Australian Biography

Mungo MacCallum - full interview transcript

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So, you'd been off at the BBC learning how to make television. You had to bring this back in order to get television started in Australia at the ABC. How did you go about that?

Well, so I came back more or less untrained and ready to improvise, and that's what we did. We were in this little church hall, this small band of core people from the various program departments, and we improvised for several months, and did quite a lot of work. And then we tried at some public broadcasts, limited ones. And we did one at the Showground, all through the Show, during the Easter Show. Then we did one of Sydney on Saturday afternoon, from the Bridge, having people all over the harbour and the Bridge and so on, which was a great success actually. And then opening night came and we did opening night.

And what happened, was opening night considered a success? What ...

Yes, although it was too elaborate. One could go into all the ingredients of it I suppose, or not.

But you felt that the opening night was ambitious ...

Yes.

... but how was it received by the audience?

It was received pretty well, because almost anything that was on television screens was so new; everything was new in fact. It was received with curiosity, you know, a bit of criticism. 'There's the old ABC doing, playing a bit of Bach,' that sort of stuff. Very few people at that time had screens, and those who had screens had lots of trouble getting signals. So that you'd have people who came up to you and say, 'I saw a bit of your show.' And I'd say, 'What bit?' And they'd say, 'Well I'm not sure, it was very faint.' And that was it. There was a man in Canberra when I went down there later who said to me -- our representative in Canberra actually -- 'I can't get a signal, I just can't.' And I was staying with him, and later that evening I heard a huge shout, and he said, 'I've got it, I've got a signal, I've got a signal!' And I rushed in to have a look and there was a very faint amorphous sort of ghostly movement, which could have been ectoplasm or dough or anything at all.

And there weren't very many households that actually had a set anyway?

No, but by god, it came on quickly. The rate of television acquisition, I think I read somewhere, was faster in Australia than anywhere else in the world, even Burma.

People used to watch in shop windows, too, didn't they?

Yes, yes. In fact, that was, in many ways, much the best way to watch, because they got good signals. They had big aerials and things like that. And you'd see clumps in the city at night, you know, deserted streets and a shop window with a glow in it, and people would gather round and watch and watch and watch.

Did you feel the excitement of it all?

Yes, I did have reservations. I offended, as usual, Charles Moses, who was the General Manager and great man of the ABC. I was always having rows with him about things. But I offended him once because he misunderstood me when I said, 'Television is essentially a vulgar medium,' and by vulgar I didn't mean nasty or anything, I meant popular, a people's medium. And I think it's true to say it still is. It's basically vulgar, much more so than say Radio National, or something like that on the ABC. It's a medium which there are lots of things you don't want to watch. And I always knew that. But I think for certain things it is absolutely unsurpassed. It's wonderful.

Did you feel that at the time?

I think I did. I was very fond of outside telecasts. I did a lot of those myself, and television was terrific for getting you to the spot where it was happening and giving you the best seat if it was well done. Very, very good for things like royal visits and dawn services and lots and lots of things. Sport, of course.

The royal visits and dawn services were things that you had originally been seen to be good at when you first began on the Herald.

Yes.

What kinds of things did you do as OBs, outside broadcasts?

Well, we did all sorts of things. I didn't do sport. The sports people did that.

You didn't do sport?

I did, I did it when I was training. I pretended to know about it and we went to Melbourne and we did an Australian Rules match and things like that. But I did various things, public occasions. And I very keen on going to places and showing things which I thought would be interesting, which weren't necessarily all occasions, you know. They were just interesting to go and see how something is made or I was, being keen myself on boats, I was very keen to show how a boat was built and at the shipyards, things like that. And we also pioneered certain things. I was able to persuade the Governor General, who was then Sir William Slim, the famous General of Burma -- once again -- and he was a martinet, but a terrific bloke. And luckily -- I went out to Government House to see him, and I said, 'How about me doing an interview with you in Government House? And Lady Slim.'' This had never been attempted -- let alone on TV -- with any Governor General, and he said, 'Well, I shall have to get Whitehall's approval or opinion.' So I said, 'Very well, sir.' And then a couple of weeks later he summoned me and announced, 'You're a very persuasive officer.' And I said, 'Thankyou, sir,' being the most unmilitary officer in the world. And we did a series of programs in Canberra of outside telecasts, one of which was an interview with him and his wife and that was a tragi-comedy, because he was very, very good. He spoke a lot and very freely. And I interviewed him in his study and there was the usual business of course of putting up lights and everything for this interview. And it went on quite well until suddenly, through the big window, I saw one of the technicians racing past; obviously there was some sort of terrible crisis. And I kept on with the interview and everything went black. And it turned out that some of the equipment had been on a telegraph pole and fallen off. And I thought he would go into a huge martinet's rage. But he didn't, he was very, very decent about it. I apologised and said, 'This is early days of television,' etc, and he said, 'Oh, yes, I can quite understand that, quite understand that.' He said, 'Of course, if I were running this, I would have had my men transfer, do away with that telegraph pole. It spoils the view.'

