Norman May Remembers his Early Days in ABC Television

Interview with Bob Sitsky - 3 July 2007

My first job for the ABC was in radio doing a Queen's Christmas broadcast in 1954 when I was a lifesaver on patrol on Bondi Beach. After this the ABC Sports people gave me some interview jobs as a lifesaver.

In January 1957 Dick Healy, the ABC's NSW Sports Supervisor, asked what I was doing on Saturday fortnight. I said I was free, and he said come along - we are doing a surf carnival show from Dee Why. It was to be the first telecast of a surf carnival in Australia, and Dick gave me the job of being the expert commentator.

We got to Dee Why Beach on 9 February 1957 - that's when I did my first TV job for the ABC. We had a monitor on top of the boatshed casualty room, and we sat down behind the monitor. The sun was behind us and it completely washed out the picture on the monitor. So I borrowed a blanket from the casualty room and Dick and I sat there huddled together for 4 hours under the blanket doing our commentary. So that was my first TV job for the ABC. Charlie Moses saw the telecast, and he said "that fellow made a bloody good commentator".

I then did a rugby union telecast on 6 April, and then other odd jobs during 1957. Then a vacancy occurred in the ABC of a Specialist Trainee - I was 29 at the time, and I took on this job in April 1958. I was paid the salary of a 19 year old, but as I was out of work at that time I took it on.

We had instruction from Charles Moses to take out the OB van every weekend and present sporting events. In my ABC career I ended up doing 40 different sports on television. In the 1950s we were doing surf carnivals, rugby union, athletics, swimming, etc.

We used to record many sporting events on silent 16mm film. We brought the film back to the studio, edited the film and then wrote the commentary. We had a program called Sports Cavalcade which was on every Monday night. In that program we used to have an interview and maybe 5 different films, each about 2 or 3 minutes long. That gave us a half hour program. The way we wrote the commentary was to give 5 words for every foot of film. That fitted the commentary exactly. I also did the Sports Review for years and years on Saturday nights.

The biggest jobs we did were cricket films - in those days it was the biggest sports in Australia. We started off in 1958 when Ritchie Benaud was Captain of Australia. We had one 16mm camera. We went to Brisbane for the 1st Test, and shot from top of the grandstand. We found that we could film a whole day's play in 3000 feet of film, which was less than 2 hours of film. This was because we cut out all the walking around, the changeovers between overs, and all the other fiddling that goes on in the cricket field. The critical action took about 1 hour and 40 minutes.

We then flew the film down to Sydney each day. We had a shot lister who would detail all the shots on the film. I never saw the film at all. I was given a shot list, and I would write down the commentary entirely from the description in the shot lists.

Jim Dibble was an amazing guy. In 1958 I had a series of 45 minute films to make on the test series. I wasn't a good reader, so we got Jim Dibble in to read my commentary. Now these were 45 minute commentaries - something like 3 or 4 thousand words. Jim came across to the recording studios, picked up the commentaries and read them on-sight without making a mistake. He was an unbelievable reader. He was the best reader I have come across in my life.

We had something like 170 cricket films in the ABC, over a period of 7 years. People don't believe you when you say you haven't seen the films - I just took the description from the shot lister and that was my guidance to writing 5 words per foot of film. We did that all the way from the 1st test in Brisbane in 1958 to the tied test in Brisbane in 1960 then to the West Indies tour in 1965. We did that for 8 years.

All those years we did film only for any job other than the live telecasts. The only way we recorded the live telecasts were via the telerecord system. Videotape really revolutionised the whole business. The videotape machines were introduced in the ABC in 1962 and used for the Perth Empire Games.

In that period I took over the ABC "Sportsman of the Year" program - we used to do those programs live for an hour, and I did that show for 20 years. I did as many as ten straight interviews live without any breaks. Then we used to announce who was the sportsman of the year. There was a lot of preparation in that program. I got used to doing that program, my only script was the names of the people we had to interview.

I got so much experience in those early years of television. That was all my training. I never received any formal training. I just had to do the job, and that was how I gained my practical experience. Experience was so important in television- it put me in good stead for later on.

So this was how it was for me in the early days of ABC Television. I didn't go to the Olympic Games until 1964 and the Commonwealth or Empire games (as they were) until 1962.

