My father, Denzil Howson, created and was the co-producer of the Happy Show, the first regular “variety” show on GTV9 in Melbourne. Starting in January 1957, and for the next seven years or so, it went to air live, five nights per week for one hour each night.
The Happy Show, which changed its name to the Tarax Show sometime around 1959, was performed in front of a studio audience and being in the audience was considered an exciting experience in those days.
From time to time, our mother would take us into GTV9 to be a part of the studio audience for the show.
We knew all the personalities as family friends.
Sometimes I would follow my father up to the “control room” and I was fascinated by his explanations of all the equipment and how it worked.
As part of his role producing the children’s show, my father wrote and produced a “Christmas Pantomime” each year between 1957 and 1963.
The work involved in writing and producing these “pantos” was enormous. He came up with the stories, wrote the scripts, cast the performers, wrote lyrics for new songs, briefed the scenery and costume departments, selected background music, directed the performers and oversaw the entire production.
I can remember him sitting at night at the dining room table with a drawing board and set squares, working with a plan of the studio on which he would mark out the positions of all the sets and then diagram the pre-arranged camera moves for every scene.
Many of the pantos had songs specially written for them — my father wrote the lyrics and GTV9’s resident pianist Margot Sheridan, or “Aunty Margot” as we knew her, wrote the music.
When a story needed more performers than could be found within the regular cast of the Happy/Tarax Show, my father was able to call on acting friends he had worked with in the past in radio and theatre.
It was an exciting experience to go into the big studio at GTV9 and see the wonderful, colourful sets which had been constructed. These were usually set up around the walls of Studio One at GTV9, with the cameras in the middle of the studio, able to swing around to cover each set. Most of the cameras were on “pedestals”, but one was on a large motorised “crane” which could lift it high in the air. The audience seating normally present in the studio was removed to maximise the space available for sets.
As can be seen from the photo below, the scenery and costumes were in colour, even though television was still only black and white!
The early pantos were rather primitive and were broadcast “live”, warts and all.
The arrival of videotape at GTV9 in 1959 made it practical to pre-record programs for later broadcast and from that time onward the pantos were pre-recorded, usually over one of the weekends leading up to Christmas. This meant that much more time and care could be lavished on the productions, and it was.
I can remember being present in the studio for “Merry Make Believe” in 1959, and each year thereafter my mother, sister and I were present to watch at least some of the recording sessions.
For “Dick Whittington” in 1960, the part of Dick Whittington’s cat was played by “Candy Cat”, a marionette who appeared regularly in the Happy/Tarax Show. I recall extra long strings had been fitted so that the puppeteer could sit up in the lighting grid.
For “The Magic Mirror” in 1961, the studio was transformed into Petticoat Lane in London, with cobblestones painstakingly painted onto the studio floor. I recall wandering around the Petticoat Lane set, observing how the scenery used “forced perspective” to make the backgrounds appear to be much further away than they actually were.
My father had great admiration for the skills of the set designers, builders and painters at GTV9, many of whom had come from the world of theatre and who it seemed could conjure up anything that was requested.
I remember sitting in the darkened control room of Studio One, which was at first floor level, looking down through the big glass windows into the studio. Above the windows were a row of monitors showing the pictures from each of the studio cameras, as well as the output of the vision mixer which was recorded to videotape.
At GTV9, the person who pushed the buttons to select the cameras was called the “director” and the person who actually directed the performers and oversaw the whole production was called the “producer”. This is different from the convention in film and stage, where the “director” is the person who directs the performers.
The later pantos were recorded in approximately 10 minute segments, presumably the time between commercial breaks. I can recall watching the 10 second “countdown” which was required for the early Ampex videotape machines to stabilise their recording speed. Because electronic videotape editing was not possible in those days, if a mistake was made, the tape would be stopped and the entire 10 minute scene would be started again from the beginning. I remember that this sometimes meant performing the same scene many times over if people fluffed their lines or missed a cue.
There was one memorable example of this in “The Golden Princess” in 1962, where Frank Wilson, who played the father of the leading lady (Patti McGrath), had to burst into song, miming to a pre-recorded audio track. Despite numerous attempts he and the audio operators could not get the timing right. Eventually he resorted to starting the song with his back to the camera! There were many takes of this particular scene.
The last panto was “Marianne” in 1963. Because my father was due to depart GTV9 before the end of 1963, this was recorded some months before Christmas. It was the most ambitious, sophisticated and polished of all the pantos and in many ways marked the high point of that particular era of children’s television programming at GTV9.
By the time my father left GTV9, it had changed a great deal. In the very early days it was a small scale operation where experimentation was possible, but by 1963 it had turned into a large commercial machine. When he joined the station, there were only about eight people on staff. When he left there were around 300. We moved on to Albury, where my father guided the launch and development of a small country television station.