Eulogy Part Two — Glimpses from the Life of Denzil Howson
Rather than continue chronologically, which would take a long time and become boring, I’ll talk about themes.
As a young boy I often visited GTV9 during the “golden days” of television between 1957 and 1963. To a small boy it was a magic and wonderful place.
My father joined GTV9 in 1956. He was one of the first people on staff and was a part of the team which televised the Melbourne Olympics.
He really was the right person in the right place at the right time for television. He brought to this new medium the skills and experience he had accumulated in radio, film and theatre and with sound and film technology. He had also gained first-hand knowledge during a trip to England in 1952 when he visited the BBC television studios at Lime Grove.
His unusually broad range of skills gave him a solid understanding of the new medium of television into which he threw himself with enthusiasm and apparently boundless energy.
That period was an exciting and interesting time — an era offering opportunity and freedom to experiment and to do things that hadn’t been done before. Denzil did many interesting, ground-breaking things in that era. He worked not only as a producer, but as a writer, director, cameraman, film maker and performer.
Highlights that I remember well are the nightly childrens’ show, The Tarax Show, which Denzil conceived and of which he was executive producer. Every year he wrote and produced the GTV9 Christmas Pantomime. I have vivid memories of going into the big studio, wandering around looking at all the wonderful sets created for the Pantos, then sitting up in the control room with Denzil and Russell Sefton and others, watching the whole thing being put together. The Pantos were a labour of love for him and the cast and crew, many of whom gave their time voluntarily just to be involved.
In 1962 we went on an overseas trip that my father organised to shoot a travel series for the Tarax Show called Around the World with Gerry Gee. With us were Merle and Ron Blaskett (with Gerry Gee) and my sister Clare and my father and mother. It was a wonderful experience to be able to travel to England, Europe and India when we were so young. We accompanied Denzil in his role as cameraman and director and enjoyed helping him in various ways. I can remember being in Madame Tussauds Waxworks very early one morning when I unfortunately knocked over the camera tripod and became rather upset. A kind old man who worked there took me up and showed me some pigeons that lived in the roof at Madame Tussauds.
Denzil also wrote and produced a series of adventure films for the Tarax Show called The Adventures of Gerry Gee, which included such titles as Tarzan Gee, Pimpernel Gee, and Gerry Hood.
The seven or so years which Denzil spent at GTV were probably the most intensely productive and rewarding in his professional life. He had the good fortune to be part of a unique period in Australian television history and to work with an exceptional team of creative people.
With the change in ownership of GTV9 in the early 1960s, there was a change in the culture — not so many opportunities, a few more constraints.
So in 1964 the family moved to Albury where Denzil took on the role of program manager at AMV4, being involved in both setting up the station and then as an active program creator and a performer once it was on the air. During construction he arranged for dressing rooms and a scenery storage facility to be added to the studio plans, to better cater for live productions. Over the two years in Albury, he brought to AMV4 many of the same ideas he had pioneered at GTV9 — a daily live childrens’ programme, variety performances, christmas specials, and so on. It was probably one of the most innovative country television stations at the time.
At the end of 1965 we went to Perth where Denzil took up the role of Program Manager at STW9. Once again he drew on the skills, ideas and themes that he had developed at GTV9. For sleepy Perth and its then parochial television culture, his arrival, followed shortly afterwards by Ron Blaskett and Gerry Gee, brought a swathe of new ideas to Perth television.
Our stay in Perth lasted three years, after which we moved back to Melbourne and Denzil returned to the world of film making.
Denzil of course appeared as an actor in numerous Australian television productions in later years, including Homicide, Division 4, Matlock Police, The Sullivans, Prisoner, A Country Practice, and others.
In recent years he put together a show about the early days of radio and television titled “The Magic Box” which included old footage from the GTV9 era. With my mother as assistant he presented this to audiences of “old timers” around Melbourne.
Theatre and Radio Performer
Denzil began his career in radio in the late 1930s in Shepparton and notably after the War at 3YB in Warnambool. His home recording studio, an almost unheard of facility in the 1940s and 1950s, was modelled on early radio studios.
Even during his years in television, and later in film and audio-visual production, he kept his hand in at radio — performing in plays, doing voice-overs, conducting interviews and producing magazine programs and in later years with guest appearances on community radio stations. He had a long-standing connection with ABC Radio Drama, starting in Melbourne in the 1950s, then in Perth and again upon our return to Melbourne in 1969. Many of the colleagues he met in radio in the 1950s later worked with him in television.
