talks with John Tranter:
The Australian Broadcasting Commission and Australian Writing
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John Tranter: I just thought I’d start by asking when did you first join the ABC?
Richard Connolly: In 1956 in June, or July.
John Tranter: Did you go into Education?
Richard Connolly: No, no. I went in to Religious Broadcasts. That was the only thing I was good for, as it were. I had come back from Rome where I studied for four years, and I worked as a proof-reader at what was then quite a flourishing paper, with a ninety-thousand circulation weekly, the «Catholic Weekly», and I found a job there as a proof-reader, and went to Sydney University as a night owl for four years.
John Tranter: I did that for one year and I found it very difficult.
6:Richard Connolly: Bloody hell, yeah. I was married in the middle of it and by the time I graduated, I had finished the university course and had had two kids, but it was very hard, but because I had already been studying for years, particularly the four years in Rome, I was pretty much able to cope with the study and I had a job as a proof-reader, where you started at nine and you finished at five. Do you know what I mean? You have no worries after that.
John Tranter: You go home with a clear mind.
Richard Connolly: Like my son, the pilot. He says, you walk off the plane and it’s finished. It’s worrying maybe while you’re up there.
John Tranter: Yes, and once you get down, you can put it all behind you. And then there was an important thing that happened for you, you were given a scholarship to go to Europe, and look at radio production technology. That was the sixties.
Richard Connolly: That was a long time there, I’d spent four years with Religious Broadcasts, where I learned a lot of things. I mean, in those days, where I actually produced poetry, where I learned the basics of microphones in a way that I don’t think that anybody learns nowadays. And in those days, as a specialist trainee, you went around every department of the ABC. And I went around in my first six to eight weeks, and there was only radio, and television started in 1956 after I joined, and in fact, that’s why there was a job there. I spent — it must have been a couple of weeks with John Thompson, and I immediately knew where I wanted to be in the ABC.
This was in 1956, but I had to wait until 1959-60, I had to wait for four years in Religious Broadcasts, then about another six years in Schools’ Broadcasts, mainly, but also in language — the ABC used to broadcast English to Indonesia, English to Papua New Guinea when they were still emerging.
John Tranter: I was going to ask you, you mentioned John Thompson, who was a poet and an ABC producer.
Richard Connolly: He was a wonderful, wonderful broadcaster.
John Tranter: He was. Did you have anything to do with the 1959 documentary, the Ern Malley program, ‘The Ern Malley Story’?
Richard Connolly: I remember it, but I had nothing to do with it. But I inherited John’s office, and when I joined Radio Drama and Features, I was features editor, and John was what they called a writer-producer, so he could please himself what he did, and what he did was extraordinary stuff. Ivan Smith was another name. Have you heard of him?
John Tranter: Yes, I have. I knew his name quite well in the early days of the ABC. He used to produce a lot of literary material.
17:Richard Connolly: Yes. Not enough Australian stuff was done when Ivan was editor. But he was a very, very gifted man. He decided that I was doing interesting work in Education and he managed to get a job made for me in assisting him, in the Features neck of the woods, and he had very interesting people doing very interesting things and I was able to produce very intricate… Robert Williams from Sydney University, I remember, producing a program called ‘The London Coffee House’, all about the time of the coffee houses, and you encountered all those people, Dryden and so on, and the institutions…
But it was later on, when Ivan had retired… in 1971 I was given a Churchill Fellowship, and the purpose of it was twofold. It was to study spoken word radio in Italy, France, Germany, and the UK. In fact, I was eternally grateful that Daryl Miley, who was then one of the bosses, he was the Head of Radio, and I just wanted to go and study radio on the Continent, because everybody who ever went and studied radio in Europe did it in Britain. Because I had languages, not very good German, but very good French and Italian, I wanted to go and find out what they did. But Daryl, thank God, said look, the BBC has started all this public radio business; you’d better go there too. Which I did, and found quite a difference in their approach, but a very solid organisation, especially in those days. But anyway, I did all that, over about six months or so.
