Australian Biography

Anne Deveson - full interview transcript

Tape of 15

Tape 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

What was it about those times that meant that living in sin created such a feeling among those around you?

Well, I think there was a general social opprobrium in smaller communities about living together and not being married. It just wasn't acceptable. I think it was alright in Sydney or Melbourne. In certain areas ... it wasn't an issue. But I think my father was quite right ... in a smaller community. And the second thing was that Ellis was quite well-known. He was known around Australia. He was, you know, a top broadcaster who was always on air ... and Hetty was very much [from] an Establishment family, and I think there was a kind of vein of self-righteousness in that community that felt they had to guard the morals of Tasmania, if you put it like that.

And that, I think, led to that really quite vindictive campaign of the letter-writing, first of all, and the closing up on any possibility of work for me because I could write one article about Tasmania or Australia for a magazine, but not any more ... and I think the ... I think that was the main thing, and ... but the second thing that followed, and it got even nastier really, was quite apart from the denial of work, and the social isolation, and Ellis was very distressed on my behalf as well, and ... and his. I mean, his reputation and his job were at stake. He refused to move to Victoria, to Melbourne. He said he would take it up with the union. And the ABC did back down. They let him stay there. They let us stay there.

But it got kind of nastier because, I remember, I had toothache and Ellis' dentist was away on holiday, and so I went to Sandy Bay, which is the very kind of richer part of Hobart. It was kind of a grand suburb, a good suburb to live in, and I found a dentist there. I asked somebody. And he happened to be related to one of the key members of this sort of group that were initiating all this activity to have us suppressed and run out of town. And I went to this quite young dentist, and I had a hole, a filling that needed to come out. And he said, ‘I'll look at your other teeth’ and he started to go round, you know, how they call out all the teeth and the things that are wrong. And he went on, left upper one, left upper two, left upper three, and in the end there seemed to be about 24 fillings. And ... he said, ‘Your teeth are crumbling away, and you realise this often happens when people come from England. Their teeth quickly go into decay. It's change of milk, change of water, change of climate, but it happens a great deal. And it's going to be quite hard to save your teeth, and you do quite a lot of broadcasting, don't you. I've heard you. And you have a very pretty voice. And what a pity if you had to lose all your teeth because it would affect your voice.’

And then he went on a bit more, and by now he was drilling this tooth, and he said he couldn't give me an injection because it was near the nerve, the filling, and he needed to know when he was, you know, exactly where to go. So I was in agony from this. So I had ... cotton wool and stuffing in my mouth, which afterwards my whole mouth was bruised for about two or three days afterwards. And he then started to say, ‘And of course, your front teeth, I know they're very strong but it's quite likely you'll lose those, and that will be an even greater pity because you show a whole lot of gum when you smile’ ... which I was very self-conscious of anyway ... ‘and everybody would know you had false teeth.’ And I'm condensing this because this was over about an hour of sitting in the chair. And it was absolute ... really, a kind of torture that he was exercising. And it was incomprehensible that this was happening, and when he'd finished I went back home.

It was my birthday I remember and I was shaking, and I had a temperature and I was in bed for the next 24 hours ... it was very brutal treatment. But, I mean, we traced back who he was the son of, and it was somebody very prominent, and I can only think that it was part of that extraordinarily malevolent campaign which to me was almost incomprehensible because I wasn't anyone in Hobart, and Ellis was an outsider. He came from Sydney. But they were kind of having fun. The boys were having fun.

And Nanny had told you that you had to be clever and good.

I know.

Now here you were, the scarlet woman?

I know. I didn't think of that. I think I was sort of quite enjoying that. I mean, I didn't enjoy that oppression. I didn't enjoy that horrible atmosphere. I found I was very unhappy ... I didn't have any friends. Ellis had two friends who were broadcasters at the ABC in Tasmania who were quite wonderful, and they'd come round ... these two men would come round ... they were sort of like my uncles. There was Ellis and my two uncles, and they'd cluck over me and try and make things be better ... it wasn't good, and then I became ... this gets even murkier. I became pregnant and there was no way at that stage I felt I could have a baby in that kind of atmosphere, and I wanted an abortion, which I found terribly hard to sort of ... to take in, but I just felt I couldn't have a child in those circumstances, and abortion was illegal.

