DAVID TWIBY LOOKS BACK ON HIS DAYS IN THE FIFTIES

 

It was a Thursday in May 1958

During my lunch break I went to the ABC personnel office and applied for a job.

I filled in the form and was interviewed straight away. It was very quick. I was back at my desk in less than an hour. Next morning I received an urgent telegram. Could I start Monday?

I resigned from the public service and started two weeks later.

TV News

My first job with the ABC was as a driver for Television News. I had to report to the car pool to take a driving test. My examiner was a laid back Canadian. The test route took us through the centre of Kings Cross. Halfway down Darlinghurst Road he let out a loud wolf whistle and said "look at the legs on her". I was certain I was being tested and kept my eyes firmly on the road. In fact I wasn’t. He had a definite eye for the ladies.

I passed the test and joined a small group of staff for a lift to Gore Hill in the mail car, a very distinctive Willys jeep.

My main duty was to take the news film for processing. The film laboratory was at the back of a shop on the main Chatswood shopping street. The shop itself was fully taken up by a model train set. Later in the day I would return the processed film to Gore Hill for editing.

David Twybie and Helen Lockhart

David Twiby (Floor Assistant) with
Helen Lockhart (Floor Manager)

Other than this I was a general rouseabout. Taking cameramen on assignments, picking things up and dropping things off. Generally having a ball! It also involved weekend work. And when things were quiet I could sneak around to the viewing gallery and watch the television programs in rehearsal.

Saturday was a particularly hectic day in the newsroom. Mainly because the ABC journalists were also the backbone of the local football club. In the afternoon the place was like a morgue. Then shortly after 5 the footballers returned. Some limping, many black and blue, but all desperate to make up for the lost time. I have never seen a newsroom as frantic as the TV news room was between 5 and 7 on winter Saturdays.

Car Pool

After a month I moved to the ABC car pool and became driver for the Assistant General Manager, Huck Finlay. The ABC garage was behind the ABC offices in William Street. Little more than a large tin shed, each afternoon it hosted a very serous poker game. As a non gambler I scored most of the afternoon driving jobs. This included driving visiting artists to and from their concerts as well as taking talks officers such as a young Bill Peach on their assignments. One of the regular duties for was to pick up the duty weather forecaster from the weather bureau and drive them to the television studios. You then waited until they had presented the weather on the 7 o’clock news bulletin and then drove them back to the weather bureau.

A brief word about the garage. It consisted of a shed were the vehicles were stored, with an office and lunch room attached. Just outside were the petrol bowsers. These were manual operation. A glass bulb sat on top of a metal stand with an arm attached to the stand. By swinging the arm backward and forward you pumped the petrol from the buried tank into the glass bulb. Once this was filled (it took about 5 gallons I think) you held the hose in the cars petrol tank and released a knob. By gravity the petrol fell from the bulb into the tank. When the bulb was empty you started the process all over again. Filling a tank with petrol was a slow and laborious job, and hard on the arm muscles.

The General Manager and assistant General Manager drove their cars home. However if they were away on business then the cars were stored in a garage near Broadcast House. In order to access the garage you drove the car to a normal looking garage door in the front of the building, but when you opened the door it revealed a large wooden lift. You drove the car into the lift, closed the door and then pulled on a rope, which, with the help of a counterweight, slowly lowered you and the car to the garage in the basement below. Such were the facilities of the times!

But then a job came up in television. They needed someone to drive the props van. I seized it.

Property Van

The Property office was in a large shed next to the studios. Surrounded by a large wire enclosure and with scaffolding reaching nearly to the roof, every available space was taken up with desks, tables, chairs, paintings, bookshelves, cabinets, vases (with flowers!). And in the middle of it all was a small office. This was home to the Property Master Don Bethel.

My new job was to act as chauffeur to the property buyer, Don Shepherd. Each day we went out with our list of props needed and by begging, buying, stealing or hiring, by the end of the day we had a full van and an empty list. If a show needed a tropical feel I simply drove next door to the cemetery, climbed on top of the van and cut off some palm fronds from their palm trees. Over the years the cemetery was a great source of foliage for ABC Television.

