|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: May 18, 1996
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
Were you always a success in your role as professional Australian, travelling around selling Australia?
Most of the time. I can remember there was one -- it was early in the piece, but rather discouraging episode. It was the first in fact of the talks I gave. It was in Edinburgh, and it was in this vast cinema, and a man met me and we sat on the stage behind the curtain, which was very dusty and and somewhere an organ was playing sad music and I couldn't see, of course, the audience, through the curtain. And I thought, 'Christ, this is going to be awful.' And anyway, the curtain went up, and this man introduced me as, 'Here we have a tall Australian come to tell us about life Down Under.' And there was a ripple of rather muted applause, and I started off saying, 'I like very much being here in England.' And a voice from the audience shouted, of course, 'You're not, you're in Scotland,' you know, and I said, 'Yes, I'm sorry.' You know, it went all right after that but it was a bit off-putting for them and me.
Very bad from somebody called Mungo MacCallum?
Well exactly, yes, yes. And another time was when I was in Scotland and there was this little highland village, very remote. It was a very cold night and very snowy and everything, and they had this warm fire and this little sort of club of men in the house. They were all staunch old, you know, burghers. And they wanted to know about the geography of Australia and what it was like in the inland and all that. And I had mugged up a bit on this, and I put up a big sort of diagram and a map, and talked and talked and talked, boring myself to extinction. And at one stage, about 11 o'clock -- they all listened, you know, passively and didn't say anything -- at about 11 o'clock, one of them said, 'I think gentlemen, it's time to offer Mr MacCallum a little refreshment.' So we had some whisky, and to my horror they then said, 'Now we shall resume.' And this -- by now it was half-past 11, snowy night and very, very muggy and the fire making one want to go to sleep, and I talked on desperately. And I could see their eyes closing. But they were absolutely determined to get their money's worth, you know. And so finally we ended at 12 o'clock and I thought, 'If it's all going to be like this, I'm out. I just couldn't bear it.'
Did you get outside the British Isles on this?
Oh yes. I wanted to go to Germany, post-war. But they wouldn't allow me. They said 'No civilians' at that stage. So they sent me first to Egypt, and I roved around among the occupation troops. But an absurd thing happened on the way. I'd been in France previously and bought, you know, a few things to take home, including a very valuable print with actual gold on it, a Medieval portrait with gold. And at that stage the Egyptians hated the English, and I had this attack of hypoglycaemia on the plane and passed out. And British Airways, when they landed, rushed me to a camp, a medical officer's tent and he said, 'Stay very still for about a week.' And meanwhile, the Egyptian customs had insisted on unwrapping and unrolling my very, very valuable print and messing it all up and ruining it. There I was stuck in this tent feeling, I must say, pretty frail, you know, and then I got up and gave a few lectures. And they were very disgruntled, these troops. All they wanted was to get home. They hated Egypt. Couldn't bear it. And the same thing in Greece. I went to Greece and of course there it was very difficult to move about because there was a civil war going on. And you weren't allowed in the mountains. But there again, one found this extraordinary difference between ([classes, like] I found in Britain) -- it was very concentrated in Egypt and Greece, partly I suppose because it was in the army, and you had officers and men. And some officers patronised one and one'd have to snap back, you know. And the same thing in Britain, there was a woman who -- in the west, one of these hunting types, you know, tweeds and some pearls, and she introduced this 'young man' (which I wasn't) from Australia ''who's come to tell us about life in the Colony.' And I got up and said, 'I'm not young, and it is not a colony now,' and explained why, 'and I don't like being patronised.' And in fact somebody in the audience clapped, to my amazement. She sort of flushed a deep purple and so on, but it actually went alright. And at the end of it -- I'd started by saying, 'I am a typical Australian, an average Australian,' and this man got up and rambled on about how he was of Yeoman stock, old Yeoman stock and he'd been in Australia and Australians were rude and uncouth, and 'this man is not an average Australian.' So I came out of it battered but with my head up.
Now, going into the army had taught you, had politicised you and taught you to feel very critical of the establishment into which, to some extent, you'd been born. Going to England and travelling around for the British, talking about Australia, had perhaps made you think that -- think of yourself more as an Australian than you ever had as you were growing up?
Exactly. Exactly. I became quite fiercely patriotic. Even though I couldn't bear the patronage that occasionally one came across, I became very, very strongly patriotic and if anybody started criticising Australia, I leapt to its defence; even though they may have been half right, I still leapt to the defence. And coming back on the ship, which was chockablock with English migrants, I was about the only Australian there, and I felt they were a pretty wimpish bunch frankly, you know, and I became quite fierce about it. And we held classes -- another Australian too -- and we between us, we were asked to give talks and held classes to inform these migrants of what they were coming to. And they had no idea, no idea at all. They had no idea where we were going, where it was. They had no idea how big it was. All they knew about was kangaroos, you know. And this was despite the fact they'd all had the opportunity to get a lot of information from Australia House in London.