And ... these two men found the only humanist probably in Tasmania, who owned one of the pharmacies in Tasmania, and the three of them came around with Ergot of Rye, which they said would produce a miscarriage. And I remember in this little tiny sort of poky kitchen in this little tiny cottage, in the middle of Hobart, opposite the cemetery, and it was very cold, it was winter, and drinking this Ergot of Rye. And then one of them said, or the pharmacist said, ‘If it doesn't work, then you will have to go to Melbourne because the foetus will be deformed.’ And that was just terrible. I mean, it's upsetting me now ... and it didn't work, and so we had to go to Melbourne where the only abortions that you could find were illegal, where you brought 100 pounds in single pound notes in a brown paper bag. Where there was a long kind of assembly line of women waiting for abortions this side, and there were women coming out of the anaesthetic this side, groaning and being sick. And where the doctor did not wear any surgical gloves. And where when I went home with Ellis back to the apartment that we were leasing or renting, I was very ill for about three or four days. I had a high temperature and we had to call the GP in.

And I was alright, I mean I recovered, but it was the most hideous experience of what it's like to be without any supports. And I was much more fortunate than many, you know, young single women might have been. I had a husband who was very loving, and I had these friends of his. I had no other women around me, but I had to go through this sort of awful undercover, smutty sort of procedure, process, which was very brutalising, and also very dangerous. And at that point I remember going back to Hobart and saying, ‘I can't live here any more.’ At that point also, not long afterwards, the divorce came through and that wasn't exactly a picnic because ... although the divorce ... you could only get divorced by adultery or cruelty or, you know, divorce through fault. And so we had a divorce through adultery and which was part of, I suppose, the ... it opened up for me that whole area of fault divorce and the need ... that the divorce laws need to be changed.

We had to have a private detective call on us and again you had, you know, Hetty who knew this and the whole thing had been quite amicably talked through. The private detective called at the hotel where we were staying and had rung up and said, ‘I'll be calling on youse,’ and came at about 6 o'clock in the evening. ‘And I want youse in bed’ and I was sitting with the sheets pulled up to my chin, and Ellis was also ... [laughs] ... I don't know what he was wearing, a dressing gown I think. And the guy came in and he said, ‘You know what this is all about’ ... and blah blah blah, and we had to sign a piece of paper and it was all done and over in about five minutes. But then it appeared as front page headlines in ... I can't remember the name of the paper. It was a well-known scurrilous broadsheet.

It was called Truth.

It was called Truth, yes. It appeared in Truth all around Australia, and there were posters at every street corner saying ‘radio star’s divorce’. And when we read it, it talked about how this ... the private detective called at the hotel and he knocked on the door and a man's voice said 'Go away I'm busy.' And he knocked again and the man's voice said, 'Go away I'm busy.' And finally he knocked again and the man hastily ... ‘Mr Blain, hastily donning a blue silk dressing gown, came to the door and opened it. And a young woman was sitting up in bed, naked, drawing the sheets to her chin as I walked in the room.’ And so the whole thing was a ... well, not the truth. I mean it was truth in the sense that it was adultery, but it was — it was very damaging for all. For Hetty, it was very painful for those children. It was very difficult for Ellis. In a way it didn't affect me as much because I didn't know anyone anyway, you know ... except it made me angry ... that whole process and that sort of messiness of divorce. And how much more damaging it was than it need have been.

And I think it was after that we got married in Melbourne, and the general manager then at the ABC, when I went back to Hobart, said ... who wouldn't let me near the doors beforehand, said, ‘Ah.. Mrs Blain, how pleased I am to welcome you in.’ So there was an enormous amount of social and sexual hypocrisy then that existed. On a lighter note ... my father who had been pacing the floor for a very long time. My mother had written to me and had said, ‘For God's sake, I've got to keep your father quiet. He's, you know, he keeps saying this and it's ... I have to stop him. Will you please send him photographs of a fake wedding?’ ... [laughs] ... And so about a year before we actually got married we had photographs taken by a friend against the fallen down wicket, you know, picket fence at this cottage. But we dressed it all up and I wore a hat and gloves and I've still got the photographs, and a handbag like the Queen. And we sent them back to my father. But when my father was ... just before he died, I remember he was lying back on his pillows and he said, ‘You know those photographs darling, they didn't really fool me.’ So ...