So on live broadcasts, quite often, the screen went to black for the people watching at home in those days?

Well, quite often. It was all live and very often I think being live gave an edge to it that otherwise it didn't have ... And I had this awful experience with Lady Slim that I was supposed to walk down the rose garden with her and inspect, while she talked about her love of roses. And we had, in those days of course, only microphone cord. And it was a long walk. And here was I towing this cord for about 100 yards, you know. And she had this awful little dog, which yapped and snapped at my ankles because our make-up lady had insisted on powdering it. It was already white and she'd upset it. And it was yapping and biting me. And finally I tried to kick it away without saying. And in kicking it away I got the cord between my legs and it began to saw at my genitals. And here was I making light conversation with Lady Slim and it was fairly gruesome.

You were working in television. Did you still do any radio?

Oh yes, but not much because I didn't have much time. But I always kept in touch with it, you know. And there were many times when I regretted later not doing more in radio. I did go back, but during television time I didn't do much.

And how long did your time in television last?

About three years, that was television alone. And then I was asked to apply for the job of Assistant Director of Talks and, fool that I was, I accepted, because Talks being the most controversial of Departments then, and I suppose now. It was a hideous job. We didn't have a strong board. We had a very -- I thought a very weak chairman ...

Who was that then?

Boy ...

Boyer.

Boyer. And he was an idealist, but not -- he didn't stick up for the staff. He wanted Talks to be, well, controversial, to tackle the main issues and all that, and at the same time he always apologised when there was a public criticism, and you know, it was no good. Anyway, I became the Assistant Director and the idea was -- this was one of many quarrels with Moses -- he said that everybody in ABC on the program side ought to be able to do both Talks and -- sorry -- both radio and television. And of course, there are a hell of a lot of people who're just not able to. Either couldn't or were not interested or whatever. Just like there are a lot of actors who got lost on the way to television because they weren't tall enough or they weren't you know thin enough or something. Anyway, I took the job and was interviewed by the Board as usual, beforehand, and the sort of idiocy that did occur should have been obvious when I was interviewed by the Board, because I was waiting in the ante-room and Betty Cook, who was Charles Moses' right hand and much more, they say -- she was a feared lady. Anyway, she came rushing out from the Board meeting and hissed in my ear, 'When you go in, don't cross your legs.' And I thought, 'Well, why not?,' but apparently it denoted too much ease ... Anyway, I didn't cross my legs and it was apparently a sort of formal situation, got the job, and after -- what was it -- two or three years, solely organising television and getting it moving on the program side, I went to Talks and took on radio and television. And, as I say, Talks was a very, very difficult job, and I had masses of memos all the time from head office saying, 'Why this? Why that? Why not this?.' And found myself snowed under with administration, which of course I should have foreseen. It was the same old story. You swear you'll keep in touch with programs and do them and at the same time you'll do your administration. But very, very difficult to do and very, very seldom achieved. Anyway I did keep in touch with programs, television and radio, and I did programs, made programs, and produced them and narrated them and all that. And finally, four years later, had a breakdown and was carried out of the ABC.

What kind of a breakdown?

Oh, I just collapsed. I was exhausted, and very, very frustrated, you know -- there were so many things one was expected to know all about and you were expected, for instance, to hear every program on the air by Talks. But there were masses of programs. All sorts of things, economics, about which I knew nothing and couldn't tell, and so on. And I frequently stood in for Alan Carmichael, who was the Director of Talks, when he took time off every now and then finding it a bit rough. And there we were. I just became overwhelmed and collapsed and of course I was drinking too, to keep going, and that didn't help.

You were drinking to keep going. Does drinking actually help you to keep going?

Well, it gave you a sort of a lift. Not a real one obviously, but a false lift, rather like, I suppose, not like heroin, but that sort of thing.

And so was your collapse physical or psychological?

Physical and psychological. I couldn't stop crying which was, you know, absurd, but I just couldn't. And I was shaking and trembling and a friend, Arthur Wyndham, said, 'This has got to stop. You've got to stop this and get out.' And he took me home. I just remember that, just about all I do remember of the final days. And the doctor said I had to be boarded out, so I was boarded out.

What does boarded out mean?

You went medically unfit, and it enabled you to have a pension.

What year was that?

'60, either late '59 or '60.

And how did you feel about this happening?

Well, I was pretty numb for awhile. The doctor had me in bed for quite a long time, and I think I was sedated and all that. And I felt that, apart from feeling numb, I felt rather relieved in a way that I no longer had to read or write memos. There were so many of them, you've no idea. Piles like that on the desk, and four phones, people ringing up all the time about my memo. Absolutely appalling.