Well, they were very brave, weren't they, to be travelling out to somewhere like that?
Well, I suppose they were, but they were what I would call limp as well. And some of them were the complaining Poms, you know, the sort that later came to prominence.
So was that the only time you travelled overseas?
Oh, no, I'd travelled during the war, and later on. But not nearly as much as most people.
Could you tell me about your travelling during the war and later on?
Well, yes, it was all done by subterfuge because I wasn't supposed to leave the country during the war. I went to New Guinea on one of my tours of duty, interviewing people about how they felt about Salt and so on. And then I thought: I'll go further and I won't tell anybody. So I was in a safari suit, and I got on an American plane. They were quite easy about it, you know, no problem and flew to Hong Kong. And got off at Hong Kong, and went to the army stores and emerged as a Royal Marine Officer. And nobody seemed to notice.
Why did you do this?
Well, because I wanted to be travelling around and I wasn't supposed to be me, you know.
So the Australian authorities had told you not to travel beyond New Guinea?
You decided you wanted to do that ...
... and you disguised yourself?
Well, without greasepaint, yes. Just the uniforms. Didn't wear wigs or false moustaches or anything like that. It was very easy. There was never a tense moment. And at Hong Kong I did quite a lot of interviewing for Salt, and the situation there, as usual, was a bit odd, you know. But there again, there were lots of British troops and I talked to them unofficially. And then I went to ...
You talked to them in an American Marine uniform?
No, Royal Marine.
A Royal Marine uniform?
I didn't ever wear an American uniform. Then I went on to Shanghai. I got on a British battleship ...
I'm sorry about this, but I have to know. Can we go back a step. You went into the store to get a Royal Marine uniform.
The store ...
... Because it was colder and I had a safari, a thin safari suit. And it was colder. So I asked somebody who was quite friendly and he said, 'Oh, go to the store, you'll get your uniform. What are you?' and I said, 'I think I am actually a Marine,' I said then. That was it. They accepted. Nobody asked for identification. And then I went to Shanghai and then I got on a plane, an American plane, and flew over the hump as it was called, to Burma. And that was a hideous -- to Calcutta -- that was a hideous trip, because it was a very dangerous trip in those wonderful old DC4 planes which were sort of packhorses of the army for so long for everybody. It was chockablock with French soldiers and a troupe of dancing girls from Britain who were entertaining the troops, and it stank of petrol, or kerosene, absolutely you know, brimming with it. And it was full, every spare tank and everything was chockablock with this stuff. And there were notices up everywhere, 'No Smoking.' And even in French, for the French, 'Defence de fume', and they all lit up the moment we took off and smoked the whole way over this perilous flight, loaded with fuel, to Calcutta. It was an awful flight, I really was frightened for hours on end.
And you continued on this way through Asia and you weren't supposed to be there?
Did you continue as a Royal Marine?
No. I changed into an English tropical uniform, not a marine, a normal infanteer, and developed malaria. I know it sounds very frivolous, I did a lot of sketching in Rangoon, in Burma, and the great temples and things like that. And brought them back and we used those in Salt too. So it wasn't a frivolous trip, you know, I did a bit of work every now and then.
But you were really having a sort of adventure?
Yes, yes. And I wanted to get away from Melbourne. You know, to be there such a lot during the war did become irksome, especially when there were people dying all over the place up north. And I didn't hear a shot fired in anger I must say. And I had what is -- or I didn't have -- what is normally called a good war, in so far as it wasn't dangerous and it wasn't decorated or anything. But I had a good war from my point of view.
Is there a law against impersonating a British officer?
Probably. But everything went so easily. It was like when I went to England, you know, later -- everything was easy, no problem, as we didn't say then.
When you came back from Europe to Australia, what did you come back to?
Well, in terms of work, to nothing. There was no job waiting for me or anything like that. In domestic terms, to look for a house, because Diana had been living with her parents, and we didn't particularly want to stay there forever. So we found a house -- we were the first or second people of the new wave to go to Paddington. And it was -- Diana's mother, for instance, thought this was an absurd and dangerous exercise. We had this dear little house. It was a bull nose front and about 100 years old. And I fixed it up with my handyman skills, and we moved in and it was great. We were there for quite a long time. And then I -- I forget why -- but I felt, 'Why don't I have a go at the ABC?' And I'd heard about Neil Hutchison, who was Head of Features at that stage, and that he was looking for new writing and that sort of thing. So I went and -- again, I had a very pleasant reception and he was Head of Features which, of course, as you know probably, is an indefinable word in radio. A feature can be almost anything. So I wrote a lot of features and quite a lot of radio drama which also came later under Neil's orbit, and I found that it suited me enormously. It was where I began my first, as it were, personal writing, my first natural, as opposed to reportage, or whatever, my first creative writing, that's what it was. And oddly enough, I know it sounds incredibly banal now, and nobody would notice, but I made my debut with a feature about being drunk. And it created a bit of a furore, and quite a lot of praise, but also a fair amount of criticism, you know, 'He shouldn't write about those sorts of things' and so on. And I went on from there. And then, as usual, I was new to the ways of the ABC bureaucracy, but the bureaucrats said, 'This man is not on the staff. What's he doing?,' and by that time I'd become virtually on the staff, I had an office and so on and so on. So they put me on a contract, which was in those days unheard of virtually, and I was on a contract and I was officially appointed Features Editor and there I remained for a few years.