So these trials and tribulations of your early years in Australia, they didn't affect your marriage? You were still keen to go ahead? You were still happy with Ellis?

I think they affected him more than they affected me because it was ... it was his relationship with Hetty, it was his relationship with his children, it was his reputation and I think he became very stressed as a result of that. I was stressed but it was a different kind of stressed. I was ... I was ... I felt very alone and I was stressed. But I think we had ... he was enormously supportive because Ellis could be when you were in need. He was very loving and very good and we were very close ... I think I had noticed that he could not accept criticism at all, and if anyone criticised me it was almost as if I was an extension of him. He found that very difficult. He would get very angry. But we were still very close. And then at that point I had said, I can't stay in Hobart any longer, and he kept applying for jobs and eventually he got a job in Sydney with the ABC as a ... at a fairly sort of senior management level, and ... but not as good a job as he had in Hobart. And not as creative a job, and we moved to Sydney. And at this point I began to breathe again, in the sense of my public life, but then things started to become difficult with Ellis.

When you were making the decision to come back to Australia and meet up with Ellis, what part did Australia as an idea — your having already experienced it — play in that decision?

I think if anything it probably would have ... I was going to say stopped me from going, but I think by that I mean that I was very conscious that in my work I was at the centre of everything. That I was ... there I was in the middle of Fleet Street. I was working for top newspapers and magazines and the BBC and that it was unlikely I would get the same opportunity I thought in Australia. I really enjoyed my life in London. On the other hand I remembered things about ... I remembered the warmth and the freedom and, you know, it was an adventure. And also Ellis and I had arranged or decided that after a couple of years we would manage to come ... to return to Europe and we would freelance together as we had done when he was on furlough. And he had thought this would be perfectly possible, but of course what he hadn't taken into account ... and what was patently obvious, and rightly a very necessary part of any decision we made, was that he had four children. And although his eldest son had left and gone to England, he had three other children, and there was no way he could have left them. And nor should he have done. So ... so any idea of going back to Europe ... really was a bit, you know, sort of fairyland stuff because fares back were very expensive then. A lot of people still travelled by sea, and I didn't get back for about six or seven years, I think, when I went back.

Where were his first family located?

In Hobart. In Hobart. And ... and I saw quite a lot of them in Hobart when we were living there, and I've remained good friends with all of them and, you know, if I go to Hobart, or I go to Brisbane or wherever they happen to be living, then I see them.

What was your relationship with them? How would you describe it?

Um ... well, I suppose it was kind of ... I was their stepmother, eh ... and sometimes we made jokes about that. But I suppose I was more like an older sister probably. Um ... I didn't try and mother them but I certainly had good affectionate engaged relationships with them, and I enjoyed them.

Now what happened to your career when you came to Sydney?

Um ... my career ... when I came to Sydney, I thought this is great. I can get into the ABC now, and I remember going along and asking for work, and taking some tapes, and I was sent to the Women's Programme. Down the corridor to the Women's Programme. And I said ... but I really would rather do feature stuff or news stuff. And the little bit I had done in Hobart before I was stopped had been news stuff as well, and I was told ‘no, we don't have any women working in news or current affairs’, and so off I trotted down to the Women's Programme, which was very well-run and engaging, but I found it very boring. And I ... I remember ending up having to do the recipes for quite a while, and one day leaving out the sugar deliberately and then leaving it ... sabotaging it in other words. And at the same time I went back to the news section and in the end ingratiated myself there. And I got taken on, always as a freelance, but I worked very regularly for various news and current affairs programs in radio, with people like Allan Ashbolt and a number of very significant broadcasters, who were terrific ... who gave me lots of encouragement and lots of opportunities.

There were no rules in those days, as there were in other public service sectors, that husbands and wives couldn't work in the same organisation?

