Australian television turns 50 later this year, but the Powerhouse Museum is getting in early on the birthday celebrations with a new exhibition.

On The Box opened this week and casts an eye back across the decades to 1956 when it all began.

Among the historic items on display are Mr Squiggle’s blackboard, original fan cards from Graham Kennedy and Bert Newton, a full-sized Ossie Ostrich puppet, Norman Gunston’s original costume, Sheila Lizzie Florance’s Prisoner script, and Charlene’s 1987 wedding dress, as worn by Kylie Minogue in Neighbours.

While the exhibition paints a fascinating portrait of the way Australian society has changed, it also highlights how TV readily challenged society in the past.

TV is not quite as daring as it once was -“ it is more sanitised today, Peter Cox, the curator of On The Box, says. You only have to look back at what Graham Kennedy was doing when he started -“ that was dangerous stuff. Even Prisoner 20 years ago was an enormous risk.

The 1950s was such a conservative time, and within a year of TV starting, Kennedy was subverting a lot of the conservative values people held dear -“ and we all found enjoyment in that.

There was such a pleasure to be found in the danger of subverting the social norm, and it is interesting that it remains a source of humour in Australia. Kath And Kim holds a mirror up to our suburban lives and messes with it, and while it is affectionate, it is pointed satire as well.

Of all the shows featured in the exhibition, Cox believes Prisoner stands out above all in terms of its enduring popularity.

It is still the most talked about program from the entire 50 years of Australian television, he says. To set a drama in a women’s prison for a start was a risk, and most of the parts were not glamorous, sexy or even that nice, but they were meaty parts and the actors loved the strong roles the show gave them.

On The Box: Great Moments In Australian Television 1956-2006 is at the Powerhouse Museum until 29 January 2007. Telephone 9217 0111.

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