Did it occur to you that you might have, before it came to the point of collapse, gone and asked to be relieved of this work?

No, not really, because I would have had to come back to it I presume, if it was a relief, you know.

But I mean if you'd said, 'I don't want to be an administrator any more. Can I go back to program-making?''

Well that's what, in effect, I did as a freelancer, which was, you know, rejuvenation. I felt 10 years younger, and people told me I stopped looking yellow and grey and I had a slight spring in my step again. And it was like a holiday.

During the time that you were involved in this administrative position, what was the most controversial thing that you had to deal with? What kinds of things did the top people send you memos about?

I suppose essentially the most important thing -- or not most important, but the most prevalent topic -- was balance. That was the watchword from on top. And that was what Boyer was always talking about. And he was very conservative. I think a very nice man essentially, a grazier, an idealist, who made a broadcast before I was there, to the whole of Australia, asking us to pull together, etc. And I used to meet him occasionally at parties that the Board put on for various people and he was difficult to talk to because I felt as though I was talking to somebody who was so easily distressed. If you used the word communism, for instance, oh, he'd flinch. Once he said to me, 'What would you do if you were invited to go to Russia, MacCallum?' And I said, 'I would go to Russia.' And he said, 'What would you write? How could you write anything?' And I said, 'I'd write down what I saw and try to make it clear that I was trying to be objective,' and so on. And I said again, 'Why else would I go, really.' And he literally shuddered. And you often read about people shuddering in novels, but not often in real life. And not often big hefty graziers, you know.

Was the concern only about political things or was there also a social conservatism about what you were broadcasting?

Well, I don't think it was so much social, we did lots of programs about people and their occupations and it had a pretty wide scope, Talks. And of course, the Boyer Lectures later were established and they were about social matters primarily, and so on. But Moses deferred to him, though to no-one else. And Moses himself, he was pretty conservative. And admittedly, he did have to run the place and meet half the objections first before he sent them on to me. But I just felt that the Board and, well, the hierarchy was not in touch with what they were asking us to do.

Did you feel worried at all that those beneath you would resent you the way you'd resented the bureaucrats when you were in that role?

Well, there were a couple who did, because they had applied for the job. And they were older than me and they'd been in Talks for a long time, and they did, yes. And there were ego clashes, you know, every now and then there'd be squabbles among the staff. It was absolutely -- on top of everything else, it was absolutely infuriating.

And did you find that it was easy for you to take criticism, or did you feel sensitive to criticism as a manager?

Well, I think it was pretty easy to take criticism about work and what I did. But I did resent the sort of criticism we were getting from Boyer, that sort of criticism. But I think I was reasonably open to criticism, yes.

So, after you recovered from your breakdown, you came back and started working on contract as a freelance ...

Not on contract, simply as a freelancer. And it was 100 per cent better, and I was able -- I did -- was asked to take part in quite a lot of television programs, and programs on television about the arts and things like that. But I returned to my old love, radio features and drama. And that's what, in many ways [is] to me the most important writing I've done.

So what are some of the highlights of that for you?

Well, I suppose the highlight had to be I won the AWGIE for the ...

... That's the Australian Writers' Guild Award.

Yes. For the best script in any medium of the year. And that was -- well it chuffed me quite a bit.

What was that for?

It was for a program called Stone Bloody Henge, and well I can't go into it now, it was quite a complicated thing. But it was four separate scripts, broadcast one after another. All self-contained and all part of each other.

And about what?

Well, it's difficult -- it was basically about an old pioneer grazier family who lived in Stonehenge. They called their property Stonehenge because it was all stony, and the break up of the family. The sons came to the city, one became a very fashionable architect, the other had a limp, was born with a club foot, and his father despised that. He was that sort of father, you know, a very tough rough old father. And the son's gradual awakening. He insulated himself because he felt his father despised him. He went into advertising, insulated himself against emotion, met this very enigmatic, exotic Hungarian girl, woman, who was a painter, and became absolutely obsessed with her, and -- well, the story went on from there.

And you drew very much on yourself to write this story?

It was on myself only to the extent that I felt I wanted to include a European woman and I wanted to include painting in some form or another, and I used -- well it was imaginary the whole thing -- but I used places I knew, such as old country homesteads and the Australian art, things like that.

But also it was about somebody who was emotionally fairly insulated?

Yes, yes, he was insulated until he met this girl -- but I didn't have the sense or intention of making it a portrait of myself.

What happened to your marriage during this time?

Well, it continued to have its ups and downs, mainly its downs, which were mainly due to me. And again, I got very caught up in other things, which Diana was not particularly interested in, such as she was interested in antiques, she played very high-skilled Bridge. We both had books in common, we were both mad readers. But it was simply that I think I was such a bad husband really, you know. And things went on until 1960, which was just after I'd left the ABC. And I'd made a lot of new friends whom she didn't like, a lot of painters and people like that.