Well, I can't remember this. There were rules and I don't know if they were still operating. There was one that said that the wife of a serving officer can only have three engagements a year. And I had a feeling that that still might have been functioning, and then someone fished it out and at the beginning it didn't apply. But for whatever reason, after I suppose ... no, I went on working actually, but every now and again I would be reminded of this, so it was ... it was sort of freelance work, but quite engaging work, and I did some quite good radio documentaries, and news stuff ... and then I seem to remember, we built a house in Clareville, down the coast from Sydney. We built our first house. And Ellis had been in the airforce, had been a navigator in the airforce during the war and so he got some soldier settlement ... force’s settlement money, and we built a house with that. And that's where I had my first child, Jonathan. And it was not long after that that I started to do television and then got into radio, and then got into doing a column for the Sydney Sun. So that was ... suddenly everything opened up. But it took a little while.

And you still had a very small baby at home when you started working in a more full-time way?

Well, I think when Jonathan was little ... he was very ill when he was born. He had a cerebral haemorrhage and so he ... he spent quite a lot of time in the children's hospital, and I used to go there and feed him there, and have that awful breast pump. And I don't think I was working very much then. I used to occasionally put him in the back of the car and go off and do a news story, or a segment for a radio feature. But I wasn't working at a huge pace or anything ... and when I was pregnant with Georgia, I remember reading that there was a new television show called Beauty and the Beast, and they were looking for Beauties. And so I applied from Avalon. Nobody knew who I was from Adam and I came up and I was auditioned, and I got a role as one of the Beauties with appearances limited to two days a week because I was considered ... my role was considered to be the intellectual beauty, and the audiences ... and I wasn't an intellectual and I never have been. I may think quite a lot but, you know, it was a bit of a contradiction.

Anyway, my role ... I could only have this two days a week because this is what all audiences would accept, and Pat Lovell, I remember, who was living down there at the time in Avalon — we were close friends — she was supposed to be the blonde housewife because she had two children the same age as mine, and she could only appear two days a week. So we were kind of limited. Whereas we had Maggie Tabberer and various other people, who had ... who probably were better performers anyway, but they had more shows than we did. But that actually introduced me to television in a professional way, fully professional way, in that every week I would go up and do these performances, and I was pregnant at first, and then I used to take Georgia when she was a little baby in a bassinet. And Jonathan was at child care locally at that time. So I used to leave him or somebody used to come in.

I sort of managed that alright. Most ... a lot of my salary went on child care, but it was manageable. And what that did then was to get me into the television studios because I had already decided I wanted to make documentaries, and I didn't know how to make documentaries, not actually to go out and direct or be involved in making a documentary. But probably a bit like my mother, I bluffed my way into it. And I did this by coming up with a really good idea, which was to make a documentary about the funeral industry, and I called it Everyone a Customer, and I sold it in such a way that Peter Westaway, who was then in charge of Seven Days, bought the idea and I went out and made it, and fortunately had a very accommodating cameraman and a very accommodating editor, who nearly both of them tore out all their hair because I brought stuff back and half of it didn't cut together and so on. But they managed to kind of help me cobble it together.

And I remember it went on air with some degree of drama because you had to actually read the commentary while the rest of the vision ... while the rest of the film was going to air. So you read the commentary live ... on cue. So it was fairly tense-making this whole performance, and we had a very ancient car. Again we were poor because Ellis was paying quite a lot to support his other family. And ... it broke down. The muffler fell off, and I drove all the way from Clareville to Sydney in this car, muffler gone, fumes coming up, and I got as far as the pub, very near Channel 7, and I realised I was fainting, and I opened the door and fell out into the road opposite the pub. And there I lay saying, ‘Please help me’ because I couldn't get up. And everybody walked right passed me and over me and left me. And eventually a drunk came out and helped me up, a man who was very inebriated helped me up, and between us we managed to ring the television studio and someone came down and got me. And so ... I read the commentary and the program went to air, but afterwards in the make-up room I couldn't remember my address or my phone number. I was clearly, you know, poisoned. And ... I had to be driven home and I went to bed for a couple of days and the doctor came, and I was alright. So it was a very dramatic beginning for everyone, to think I might have carked it on my first job.

So that was some sort of a gas that was ... that knocked you out?

