Forgotten Australian Television Documentaries: This is Television

Forgotten Australian Television Documentaries: This is Television

Back in the day, it was common for individual programs on commercial television and radio to be sponsored by a specific advertiser. That’s why you had shows with titles like Caltex Theatre and Shell Presents. Car manufacturer General Motors sponsored The General Motors Hour on Australian radio for years, and in 1960 decided to expand this concept into television. From 1960 to 1962, there were around a dozen episodes of The General Motor Hour produced sporadically in Sydney (at ATN-7) and Melbourne (at GTV-9). The car manufacturer covered the bulk of production costs in exchange for the ability to flog its product throughout the program.

The General Motors Hour (television edition) mostly comprised of live plays, such as The Grey Nurse Said Nothing, and a small-screen version of The One Day of the Year. It also included a documentary, This is Television which was shot in Melbourne at GTV-9 and aired on 25 June 1960.

This is Television is a behind-the-scenes look at how television is made. It is hosted by Harry Dearth, a radio presenter who moved into television, and when this aired, only had a few years to live. He’s helped out by Melbourne newsreader Eric Pearce who narrates.

We see lots of scenes of various technicians pressing buttons, spooling film stock and building sets, while Pearce explains what’s going on, which is about as interesting as it sounds. More entertaining is footage of the Channel Nine ballet dancers rehearsing (what happened to those girls? Did they wind up teaching in the suburbs? Running for Parliament?) and Graham Kennedy going through a sketch with his comedy writers for In Melbourne Tonight. There’s footage of rehearsals from The Grey Nurse Said Nothing (which was shot in Sydney), with director David Cahill taking the cast through their paces.

The highlight is a discussion about television criticism, consisting of a chat between John Moses (a newspaper critic) in Sydney and Frank Thring (best-known as an actor but then a TV critic for TV Week) in Melbourne, chaired by Bob Walker, advertising man. The three discuss the Americanisation of Australian television (prevalent at the time) and the perceived hyper-criticism of local television product by local critics (very prevalent at the time). Thring approvingly quotes George Nathan’s dictum that the job of the critic is to improve the standard of theatre, even if it meant closing every theatre in the country. Moses supports this, saying critics should not soft-pedal criticism of Australian material and denies criticism having to be constructive. “When they do badly, and there have been some bad productions particularly live drama productions, then I think we must say so,” trumpets Moses.

Walker said that there was a feeling “in some quarters that whatever emanates from Melbourne, Sydney critics inevitably damn.” Thring denied this saying “I don’t care if it comes from Warsaw, if it’s good it’s good”, adding that critics were desperate to praise anything, but also deriding the notion of constructive criticism as “facile”, saying “if you’ve got a building you want to improve, you’ve got to pull it down before improving it.” This is an, uh, interesting argument but exemplifies the attitude of the time, where cultural commentators felt the way for Australian product to improve was to make less of it. Thring is always entertaining, and he steals the show here.

This is Television ends with a mini documentary about an unknown girl – Galatea Samarias – auditioning to get on a variety show, and the finale consists of her singing ‘What a Difference a Day Makes’ in a Greek accent while the Channel Nine ballet dancers move around to the tune of Arthur Young and his orchestra. It’s very cute, like a pseudo-Warner Bros. musical. Advertising trumpeted Galatea’s appearance when promoting This is Television, declaring “A Star is Born”; I’m not sure it worked out for her that way, but she adds to the piece’s charm as do the ads for General Motors that appear throughout.

This is Television was written and produced by Graham Freudenberg, later a legendary speech writer for the ALP, and directed by Rod Kinnear. As entertainment, it’s a mixed bag; as a historical document, it’s fascinating and invaluable.

The author would like to thank the National Film and Sound Archive for their assistance with this piece. Unless otherwise specified, all opinions are my own.

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