Why didn't she like them?

I think it was partly because her family conservatism was beginning to show. Something like that. I don't know.

Did she think that -- I mean, did you drink with them and so on? Did she think they were a bad influence on you?

I don't think that. I think she felt more I was a bad influence on them. I frequented lots of the new little galleries and all that sort of thing, bought some pictures which she didn't like, except for one. And also I think that a lot of these people were uncouth, and she thought they were, you know, pretty, pretty off, a lot of them.

And so your marriage broke up and you had the collapse at work all around about the same time?

Yes, yes.

Were they interrelated, do you think?

I suppose they were up to a point, yes, yes. But I didn't sort of officially feel that.

So you now had a new arrangement with your work at the ABC, which took you really through the '60s?

Ah, yes.

And you also had now left your marriage?

Yes.

What were the '60s like for you? What are your memories of that?

Pretty frightful. Apart from work. Because I realised, as never before, how much I relied on other people. And I was not used to living a more or less roving life from pillar to post and all that. I was used to taking meals, and their preparation, for granted. All that sort of awful male thing, and all my life, you know, I'd had somebody who automatically did it. And now I didn't.

So you had to look after yourself. How did you get on with that?

Well, not too well. People were very kind actually. I lived with various people and they made me meals and things like that. I sometimes helped with the rent and so on. But I felt very insecure and I -- well I realised just how much I relied on other people.

Your son Mungo had grown up by this stage?

Ah, yes. He would be about 20.

And how was your relationship with him in adulthood?

Off and on. He had the thing, as most young men do, that he wanted to take up where dad had left off, you know . And he'd had a very good Higher School Certificate pass, and he went to university, and then he got a job, he got two or three part-time off-jobs. One was cutting clippings on the ABC and all that, which I didn't help him get. He got it for himself. But then he got on to The Australian and did very well indeed. But for that reason partly we didn't see much of each other, and also then he was sent to Canberra which, unlike me, he thought was terrific, you know, he loved it. And he was there for about 20 years. And that's where he made his reputation.

And did you feel proud of him then?

Well, I felt glad he was not stupid, you know. I didn't say to myself, 'My god, father of a wonderful son!'

So -- but for you personally, the '60s was a very difficult time?

Yes.

And when you say you were sort of alone and a bit lost and finding it hard to take care of yourself at a personal level, how did this express itself in terms of your behaviour?

Well, I think I behaved much the same as before, with the exception, wonderful exception, that I didn't have to bother about memos. I was still well, writing well, writing better in fact, as witness the AWGIE. And I was much in demand for radio and for television and for programs like Any Questions, which was quite fun. No problem to do. And programs on the arts. And both presenting and chairing programs on the arts and books and things on television and radio. So it was, you know, pretty good. I enjoyed myself very much. And there was never a problem, it never was difficult, and the Drama and Features Department in radio gave me a free hand virtually, and said, 'You write what you like and submit it and we'll probably accept it.' And the same with television, you know, with subject matter of various talks and things, it was the same.

But you said the '60s was actually no good for you. What do you mean by that?

Well, I mean in terms of the way I lived. I was used to stable households for the whole of my life and meals appearing at the right time.

Do you think it's rather difficult to be a true bohemian without a stable household somewhere?

Yes, might be so, although most bohemians are supposed to live from hand to mouth, aren't they? They don't have mums in the background.

But when you were living from hand to mouth, you didn't enjoy it that much?

No. But I don't regard myself as a bohemian, except in certain temperamental ways, but not in physical ways, not at all.

And so how did this end for you?

I was invited to judge films at the West Australian Festival. And I flew over, got off the plane, was greeted by Polly who was then the public relations officer for the festival, and we ended up in bed that night and, you know, it's never stopped. I stayed for -- instead of staying for a week, I stayed for three weeks, and came back and we corresponded and she said, 'What about my coming over?,' and three weeks passed and she came. And we lived together for a while and then partly for my, by then, very ancient, mother's sake, and partly for her daughter's sake, we agreed to get married formally. Which we did.

What year was that?

A few weeks ago, it was 25 years ago, which have gone like a flash in many ways. But I can't remember the exact date. She can.

And this actually transformed your life?

Well, yes. I was stable, and I was reasonably content, as content as one can be I suppose. And I was very fond of her and she of me and here we are.

And what sort of changes took place in your professional life at this time?

I don't think any.

You just continued in the same way freelancing?

Freelance, yes ... People were a bit pessimistic, not pessimistic, but they warned me. They said, you know, 'You've only known this woman for two weeks, three weeks, it's ridiculous.' And I said, 'We're both old enough to know, pretty well.'

[end of tape]

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