They said it wouldn’t last

At the launch earlier this week of ‘TeeVee at Sixty’, the new exhibition at the University of Melbourne’s Baillieu Library celebrating 60 years of Melbourne’s television (1956-2016), our host University Librarian Philip Kent paid tribute to some of the guests of honour in the room, including ventriloquist Ron Blaskett (the other half of Gerry Gee), and Susan-Gaye Anderson from The Tarax Show, who in officially launching the exhibition regaled us with some hilarious behind-the-scenes anecdotes from the heyday of TV variety.

Philip noted in his remarks that he had also met two other people in the room as we mingled over drinks. One was the son of a man who owned a major TV network in the 1970s; the other was the son of a man who didn’t believe his children should be brought up with a TV. That second son was me.

Sure, it meant I read a lot of books, spent a lot of time with my brothers at the local park, and collected a lot of matchbox labels. But nothing can replace the knowledge of popular culture that passed me by in the 1960s and 1970s—don’t ever ask me to be on your trivia team. My parents had moved to Melbourne from Adelaide, and when we’d visit my interstate cousins most summer holidays I’d sit in their lounge room transfixed by cartoons and westerns, but the rest of the year was a kind of cultural desert. On just one special occasion—the moon landing in 1969—we went next door to watch the broadcast on our neighbour’s set.

The exhibition is curated by Dr Derham Groves, and is accompanied by a terrific catalogue bursting with images and fascinating breakouts covering the history of TV’s early years. In his own remarks at the launch, Derham reminisced about the days of TV licences (for personal sets that is); you could pay it off progressively by buying TV licensing stamps at the Post Office and sticking them on a special card. Derham noted that in a decade hence he’ll no doubt have to explain to his granddaughter what a Post Office was; I wonder also how long ‘Television’ will last as a technical form—my own children never watch one and their lives are conducted via screens of other sorts.

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The introduction of TV signalled all sorts of social and cultural changes, not the least the way we configured out houses and the types of food we consumed. Enduring debates about local versus international content also spoke to our sense of culture and identity. As Derham notes in his entry on television in eMelbourne, a new set in the 1950s cost almost as much as a new small car would these days. So while a TV aerial on your chimney was ‘a badge of pride’, only about 5% of households could afford a set in those first years. Melbourne had ‘one of the fastest changeovers from black-and-white to colour in the world’ after the introduction of colour in 1975.

TV broadcasts started in Melbourne and Sydney in 1956. Melbourne’s first station, HSV-7, commenced broadcasting on 4 November, just over a fortnight before the start of the Melbourne Olympic Games.

Town Hall Melbourne
Town Hall Melbourne – 1956

TV is a nostalgic touchstone for progress and the passage of time, for that tension between past and present, childhood and adulthood (‘Ideas from Australian cities: relocating urban and suburban history’). In a fictional 1970, Peter van Rijn in Stephen Carroll’s novel The time we have taken (2008) casts his mind back to the Olympic year in 1956, when he put a TV in the window of his shop for the edification of passers-by. In 1994 I did a series of oral history interviews with real suburbanites, one recalling her own childhood in the 1950s when, armed with fish and chips and camp stools:

we’d all go and sit out the front of the shop window with all the other kids around Nunawading and the guy used to turn the TV up and we used to all sit outside on the footpath.

My favourite story about TV’s introduction in Melbourne comes from Croydon, where a thousand people gathered in the cold outside Roly Leopold’s Television Centre in Main Street to watch a three-hour transmission on an HMV television receiver in the shop window. A woman on her way home from the city stopped briefly to watch the show: ‘She became so engrossed’, reported the Ringwood Mail, ‘that it wasn’t until an hour later that she suddenly remembered that her husband was still waiting at home for his tea’. Maybe that’s what technological change does to us down the years—helps us to forget things and then remember them in new ways.

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