Theatre and performance was his great love and he began his acting career as a young boy, producing and appearing in neighbourhood concerts. Like radio, theatre was an enduring interest which he maintained throughout his career. He appeared in productions at St Martins Theatre in Melbourne in the early 1960s, then in Albury he performed in local theatre productions as well as producing variety concerts at the then brand-new Civic Theatre. In the 1970s and 1980s he appeared in “Flexitime” in Sydney and Brisbane, and in productions for the Melbourne Theatre Company, including “Amadeus”, as well as the musical “Me and My Girl” (1986).
Denzil had a keen interest in both the art and technology of film making. In the 1930s he and his engineer father constructed their own 35mm projector. He was making films from the early years — initially on 9.5mm and then later 16mm. With a group of friends he produced a film drama in Warnambool in the late 1940s. When my father and mother travelled to England and Europe in 1952 he created on their return a series of professional-standard travel documentaries which were shown in the home theatrette at Belgrave Road in the 1950s, before the arrival of television.
During his years in television, he made numerous films for television. These included the now legendary comedy films for IMT starring Graham Kennedy, a genre he visited again in Perth and again in Melbourne with the “Wally” films circa 1983/84. Film making was part of his profession and part of our family culture too, often overflowing into the weekends. We always had facilities at home to edit and screen film and to record sound, and we assumed everybody did that!
In 1972 he produced a pilot of a television series called “Rafferty” set on the Murray River in the era of paddle steamers. With the talents of well-known Australian actors such as Frank Wilson and Sid Conabere, “Rafferty” anticipated the later success of series like “All the Rivers Run” and “Rush”. Unfortunately the budget did not run to colour and the series did not proceed.
Then, for about ten years until retirement in 1983 he worked at SMS Audiovisual in South Yarra, producing a diverse variety of commercial films and audio-visuals for training and promotion. Once again, his broad range of skills as writer, director, cameraman and performer proved invaluable.
In later years as technology progressed he turned his skills to video, recording his grandchildren and the holidays that he and Mum went on to various places in Australia and overseas. His “home movies”, if you want to call them that, always had a professional touch with music and narration and he continued this until a few years ago and has left a large collection of material.
He loved choosing the music to go with his various films and videos and would labour over the choice of just the right piece of music, combining it expertly with his own narrations.
His Family Life
As a father, he nurtured our creativity and we always had a creative environment in the home. There was also a sense of adventure — camping trips around Victoria, travelling overseas, and always some new and interesting project.
As a young boy I had an interest in puppets and marionettes which he encouraged, even writing and recording special story soundtracks to accompany the performances. One Christmas I asked Santa for a marionette theatre and lo and behold on Christmas morning this magnificent marionette theatre appeared. Denzil had spent the evenings in the GTV9 workshops (with help from some of the GTV9 scenery artists) building and fitting out a miniature theatre with its own scenery, curtains and lighting console. It was a wonderful thing.
We always had home theatres — beginning with the theatrette/studio at 50 Belgrave Road. In Albury we built a theatre and recording studio under the house and in Perth we built a theatre in the garage. We never put the car in the garage!
Making things was always a part of Denzil’s life — something which I learned to help him with as I grew older. We’d have an idea and we’d work out how to make it. We always had a home workshop and he believed in doing it yourself, making it yourself. The “Heath Robinson” phrase probably applies to Denzil in terms of how he went about things. He would never buy something if you could make it yourself out of a few old bits of metal and bolts. There are still lots of examples of those things at the family home. We built recording equipment, lighting equipment for our home theatres, a complete camera crane, and many other inventive things.
He was not someone who showed his affection a great deal to us as children but he expressed is love for us by doing things with us. There were many interesting things that we did together and it was great to be able to witness someone who was so creative doing what they loved.
A Loyal Friend
Whenever we moved to a new town or city, Denzil would quickly become well-known within the networks of theatrical, film, television and radio people — and in country towns there weren’t many of them, so having someone like him arrive was a real boost.
He was a friend to many. He was helpful — he would always give a hand to anyone who needed it, with his particular skills. He was a loyal friend and he had many work colleagues and neighbours who became friends and remained so for 30, 40 or 50 years.
He couldn’t have done any of this without the support of my mother, Dot, who always put aside her own ambitions to be the supporter of my father. They’ve been a tremendous team because he had the creative energy and ideas but needed someone there as an anchor to look after him and help him.
In finishing, I think of my father as a person with lots of ideas — always restlessly pursuing new creative ideas. He was a prolifically creative spirit. This was his innateness, his unique gift. It was the spark which he brought to all his work and which touched others.