In fact the props kombi wagon was the only vehicle attached to staging so we were called upon to do any manner of things. I soon realised that on a wet day you could steer the van onto the tram tracks at Crows Nest and it would follow the tracks all the way to the bridge. No hands! This worked better the heavier the load in the back. As the van was also used to convey staging crews to outside broadcasts, I derived great pleasure demonstrating my skills to my passengers huddled in the back. Huddled, because this was a van with no seats in the back. No seats, no seatbelts!

Once John Coburn, then one of our scenery painters, needed one of his paintings to be conveyed to an art galley in kings Cross. When I arrived to pick it up it was huge.

It certainly would not fit into the van. No worry. I put it on top! It must have looked a sight – an ABC van hurling across the harbour bridge with a painting flapping about on top. Artist and painting arrived safely…luckily it did not rain.

Another time it was decided to make the van a mobile editing suite. It was 1958, television had not started in Brisbane but it was decided to show the first session highlights of a cricket match being played in Brisbane each night in Sydney at 6 o’clock. The cricket was filmed and processed in Brisbane, put on a plane and edited and shown in Sydney. To speed the editing process it was decided to put an editing machine in the back of the kombi and an editor would do the preliminary work on the way to the studio. All went well until we hit the first corner. Around I went only to hear a shout from the back. The editor and his machine had parted company. This was understandable as neither the machine nor his chair were anchored down. It was agreed I would warn him when we came to a corner so he could grab everything and hold them down. So we proceeded. Successfully. Until we reached the approaches to the Harbour Bridge. As we left the Cahill freeway I yelled my usual warning. But the approach to the bridge is via a steep and very curving road that ends up crossing itself before straightening up to the bridge. We had only negotiated half the curve when I heard an anguished shout from the back followed by an almighty clatter. I could not turn to see the cause of the commotion until we had reached the bridge. And the sight was not pleasant. There on the floor of the van was the editing machine, the chair and the editor. All securely wrapped in ribbons of film. Without a word the editor picked himself up, unwrapped the film, and joined me in the front. Next day the film was edited at the studio.

Early in 1959 I left props and joined staging.

Staging

Staging was a wonderful fusion of the media. In charge was Stan Woolvridge, who had worked in the film industry. Then from the theatre there was Val Windon, Bill Crawford (floor manager) and the aforementioned Don’s, Bethel and Shepherd. Plus many others from all walks of life that made for a stimulating working environment.

In 1958 the only way of recording a program was by a telerecording. This was film based and produced a grainy, poor reproduction. Therefore most local productions were ‘live’.

The studio commitments on a typical Thursday were:

3 pm "Woman’s World" from studio 21;

4.45 "Kindergarten Playtime" from studio 23;

5.00 "Thursday Partyland" from studio 22;

7.00 "News" from studio 23;

7.30 "People" from studio 23, later from studio 22;

8.30 "Café Continental" or "Hal Lashwood’s Alabama Jubilee", from 21.

All ‘live’.

I have fond memories of "Café Continental". The writer, a young Len Evans newly arrived in Australia, lounging around the set during rehearsals and producer Harry Pringle eating his dinner of homemade sandwiches in the scenery runway as the audience passed on their way into the studio for the performance. And the protests from the audience when they realised that the drinks were only coloured water!

"Woman’s World" was basically an interview program featuring anything and everything of interest to women, including fashion parades. It had a pleasant set and was a nice show to work on. However the interest increased considerably when fashion parades were involved. Especially those featuring young female models. A temporary change room was set up in the studio with sides, but no ceiling. The designers in their wisdom placed the change room immediately below the studio viewing gallery, which was in turn two flights above the studio floor. The word soon got around when models were in the studio and the viewing gallery was inevitably packed.

"The Critics" featured a panel of ‘experts’ reviewing the local arts scene. Worried that it was falling into the trap of being ‘radio with pictures’, it was decided to brighten it up with a scene from the play that was to be reviewed. All went well, the actors did their scene and then the critics reviewed it. In very unflattering terms. They really got stuck into the production. Then the curtain parted and the actor/manager started to get stuck into the critics. He was yelling from the stage and the critics were responding in like manner. The program finished and all stormed out of the studio, down the corridor, still yelling at each other.