Yes, yes. It was the carbon monoxide coming out up through the car. So, it was ... it was sort of quite dramatic, but what happened was that the program got terrific reviews. There were hardly any women on television, and ... as a result of that, as can happen in [Sydney] ... I got asked if I would ... by 2GB if I would consider going to do a daily radio program, and then some time later I also did a column for the Sun. So it was kind of my career took off at that point, and ... and it was a stage when there really weren't all that many women around, so if you were working ... people made quite a fuss of you. You know, so long as you did a reasonably good job.

You had a very long run at 2GB as a very prominent radio personality for that station How did that happen?

Well, I did a daily program, and originally I did it ... in company with Keith Eadie, another broadcaster, and then I started doing it on my own. Then I did political interviews after the news, and they got a lot of publicity. I covered quite a lot of controversial subjects. And that, I think, was another pivotal point in my life really, in that those programs and the documentaries which I continued to make were mainly about social issues, and what it did for me — who in a way had led a fairly protected life, in a funny way, maybe I hadn't in my childhood — but what it did to me was that it took me out into the streets, as I heard coming through ... my ears, the voices of people who were struggling with poverty. Who were struggling with illegal abortions. Who were struggling with children who had handicaps, and when there was no help available for them.

So I became much more aware of people who were leading very different lives, for whom it wasn't the lucky country, Vietnam ... and that I think started to politicise me perhaps in a way that I hadn't been politicised before. I became involved in the Vietnam War movement, and in a number of social issues ... the green bans and all sorts of things like that. So it ... it was quite an important part in my life. And because it was daily, it was probably more important even than the documentaries — although they also immersed me in all sorts of facets of life that mightn't have happened otherwise.

The documentaries you made at that stage, were they mostly for Channel 7, for Seven Days?

Yes, I think a couple were for the ABC. I did one on children with handicaps. But mostly they were for Channel 7. Later I went on to make documentaries for 9 and the ABC. But that was later in my career. I think I ... I think I was lucky in that this happened at a time when there were not many women, so if you were any good, and I was quite good, then I got opportunities very quickly in a way that mightn't have happened later. I don't know ... but ... it was a very fulfilling time. It was also a time when I earned a lot of money. Ellis was being very successful. He had gone back to the air, being on air, and he had a daily radio program in the morning on the ABC called Let's Find Out. And he also did a Sunday or Saturday ... weekend sort of music and interview program combined. He did a lot of the tennis commentaries. And so he was quite in the public eye as well. And I suppose we became what might now be called ‘the A set’.

We became part of that beautiful people set, which was a bit unreal and a bit frenetic, and where I look back and wonder how on God's earth I ever managed. But I think part of that was because we were well-paid and I was quite well-organised in managing ... a bit like my mother then ... in that we had a live-in au pair sort of, live-in girl, a young woman, living in the house. And I had a housekeeper who would come in, and so all that was possible, and the fact that there wasn't ... child care wasn't very difficult and it wasn't expensive, was made much easier for me because we had money. So we could afford to get really good people there. And also I wasn't working a nine to five job. You know, I was working in the morning so I would be home when the kids came home from school ... or I'd be working at night which was a harder program, but I would be there when they went off to school, and I didn't go in ‘til quite late at night. So I had that kind of flexibility, which I've always had freelancing, which made it much easier with children. But which I then found out when I made documentaries, and followed other people struggling with children, that it was very, very hard indeed. As indeed it still is.

The things that you're interested in, and the things that you were following up on radio, as well as in your documentaries, were they similar to the sorts of issues that Ellis was pursuing in his programs? Was there a lot of overlap between you?

No, I don't think there was because ... no, we used to operate quite separately. We would cannibalise the newspapers, which was a kind of aspect of that work which in the end became ... made it very unsatisfactory because you were always feeding off the news. You had five minutes about this and five minutes about that and, you know, then you move on to the mechanisation of agriculture and then on to abortion, and then on to something else, and there came a point at which I found it very unsatisfactory, and where we went off and lived in Italy for nearly a year with the three children, just to break for a while. Um ... so that we did overlap in ... I suppose in some ways, but we were also ... that meant we were able to talk things through ... much more. I mean, we had things in common. Sometimes I would listen to him broadcasting to find out what was going on at home. He'd say, ‘My wife is so vague she wouldn't know if a thunderbolt dropped through the roof,’ and stuff like that. So he was on after me so I was able to ... or before me, so I was able to find out what was happening.