My German wasn’t really good enough, except you still do get things. I learnt all about… the Germans had their technicians… they went to a special sort of technical college, and the technicians had all been to this technical outfit and they were all of a standard that you only dreamed of. In the ABC, there were certainly wonderful, innovative talents among the techs at the ABC, don’t get me wrong. I was astonished to go into a drama studio, where there was a row of concrete for someone to walk on, a row of rubble — crunch, crunch, crunch — and all the extraordinary sort of lengths that they’d gone to get a reality of sound. I remember Christopher Koch producing — I think it was a Schools’ Broadcast, a program about Ned Kelly, the shooting of Aaron Sherritt, knock on the door, bang! And they brought in — I think it could’ve been a revolver or a rifle — and it went bang, he just about called for a cannon.
John Tranter: For a bigger bang.
Richard Connolly: He wanted a dramatic bang, not a realistic bang.
John Tranter: So when you came back from Europe, having been through all these experiences, what did you find in the ABC? That was around the time that you decided to create «Sunday Night Radio Two», wasn’t it?
Richard Connolly: Yes, and it wasn’t my decision, actually. In fact, it was foisted on me.
John Tranter: Was it?
Richard Connolly: While I was in France, I was absolutely fascinated by what they call the Atelier du Création Radiophonique, the workshop of radiophonic creation.
John Tranter: Only the French could invent that.
Richard Connolly: But I heard extraordinary programs in this place. I remember hearing three programs that went on for three Sunday nights and it was very, very long. I could be wrong, but it was a long time. I think it was a three-hour program though, it was very long, on several big tapes, about a great jazz man who died of drugs, Charlie Parker.
[The Charlie Parker program brings together a wild mix of music and interviews and archives composed as a kind of improvised jazz frenzy, a whirlwind of references – the man’s life, vignettes recorded, actuality in New York, commentary, quotations… a rhapsodic homage. The ACR’s ‘Charlie Parker’ still sits today unassuming in its 3 AGFA reel to reel tape boxes in a rarely opened cupboard, part of a ‘working archive’ available to Performance and Features producers at Radio National in Sydney. These, and other tapes discovered from this collection (ACR), remain as an almost silenced memory of Connolly’s visit in 1971, and also of the hours of listening labour [producer Kaye] Mortley devoted to these imports. The program does not exist in the official ABC Archive, nor is it catalogued there as yet, remaining in its original French boxes, without English annotation — its provenance and influence largely unrecognised by a new generation of radio producers unaware of its historical role in the formation of their craft. (Virginia Madsen: at http://scan.net.au/scan/journal/display.php?journal_id=142)]
John Tranter: Jane Ulman produced a short prose poetry piece of mine, ‘The Subtitles’, as a two-hander for radio, and took that to the Prix Italia. It didn’t win anything, but the French liked it and bought the rights and produced a version of it, which I heard part of when I was in Paris. Kaye Mortley organised a radio conference, the ‘Nuits Australienne’, and it was very interesting. I talked to the producer Etienne Valles, and I said, the Australian version of this is twenty-two minutes long. Your version of the same script, basically, is forty minutes long. Did you do anything to the writing? And he said, oh no, no, I just made the pauses a little… longer.
Richard Connolly: Yes. and I remember when I came back from that tour that that was one of the things, but I just picked it up, and nobody told it to me. But even before I went on the road, I used to tell people at the training school what the constituents of radio were — of radio sound — and one of the most important constituents I always said was silence, and timing.
John Tranter: I was surprised at how many producers I saw, when they were producing a poem reading, would have the poem, and then the announcer come in immediately afterwards, and I’d say, no, you need a good long pause, to let it sink in.
Richard Connolly: That’s right. That was the rule, and I was taught that very early in the piece, because in those days, the trainee was pretty well-trained, and I was taught to count a good slow four after the end of a piece of music.
John Tranter: That’s a very good rule.
Richard Connolly: Yes. and it varies, of course, but you can’t just jump in on top of the ending of a piece of music, or a poem. But in Europe I heard all these extraordinary programs and your story about the silences –
John Tranter: The pauses being a bit long –
Richard Connolly: Well, their sort of radio was a kind of contemplative radio. It worked a bit like poetry or music, in that they had far more feeling about what they were doing. They were fairly mixed up with another outfit which produced weird, to my ears, radiophonic sort of music. It wasn’t part of the Atelier, or indeed Radio France , I think, but they took me along to it, to hear things. After Radio France, I went on to Italy. I think Italy had won the Prix Italia, perhaps that very year.