One day I walked in to the Gore Hill studios, and a sound recordist grabbed me and said "quick, come and do this commentary" - so I went to the Dubbing Suite, which was on the ground floor. They were preparing a film about the Billy Graham Crusade, and I had to quickly put in some links. This was my first religious broadcast! I said to the Head of Religious Broadcasts that the ABC won't likely get a big audience to this, and his reply was it may not be a big audience, but it will be a good audience. It was quite funny.

In those days you did just about anything - we were knockabouts - whatever the job was, we did it somehow. You had to improvise to do things. It was a really good experience and I thoroughly enjoyed it. When I look back to those days, how we did things to a deadline all the time. My motto was "do it twice as well in half the time". That was my ambition.

I was a trainee for about 2 to 3 years, and then a vacancy came up for a Sporting Assistant. We were called integrated staff, ie we would do television or radio. I was very lucky; I started off when the ABC was a radio organisation, but I really started off in television. So to me there was no worries what was happening in radio - I acquired radio skills later on. I was considered the television expert, while the other sporting people were radio experts who took on TV work.

Many established radio staff were a bit wary about going on television. Many did not have the confidence of appearing in front of the camera. That really never worried me how I looked, even though I only have one eye. I just was myself when appearing live on TV.

The other factor was learning how to time commentary. I did that by writing it first of all, and that was a great training for going out and doing a live commentary. You learned to space commentary - where to talk and when not to talk. This is very important in live television. You have to talk on television about what you can see. If you start talking about something else you just ruin the whole effect. You learn when to talk; how to time the commentary. Silence is sometimes just as important in television as sound.

It was a strange organisation in the early days - you had all those people working in Broadcast House in Elizabeth Street, and most of them had nothing to do directly with broadcasting. The television broadcasting people were there at Gore Hill, and they were isolated from management. The people at Gore Hill just looked upon Broadcast House as an "ivory tower". However, they were quick to criticise the television staff if something went wrong.

I remember when the Springboks toured in 1971 we had a lot of demonstrations against apartheid. I was called in one day by my boss Bernie Kerr; he said we have heard that there will be a demonstration in Woollahra Oval next Saturday during the football match. I asked ?"what's the policy?" - he said "there is no policy, but don't make a mistake!" That was typical of ABC Management in those days. So the broadcaster had the responsibility for what was said. You had to learn to be self sufficient. When you work out the numbers of words I spieled off during the years - it must have been millions of words!

Another aspect of broadcasting is the ability to ad lib. Some people have to read off scripts. I was never a good reader of scripts, because I had a problem with one eye. I could not scan ahead. I used to do outside broadcasts without taking any notes with me. I believe you don't do anything that takes you away from looking at the picture. You looked at the picture all the time, and that's how you do it. I did all my research the day before. You only had to memorise 6 or 7 straight facts, and I would go along and be prepared mentally for what I had to do.

I am lucky that I can remember events fully. I can remember the times swimmers swam in the early days, I can remember football matches. I can remember my father taking me to my first cricket match at the SCG when I was 9 years old in 1937. I can remember that match as vividly as if it happened last weekend.

The very first producer I worked with was Arthur Wyndham. He did most of the outside broadcasts in those early days. Bruce Webber also did some OBs.

I remember an early cricket match in the late 1950s from Mosman oval, when Alan McGilvray and I were the two commentators. It was an overcast day and it looked like it would rain. Alan said to me "you used to be a beach inspector - do you think it will rain?" I said it's a north easterly breeze, the clouds are high, so I don't think it will rain. Well, half an hour later it bucketed down! The game was called off. Well, I told Alan M I will never forecast the weather ever again! He agreed and said never forecast the weather, or the result of a cricket match!

The GPS Regatta was a very tough OB to cover. They placed the cameras on the bridge in Penrith and all you could see were some dark dots coming down the river. You could not tell who was in front. We only had 3 cameras and two were at the finish and the other about 500 meters away, to cover a course of 2000 meters.

These days when you have maybe 10 cameras covering a sporting OB, there are no problems of the type we had in the early days. From 1956 to 1964 all the OBs were live - from 1964 we had the ability to have instant replays, and that made a huge difference to OB presentation.

Norman May first worked on ABC radio in 1954. He then worked casually as a TV commentator from February 1957. Norman was involved in a number of telecasts in surfing, swimming and rugby union, before joining the staff as a specialist trainee in April 1958. He retired from full-time work in February 1984 after 26 years of ABC service. After that he has worked as freelancer on special assignments.


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