Chapter 12: The Perth Experience

Perth is a lovely city.

Pity it is so far from Australia!

We had the enormous distance between East and West brought home to us when, at the end of October 1965, we travelled to Perth, where I had been appointed Programme Manager of STW Channel Nine.

We decided to travel by train, with our household goods to follow later per Wridgeways. Of course, we had the car — in fact we had two cars — my Holden station wagon and Dot’s little Standard, which Barry Donnelly had sold to us in Albury.

From memory, we left the Standard in Melbourne, where Reg was to arrange for its transport by sea to Fremantle at a later date. We drove the Holden from Albury to Port Pirie, via Melbourne and Adelaide.

At Port Pirie, the station wagon was loaded onto a flat-top rail car, for transport on the overland to Kalgoorlie, where we would collect it, and drive from there to Perth.

On the train we had two sleeperettes — small compartments which converted into sleeping berths for the night section of the journey. Paul and I shared one, and Dot and Clare shared the other.

The journey from Port Pirie to Kalgoorlie took two days and one night.

On arrival at Kalgoorlie in the afternoon of the second day, we booked into a hotel for the night, as we had to wait until the next morning before we could collect the car from a small railway terminal a few miles east of Kalgoorlie.

The drive to Perth took all day, and in those days the first section of the road, from Kalgoorlie to Southern Cross, a distance of about 230 kilometres, was narrow and treacherous.

When a vehicle travelling in the other direction approached, one would have to move off onto the rough verge on the side of the road to let the other pass.

It was a battle of wills as to which one did this!

We arrived in Perth just on dusk, and eventually found the General Post Office, where we had to meet a representative from Channel Nine who would guide us to the house which had been rented on our behalf.

The person who met us was Ernie Taylor, a likeable young man who insisted on calling me “boss”. He was on the programme staff at the station.

The house which was to be our temporary accommodation until we could find a house which suited us was a modest suburban dwelling very close to the shores of Lake Monger and in the Mount Hawthorn district.

The day after we arrived, the lady next door, a friendly Italian “momma”, arrived at the front door with a “Welcome to Perth” gift.

It was a container of snails!

She bred them for her husband who regarded them as a rare delicacy on the menu.

We gratefully thanked her and accepted them — then when she wasn’t looking, consigned them to the rubbish tin.

The next day I reported for duty at STW Channel Nine, at Tuart Hill, a northern suburb.

From memory, Bob Mercer the General Manager was away that day, and I was welcomed by Peter Conroy, the Sales Manager.

Peter Conroy took me on a guided tour of the place and introduced me to lots of people. I was petrified, but hoped I didn’t show it!

The layout of the place had all the hallmarks of a “Standard Television Station Layout … Mark 3, For Smaller Cities”.

As the plan had come from some English “Design and Construction Company”, I suppose that’s what it was — a package deal.

There was virtually no “props” bay, the main studio looked very small, and the news-studio was little more than a large room.

On the other hand, my office was large enough to hold a dance.

The plan was simple. A central square block containing all the technical facilities, with the other departments built around it.

It was all very unfamiliar and a little frightening.

But I felt that I had really “arrived” and was already accepted as a member of the team when somebody showed me the space that had been allocated for my car.

It was in an elitist area far removed from the other side of the building where the hoi-polloi parked their cars.

There were spaces for four cars in this roofed enclave, and there were four immaculate signs in the front of each space — “R. Mercer, General Manager”, “R. Kitney, Chief Engineer”, “P. Conroy, Sales Manager” and — wait for it — “D. Howson, Programme Manager”!

Yes! I had definitely arrived.

Within a few days, we had found the house we wanted for our Perth home. It was in Newry Street, Floreat Park, and almost perfect for our needs. Whilst still in the rented house, we had some minor alterations made — like removing a wall between the lounge room and the dining room to make one large living area, and erecting a fence between the side of the house and the garage, to prevent Patch from escaping.

Patch made the transition from Albury to Perth with very few side effects, and quickly settled into her old routine.

In Albury, we had taught her to collect the newspaper from the front gate where the newsboy left it, and to bring the paper onto the front veranda.

We had been in our new house at Newry Street, Perth only a couple of days, when one morning we awoke to find a group of slightly irate Newry Street residents looking for their morning papers.

Patch had escaped from the backyard and had gone down the street collecting all the papers she could find, and had brought them back and dumped them on our front lawn!

We believe that whilst we were still living in the rented house by Lake Monger — a house with no security fences — that Patch met with a wandering male hound, and during their brief encounter got to know him very well.

The result was that not long after we moved to Newry Street, Patch had four pups. We have three of them away and kept one. He became “Scamp”. He looked like he had been built by the board of works — bandy legs, a funny head, and a low slung body, but he was one of the most loving and loveable dogs you could ever meet!

Channel Nine in Perth had roughly the programme format that was common to most television stations in the mid sixties … daytime magazine type programmes for the ladies, followed by a children’s programme, then news and night time programming commencing at 6.00pm.

I remember that a portion of the afternoon programming was hosted by an ex-radio man, gentleman in his late fifties called John Luke. The children’s programme was hosted by Peter Harries, a lively extrovert with a range of skills which included playing the concertina, singing and generally establishing a good rapport with his young studio audience.

Probably within my first two weeks at the station, a very attractive blonde was ushered into my office. Without much ado, she said she wanted to work in television.

We engaged her on the spot, and her first task was to co-host the children’s programme with Peter Harries. Her name? Veronica Overton.