37:[The 1970 Prix Italia for stereophonic programmes was won by «Giochi di fanciulli» («Children’s Games»), by Giorgio Pressburger, stereo recording and sound production by Umberto Cigala and Riccardo Marchetti, produced by Radiotelevisione Italiana; and the 1971 Prix Italia RAI prize for literary or dramatic programmes was won by «Perelà, uomo di fumo», by Roberto Guicciardini, from a novel by Aldo Palazzeschi, music by Sergio Liberovici, produced by Radiotelevisione Italiana.]
I represented the ABC, which always got its money’s worth, so I was sent to the Prix Italia, which was great, because it was the first time a production person had been and sat on juries. I sat on three juries at the Prix Italia in 1971 in Venice. Before that, it had always been controllers, radio controllers of programs, but not working producers, and working producers were able to pick up far more of use, so that was good. Somewhere in the ABC there might even still be a copy of my Churchill report, in which mentioned this thing about the Germans, and how their technical arrangements were so brilliant. It was talked about at the time, when I came back .
Italy had won the Prix Italia that year. Giorgio Pressburger, he was very impressive, he made a program called ‘Children’s Games’, «Giochi di fanciulli», after a painting by one of the Dutch painters, of crowd scenes in winter, that genre. He made this program and I don’t know how he gained access to these kids, possibly from some play centre, but he just set up a microphone and just let them get on with playing and I think he did it for a week, or two weeks or something, and just cut his program out of this. There was no narration, it was just kids playing.
John Tranter: But that was the great discovery of those years wasn’t it, that you didn’t really need a narrator; you could just hear the thing.
Richard Connolly: Yes. Malatini, the head of what they call Prosa, was really a sort of ‘drama-ish features’ sort of department, and Doctor Malatini, a very learned and cultivated man and I got on well with him. In fact, he said to one of his colleagues when he took me up to RAI in Milan and he introduced me to his colleague in Italian, and he said, this is Connolly who speaks our language and has our ideas, not all strained through the Anglo-Saxon strainer, he said, so I did get on very well with him. He invented the phrase which became very popular around the ABC, ‘scrivere su nastro’, writing on tape, and that was a phrase that I brought back with me, which is about what you were talking about. You don’t need a narrator, you write on tape, not on paper. He was the man who sponsored Giorgio Pressburger, and Pressburger was the man who made «Children’s Games».
[Giorgio Pressburger (born Budapest, 1937). In 1956, at the age of 19, Giorgio Pressburger fled to Italy with his brother. He settled in Rome where he received a grant to study at the National Academy of Dramatic Art, graduating as a theatre director. He later joined the Experimental Cinema Centre. After qualifying, the writer Andrea Camilleri introduced him to working on culture programmes on radio, marking the start of his lengthy research into sound. At the Phonology Studio in Milan, he worked with foremost music researchers Bruno Maderna and Luciano Berio. Since 1986, he has written 13 novels and books of short stories, published by Marietti, Rizzoli, Einaudi and Bompiani. Several of his books have been translated into English. He has won many of the most coveted literary prizes (Viareggio, Campiello, etc.). His books have been translated into fifteen languages.]
[Connolly encountered Georgio Pressburger’s 1971 Prix Italia-winning ‘pure radio’ documentary performance ‘Children’s Games’ for example, while in Milan. Based on Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel’s 1560 painting of the same name, Pressburger turned the studio into a play space for local children to perform games of birth, death and marriage, recording them over many sessions and creating a unique document of a ‘living performance’, a new ‘writing on tape’ as he called it, echoing with the voices of sixteenth century peasant children and the over 300 ancient games made audible, and originally depicted by Bruegel. These kinds of experiments were an attempt to create ‘a visible theatre, a sort of hybrid between theatre and cinema, through pure sound’ as Pressburger explained much later, reflecting back on this fertile time of radio re-imagining at RAI (Pressburger, 2002) where the script was created out of the auditory traces of the performed real. This was also a rare example of ordinary people — and one of the most repressed voices of all in radio — children — being brought into the atelier [workshop] environment, there to create/ provoke a new almost mythical ‘space filled with objects and characters through sound, first monophonic and later stereophonic’ (Virginia Madsen, Ibid).] [http://scan.net.au/scan/journal/display.php?journal_id=142]
He was Hungarian, and he talked Italian like an Italian. He was a producer there, but I don’t think he was on staff. Their people, a lot of them tended to be freelance contributors, not permanent staff.
