Celebration of a nation

The ABC’s 90th-anniversary program ABC 90 Celebrate! was a noble attempt to fit nine decades of broadcasting in to just over two hours of television but left some comedy fans disappointed.

Craig Reucassel, Zane Rowe and Tony Armstrong present ABC 90 Celebrate!

With segments on ABC news, investigative journalism, regional broadcasting, sport, lifestyle programs, kids’ shows, drama, arts coverage, music, and comedy, there was a lot to pack in. Inevitably, some favourite shows of yesteryear were skimmed over; some weren’t even mentioned at all.

The comedy segment, hosted by Wil Anderson, had so much packed into it that there was even an apology at the end that they couldn’t include everything. Highlighted shows included The Big Gig, The Late Show, The D-Generation, Kath & Kim, Utopia, Black Comedy, Rosehaven and Please Like Me but other popular and highly regarded shows from different eras were skipped over. Eighties satire like The Gillies Report and the nineties sitcoms Frontline and The Games barely got a mention. As for Clarke & Dawe, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it clip was all there was remembering them.

Long running shows like The Glasshouse and Good News Week were entirely forgotten, as was the career of Wayne Hope and Robyn Butler, with no mention of The Librarians, Very Small Business or Upper Middle Bogan. The Micallef P(r)ogram(me) was another strange omission, but there was a tiny mention of Mad As Hell. Micallef himself was not interviewed or live in the studio. Appearing on the show was “beneath my dignity,” he’s supposed to have said.

The Big Gig was the show which got the most attention, with Wendy Harmer, Jean Kittson and the Doug Anthony Allstar’s Tim Fergusson appearing live in studio. Hard luck if you’d been hoping for clips of DAAS Kapital, though.

Andrew Denton’s Blah Blah Blah got a mention, as did his role in establishing the Gruen franchise and The Chaser, but there wasn’t much about The Money or the Gun, Live and Sweaty or Enough Rope.

Also forgotten, and understandably so, was the career of Chris Lilley. It would be unforgivable to broadcast his shows now (it was unforgivable at the time – Ed), but his absence was notable. A mea culpa segment, examining the shows the ABC regrets airing, would have been interesting, but that’s easier done with shows from the seventies which no one remembers. And it would look a bit strange to, on the one hand, big up the ABC’s pioneering work airing dramas with indigenous leads in the sixties, and the first same sex kiss in 1970, and then on the other hand remind people of Jonah from Tonga (2013).

ABC 90 Celebrate! was a night to highlight diversity and the breadth of the ABC’s operations. We heard from a blind newsreader, saw the impact of ABC radio on rural communities and crossed live to a NAIDOC celebration in Broome. Those old enough to remember 1988’s Australia Live may have spotted some borrowed format ideas, which is odd because Australia Live and the ABC’s crucial role in ensuring the whole country saw it, wasn’t mentioned.

The ground-breaking international telecast Our World (1967), now best remembered for a live performance by The Beatles of ‘All You Need Is Love’, did get a mention, but only briefly. This was a huge technical achievement for the ABC at the time, with three live crosses, to a Melbourne tram depot, a CSIRO research facility, and the Parkes Observatory, beamed to 24 countries around the world via satellite.

Another oddity was the Happy Birthday messages from celebrities tacked on to the end of the show. Messages from Molly Meldrum and Garry McDonald suggested that both had been interviewed – not that we saw the results in the brief sections on Countdown, The Aunty Jack Show, Norman Gunston or Mother & Son.

Similarly, international celebrities associated with the ABC, like Michael Palin, Stephen Fry and Sesame Street’s Elmo, hinted at a possibly planned segment on imported programs associated with the ABC. Given the enduring affection for shows like The Goodies, Doctor Who and Monkey, as well as stars like Palin and Fry, it’s odd that international shows weren’t mentioned at all. The fact that the ABC no longer has first dibs on BBC shows may have something to do with that, of course.

Also, why have a studio audience full of ABC stars and not speak to most of them? Luke McGregor, John Waters, the woman from Back Roads… was there once an ambition to interview them live as part of the program, which was later dropped due to time constraints?

One live section worth noting is Sammy J’s song about pedantic letter-writers, the sort of people who complain to the ABC about presenters mispronouncing words or using incorrect grammar. This was one of Sammy J’s better and funnier songs of recent times and was more enjoyable than some of the other live music performances in this show.

ABC 90 Celebrate! could easily have been a multi-part series, with separate one- or two-hour-long programs covering themes such as comedy, drama, and current affairs. And given the ABC’s commitment to making local comedy over the decades, a program charting the evolution of ABC TV comedy, from the early days to the comedy boom of the 80s and 90s, to the modern day would be interesting (although the conclusion about the state of comedy in 2022 might be a bit depressing!).

90 years is a long time to condense into two hours, and in many ways an impossible task. ABC 90 Celebrate! was a noble attempt to stimulate memories, remind us of the ABC’s important civic role, and keep us entertained for a couple of hours. But if you’re after a deeper look at the ABC’s legacy, especially is comedy legacy, try elsewhere.

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