Pauline Thomas Remembers

Coversation with Bob Sitsky 4 July 2005

Joining the ABC following the completion of a year’s secretarial Diploma course in December 1952, I was assigned to the office of the General Manager, Sir Charles Moses, located on the 5th floor of Broadcast House 264 Pitt Street, Sydney.

My designation was "Junior Typist" – truly starting on the bottom rung – but almost immediately I was given secretarial duties for one of the executive officers requiring a high degree of confidentiality. Several months later I became secretary to the Legal Officer Joyce Shewcroft, and after a year promoted to a graded position with Superintendent of Administration, Gordon Griffiths and to the Promotions Appeals Board, Whose Chairman was Dr CEW Bean, the noted World War 1 historian.

It was while I occupied this position that the television service was starting to become a reality. A site for the transmitter and the studios was being selected at Gore Hill on the Pacific Highway some 5 miles north of the CBD. This location had a direct line-of-sight to the "hill" known as The Jib in the NSW Southern Highlands, where a repeater transmitter would be placed.

The Gore Hill property contained an old disused house, probably closed up for years, which was full of bugs – of the insect variety! Whenever ABC officers returned from inspections, they had to be de-loused! This included my boss, so I was concerned that some of the mites might have relocated to our office.

A major re-shuffle of offices occurred in Broadcast House, as well as the creation of an entirely new Division – Engineering – of which the director was Lloyd Hadfield. He was given an office on the 6th floor, as well as a room for an engineer, John Poll, and two technical men from the PMG (Postmaster Generals Department) namely Dave Tapp and John Hicks. Both Dave and John became the senior TV Technical Producers, and spent the remainder of their careers with ABC-TV.

The long serving Technical Supervisor, Stanley Darling, and the acoustics specialist, Warwick Mehaffey had to be relocated as did the electrician, Premises Officer, Purchasing Officer plus staff moved to a building across Pitt Street, above a mens wear store – Lowes. Only the office of the ABC Chairman, Sir Richard Boyer, remained intact.

From the 5th floor went the Controller, Superintendent of Administration and the Legal Officer, firstly to the floor below, and ultimately to Lowes Building. The fourth floor which had housed Staff Office (= Personnel = Human Resources) had already moved to Lowes.

Into the 5th floor came one time sports broadcaster/announcer/Manager for Tasmania Talbot Duckamton, with the title "Co-ordinator of Television" plus other planners and Executive Assistants. It was a great upheaval, which affected many.

When the Gore Hill cottage was made habitable, Lloyd Hadfield moved his office there, and into the 6th floor space came Jim Hall from Radio Management, to head the department known as Service & Supply, which eventually was renamed Production Facilities. One of his functions was to organise numerous requisitions for all types of facilities needed for TV productions. Somehow it came to me for typing the forms in draft, which I set out in my best layout style. There were forms for technical facilities, design, staging, props, graphics, makeup, wardrobe, publicity, film – videotape was not yet known – over 14 in all, which became identified by their numbers eg TV11 (staging). To me it was remarkable that my format, which I had done as a rough draft, remained in use for the next 20 years

By 1955, training courses and workshops were being set up in Sydney. From the BBC came Royston Morley, a senior producer assisted by the ABC’s Kay Kinnane, Education Officer, who had already been sent to the UK to study production. I was selected for the script assistants course, based in Kings Cross premises but with studio in St. Peters Church Hall, just off William Street. There followed the workshops for various program departments, but being in Management/Administration I did not have the opportunity to take part in any of these, as I was told I could not be released from the Promotions Appeal aspect of my duties at that time.

During the first part of 1957 I was permitted to work two half days each week for the Children’s TV show - to attend the rehearsal (dry run) in a city studio, then the other half day later in the week for the live transmission, from the Arcon at Gore Hill. Someone else had done all the paperwork, which I thought was rather unfair, not only to the typist but also to the producer John Appleton and to the cast which included Athol Flemming, Gina Curtis, Barbara Frawley and John Ewart, all known from the radio program "The Argonauts". It was also unfair to me.

It was not until September 1957 that I was released full time for television. My first assignment was for the TV News Department located in the lower levels of the Alderson Building in St. Leonards. Commencing at 2pm one of my jobs was to select suitable music for every piece of film to be used that night. A filing cabinet contained one drawer of 78rpm non-copyright discs. Without seeing the actual film, suitable background music had to be selected, which could be a bit difficult.

Graphics Section was located half a mile up the Highway. The information for all titles (names of speakers, etc) would be telephoned through. When the Bulletin was ready the journalist in charge plus the news producer plus the news reader and myself (carrying the records) would catch a taxi at 6.30pm to go via Graphics (Lanes Building). I had to run up a narrow staircase to collect the graphics, hoping they were all correct. Occasionally the News Bulletin was not ready and it would be sent by a separate taxi, arriving just before on-air at 7pm. It was astounding that this process worked!

The head of Graphics was Bill Kennard, recruited from England. One of his assistants was John Coburn who became one of Australia’s leading painters. (He later designed the curtains for Opera and Drama theatres at the Sydney Opera House.)

The TV newsreaders were drawn from radio announcers. These included James Dibble, John West, Paul Maclay, Martin Royal and John Chance. Most TV producers had to take their turn to direct the 7pm news.

When the ABC-TV service began on 5th November 1956 (Guy Fawkes’ Night) colour transmission was still 18 years away. In order to ascertain colour contrast at planned venues, smaller areas, objects, and so on, producers and designers would go around with their eyes nearly closed, screwing up their faces. They usually received curious glances from shoppers in Department Stores.

