Our family were quite isolated from other people. The radio was our daily link to the outside world. No TV, or mobile phones. The newspapers were delivered twice a week with the rest of our post. Our life revolved around the radio, especially the ABC news broadcasts at 8.45am, 12.30 pm and 7 pm. Everything stopped for those times. We organised meal times around them. We sat and ate in silence, no-one was allowed to speak. Dad had to catch every detail.
But there were less serious programs. When I was very young, almost the first program after breakfast was Kindergarten of the Air. Sitting on the floor of the lounge room, the tufts of the new carpet square rough against my bare legs, I was enthralled. I listened to the stories, and in my imagination was carried off to distant places. I sang the songs, and learnt to blend my voice with others. I sprang to my feet to walk, skip or march as the lady’s voice instructed. I thoroughly enjoyed myself for half an hour, and Mum had no interruptions while she worked in the kitchen.
Later in the morning, Mum did her ironing on the breakfast table, to a backdrop of radio serials, like Ada and Elsie, When a girl Marries, Doctor Paul, and Portia faces life. They were the original ‘soapies’, with long involved storylines, and cliff-hanging conclusions at the end of each week. To me, it sounded as if we followed the characters through their houses, onto the streets, and into shops. I had no idea that the actors were crowded together in a radio studio, taking their turn to speak into a single microphone. Or that the sounds around them were produced by someone equipped with boxes, tins and other unlikely odds and ends. Knowing that would probably have destroyed the magic I created, in my own mind.
When Dad came back to the house for lunch, Mum had already folded away her ironing blanket. Now she spread the seersucker tablecloth back over the table.
While we ate lunch, we listened to the most famous serial of them all, ‘Blue Hills’ by Gwen Meredith. This time, the setting of the serial was in country Australia, so that we could really believe in the lives and trials of the characters. The serial ran for years, and some of the original actors retired. When a new voice had to be introduced, a new character was written in as well. But the themes of county life never changed. I grew up alongside some of the young characters, their young voices provided by middle-aged women.
Also, of course, we had to listen to The Country Hour, a program filled with information important to both Mum and Dad. I remember weather reports, and stories of how other farmers managed. Most important to Dad, was hearing how much money had been paid for fat cattle, in markets in the city.
When all was over, Dad would stand up, grab his stained and weather-beaten felt hat with its broad shady brim, and stomp down the stairs.
“Well, I can’t stay here all day, listening to that talk!’ he’d say. ‘Someone has to do some work around here’. ‘This won’t buy the baby a new dress!’… his favourite way of saying that we needed to earn money. ‘C’mon dogs!’. And off he strode.
In the late afternoon, there were more serials, designed to entertain children when they arrived home after the school day. Yes,What?, Search for the Golden Boomerang, Superman, and Smokey Dawson were some I remember. But the most important program for me was the Argonaut’s Club. This was a long-running program produced by the ABC, intended to do more than just entertain children. As well as the usual voices, known to listeners as Uncle and Aunty, there were regular guests, who taught us about music, simple science projects, and art and drawing. There were competitions where children could earn a certificate, called a Blue, which were posted out to us. It was thrilling to hear your name read out so that all of Australia could hear about your success.
There were regular serials during the Argonauts, but they usually had an Australian flavour. One of them was about a ‘Muddle-headed Wombat’, whose best friend was a very intelligent and patient ‘Fat-tailed Pouched Mouse’. The third character was a cat. They had a series of exciting and dangerous adventures, and it was only the cleverness of the Mouse who rescued them every time. I think these adventures were eventually produced as a book.
The radio stayed on in the evenings. Often there were ‘quiz-shows’ where contestants tried to answer general-knowledge questions to win prizes. The ‘Quiz-Kids’ was a show where the contestants were children. But the most famous quiz shows were hosted by two comedians, who had a fierce rivalry. They were Bob Dyer, an American who moved to Australia with his wife Dolly. His show was called ‘Pick-a-Box’, and sometimes the prize hidden in the box was just a booby-prize.