The Italian and French radio work both excited me a lot.
Also the BBC, in a different way. I wrote copiously, and I was lucky to be treated as one of them. A wonderful man named Richard Imison, now dead, was the head of the BBC Radio Drama script unit, and he gave me a desk in the unit.
[The Richard Imison Award, established in 1994, commemorates the life and work of Richard Imison. Richard Imison was Script Editor for BBC Radio Drama from 1963 to 1991. In the thirty years that Imison worked for BBC Radio Drama it was the largest patron of original creative dramatic writing in Britain. In his role as Script Editor no other single individual therefore had as much influence in either the discovery of new talent or the encouragement of established writers such as Edward Albee, Ludmilla Petrushevs Kayeea, Alexander Gelman, Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett in the production of Drama for this genre.]
Martin Esslin was the head of the place, and we became friends and I used to spend my days, when I wasn’t gadding about, reading scripts and writing reports. There’s a great, big machine there, they have meetings all the time. They handle a lot of scripts, and the scripts were very interesting. Of course they had some very well-known writers and good writers.
John Tranter: I think in the early days, they had writers like Tom Stoppard for example, whose early work was for radio.
Richard Connolly: Exactly. Yes, it was where all these people started, but lots and lots of things started as radio plays that then became television, and sometimes became something else again.
John Tranter: Part of that, I suppose, is because radio is less expensive to produce than television. Infinitely less expensive.
Richard Connolly: And I think in those days, people said radio was more naturally a writer’s medium, for the sheer intimacy that’s involved in writing.
Anyway, I came home and wrote this report, and Arthur Wyndham noticed it.
Arthur had been an announcer and then I think he was in charge of radio publicity for a while and then he finished up as Controller of Radio Two, which is Radio National now, and he might’ve even gone further for all I know, but Arthur was in a sort of middle management position in Broadcast House with oversight of our Department and I was still Features Editor, but shortly afterwards became head of the Department. Arthur, having read my report, was impressed with my mention of three-hour programs. But they were productions that people took a long time to put together.
55:For example, in Paris, René Farabet made a wonderful program on buying and selling. He went to the old market in Nice. He called the program ‘Aimez-vous ma salade?’ ‘Do you like my salad?’, words uttered by an old lady at the market in Nice. He also went to the great stores of the grandes boulevards in Paris, the Boulevard Haussmann and so forth, those great, big department stores which were the beginning of hyper-markets. The program showed three different ways of selling stuff, but once again without narrators. They were very long programs, longer than we would expect listeners to tolerate here in Australia. And of course, the whole of France wasn’t deserting the football so they could listen to these things. It was a fairly rarefied audience no doubt, too. But they took it seriously, and it’s still going.
Frank Zeppell and I were sharing production roles, and there was an interregnum, Jim Pratt had left, but Frank was Head of Drama, and I was Head of Features.
Arthur Wyndham phoned me one day and asked me if I could do a three-hour program every Sunday night, on «Sunday Night Radio Two», which was the original name for what became Radio Helicon. I was absolutely thunderstruck. He said, I might be able to get you some more staff.
58:Julie-Anne Ford and Rodney Wetherell were the two people who were called in to confab about this. I think possibly Julie-Anne had more vision than I did, but she was less practical, too, I think. But anyway, I have to be honest and say that at the start, I think I was more or less talked into it. I grew to be quite enthusiastic about it, but I mean — the sheer realities of life –
John Tranter: Three hours a week is an awful lot of time.
Richard Connolly: It was in the evening, from seven-thirty till ten, the news for a quarter of an hour, then from ten-fifteen till eleven. In earlier times, the literary program in John Thompson’s day was «Quality Street», which was half an hour, and «The Poet’s Tongue»… and I think we kept going with «The Poet’s Tongue».
