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Tune in to the golden days of the ABC!

Heather Wallace

Hands up if you remember TV’s test pattern.

Ah yes, the days when there were only two TV stations and when broadcasting ceased every night the test pattern would take over. It seems like another world doesn’t it? A time when families would sit together, glued by the action on ‘the box’. Oh and remember how there wasn’t remote control? If you wanted to change the channel you actually had to GET UP AND DO IT YOURSELF! How did we survive those dark days???

Now thanks to the National Archives of Australia’s exhibition, Tuning In: ABC 1964-1976, you can relieve those simpler times. Curator Dr Sara King has delved deep into the audio-visual archives and put together a memorable exhibition.

Around 13 hours of ABC footage is on display, along with stills of stars and shows that graced our screens in those halcyon days. “We went for footage that you won’t see in ‘best of’ ABC collections,” Dr King says.

“The period we’re showing here was so exciting – the ABC went from thinking of TV as just radio with pictures to making shows with high production values. It was also the first time Australians were hearing their own accents on TV and seeing local settings being used as backdrops.”

Mr_Squiggle NAA_ABC_

Mr Squiggle and Pat Lovell, 1975

One of Sara’s favourite shows in the exhibition is Contrabandits, a glamorous and glitzy Sydney Harbour water police crime drama from 1967, produced decades before Water Rats. “There were navy ships and fast cars. Sir Robert Helpmann even appeared as a villain in one episode, dressed entirely in his own clothes, as the costumes weren’t as elegant as his own.”

Naughty, sex-comedy Alvin Purple was also challenging how people thought of the national broadcaster. “The ABC was making some very racy shows,” Dr King explains. “They got away with a lot, there just wasn’t the scrutiny in those early days. A lot of the ABC upper management thought TV wouldn’t last, and didn’t pay much attention to what was going on.”

Other gems include the very first episode of Countdown, broadcast in colour in 1975, and hosted by Johnny Farnham (for those of us of a certain age, he’ll always be Johnny, not John). In its early days Molly Meldrum was behind the scenes and the show had a string of guest hosts. Talking of music history, there’s footage of Bon Scott pre-ACDC, in his first band, a poppy outfit called The Spektors.

As for me, I had a ball reliving childhood memories through the exhibition, becoming VERY excited at the site of Mr Squiggle and naming every one of the Play School actors who appear in black and white images “There’s Benita!” I squealed excitedly, a five-year-old all over again. Poignantly, there is a lovely shot of entertainer Jon English, who passed away just a few weeks ago.

Benita Collings and John Waters on the set of Play School, c.1972

Benita Collings and John Waters on the set of Play School, c.1972

You might even like The Stranger, a sci-fi show from 1964, something which, geek that I am, I’m embarrassed to say I’d never heard of. Made for kids it was the first ABC series to be sold overseas, and featured a group of children helping an unconscious young man they find and discovering he is an alien, sent to Earth to find a new home for his people. The second series even featured the young heroes enlisting the Prime Minister to help save their friend. Local sci-fi and politics? Count me in!

To get you completely in the mood, the NAA has set up comfy couches around the exhibition, encouraging visitors to curl up and travel back through time. Just as TV was at the time, there’s no viewing on demand, if you miss the beginning of a show you like, you have to wait for it to loop back on itself to see it from start to finish.

But the great thing is there’s so much to see, so if you miss the start of one show, you can watch something else until it comes back on again. And this exhibition is not just for those taking a trip down memory lane. It’s a fascinating window in time for TV aficionados of all generations, with faces that are household names today popping up from their early careers.

So come on down to Auntie’s house, make yourself comfortable and let’s watch some telly!

the essentials

What: Tuning In: ABC 1964-76
Where: National Archives of Australia, 
Queen Victoria Terrace, 
When: On now until 15 May 2016
How much: Free 

Feature image: Prince Charles with Molly Meldrum on the set of Countdown, 1977. All images and footage are supplied by the National Archives of Australia 


Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (, is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology. More about the Author

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