Australian Biography

Anne Deveson - full interview transcript

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During the period that you were known primarily as a broadcaster, and you were based at 2GB but doing lots of other things, you also took on doing a commercial?

Oh ... [laughs] ... the dreaded Omo. Yes.

Why do you say the dreaded Omo?

Oh, because it's followed me and plagued me all my life I suppose. Um ... and there was a period when I was a bit kind of snobby about it, and I didn't want to talk about it. And I think my attitude now is that it was part of my life and I did it. I was a commercial animal in the sense that I was working for a commercial broadcasting organisation. I couldn't work for the ABC. I did commercial television, and when I was asked to do these for quite a lot of money, I felt ‘why not.’ Um ... later I regretted it. You know, I think I was ... I remember I was approached and asked if I would chair the Police Board in New South Wales at one stage, or whatever it was called, which I would never have wanted to do in my wildest nightmares, but the story got out, 'Omo lady for new police boss,' and this sort of thing. So it did kind of follow me when I was appointed later to this Royal Commission on Human Relationships. The Omo lady tag followed me there. And it just keeps appearing. Um ... and I used to be defensive about it. I think looking back on it ... I think, you know, it was part of my life then. I learnt quite a lot from it. I learnt ... I learnt about, kind of, big television with high production values, and very succinct 30-second messages.

Um ... I used ... my world was to stalk the suburbs or appear suddenly over the sand dunes and shove a mike under somebody's nose and say, ‘What washing powder do you use?’ I was very English then in those commercials. And I remember Barry Humphries took me off in a ... included me in one of his skits at the Theatre Royal. And we sat in the front seat while we watched Barry playing the Omo lady. So that was a kind of phase which I ... when I left 2GB, not long after that, I dropped it. And then I think they brought it up again. They ... I had a return run of doing three Omo commercials, which kind of kept me going while Jonathan was so ill in the beginning. But that was a phase in my life where I remember Stuart Wagstaff, who used to do Benson & Hedges, telling me, do it by all means, but it will follow you to the grave. And ... I was once on an island in ... on Dunk Island. I've gone away with Newell, who I was then living with in Adelaide. And I'd gone there for this brave new life with the children, and we'd known each other two or three years beforehand, and we'd gone away for our first holiday. And everybody knew me as we went, sort of, into the dining room, and it was getting a bit difficult.

And so I'd found out that you could hire a boat and we decided we'd go around to the other side of the island where there were these beautiful empty beaches, no-one around, and we could just be there together, and read and be quiet and not have people coming up to us. And as we were lying there with no clothes on — I had a sun hat on — this power boat came zooming up towards us, and I lifted my hat and there were these three ... [interruption] ... This power boat came zooming up towards us and I lifted my hat and there were these three large women dressed in white leaning over the boat, and one of them said, ‘Oh, there's the Omo lady’, as I lay there stark naked, except for my hat. And so I knew then that Stuart was right.

These are the disadvantages that you're saying, but there must have been some advantages to that kind of notoriety. I mean, being satirised by Barry Humphries is the ultimate sort of accolade in the hall of fame, isn't it? And so did you feel that perhaps also, for the general public, your profile couldn't have been raised in a more effective way?

It certainly helped my radio audience. It helped probably build an audience. I suppose I was slightly snobby about it, in a sense, so I was kind of caught between the two. I was doing it and working with people I really enjoyed working with. But I didn't know that I wanted to go down in the hall of mediocre fame, or whatever I might have achieved as the Omo lady, if you see what I mean. There was ... I would rather have been known as a good writer or a good broadcaster. And I think I took it because it was good money. That's the reason I took it ... and looking back now. Would I have done it again? I don't know. That's a silly question to ask. You know, you never know the answer there.

Sometimes you do.

I mean, I wouldn't do it now, even if I had even less money than I have now because ... I wouldn't want to spend my time doing it, and I'm not denigrating the advertising industry holus bolus. I think we have advertising ... it's part of our life, and I think it consumes too much of it. And a lot of advertisements are rather puerile, and some are quite brilliant. And I know when I was CEO of the film school ... often some of our brightest students came from the advertising industry. They were the ones who thought laterally and creatively, and could get to the essence of an idea and pictures very quickly. So that I ... I always, I think, felt very strongly that you can have brilliant commercials and brilliant serious films, and heavy books and light books, but it's the quality of the work that's important.

