A Friend and Mentor

In October 1965 the producer/director Godfrey Phillips and four cast members of The Magic Circle Club visited Perth for the Royal Show. As part of my afternoon presentation, it was great to have Nancy Cato, Max Bartlett, John Michael Howson (Fifi Bear and no relation to Denzil) and Ted Dunn (Fred Bear) appear on television with me. We also did a Saturday morning special with 400 children in Studio C at Channel Nine Perth. The general consensus was that our local production needed better direction. I recall Nancy Cato saying, “Perhaps Denzil Howson will make the difference”. This was the first time I had heard his name and I had been made privy to information regarding his appointment as Production Manager at STW9.

I clearly remember our first meeting, when I was impressed by his quiet demeanour and well modulated mode of speech. I was even more stimulated when at a meeting called to discuss the start of a “Channel Niners Club” (for some reason unknown to me, we did not employ the correct apostrophe!), Denzil was in favour of my idea for a real “clubbie” atmosphere set in a simulated castle. It became a daily feature at about 4.30 pm, when about sixty children came to the studios to be part of the presentation.

The “Happy Smiler” was chosen by superimposing a circle moving over the faces of all present, to the delight of the mothers waiting in the canteen area and the grannies at home. The lucky child joined me at the home-base set and received a selection of gifts. The forty-five minute show was soon bolstered by suitable adult guests including Col Bonney the TV Dentist and Ern Garrett an Education Department naturalist. A competitive general knowledge quiz for primary school children was held on one day and on another, secondary schoolers conducted on-camera chemistry and physics experiments. Denzil appointed Veronica Overton to be my female counterpart and with her presented a segment called Mr Knowsit. Using basic television “tricks”, a puppet appeared to write the answers to questions sent in by our young viewers. We also conducted talent quests and all-in-all the new direction provided a wholesome, entertaining and educational program. In no small way was Denzil the driving force and he was always approachable and conciliatory. One who might truthfully be described as a thorough gentleman.

We had one small disagreement in October 1966. In June of that year Denzil had brought his Melbourne GTV9 friend Ron Blaskett to Perth to bolster the Channel Niners Club with his ventriloquial act. The cast was also enlarged with the addition of prominent musician Peter Piccini, station newsreader Alan Graham playing an amiable buffoon named Useless Eustace (imagine that happening today! Imagine somebody like Ric Ardon agreeing to do it!) and dancer-actress Pixie Hale who took such roles as Alice in Wonderland.

When it came to Royal Show week I was told that instead of my personal give-away photographs, I was to use the composite photo of the whole cast. On the Monday (after having to explain to my “fans” that I didn’t have a personal one to give away) I told Denzil that I would not go to the Show again as it was humiliating. On the Tuesday evening after I completed my afternoon shift in the presentation booth, I was called to his office. He said, “Did you go to the show today?” He knew that I had not and we discussed the situation, with me re-affirming that I would not go again on Wednesday. With that Denzil said, “Well, you leave me no choice but to dismiss you!” I shook his hand and said, “If the situation had been reversed, I would have done that about ten minutes ago without the talk!”

To relate the circumstances concerning my re-instatement by the General Manager Bob Mercer would take far too much space, so let it be enough to record that when I knocked on Denzil’s door on the Thursday morning to tell him that I was back, he appeared to be pleasantly surprised. As a post-script, I did get my personal photographs, acknowledgement that I was not expected to “go to work” at 9 am each day and a ten dollar a week raise!

Since then I have counted Denzil Howson as a friend and mentor. He was one of the few people in Perth television open to ideas and the promotion of those people whom he perceived to have the necessary talent. It was not Denzil’s fault that I did not attain an extended television career as an adult entertainer. He gave me opportunities to show what I could do, but sadly, his efforts on my behalf were met with rejections from others who had decided that I was getting “too big for my boots” through my parallel work as a cabaret performer.

Denzil’s best gag was in 1966 when he pretended to be a famous visiting architect, and appeared on the Channel 9 News on April the First. Standing in front of the then new “thermos flask” block of expensive apartments on Mount Eliza (Kings Park) he was filmed announcing that the foundations had moved and that the building was tilting! The likelihood was that Perth would have its own Leaning Tower of … before it crashed onto Mounts Bay Road. The April Fools’ Day item caused great consternation for the owner/tenants and the station had to telecast a very humble retraction and apology. I still think that it was a great joke!

Denzil Howson and his delightful wife Dorothy have become our great friends and over the past thirty-five years they have honoured us with their companionship on visits to Perth. I love Denzil’s underlying, quietly analytical sense of humour and his enjoyment of others. I have always found him to be a selfless man who has contributed much to radio and television in Australia — somebody removed from the taint of scandal so prevalent in the world of entertainment and genuinely highly regarded by all those with whom he had contact. I feel sadness that the arch-enemy Time has robbed him of the physical vigour which was his trade-mark until recently. It is a better world for having enjoyed the existence of Denzil Howson.

Peter Harries
10 September 2005

Perth entertainer Peter Harries worked with Denzil at STW9.