band leader. "Then why are you playing 1930s music?" Moments before we went on air Spike shut himself in the wardrobe hamper and was only persuaded to come out with seconds to spare.
A variety show in which the big production number was to be a hit from ‘Oklahoma’. The set wasn’t quite ready as the rustic fence wouldn’t stay upright. Floor Manager Robert Fleming had the presence of mind to grab a straw hat and a stalk of corn and sit propping up the fence for the entire number.
Studio 23 which got so damn hot one evening during the news that it set off the fire alarm at the local fire station and, in moments, we were surrounded by wailing fire engines. Or the occasion when the newsreader, known for his spoonerisms, read that "Mrs Smith of Wahroonga was bitten on the funnel by a finger-web spider".
Each afternoon transmission opened and closed with ‘Woman’s World’ followed by the test card until early evening. One afternoon the programme started badly - very badly. Wrong people in the wrong place, camera cables plaited and who knows where the sound boom was? The Producer/Director’s solution was simply to go to black for a few minutes whilst everyone sorted themselves out and then to start the programme again.
In those first three years it was television by trial and error with remarkably little of the latter on-air. It was a privilege to be part of it. Thank you ABC and thanks to everyone who helped me graduate.
Studio Cameraman (1956-1959)
Len Richardson worked in Gore Hill as a cameraman rom 1956 to 1959. This was followed by a 40 year career in broadcasting over four continents.