You were criticised at the time also for doing it, by feminists, because you always asked your questions about washing of women?

That's quite true, and mostly women did the washing, and I used to have ... long discussions. Once a year we used to meet with the account executives and the ... the account psychologist, and there used to be about four or five men in grey flannel suits, rather trendy looking men ... and beards, short beards. And ... and we used to discuss the Omo image. And these were always terribly funny these ... I thought, these conferences, because they were just very serious. They took themselves too seriously ... and I always raised ... ‘Why don't we ask men, men do washing, why do we always stick with the blonde housewife with the two point four children who all wore long white socks. And she invariably had blue eyes. Why don't we break that?’ And they used to say, ‘Yes, yes you're quite right. What a good idea’, they'd say, year after year after year. But we never did that and it wasn't, I think, until much later that that mould was changed, as I suppose society shifted.

Some of the ... some of the women were ... it was interesting. The kind of position these women found themselves in when you went to interview them was very revelatory of what was happening in society at the time. It was when Beauty and the Beast in itself, ah ... was more than an entertainment show because it was quite obvious it was a link to a lot of very isolated women all over Australia. It was enormously successful. Hugely successful. And then, equally, talkback radio played the same role. Women were not connected by phone as much as they are now, certainly not by computer, by the internet. Women were very isolated. It was pre, sort of, [the] last wave of feminism. And I think the same thing would happen when we'd go out to do the Omo ads. They took a lot of trouble finding the blonde housewife with the children with the long white socks. And they would probably audition hundreds of women at child care centres and infant schools. Hundreds and hundreds of women would be interviewed until they found the right ones. And they would always interview somebody who came ... who wasn't Australian-born. They'd throw in a few people from other countries. But they never, never chose them.

And then you go out to interview these women and you would spend about three days. You would take them out to dinner the night before so that they would be familiar with you. You'd make a great fuss of them, and what often happened was that the husband, who would also be taken out to dinner, would start to get very edgy about all this because all the attention was focused on his wife ... and this wasn't a familiar situation in this household. And she would blossom while he either shrank or got pretty distressed and pretty hostile to us. Now this didn't always happen. But it happened enough for me to notice it. And then the next thing that would happen is you would do the commercial, which would take all day, at least. Sometimes longer. And this woman suddenly was special. She was there. She was the focus of attention and often she would become very wistful and she'd start talking about how I got my career, and how I got started, and how could she break out and do something.

And quite often people made quite significant changes afterwards. They'd start studying or ... it was quite interesting. And we had one or two women who had agoraphobia, which was a bit difficult when you were trying to make a commercial, but who clearly were so housebound in a way that when they came to do the commercial, they found it very difficult. So it wasn't um ... I mean, it wasn't supposed to be a sociological exercise, but it was an experience that I remember for that ... particularly coming into these people's lives for about three days, making a huge fuss of them, and then disappearing. And wondering just what was going to happen afterwards.

You were making news documentaries for commercial television at the time?

... [Repeating question] ... At the same time you were doing these commercials, you were also making news documentaries for commercial television. What was the ... did you know the difference in the budgets for what you were doing?

Absolutely, yeah. Absolutely, and that used to ... constantly frustrate me ... it was probably in that whole period I was becoming much more politicised, which was interesting because ... not just because of the experience I had interacting with people, and moving amongst people who were living a whole variety of lives, but also looking at what was happening in the arts and broadcasting. I'd see the difference in the budgets between say the ABC, where Ellis was working, and ... and then commercial radio, where I was working, and having constant battles. I refused to read to commercials ... on air. Again, that's a ... that's a ... because it was ... that would have clearly transgressed any notion of, you know, independent comment ... but where there was a lot of money around and people were paid very big salaries if they were the kind of Eric Baumes or Andrea, I remember ... and they used to have private cars that would pick them up and take to work and back again, and shirts made, and the whole sort of caboodle of being a personality, which Brian White and I never had because we were the news people, supposedly.

But you were able to make documentaries for the news division of Channel 7 on social issues, in a way that doesn't seem to happen so much these days. Have you noticed a change between then and now in the focus in commercial television?