Another trick was with arms outstretched, fingers pointing upwards, thumbs just touching each other horizontally, This simulated 4 by 3 aspect ratio of a television screen.

In the first two years of TV it seemed that program production management did not fully understand the requirements of the producer and script assistant. When I was transferred to the TV world it was thought that I could be the permanent relief, deputising as others proceeded on leave. With Producers scattered in buildings in the city, various premises in William Street and Kings Cross, it meant constant travelling, frequently requiring my attendance by 3 or 4 producers at the same time. This resulted in split loyalties, which made life difficult; but I think I had proved that this idea was not practicable.

We had very cramped accommodation in those days – we had 3 producers with their assistants in one office in the National Building in the city: Margaret Delves with Jacqueline Hudson, I was assigned to George Trevare, Ray Menmuir had Ruth Page. The producers were creative people with big responsibilities to get the shows organised, and it was so hard for them to concentrate in that environment.

Some early programs with George Trevare included a series of jazz programs ‘Look Who’s Dropped In’ which went to air live early Saturday evening, with a different setting for each show; frequently the cameras had to be located in a scenery area due to limited space of the studio.

In those days the producer allocated to the Arcon had to work on all programs scheduled for the night except the News. It could be a childrens’ slot at 5pm, a music program in the evening or a religious talk later at night.

One Sunday we were rehearsing a talk being presented by a rather a heavily built clergyman. While the camera control operator was making adjustments George, in his inimitable style said "Doesn’t he look like "Mephistopheles"! What we did not realize was that the ABC’s Head of Religious Programs and the Makeup Supervisor (a personal friend of the clergyman) was standing at the back of the control room. Nothing was said that night but George was reported to the GM the next day.

But things did not stop there. The same night during a music program George made comments about the male and female singers, how ridiculous it seemed for "old and ugly people to sing love duets". The volatile George made even more comments that were funny, but the singers concerned could hear his words coming through the floor managers headphones. As a result George was suspended from duty for several months.

Within the control room at the Arcon space was very limited. I was working with John Buttle on a talks type program. He enjoyed eating apples while directing, flinging his arms to the side as he called the camera shots. I was sitting on his left and with Larry Sitsky (who was to become one of Australia’s leading musicians) operating the sound panel on my other side. All of a sudden an apple smashed into my face, resulting in a black eye for a few weeks.

The "canteen" in those days – known as The Greasy Spoon – was set up in a shed the size of a domestic garage. The tea lady called Joy, was the mother of a leading opera singer – Robert Bickerstaff. Her job was to make tea and wash up the cups. There was no proper path between the Arcon and this shed. You had to carefully pick your way over rocks, and stones and sand, and try and avoid sliding in the mud when it rained. Many suffered sprained ankles.

The term "Script Assistant" was a misleading title – the work was a mixture of production secretary and production assistant. It was aligned to a Secretary Grade 3 in the ABC. It should have been a much higher grading. Some years later it was upgraded and the ABC made two grades and called them Producers Assistants.

Script Assistants were given a trial period on the job. After working on several OBs – sporting and documentary – plus many and complex studio productions, eg music, jazz, childrens, I was then assigned to a newly arrived producer from the UK – Kevin Shine for ‘TV Ballroom’ series for which preliminary work had been done when I was with George Trevare, now on suspension. This series was aimed to ‘show off’ the new large Studio 21. All went very well, but at the end of the series I knew that an opera was to be telecast, and being the only Script Assistant with music qualifications, asked to be assigned to the production. The producer, Peter Page, agreed, but further negotiation was necessary particularly as the person allocated was completely new to TV and with no idea with the demands of such a program. It was eventually agreed that I work on the opera.

During the transmission of Pagliacci, the heroine (Valda Bagnall) caused a awning as part of the set, to collapse on top of her. Being live, the prerecorded sound continued with the soprano on the floor underneath the rubble. There was no chance of a ‘take 2’ or stopping the scene to repeat the action.

It was amusing to see off-duty staff arriving dressed for a night at the opera, in order to watch the production from the Studio 21 viewing room.

A few months later when in the midst of extremely busy weekly productions of ‘Your Hit Parade’ and other entertainment shows, I was informed that I had completed my trial period very successfully proving proficiency in all types of shows, but someone else had to be given their chance. Both the producer and myself were furious and again unfair to him especially when there was only afternoon to hand over to someone completely new and with an aggressive attitude. Some sharp words must have been exchanged with Management because that night I received a phone call at home stating that I was to remain where I was. Another reprieve!!

At the beginning of 1959 ‘Six O’Clock Rock’ hit the screens! Johnny O’Keefe with the DeeJays and vocal group ‘The Deltones’ would give four items, the remainder of the hour being filled by brief appearances from up to ten guests. Peter Page and I would attend the auditions for these ‘rockers’ when an uninvited guest – SPIKE MILLIGAN – would drop in, making challenging comments, much to our amusement. Floor managers assigned to the Saturday afternoon show had to be physically strong in order to control the numbers of teenagers who would turn up to be in the studio.

Working in the early days of TV was stimulating and involved great team work. Being at the centre of the production team, coordinating every ones efforts was challenging but left me with a great sense of achievement. I cannot imagine any other occupation which would create such a degree of job satisfaction.

Pauline Thomas : AMusA – Pauline joined the ABC in December 1952 as a junior secretary in Management. In 1957 she transferred to Television as a Script Assistant. Pauline worked on numerous television productions at Gore Hill; she retired in December 1991 as a Television Producer.


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