Could you tell me what radio actually meant to people at that time? Could you paint a little bit of a picture of what radio meant in the society, and what it was actually like to be one of the people who were working in it?
Well I think radio or ABC Radio, as opposed to other radio, meant more or less the same as it does now. It had its very loyal adherents, it had people, like me for instance, who couldn't bear to work anywhere else in radio, and it had people who couldn't bear to listen to anything else but the ABC. Rather the same thing now, Friends of the ABC. And it was influential, as it is now, among, you know, certain circles and important people. It had very good coverage of certain things, like sport, news. Its more aesthetic aspects, its music, was very influential, it had the orchestra, which wasn't as good as it is now. But its other things, its dramas, were good, more along what you would call traditional lines. Lots of adaptations of English books, English novels and things like that, and of course the Blue Hills and its predecessors and so on, all of which had a huge following. But it was not widely influential in terms of what you'd call general or popular culture because, as happens now, the ABC will put on a very good series, say from Britain or maybe America, and it won't have huge ratings. It's sold on to the commercials, it has huge ratings, you know.
What year did you join the ABC?
It would have been about 19 ... -- well I did my first work for them about 1949, and it would have been about 1950 that the bureaucracy suddenly realised I wasn't a number.
So this was some time before television had arrived ...
Oh yes, yes.
... in Australia. So in the absence of television, radio obviously was a much [more] dominant force in people's lives?
What kinds of people were actually working in radio around you? Who were your colleagues?
Well, there was Neil Hutchison, who had been the BBC representative -- he was very good to me, and I was very fond of him. He gave me, you know, a free hand. And, as I have written, he was as I imagine Machiavelli to have been, because he was a very attractive, very charming person, and an extremely good intriguer, and that's how he was. There was John Thompson, who did very good radio portraits, documentary portraits of well-known [people]; they are still to be found in the radio archives at the ABC. One of the few things to be found. There were various people, various writers for instance, George Johnston was one. His wife, Charmian Clift. This is when they'd come back from their Greek island. And it was a much more adventurous department under Neil than it had been previously. I probably wouldn't have wanted to join it previously, but I did join and I found a sort of metier for my writing.
And when you'd found this and you were developing it and giving some personal expression to things, did you find that that affected the rest of your life? That you were feeling generally happier and more together?
Yes, although there again I became very preoccupied with the job, too preoccupied for my family's good. As usual. It seems to happen, you know. And I was happy, but raging with the bureaucrats this time. Previously it had been the army, then it had been the conservatives and now it was the bureaucrats.
And how did you express your rage?
Just by grinding my teeth and seething and getting drunk and, you know, not paying enough attention to my family.
And did the family put up with all of this without complaint?
Not entirely without complaint. Occasionally. I admit I was at fault, you know, there was no question about that.
So what happened eventually with that?
Well, eventually we parted, but that was not until 1960.
So, in relation to your work, it continued to develop and you continued to work in radio. What was the next big thing that happened in your career?
Television, and it was interesting because there'd been all this talk ...
... Sorry, Mungo, I've forgotten something. Before we go into that, there's something I want to ask you. You were railing against the bureaucrats and the people who were in charge. Was it ever suggested that you yourself should be put in charge of things?
Well, I sort of made myself in charge. I was in charge of Salt, then I went overseas, I was in charge of my talking. When I was in the army travelling, I took over my route and my disguises. I'd always been in some sense in charge.
And at the ABC, you were working as somebody who wrote features ...
... and produced features. What happened then in relation to that? Were you given an opportunity to lead then?
Yes, because I led in the sense that pioneered certain sorts of work. And then, when I was made Features Editor, all the incoming scripts were sent to me. And I had to either accept them or refuse them, or accept them with amendments, or talk to the writers and hold little seminars for writers. So again one sort of bogged up. Nothing to be proud of really, it just happened, you know.
And what happened when television was on the horizon?