Yes, I think commercial television is much more entertainment stuff, but I think that's not just commercial television. I think there's been a general dumbing down. I think it applies equally to the ABC ... and ... and there are now ... the documentaries that we have now ... the Australian Story genre, some of which I think are very good indeed, but the ... in terms of the political sort of hard-hitting documentaries, then you have to look to SBS and ABC. I don't think you see it on commercial television. But there was then a very strong ... documentary unit and ... at Channel 7, that was headed by Peter Westaway, who then went on to the Broadcasting Control Board, I think, at Macquarie University, and was a terrific person to work for and with, because he was a political animal. He ... he was very bright and he did give support for anything, any good idea that people came up with. And he was prepared to take risks. He was prepared to do stuff that might attract a lot, you know, of angry correspondence afterwards. I did one on lesbians and, you know, got correspondence saying, ‘This is a disgusting subject’ and ‘How dare you let this sort of filth be aired on television’ and so on and so on. But he always backed us.

During that period, also, the whole idea of talkback started — were you involved in that?

Yes I was, and I think I was one of the first to use talkback. I was certainly the first on 2GB. And I remember being ... we were all drilled in how to use talkback and the fact that there was a panic button and there was a seven-second delay between the actual broadcasting, the actual taping of the recording, and going to air. And I hit off on the first morning and I had my colleagues and the managing director and the admin manager and everybody standing behind the glass panel watching to make sure nothing went wrong. And for the first hour my finger was hovering over the panic button. Any time anyone said anything to do with sex or sex or sex, my finger would be there. And at the end of an hour somebody ... a man was droning on very boringly about the price of cauliflowers, and in the middle of this he suddenly said, without changing the tone of his voice, exactly what he would like to do with me, for me, and to me sexually. And instead of pressing the panic button, I was so amazed, I said, ‘Would you mind repeating that?’ and he did, and so ... [laughs] ... all hell broke loose afterwards from the Broadcasting Control Board, that obviously didn't have much of a sense of humour. And ... but it was ... shows that you can't always be prepared.

Now, you said that one of the reasons why you had done the Omo commercial was that it gave you money, and it gave you money to take a year off with your family in Italy. What was that year like?

That year was just wonderful. It was, I think, the happiest time we spent together as a family. It came about because I thought one day I couldn't bear to be asking any more questions. I had sort of had eight years of, you know, asking questions about the same subjects. And I recognised that my voice had slipped into a kind of tone ... and a way of speaking that I couldn't get out of either. It was ... it was in a way quite alarming almost, that I was on automatic pilot. Not in so much in asking the questions but just in the way I introduced subjects.

What was the tone?

Well, it was a kind of broadcast tone. It was that studied tone that broadcasters have, and really they shouldn't have. And there's a fine line between the person who says, ‘And ah ... , I mean, um ... ah ... yeah well ... what I wanted to ask you was ...’ And then the other one that says, ‘And is it true that you had five abortions? And what do you think of so and so.’ And ... you know, so there's a kind of artificial presenter’s tone, and so I was ... I just felt I just had enough of it. I was fed up with it ... and I remember saying to Ellis, why don't we go off for a year. Why don't we take a year off. And it happened very quickly after that. We ... I managed to get a column in a magazine in ... in one of the women's magazines once a month ... [interruption] ... I think it was more than that. Ellis got work lined up with the ABC ... and we rented a house in Italy in Piedmont from a friend of ours for actually very little money. And we were off.

What was so interesting was that everybody was very angry with us. When I say everybody ... many of our friends were very disapproving that we were going then. Many of our colleagues at work were disapproving. And they said, You're making a great mistake ... they won't take you back again. You'll never get back in again. You know, you won't be able to get another job like that again. You'll regret it. You'll come back and you'll be a year older.’ And there was quite a punitive attitude from some people about what we were doing. And I remember talking to Charmian Clift about this. She and George spent much longer than a year, and indeed did get stuck in Greece in a way because their money ran out. But people were quite hostile at what they were doing. What happened to us was that we went to England and my father had since died and I ... my mother was actually quite ill at the time and had been going to come with us but couldn't come. And so I had to spend time with her, and then we went to Italy.