Future programs did not feature live performers.

Dramas

This was a very experimental period for television. Once a month there was a live drama. Sydney one month, Melbourne the next.

Behind each drama was a mini drama being played out in the studio. "Hamlet" was directed by Royston Morley, who had previously produced a version in England in 1936. Three days studio rehearsal was allocated, but this proved inadequate. When we stopped rehearsing a few hours before on air we had only got half way through the play. The result was not the disaster it might have been, but it seemed to go on forever. Half way through there was an intermission and a young pianist played for about 15 minutes in studio 23.

Being ‘live’ created a lot of logistical problems. For instance in "Wuthering Heights" the opening scene was in winter and featured snow around the outside of the house. Later in the production they went back to the same exterior and it was summer. During the intervening time we had to remove all the ‘snow’. Not an easy task as the ‘snow’ was actually small pieces of foam and in a studio with ‘live’ microphones we could not use a vacuum cleaner so a dust pan and broom were the order of the day. Despite all our efforts, when the action returned to the outside of the house in the middle of summer I noticed a pile of ‘ snow’ around the window frame that had gone unnoticed.

One of the major dramas of 1959 was Richard II. Produced by Raymond Menmuir it involved both major studios. Months in preparation and large by any standard, nonetheless, the day following its transmission, Ray and I found ourselves rostered to do "Kindergarten Playtime".

In a rare premonition, minutes before we went to air ‘live’ with the drama "Venus Observed", I wondered what would happen if the gun did not fire. I looked around the studio, saw a broom in the corner, gave it to a studio hand and told him when the time came for the gun to go off to hold the handle of the broom about a foot off the ground with his foot halfway down the handle and if the gun did not go off, to let go of the handle and push down as hard as he could with his foot. The gun did not go off, the broom made a loud bang and the heroine died. Sad to say when I heard the replay, the off mike sound of a broom hitting the floor sounded more a clatter than a gun.

Smoke Machines

In "Swamp Creatures", the opening scene was a tracking shot through a swamp. The studio set looked convincing, but mist and creepy sound effects were needed to complete the picture. At rehearsal, producer Raymond Menmuir was not happy with either. The gram op went off for better sound effects and staging asked channel 7 to help out with a more effective smoke machine. This duly arrived, but too late for rehearsals. The basic idea was to heat the machine up with boiling water and then at the appointed time drop in dry ice. The resulting steam was then fed along a hose, under grass mats, to a studio hand, also hidden under grass mats, who lay in the middle of the set spraying the steam around. He used his hand to partially block the mouth of the hose, thus forcing the steam out at a faster rate and it consequently went further. The result looked great. This then was the opening shot, a steamy swamp with eerie noises. In the control room the producer congratulated the sound op for the frightening sounds. In fact the screams were coming from the ‘swamp’ where the studio hand had been forced by the heat of the steam to drop the hose and was now breathing in the carbon dioxide as he lay hidden under the mats. The camera started moving forward, and suddenly, just behind the camera, the grass parted and the figure of the studio hand rose to his full height, let out one last almighty scream, and fell flat on his face. In the control room the producer who could not see what was happening was very impressed with the frightening noises. While high up on scaffolding, waiting to make her dramatic entrance down a flight of stairs, leading lady Jacqueline Kott saw the whole thing and was convinced the studio hand was dead. The studio hand was quickly carried from the studio and an ambulance called. Meanwhile a shaken Jacqueline made her entrance and carried on as if nothing had happened. Except she was playing to a nearly empty studio. The cameramen, the sound man and myself as prompt were the only people in the studio. Everyone else was helping the stricken studio hand. Eventually he was taken to hospital and the remaining crew returned to the studio. On air the play continued faultlessly, the viewers unaware of the drama taking place behind the cameras. The studio hand made a full recovery, but left shortly after to take up a career in literature.