When Lloyd Lawson resigned from Channel Seven in Perth and joined us at Channel Nine, his move almost coincided with B.O.A.C. inaugurating their first direct air service from Perth to London.

A number of Perth’s leading newspaper journalists were invited to join the passengers on the first flight, and Lloyd Lawson and myself also “got a guernsey”. However, our flight was not all fun.

Accompanying Lloyd and myself was a Perth Advertising Agent, Harvey Bean. I had a 16mm film camera — in fact I had two cameras — a 16mm Paillard Bolex H16 and an Auricon sound camera.

With this equipment, we were to film a number of commercials in London on behalf of some of Channel Nine’s Perth sponsors.

Also on the return journey, Lloyd and myself were to split with Harvey at Singapore, who would come on home to Perth, whilst Lloyd and myself were to board a Pan Am flight to Saigon where we would meet up with Channel Nine Perth’s News Director, Graham Walsh.

We then spent the next week filming a documentary of the Vietnam War, which we called “Death Comes Daily”. When we finally returned to Perth, it was edited and shown as a news “Special Feature”. I don’t think it was all that special, but it was an experience for both of us to see bits of the war first-hand.

Actually, Lloyd and myself despaired of ever leaving Saigon. We had arrived there without the correct “visa” documentation. This was because the Vietnamese Embassy in London was closed during Easter, which was the time we were there. So we entered Saigon without the correct visas.

No official seemed to be greatly worried about this — in fact apart from a cursory look at our passports, no-one seemed to be interested in our arrival, or why we were there.

Understandable! They were losing a war at the time.

But on our departure day, it was a different matter. The first thing the immigration department wanted to see before we could leave the country was our visas.

As we were without any such documents, we were confined in the Immigration Office until our unlawful status could be investigated. This investigation had to be carried out by “the Chif”. “Chif” was the nearest the minion guarding us in the office could get to the word “Chief”.

But the “Chif” was away from the office.

“When will he be back in the office?”

“You must wait for the Chif!”

“Yes — but when will he return?”

“You must wait for the Chif!”

Meantime, the clock was creeping near and nearer to departure time for the flight.

We had almost resigned ourselves to a long and indeterminate stay in Saigon when, at the last moment, the Chif arrived.

We hurriedly explained our predicament, and we must have looked honest, because after a little hesitation he grabbed two official looking documents, scrawled some meaningless hieroglyphics on them, thrust them at us and said “Hurry!”.

We needed no second bidding. Loaded with heavy equipment, we stumbled our way to the departure gate at the airport, where another official, with maddening and painstaking precision wanted to know all the facts of our Saigon visit. From his expression , he didn’t believe one word of our story.

At the same time, as a counterpoint to this fellow’s laborious questioning, we could hear the public address announcing the last call for our Pan-Am flight.

Finally and reluctantly, he glared at the Chif’s signature on the documents, and waved us through.

We clambered onto the plane just as the hostess was closing the door.

I have never so gratefully sunk into the comfort of an airliner seat as I did then!

So much for our sojourn in Saigon.

With the demise of the children’s programme on Channel Nine in Melbourne, Ron Blaskett and Gerry Gee joined us in Perth.

Initially, Ron and Gerry joined the Channel Nine Perth children’s programme, and the team then consisted of Peter Harries, Veronica Overton, Ron and Gerry, Alan Graham (Useless Eustace) and Peter Piccini and his accordion.

Before long, we were producing a once weekly night-time variety show hosted by a young Perth personality, Jeff Newman.

At the time of writing, Jeff Newman is still working in Perth television.

The old undeniable “pantomime urge” surfaced again, and resulted in an extremely emasculated version of “Ali Baba and the Forth Thieves” at Boan’s Fashion Hall, during a school holiday time. Starring were Veronica Overton, Peter Harries, Ron and Gerry and a young fellow called John Orsic.

John Orsic later became a big star in Crawford’s “Cop Shop”.

With such a sparse cast, we had to cut down slightly on the forty thieves. We had one thief!

But our most ambitious dramatic effort was “The Golden Hind” — based loosely on the story of Sir Francis Drake and his defeat of the Spanish Armada. This was a television production, staged in the large studio at STW9. With a duration of one hour, it featured just about every member of the production department.

Peter Harries was Sir Francis; Veronica Overton, his light o’ love, Lady Veronica; Ron and Gerry, friends of Drake; Lloyd Lawson, the wicked Spaniard; Jeff Newman his off-sider; and Peter Piccini (with his accordion) was Seaman Piccini, a member of the crew of the Golden Hind.

The plot gave us plenty of excuses for some sea-faring songs like “I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside”, “All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor” and “Has Anybody Seen Our Ship?”

The show was sponsored by Tom the Cheap Grocer.

At the end of 1967, Bob Mercer the Manager of STW9, had realised that I was an abject failure as a Programme Manager — so I jumped before I was pushed. I resigned and we prepared to return to Melbourne, where I had a suggestion of a job offer.

Our fondest memories of Perth are of the people — the firm and lasting friendships we made with the Worners, the Piccinis, Neil and Molly Garland, the Harries, Peter Duncan, who had followed us from Albury, settled in Perth and become a successful independent television producer, Darn and Stan Kowarski, the Kirbys, David and Viv and Denise, and Veronica who was to become Veronica Low, when she married John Low, a successful actor and writer who died tragically at an early age.