And we had these nine months in this small village. We were in a house on a hill ... which was quite a walk to the village, and about ... an even longer walk, about a half-hour walk, not a huge walk, to the nearest market town ... and there we read books and went for walks and we just spent time together and with the three children, which was a very peaceful thing to do. The children, who were at the squabbling age at that stage, stopped squabbling. They had no toys, particularly, and ... certainly no television and yet they found their own pleasures through using their imagination. They'd go for walks together and treasure hunts and make up stories themselves ... and the days just passed really in great contentment.

What happened about school?

Well, school was interesting, because I'd worried about school and I had rung the School of the Air, and I got this splendid woman who sounded like Margaret Rutherford, who said, ‘My dear lady, what do you want to worry about school and things like that, and Cuisenaire rods, when you can breathe the air of the Colosseum?’ She probably got the sack the next week. But, you know, ‘Walk along the Appian Way ... just make sure that they keep diaries and draw pictures and all that kind of thing and you'll find it won't matter at all.’ And indeed that's what happened. The village school was too far away ... to get them there. Josh was very little. He was only three. He had his fourth birthday in Venice. And ... the others were six ... seven ... and seven and 10 ... 11 or around that age. We worked on the premise that if anyone got bored we'd stop working. We did a bit of school ... every day. But we did things like a bit of arithmetic, a bit of maths. And ... a lot of writing stories and talking and reading books. Um ... and then we'd have periods where we wouldn't do any school. If we decided we'd go to explore a town for the day, Assisi or somewhere like that, we'd do that.

We made two excursions outside the village, one to Venice and one to Florence for 10 days each. But apart from that we just stayed in that ... in that community. And when we got back to Australia the children actually were ahead of their class. You know, they were several months ahead. They weren't behind at all. And I think it was from that individual attention and from being stimulated ... so it was an interesting time, that.

It was also a very happy time for Ellis and I because he was somebody who didn't cope with stress well ... and would get ‘volatile’ ... was a word I'd use. But he'd get very explosive at times when he was working, under pressure at home. And yet remove him from his work and the demands of his work and, kind of, the various pressures that can happen in an urban life. There was no competition between us. It was ... we were just living in these rather ... fairly basic ... it wasn't a grand Tuscan villa. It was a little stone cottage ... we had a very happy and contented life together ... and that was true for all of us. It was a very good time.

Joshua, who had born eleven-and-a-half weeks’ premature, which is very premature, and had been quite difficult when he was a baby, he had lots of anger, lots of crying, lots of stiffening. Was very hard to get any emotional response from him ... had I known as much as I knew later, I might have thought, ‘My God, he's going to be autistic’, because he was manifesting a lot of those sort of characteristics ... he didn't speak really very well until he was ... until we went to Italy. His language was very limited. And then he suddenly ... it all came out. But in Italy with a lot of attention all the time and no stress, he sort of came good, you know. The anger left him. And so it was ... it was a very good time for all of us.

And you had three children. Had you always wanted to have children?


And how did you find motherhood?

I actually enjoyed it. I ... I was besotted with my three children. I was worried about Joshua and I was worried about Jonathan. The two boys had a difficult time. Jonathan had this cerebral haemorrhage when he was born. He was born very quickly. Georgia was born with no-one in the room. I was in hospital ... and that's another story. So, I had dramatic childbirths with all three of them. But I actually like little babies. I was able, because of freelancing, to take time off. Again I was lucky in that regard. Less easy with Joshua ... because I then had this daily radio program. Although there I took time off for some months before I went back to work ... and because it was only an hour, I could take him and leave him with the producer, you know, in a basket. It was sort of quite manageable, in a way that isn't obviously if you have a full-time job, if you're in an office or in a factory.

I must have got myself very well-organised, and this is interesting. I was not organised ... as a ... as a child or as a young woman. I was chaotic. I was always late. I always missed trains and buses. The flats that I lived in London were in total chaos, and I used to drop things on the floor and ... I was all over the place. I would still do my writing and I'd get things in on time, but ... I was not a tidy person. I realised when I had children that if I didn't learn to systematise my life in some way and clean up afterwards, after I had made a mess, quickly, I wouldn't be able to work. And so I was able to change, and be much tidier when I was with the children.