Smoke machines featured in another memorable occasion, but this one not so dramatic. "Make Ours Music" was a pleasant compilation of evergreen melodies. It was noteworthy for its imaginative use of sets and cameras. The sound was all prerecorded and the artists mimed on the night. On this occasion a male singer was on a bridge as the mist slowly rose (from under the bridge). Once again the producer, in this instance James Upshaw, was not happy with the volume of ‘mist’ so a more effective smoke machine was called for. This turned out to be the new super compact model. It was based on oil, not dry ice. Once again the machine was heated up and on cue I started pumping away on the handle and the smoke trickled out. But not in sufficient volumes for the producers liking. I pumped harder. And harder. Eventually the Floor Manager crawled under the bridge, grabbed the machine and started to pump even harder. Success. The smoke fairly billowed out. Meanwhile up above, on the bridge, the singer was launching into a particular melodic part of the song. Slowly the mist grew thicker. And thicker. Soon he looked as though he was singing, not on a bridge over a stream, but more a bridge over a stalled steam train. The mist had turned to smoke. Thick, black, oily, smoke. As the cameras slowly moved in for a close-up the acrid smelling smoke started to have its effect on the singer’s lungs. He started to cough. And he coughed. In glorious close-up the viewers watched as the singer doubled up in coughing fits as all the while the song continued, not faltering for a second.

Colour

In 1959 an energetic young designer from England joined us. His name was Doug Smith. He questioned our way of doing things and opened our eyes to a whole new approach to television production. He started with "Woman’s World". This was the era of black and white television. So the studio sets were all painted in shades of grey. Doug changed all this. He felt people work better in colourful surroundings. Besides certain colours made you relax, talk better etc. Doug did his research and came up with colourful sets that were a joy to work in. The presenters were happier and the guests more outgoing.

Graphic Machines

Graphics are the visual representations of words. Mainly they were the opening and closing titles proclaiming the name of the program and the end credits. One of the most difficult opening titles was 6 O’clock Rock. You turned a handle and the title spun around (like a record). However when it was time to stop it there was no way of knowing how the title was going to finish. If it was not upside down you considered yourself lucky.

At 5 o’clock each Tuesday was "Jimmy’s Den", featuring John Ewart as Jimmy. The setting was Jimmy’s attic and each week he had special guests as well as regulars talking on specific subjects. For instance Jeffrey Smart each week spoke on art. They also had a specialist talking on photography. And once they had a photographic competition. About this time a lovely young lady visited Australia from England. Her name was Sabrina. Her main claim to fame was a pretty face tied to a large bosom and a very narrow waist. She featured each week in an English variety program which I think was called "The Arthur Askey Show". On the show she displayed her best assets and said nothing. In Australia Channel 7 created a variety program around her and Channel 9 invited her to "Meet The Press". There were no plans for her to appear on Channel 2, until John Ewart met her at a party and invited her to present the prizes for the photographic competition. Sabrina arrived with a bodyguard. She looked stunning.

She had a short flayed skirt and a low cut blouse. Her figure was more pronounced because she was only short, just over 5 feet tall. She was very friendly and wandered around the studio talking to everybody. And when the time came for the photo competition the photos were displayed on easels and I had to flip the photos over. All was OK until Sabrina decided to have a closer look at the photos. She took up a position between me and the easel. So each time I flipped a photo my hand had to negotiate its way up and over her bosom to the graphic easel, flip the photo, and make its way back again. I tried to stop my hand from shaking and myself from breaking into a sweat. All eyes in the studio were on us. Eventually she was called away to make the presentation and I was able to relax. When the time came for her to leave we all trooped out expecting her to be chauffeured in a luxury limousine. In fact she departed with great elegance in a bubble car driven by her bodyguard.

In January 1961 I left the ABC and headed to England, spending time with BBC Television before moving on to work in the theatre in London and Canada. I returned to the ABC in 1964.

 

David joined the ABC in May 1958 and left in January 1961. In November 1964 he rejoined, working in Staging and then as Floor Manager and Producer, before moving into Presentation and working as a Presentation Officer in Sydney and Rockhampton. In 1972, after a stint in BBC promotions, David took up the position of Supervisor TV Presentation in Perth. David retired in 2001."

 

Valid HTML 4.01 Transitional