Well it was, as it is today, full of hypocrisy. And not just the ABC but with general society and the commercials. They held numerous very expensive inquiries, the government. And the commercials promised the earth, you know -- we were going to do this and that and so on. And the ABC promised it would do everything and run television and radio together. And what irks one was that some of the arguments for having television were things like, 'Burma has it, and we must have it if Burma has it,' you know . It was virtually swallowed hook, line and sinker by government and ministers and people like that. 'Oh yes,' they said, 'we must have it.' Anyway, it was decided to have it, and there were huge commissions and there were all these applications, all from the commercials, all of which were gross overstatements, you know , but were accepted by the government. And then they said, as far as I was concerned, the ABC said, 'Would you like to go to Britain to learn a bit about television?' And I said, 'Yes, you bet.' And I went and I was there for about a year, and they had classes and practical work. Not nearly enough practical work, actually, a tremendous amount of theory, which I suppose is typical in a sense of the BBC approach. Even though it's so good, mostly, it does have this long-winded approach in terms of lectures and things like that. Anyway I went there and -- I'd previously been in 1948 to a series of seminars there about radio, and they had people from Burma, people from all over the world in fact, but it so happened that I was the most advanced one, you know , and I was sort of held up as an example to people from Burma, most of whom had very little English. It was very difficult for them -- it was nevertheless a very useful course, whereas the television course was, as I say, far too long on theory and not enough on practice. Partly, I think, due to lack of equipment. They were short at the time.
But the idea was that you would go over to England and learn about television so that you could bring this back to the rest of them?
And is that what you did?
Yes. I came back and, after all, a lot of it was on the run as far as I was concerned, or invented; I had to make up things. And it was a very good time, because we had about, I would say, a dozen of what we thought were the core people on programs. See, technical people did it absolutely separately. But we had the core program people and our headquarters was the little church hall in William Street near where the ABC used to be -- which is now I believe a National Trust hall. And like many of these pioneering activities we developed a very close rapport which was terrific, which of course vanished as it became huge and we went on air. But it was a great time and we did very intensive practical work. I felt that, which I thought was the most important thing. We would do all sorts of mock-ups and we made the experiments and, you know, used things just to get by. We had very little equipment and it was very adhoc, the whole situation.
And what was your initial real project for transmission?
Opening night, you mean? Oh, I did opening night, and it was far too ambitious actually, but I thought it would be a good idea to try to represent every aspect of ABC programming on the opening night. So there was a play, Oscar Wilde, one of his plays, and there was some pop music and there was a pseudo-documentary, a pseudo-outside broadcast ...
What do you mean by a pseudo-documentary?
Well, it wasn't really a proper documentary. It was just a little glimpse of fact woven round a couple of subjects and so on. There was Christian Ferras, the French violinist, playing a bit of Bach, there was a pseudo-outside telecast, done from the roof of the William Street building, roving over the city at night, most of which had previously been filmed. And there was -- we had Michael Charlton, I brought him back, he was doing the Test Cricket overseas. I brought him back to be the anchorman. And so it went on.
Now, Channel 9 was the first on air.
They were about a week ahead of us, they beat us by about a week. But they were not nearly as -- perhaps wisely -- ambitious as I had been.
So, what did you feel about being given the task of being the first person to put together and produce ABC television?
Well, you know , I was on a roll, because we'd done several little confined outside telecasts. We went to the Royal Show and the technicians were marvellous, they laid cable all over the Showground, and we did bits of the show in a studio at the Show, which was pretty, pretty, good. And we had, not only things about the Show, we had variety, dance and song, all these things. And we occupied the lower storey of what used to be called the Wine Pavilion, and we had a big problem because it was high summer, or hot at the time, and we suddenly became aware of this awful smell and it was all the oysters in the restaurant on top of us going bad. And they dissolved and ran down the wall, and we heard people coming with sprays of detergent -- not detergent, you know, stuff ...
Deodorisers, and nothing worked. And then the Health Department came rushing with its experts and nothing worked. And here we were gasping downstairs, nearly dying of this terrible stench. And finally the Health Department said to the restaurant, 'You must close down.' So they did. But that was the big failure. Anyway, that was the first public broadcast telecast actually. Then we did another on a Saturday afternoon, which I wish we could have done again, for actual program, public programming. We did a Sydney Saturday afternoon on the harbour. And it was extremely ambitious, but it worked. We had one man on top of the arch of the Bridge, and we had one man on Shark Island at the other end, and we had the Opera House. I had a model of it, and I superimposed the model on where the Opera House would be, and that was the first glimpse that Sydney had had of what it would more or less look like. And we showed these great liners going up and down, people on launches and streamers, planes flying overhead and, you know, it was great. And it was a brilliant afternoon, it was a real Sydney summer afternoon. So that with that, and things ...
[end of tape]