And then there was 'People'

Gerry Lyons had bungled big time. That was how I came to be the compere of the Talks Department's half-hour TV interview program 'People'. My memory is hazy but I think it had something to do with his interview with and performance by a belly dancer in a Sydney nightclub. Anyway I was summoned to Sydney from Melbourne virtually overnight.

'People' began around 1957 and was compered initially by Bob Sanders. The program was broadcast on Thursday nights at 9.30. The urbane Oxbridge-accented Gerald Lyons succeeded him but only briefly. I had applied for a senior Talks position in Sydney after a year in Melbourne as Executive Producer of both the radio and TV broadcasts of 'Any Questions, providing national Talks material for both Sydney and Melbourne and presenting 'live' every week a half hour called 'The Handyman' in which was I was the abysmally ignorant fall-guy for an expert in making and fixing just about everything around the home. I got the job but my move came quite unexpectedly.

"People" was made up of five or six 'live' interviews weekly. Some of these had supporting 'mute' film sometimes shot for that purpose - sometime library film. The pace was frightening. From my small office in William Street I had to arrange the interviews, do some research in primitive conditions, Think about visuals, try to ensure that everyone turned up at Gore Hill on time. I had no backup staff.  Producers worked on a roster and differed from week to week. Script assistants had other more important things to do and programs to handle. I was on my own. We had no budget for talent - no fees- but paid the occasional taxi fare. Effectively there was no rehearsal. There was no time.

As well I had responsibility for a five minute 'live' interview which preceded the 7pm News on Mondays called 'Focus'. This was event oriented, about something in the news. But like 'People' it never featured politicians. In those days politicians could only be interviewed with the permission of the General Manager and this was so hard to secure that most of the Talks staff thought it was too much trouble. Also controversy was normally absent. This was dealt with in certain formalised routinised programs such as radio's 'Nation's Forum of the Air'.

So I looked for light, bright but newsworthy material within these constraints. Interviewees range from wrestlers and 'rock' performers, to visiting celebrities in the news. My guide and mentor was Mungo MacCallum, the Assistant Director, who was very, very supportive, but I was always a little uneasy that he did not more constructively criticise my efforts. He was charmingly evasive. There were times when I wondered whether he had watched the program.

But one piece of advice I took to heart from day one. 'Never look at notes'. The great interviewers had the subject matter committed to memory. In retrospect I now consider that I put far too much pressure on myself by interpreting this too literally. I had to memorise names, the introductions, cues to run film. I had to memorise clearly the subject matter I wanted to discuss but prepared for diversions, for my subject to drop in something unexpected which might need explanation or a different slant to the questions. I had to think on my feet the whole time. It was wonderful training for a broadcast career in spoken word.

Yet this lack of a checklist invariably brought problems. Once I forgot a guest's name, and he happened to be a British peer. On another occasion we had arranged for the crew of a new BOAC Comet on its maiden flight to be rushed to the studio from the airport. They were terribly late. I had given up when I suddenly saw uniforms in the doorway. In the rush to get them on air twice I used the name Boeing instead of Comet. One of the crew had to be restrained from attacking me afterwards. A quick chat beforehand would have solved this problem.

But that typifies the nature of the program  The pressures were extreme because of lack of adequate support. I had to meet all the guests at the doorway as they arrived at Gore Hill in the hour leading up to the program. I had to take them to the dressing room and then to makeup. As each finished makeup I would try to find time in a corridor or dressing room to speak to them for five minutes. I had no help. Programs would frequently start with one of the guests still on their way. Some would cancel at the last minute I had to glance at the floor-manager or the doorway to be sure who would be appearing next. In the case of a non-arrival, timings would have to be adjusted accordingly with the program running.

'People' I am sure was a chore, a necessary one perhaps, for the team of bright and ambitious young producers with whom I worked over a year. All had their minds primarily set on drama, OBs, variety concerts, opera, big set-pieces of the future. I therefore appreciate very much the care and attention they devoted to my little program and the advice they gave. I learned a great deal from them. Among the producers were Bill Bain, Tom Manefield, Kevin Shine, Peter Page, Ray Menmuir, Colin Dean, and even the distinguished Royston Morley.

It's astonishing how difficult it is for me to remember individual interviews from 'People' I remember two interviews with Johnny O'Keefe as highlights. From high above came the occasional order for me to do an interview. General Manager Charles Moses ordered me to interview Lorrae Desmond on her arrival in Australia. I had never heard of her, had no material about her and the result was as bad an interview as I have ever conducted. The one piece of adverse feedback I recall was when a wrestler, discussing his opponent, said he would 'squeeze his guts into garters.' This, I was told, was totally inappropriate language for the ABC. In hindsight, it is truly astonishing that such language, and worse, was not used more often. Perhaps interviewees did not realise the opportunities presented by 'live' television.

I was grappling with a night-time Arts course, final year, at Sydney University in the year I presented 'People" God know how I coped!. At the end of 1959 Frank Bennett replaced me. I often wondered why he was not chosen in the first place. He was much more mature than I was at 24, and a very skilled interviewer. He was a good friend and I wished him well. The experience did me no harm. In 1961 I became Assistant Asian Representative based in Singapore, the forerunner to a number of posts abroad, leading to London News Editor 1971-74. And my television experience was also put to use with Four Corners 1965-66.


Neville Petersen started with the ABC in December 1951 (in the mail room). He worked for Sporting, Talks and TV News. He was an overseas correspondent for ten years in Asia and Europe and worked for a year with 'Four Corners'. He left the ABC in August 1978, when he was Senior TV News Reporter in Sydney.

 

 

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