What sort of child care arrangements were available to you?

Um ... very little. There were private child care places, but I don't remember how expensive they were. I don't think they were as expensive as they are today because they weren't as regulated, and you didn't have to have X number of toilets three inches from the ground, this sort of thing. So there was more child care in people's houses, which were licensed, but they were much more informal than child care ... I mean, there must have been some of the other child care places as well, but not as many ... and there weren't as many women working either, so the need wasn't as great ... I had ... I found a family, a wonderful rosy-cheeked ... apple-shaped woman in Newport who ... which was near us, and I used to drop Joshua, Georgia and Jonathan off with her, and ... while I did my program, and then I'd come back and pick them up. So for me it wasn't so difficult except I do remember, now as I talk, those terrible drives through town when you think, ‘My God, I'm going to be late and I'm not going to get back in town,’ or so on. There ... there were a couple of child care places in town, but they weren't particularly good and I think I tried those and then realised it would be much better to get a family. So in ... that meant that if I was late it wasn't the end of the earth. But ... there wasn't a lot around at all. It was hard.

Later when you were wealthier ...


... did that make it easier?

Yeah, because after ... when I became pregnant with Joshua, we realised that the little house we were in Clareville Beach ... was too small. It only had really one and a half ... two bedrooms ... two bedrooms, and you couldn't cram the three children into the second bedroom. And so that we ... that's when we decided we'd move and we moved to Hunter's Hill in a much bigger house with a much ... with a big garden. And ... and that's when ... because Joshua was so disturbed, I suppose really, I mean he needed attention. He needed someone to be there to hold him when he got so angry. He'd have these terrible tantrums.

That's when I advertised and I found this quite sort of Mary Poppins came to live with us for about three years ... two or three years. And Ginny came in and became a part of the family. And ... but her primary concern was Joshua. But she also tidied us all up and sort of lived with us, and she was remarkable. She and I worked together with Joshua because Joshua was in a humidicrib in the hospital for about six weeks or longer ... two months, before we could bring him home, because he was so little. Even in those days he was about a kilo in weight. And his lungs hadn't properly developed. When he was born we were told he had a very slim chance of surviving through the night ... and you know it was sort of 95 percent odds against him. And then the next day it was 80 percent and he actually struggled. He fought quite hard. It was interesting seeing this little shrimp in a humidicrib, and you could see him kind of battling to move. Whereas some of the little babies were very passive.

And there was the most wonderful, wonderful nurse in charge of these little wee babies in the neonatal part of the hospital ... and the results in this Mona Vale Hospital, child morbidity and child mortality in the neonatal unit, were amongst the best in the state. And I don't think it was because ... they didn't have any particularly sophisticated equipment, but this nurse had no children of her own, but she just loved these little tiny scraps, these little babies. And she used to make mobiles for them and paint their humidicribs and she insisted on naming them and she used to play music. And so all this, sort of, I think, love and devotion she poured into them, that made a huge difference ... because we were not allowed to touch the children then. We were not allowed to ... we were not able to put our hands into the cribs even and touch them. So for two months or more I'd look at him through the glass and couldn't touch him ... and that meant when he came home and started to scream and scream I found it very hard to relate.

I had had an ectopic pregnancy before him and a miscarriage with septicaemia and then I became pregnant with Joshua, and it really wasn't a good time to have another ... a baby on top of that because I was depleted. But on the other hand, I didn't want to have an abortion because I wanted this baby, you know. So I realised that I was like this with him, and I'd go to do up his nappy, and I'd really want to jam the pin in, or I'd go to put him on the bed to change his nappy and I'd find myself getting further and further away from the bed, and I was horrified at what was happening. And I remember going to my local doctor and saying, ‘This is terrible, this is what's happening.’ And he said, ‘No, no, Mrs Blain, you're a wonderful mum. I've seen you with the other two children. No, no, no. You're just a bit tired. Just lie down.’ And ... and I talked to Ellis who said, ‘No, no, no, you're absolutely wonderful.’ And nobody would take me seriously. Ah ... the only one who did was Pat Lovell who listened because she was my only real then close woman friend. I didn't know many people then, around near where we were living.