The other host was Jack Davey, who came from New Zealand. We all knew him by his regular greeting… ‘Heigh Ho Everybody.’ He hosted many different shows, including a quiz called ‘Give it a Go’. He also provided the commentary for the news reels that were shown before the main films at picture theatres. My strongest memory of him was when he took part in a round-Australia car race. His habit was to toss a stick of gelignite from the car, into a spot where it would cause the most chaos, but without causing serious damage. So he picked up the nick-name of ‘Gelignite-Jack’.
As well as quiz shows, there were serials for the adults, like ‘Night Beat’. and also singing, both in competitions such as The Amateur Hour, and others just to entertain the audience, like The Village Glee Club. Both Mum and Dad would happily sit in the dark, to avoid the moths attracted to the electric lights, and listen to the different shows for hours … when they weren’t too badly affected by noisy static.
As well as providing entertainment, ABC radio provided programs for children’s education. We had an old radio in our little schoolroom, and often listened to the music programs, learning simple songs. We did not have access to a piano, and none of our teachers had guitars or other instruments. Without the radio, we would have had no music education at all.
The ABC radio service was paid for by the government, and did not voice any advertisements. But there were local radio stations, which did advertise local shops. The income from the advertisements paid the expenses of the station, and so kept it running. At least one of these stations had a Saturday-morning program, where, for a fee, they would broadcast the name of a child having a birthday that week. I can remember at least once hearing my name broadcast, with instructions on where to look to find a small gift. I was amazed that the radio knew about my birthday! But obviously Mum had written them a letter.
Years later, while I was at boarding school, my teacher took me to the local commercial radio station. There, I was the one standing in a radio studio, in front of a single microphone, while I recited a poem I had learnt for the occasion. I wonder if some other young girl listened, and was fired with ambition to do the same thing, sometime in the future?
I do remember a morning when the ABC radio programs were absent. All I could hear was solemn religious music. Eventually a voice announced that programs had been cancelled for the day, because in far-off England, the King had died during the night. That was sad of course, but soon I was excited again. Now the oldest of the two princesses who lived there, was our Queen. Not only that, but soon, she would have a very special ceremony called a Coronation.
I was determined to listen to the Coronation Service when it was broadcast by the ABC. The catch was, of course, that while it was taking place in the afternoon in London, it was late at night in Queensland. Mum was dubious about my plan, but agreed to let me stay up a bit later than usual. She and Dad sat in the lounge with me.
Sitting on the carpet in front of the valve radio, in its ornate wooden box, I listened avidly as the program began. First there was a description of the carriages driving from the Palace to the Abbey, while thousands of people lined the roadside. Then I heard the description of the Queen’s dress, and the ladies who carried her long train, as she walked down the long aisle. I kept listening as the service continued, but as it got later, Mum collected a pillow and an eiderdown from my bed, and dropped them over me as I sat on the floor. I lay down with the quilt over me, but was determined not to miss anything. I would hear it all.
Hours later, I woke up in my own bed. When the Queen left the Abbey, and climbed back into her coach, I could not keep my eyes open any more. Dad carried me back to my bed. But it had been a very special night for the three of us.
‘There’s a letter addressed to Barbara,’ Mum said one day, as she opened the packet of letters. ‘I wonder w
ho its’s from. Do you know?’ she asked as she handed it to me. There was a twinkle in her eye.
‘Oh look!’ I was definitely excited, turning the big white envelope in my hands. ‘It has printing on it, that says it’s from the ABC!’
‘Well, go on, open it,’ said Dad. He pretended he was not interested, but I felt him watching me. I slid my finder under the flap, and felt the glue stretch and give way. Carefully I lifted the flap away, I certainly did not want to tear this special envelope. I peaked inside, and could see the blue border on a piece of card.
‘It’s a Blue!’ I shouted, ‘it’s a blue, it’s a blue! I’ve got a blue!”
‘Well done’, said Mum, while Dad just grinned. He was always reluctant to give any of us praise for our efforts, as it might give us ‘swelled heads’. He was determined that no child of his would ever be accused of being ‘stuck up’, or too proud of themselves.