It all began in a defrocked chapel in Surry Hills 50 years ago. Channel Nine was yet to build its studios, so the old chapel was the unprepossessing location for the birth of Australian television.
On 16 September 1956, the then station manager Bruce Gyngell squeezed into the makeshift studio, looked into the camera and uttered the immortal words, Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to television.
In the coming weeks, the Nine and Seven networks will go into overdrive as they mark the birthday of the TV medium. While Nine began in September, Seven commenced on 4 November 1956 and the ABC one day later on 5 November.
As TV pats itself on its collective back with such upcoming offerings as 50 Years, 50 Stars and 50 Years, 50 Shows from Nine and Seven’s TV Turns 50: The Events That Stopped A Nation, it must be noted that camp humour, drag, and gay and lesbian performers and characters have played a significant role on the small screen -“ from Graham Kennedy and The Mavis Bramston Show, though to Number 96, Prisoner, Big Brother and Kath & Kim.
The winner of eight Gold Logies, Graham Kennedy took on TV in 1957 and was rarely off the screen for the next four decades.
Archival footage of the man dubbed The King reveals an hilariously camp and bitchy performer, who loved mincing in front of the cameras as much as he delighted in pushing the limits of what was acceptable.
It was only after Kennedy’s death that his homosexuality was publicly revealed, but The Sydney Morning Herald TV critic Michael Idato believes it was an essential part of the man who entertained the nation.
It is interesting that his sexuality was never part of the definition of why he was a celebrity, but a lot of the accessories that went with his sexuality, like the dark and bent sense of humour and the camp, flamboyant sense of showbiz, I think define why he was so popular. That, and he was extraordinarily funny, Idato says.
It’s interesting that style of humour is still on TV, with Bert Newton on Family Feud. That style of naughty humour is immortal.
While 1950s Australia was falling in love with the vaudeville-styled antics of Kennedy, it was the outrageous satire of The Mavis Bramston Show in 1964 which stood Australia on its ear.
David Sale, a producer and writer of the show, says gay talents and camp humour were a vital part of the show’s success. Mavis came along and shook everything up, he says. Not only was the material marvellous, but the people who performed it made the difference.
There was always a lot of drag in the show. Camp humour always went down a treat.
Sale was also responsible for the next turning point of TV when he created Number 96.
Among the boobs, bums and bonking in the Paddington apartment block was TV’s first realistic gay character, Don Finlayson, as played by actor Joe Hasham.
I was given free rein to do with it what I wanted, and I wanted the series to be full of a variety of characters, Sale recalls. There were numerous scenes of Don and his boyfriend Dudley sitting up in bed together. It portrayed a real relationship.
In the same year, the ABC documentary series Chequerboard created headlines when it featured real-life gay couple Peter de Waal and his partner Peter -˜Bonn’ Bonsall-Boone. The couple spoke about their relationship in a time of anti-gay laws but when they kissed the tabloids had a field day.
Vicky Stafford, as played by Judy Nunn, joined TV’s queer ranks two years later in The Box. Stafford was a bisexual TV reporter who was regularly kissing other women and soon proved the most popular character of the series.
Prisoner premiered at the end of the decade and was a smash hit, especially for its focus on the relationships of its female characters, many of whom were lesbian or bisexual. Joan Ferguson -“ the sadistic Freak -“ was allowed a girlfriend in one season. Frankie Doyle was troubled and psychotic, although the hapless Judy Bryant remained a favourite to the end.
While Prisoner was at its peak of popularity, TV was also full of messages about a deadly new virus called AIDS. The infamous Grim Reaper TV commercials of the mid-1980s scared an entire generation into using condoms and practising safe sex.
Neighbours also surfaced in the 1980s and, while it has been remarkably short of gay characters, it provided plenty of eye-candy with such stars as Guy Pearce and Jason Donovan, and gave birth to the career of gay icon, Kylie Minogue.
While the gay flight attendants of comedy skit series Fast Forward kept us laughing as they insisted on singing the score of Cats, it was the drama series G.P. that had a gay character Dr Martin Dempsey (Damian Rice) and even allowed him a passionate kiss with a boyfriend.
Then there was Molly Meldrum, who hosted Countdown for over a decade before joining Hey Hey It’s Saturday. Somewhere in the midst of this, he came out as a gay man.
Molly is an interesting case as one minute it was not cool to make gay jokes, and then the next minute it was all on, Idato observes. It just kind of happened. They all had some fun with it, until it was just a regular part of life -“ until the next joke!
The first TV coverage of the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras in 1994 threatened to split federal parliament, but went ahead, won the ratings and was among the most watched TV events of the year.
Only a matter of years later, the novelty wore off, the ratings slipped and then suddenly it was not a case of the networks being too scared to touch it, but rather Mardi Gras was considered too pass?The times had changed.
While All Saints introduced lesbian doctor Charlotte Beaumont, who has since decided she wants to be with a man, it was Neighbours that introduced the well-adjusted lesbian teen Lana. After Lana had enough of popular regular Sky’s indecision about their relationship, she exited the series with her head held high. For the 6:30pm timeslot, it was a bold move, and a ratings winner.
Reality TV series like Big Brother and The Block have provided the great parade of gay and lesbian folk onto our screens in recent years. Characters like Johnnie Rotten Cass, Waz and Gav, Sahra and, most recently, gay cowboy David have all earned a place in the queer TV landscape.
Toni Johnson-Woods, a lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Queensland, says reality TV has provided valuable exposure for gays and lesbians.
Reality TV has showed gays and lesbian in all their colour, and not just in stereotypes, she says. It has brought into living rooms that gay people who live together have the same relationship problems, fights and living patterns as everyone else. For many people, that was a wake-up.
Imported recent hits like Will & Grace, Queer As Folk, and The L Word have shown that TV has embraced the queer lifestyle, while on the local front it has only offered the camp, socially biting humour of Kath & Kim, with Rove McManus proving the Kennedy-style humour still lives on.
But most critics agree that TV is in a state of massive flux. With the networks losing their grip on the audience share, Australian TV on its 50th birthday is facing a very different future.
Dr Sue Turnbull, associate professor of Media Studies at Latrobe University, says Australian TV is seeing the end of an era, but believes there are some things to celebrate at this milestone.
TV has always been a mutating beast and people are now moving on to new things, she says.
TV does not reflect the composition of the population, the population’s interests or deal with minorities well. It never really has been a reflection of reality, but is a highly stylised way of seeing the world.
But I think Australian TV has done okay, certainly better than the Americans or the British, because queer culture has been an on-going part of the landscape. We may not have produced anything as challenging as Queer As Folk or The L Word, but I do think Australian TV has taken into account gay characters’ lives -“ and that is worth noting, and maybe even celebrating.