You said that your social milieu was that of the beautiful people. I was going to ask you about who were your friends at this time? Who were you spending your time with?

I suppose a whole mixture of people, actually. So ... some of them were people in television ... a lot of them were in documentary, say Peter Westaway, who was the ... who ran Seven Days. Those people working in that area of television were friends. Some of them were performers ... Pat Lovell who, before she went on to be a very important film producer in our film history, was a very close friend. And, numbers of people I still have as friends. The architect who designed our first house, and the architect who helped us with the second house that we got. All sorts of people. We had a very mixed variety of friends. But I use that term 'beautiful people' only because we were very much in the public eye. And it was in that sense that we were often in the newspapers.

Now what brought your time at 2GB to an end?

Um ... in the beginning I had no idea. I went in to work one day and I heard them discussing in the room or the pig pen next to us — and I'll explain that in a minute — what they were going to do with my program the following week. And 2GB had fairly recently moved to new buildings in Sussex Street or Kent Street, and ... and it was all open plan and we each had what I used to call ‘the pig pens’, which were open plan offices with kind of low, purple velvet, or plum velvet bars, that separated us off, I think. That's my fantasy anyway. Um ... and we had been back a year from having been overseas and I actually had tried to resign and 2GB persuaded me to stay on and just take a year's leave of absence. They were very generous to me when I worked with them. They sent me away a lot. They were very supportive ... and I came back, really against my intuition, which was that my time was finished there. And I think I was a bit lacklustre probably ... I wasn't as enthralled as I had been. And then the green bans were on. There was the whole hoo hah about development down at The Rocks and up in Victoria Street in Potts Point. And I became involved in backing that.

And because I was there as a personality quote unquote, where I was expected to have an opinion — I wasn't a news journalist — I held forth loud and strong about ... about kicking the original residents out of The Rocks, about sending them out to whoop whoop. And about the kinds of development that were planned which were totally alien to the environment, and very ugly. And although I had been able to talk about the Vietnam War, and to get away with it even though management would say 'that was a very tough program, dear' and 'management won't like that, dear', nevertheless I had very high ratings so they left me alone — as they did Brian White. But come the green bans, the people who didn't like it were not so much management, although they didn't like it either when they found out that all their advertisers, many of whom had direct interest in these developments that were going on, didn't like it one little bit. And they kept complaining. And I got warned that I mustn't cover this particular subject any more. And I remember saying, ‘I don't feel that I can do this. I've already become involved. I think it's a very important social and political issue, and I will continue.’ So I was kind of asking for it. And ... I came in one day and I heard this conversation and I went in and said, ‘What's happening?’ And I was told that they had recently done a survey and they found that women only wanted to listen to light music at the particular time of my program, and therefore they had decided that it was time that I ended my contract.

And what happened after that was gloriously satisfying for 24 hours only. But at the time it meant that there was a big demonstration. So on my final day before the broadcasting, it was a lunch time, there was a big demonstration — the Women's Electoral Lobby; the Trade Unions; the Handicapped Children's Association; the Autistic Children's Association; the Mental Health Branch — all these groups came with placards, and paraded around the whole building saying 'Anne for Lunch' and then they went into the building and came into the studio. Management, meanwhile, which wasn't very large, abandoned the building and called in the Commonwealth Police. So I got enormous television coverage, and I had my hour of glory when, you know, it was on the news that night, and even a bit of it dribbled through to the news the following morning. But then of course I found I was without a job. I was unemployed. And that was an extraordinary experience, and a very illuminating one because I hadn't realised how much my identity was bound up with my work. And it was the sort of thing that ... then I talked sometimes in fairly critical terms about these men whose identity solely rest with their work, and I realised that without my work, ... that I felt depleted in some way. I felt my identify [was] very fragile, and ... and I didn't like it at all. Not at all. But again I was kind of lucky because the publicity that I received meant ...

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 6