Denzil Howson — A True Professional — A True Friend

I first met Denzil Howson in early 1956 when I joined GTV9. He was assistant programme manager and was to become the producer and director of the station’s live-to-air children’s programme which ran between 5pm and 6pm Monday to Friday.

I remember being amazed at his wide range of skills. He had started his working life building radio sets and was a qualified radio technician. However, together with his technical skills he possessed creative talents that led him to becoming a fine actor, producer and writer.

I remember being in awe of this man who not only had such a wide range of skills but also had his own theatrette and production studio at home. I used to talk to others about this new found work-mate who could, if he so desired, do much of his work at his home. He had film projectors, tape recorders, microphones and much of the technical equipment required to create radio and television programmes.

Denzil and I were “thrown” together by the late Colin Bednall, the first CEO of GTV9 who I was to succeed some years later. In early 1957 we were looking for “fill-in” programmes to screen in the 8pm week-day time channel pending the availability of the Macquarie Radio Network quiz and game shows that were to be simulcast on both radio and television. These included programmes like Jack Davey’s Give it a go, It pays to be funny and the Dulux Show.

One of the features of GTV9 was Studio One. It had been built with a door that was literally large enough for an elephant to enter. Bednall decided that I, as the GTV9 sales manager, should present a programme demonstrating the benefits of the studio for sponsors selling large items — including motor cars — in live commercials.

Denzil was asked to be producer, my teacher. We arranged for a number of sponsors to take part in a half hour show simply called, I remember, Sales Promotion. I was to interview the sponsors and the programme was to go live to air on one Tuesday night. My on air experience was zero. I had had a little theatrical experience but nothing that equipped me to carry a half hour programme on this new medium called television.

It was in the lead up to this programme that I learnt much about Denzil. He was patient, considerate, caring and above all else calm. In the midst of his busy schedule he found time to give me all the time I needed. When the “curtain went up” on that Tuesday night I had to fight off stage fright. I don’t remember it as a wonderful performance but it served its purpose demonstrating that GTV9 had a sponsor-friendly studio that opposition station, HSV7, couldn’t match. I got through it, but if it hadn’t been for Denzil it would have been an absolute disaster. Where else in the world has a non professional presented a half hour of live television? — and where else in the world would a producer want to be part of it?

I well remember and appreciate Denzil’s recognition of the importance of advertisers. Bednall had accompanied me to an appointment with Noel Satchwell of Robert Hughes Advertising, the agency handling the Tarax account. I had told Bednall that I felt they were a prospective major sponsor for our children’s programme. Sponsors were scarce in those early days and to get one to underwrite a children’s programme, let alone, a peak-time programme, wasn’t easy.

At the meeting Bednall, out of “left field” asked Satchwell whether Tarax would like to sponsor our Happy Show, as the children’s programme was to be called, from a window in the Myer Emporium Lonsdale Street store. Satchwell picked up the phone, spoke to Tarax, and we had an instant order. Only one matter remained unresolved. Myer hadn’t been formally approached! We arranged an urgent meeting with Stanley Hunt, the then managing director of Myer, and the deal was quickly sealed.

The amount of planning such a production entailed was mammoth. The Happy Show hadn’t then been produced in a studio let alone in a shop window. The production crew, led by Denzil, never once complained. They all understood the importance, not only of a sponsor, but also the immense publicity value for the Happy Show and GTV9 in such a venture.

Denzil loved and nurtured the Happy Show. It was a tribute to him and his team that the Tarax sponsorship continued when compere Happy Hammond deserted the show. In 1960 he followed Norman Spencer to HSV7. This followed Sir Frank Packer’s take-over of GTV9 from Sir Arthur Warner’s Electronic Industries.

Denzil was a mentor to both Uncle Norman and King Corkie who compered The Tarax Show, as the programme was called after Happy Hammond’s departure. Denzil always recognised the importance of teamwork, giving great credit to the programme’s many personalities and production crew. Denzil properly saw them as being just as important to the success of the programme as the comperes.

Denzil won the respect of all who worked with him. Personalities like Ron Blaskett and Gerry Gee, Susan-Gaye Anderson, Joff Ellen, Patti Newton, Hal Todd and many many others. They were not just work-mates but good friends. Until very recently Ron Blaskett worked with Denzil, in a voluntary capacity, archiving thousands of historical photographs at the Victorian Performing Arts Museum.

One of GTV9’s highlights was its yearly Christmas Pantomime. Denzil wrote them, produced them, at the beginning directed them and played a part in one or two of them. He worked with musician and pianist Margot Sheridan on the music, writing many of the lyrics.

Denzil created the zany, absent-minded Professor Nitwitty. Professor Nitwitty was the first of the mad professors in the children’s programme. Ernie Carrol’s Professor Ratbaggy was the second. Denzil played roles In Melbourne Tonight. He was the consummate showman. GTV9 was lucky to have him.

Pete Smith, still working at GTV9, described GTV9 in the early days as being similar to an English theatrical repertory company where everyone was involved. Denzil was not only personally involved in many GTV9 activities but he ensured the children’s show played a major role in GTV9’s programme line-up. Testimony to Denzil’s enthusiasm was that GTV9 performers wanted to take part in Denzil’s pantomimes and other productions.

Sadly the introduction of the third commercial television channels in the four eastern seaboard capital cities led to the available revenue being divided three ways. Lack of advertising support led to the demise of the live early evening children’s programmes in all cities.

Governments have never understood that extra media outlets don’t increase advertising revenue. As a consequence many Australian programme initiatives have been forced off air. Today Australia is the most heavily television networked country in the western world with most programmes being distributed out of Sydney or Melbourne. Our television system presumes we Australians are a homogenous society which is far from the truth.

It was Denzil Howson and others like him who pioneered Australian television. It is a pity that Australia’s television system suffocated many of those early local programmes which were so popular in the pioneering days. Denzil was one of those pioneers and I treasure the wonderful memories that no-one can take away — exciting memories of the early days of television.

Nigel Dick
September 2005

Nigel Dick was General Manager of GTV9, Melbourne in the 1960s.