And ... eventually I went away for the weekend ... I think ... whether I took ... I think Ellis looked after him, or somebody came in and looked after Josh. I knew I had to get away and think through what I was going to do ... and I thought it through and first of all I recognised that I actually was very good with the other two children and I was a loving person. There was no literature on child abuse or anything then. And I hadn't abused him, but my fear was that I might one day throw him ... stand too far away and he'd land on the floor, or I might harm him. And, so number one I was alright, but two, I was absolutely totally depleted. I had nothing to give, and that was a big problem. So number three, I had to find myself space and time to build up my own resources again. And number four I had to bring someone in who could take over the mothering when I was ... had nothing to give.

And that's when Mary Poppins, when Ginny, came in. And I brought her in to the whole story, and ... so we co-mothered Joshua in that period. And whenever I was relaxed and I'd sort of ... I don't think I was working then, I can't have been, whenever I was relaxed and I could be with him, I would. But as soon as I got tense ... and whenever he had these terrible tantrums. If anyone looked at him he'd ... he'd scream.

So he was very disturbed, clearly, and when we'd eat our breakfast ... almost you had to turn your back to Joshua because if you looked at him he would often scream. Everybody found him very difficult. He was very, very disturbed. ... I mean nowadays you'd have much more help, if you started describing this sort of thing. And Ginny would love him. You know, Ginny would be able to ... she didn't have this sort of emotional involvement and guilt. So she was always there. And then gradually she weaned herself from him as he became calmer and as he began to relax more, and the tantrums became less fierce, and he was less stiff when you went to pick him up. Um ... there came a time not long before we went to Italy when she would ... only come back at the weekends, and she gradually weaned herself from Joshua, and I was able to come in more and more full-time. But again I couldn't have done that if I hadn't have had the resources ... you know, I don't think. Or if I hadn't lived in a big extended family. I'd remembered reading in Polynesian families how this often happened and I thought, well, I have to make my own extended family.

Later you made a film called Who Killed Jenny Langby? which was ... about child abuse. Do you think that that experience with little Joshua helped you?

It wasn't actually Who Killed Jenny Langby?, it was called Do I Have to Kill My Child?

You're right. Thank you for correcting me. Now I have to ask you that question again. Later you made a film called Do I Have to Kill My Child? Did you bring your own experience to that film?

Absolutely. And one of the reasons I made that film wasn't so much because of the need to express my experience, but it was when I went on to the royal commission. We started getting so many submissions and phone calls from women who were in a similar ... found themselves, for a whole variety of reasons, in situations where they were frightened of hurting their children, or they actually had done something harmful. And I thought one way of actually reaching out to people, rather than wait, or as well as wait for the commission report, was to try and get something on commercial television. And commercial television rather than the ABC because of the very big audiences. And I remember I couldn't raise the money because I took it to the commercial networks and they said, ‘Oh, if they don't beat their kids they won't want to know about it, and if they do beat their kids they won't want to look at it.’

And I couldn't get any joy from the ABC. I couldn't get any joy from anyone, and finally there was something called the Women's Film Fund, which had just been set up. It was in about 1974, something like that ... 1975. And we got funding from them and we gradually scrabbled together and got the money. And I made it — originally I was going to make it as a documentary, an actuality, and then I realised you can't do that because you can't put children who've been in this sort of situation ... on television. You can't identify them ... and that I'll do it as a dramatised documentary, and I'll get well-known actors like Jackie Weaver to be in the cast, and I'll make it a middle-class family because the perceived wisdom of the time was that it was only poor people who hurt their kids, you know. It wasn't the middle-class ... middle-class people.

And of course the reality is that unless people are psychopathic, people don't want to hurt their children. People love their children. But people sometimes find themselves in situations, whether they're emotional or social or economic, when the stresses are so huge that this is what happens or nearly happens. And Channel 9 who broadcast this film were terrific. They didn't do anything about ... we actually had to make the film and then I got them in to look at it ... and ah ... I can't remember who it was but it was a senior executive ... Len Major, who got out his cheque book at the end of the film, and said, ‘What do you want?’ And then after that I saw how a big network can throw the whole weight of its publicity machinery behind a project, and they advertised it.

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