John Tranter: In the early days of «Radio Helicon» (the program that «Sunday Night Radio Two» became), the program was quite long. But as the years went by, it became shorter and shorter. I remember wanting to re-broadcast John Blay’s «Great Village Dream Radio Play», because that had gone to air years before, and I found it was half an hour too long, so I had to cut it down to make it fit the slot, which I did. But now, of course, the time slots are even smaller.
Still, in those early days, you must have had to look around for material to fill that yawning gap every week.
Richard Connolly: I never thought this would happen, such a large time-slot for features material. In the beginning, I think we were seduced by some of that Charlie Parker material the French did. Naturally enough, in that program, there were lots of English people, because he was an English speaker. The French had developed a neat technique of letting you hear the bloke talking in English, but doing their voice over in French. That was a very, very difficult thing to do without confusing the listener. I had a fight with Julie-Anne Ford about it, I remember.
John Tranter: To fade one down, and bring the other up a little.
Richard Connolly: Yes. I think very early in the piece, we did three programs by Max Charlesworth, «The Existentialists» and of course, you had Simone de Beauvoir and all of these people. I think we asked a former Talks Department bloke to record it. I can’t remember how it was done, but there were three programs, but that wasn’t the first.
One of the first programs I remember was a whole thing about Ireland, but because I’d spent some time in Radio Television Eire and recorded a whole lot of absolutely lyrical Irish broadcasts. The Irish actors all knew their Yeats, and other poets, too. At times, but very rarely, we made a single program that lasted the whole two and a half hours. I remember it would have been about the third program when we first did that. Kaye Mortley did a few of those.
What we ended up doing mostly was to have component parts that fitted together to make up the full evening. I woke up fairly soon to the fact that the Australian National University in Canberra had the Humanities Research Centre, and I had a couple of spies down there who’d tell me about somebody who would be a good broadcaster, and I whizzed down there to talk to them.
68:That’s why Rodney Wetherell and Julie-Anne Ford at the time were enthusiastic about Henry James, and his biographer, Leon Edel, an American. I met Edel and either Julie-Anne or Rodney or both saw a lot more of him, because I just met him and said hello.
I think we had Leon Edel in the studio for the programs, sitting there, reading a Penguin paperback that I’d never seen before. It was short stories by Kingsley Amis. On this occasion, and this was in the early days of «Sunday Night Radio Two», and I’d read a couple of the stories, and I thought, he has this particular comic technique, which was to let somebody go on for a while before you knew who the person was or what the person was, without anyone noticing at first. I thought, this is interesting. Now, if you’re just a reader, like me, you don’t think about what the writer is getting up to structurally. So I wrote to him [Kingsley Amis] and said, as far as I know, Lesley Stephen, Thackeray’s son-in-law, I think, last century wrote an essay on comedy and I don’t know that anyone’s done it since, and I’d be very interested if you’d have a shot at this. And he said, come and have lunch, or rather, he said, write to my agent, and I was coming to England on a trip anyway, and I had lunch with him, and we got on like a house on fire. He may have been a dreary old bastard in many ways, but he was terribly entertaining, and I had several lunches with him.
And I can now confess it — I also asked him to do a personal choice of poetry, which we often used to ask people to do, and I recorded him doing this. And I bloody well lost the recording. I don’t know how. I think that’s about the only time I ever lost a recording.
But anyway, his essay on comedy was a full night, and the ABC failed to advertise it. You’d think that if they had someone like Kingsley Amis talking on a subject like that… because in those days everybody had read «Lucky Jim», at least, and if there ever was a funny novel, that certainly was. I received one letter, and the letter said, Dear sir, whatever, I think I have just heard the best radio program I’ve ever listened to, sort of thing, but if things were advertised, they’d find a big listenership. If the ABC didn’t advertise them, they were just something that was stuck away in this corner, so often, and that was a sad aspect of working in radio.
John Tranter: Yes, and you’d often build an evening out of two or three things, and you didn’t know which one to advertise the most, or to try and advertise all of them.
Richard Connolly: No, and they didn’t, I mean, just occasionally, we’d persuade the publicity department, which didn’t have much dough, in those days. We had it, and I mean, I had enough dough to, if there was something that was really good, like the opportunity of getting Kingsley Amis, to go ahead and do it.
Later on, when we started «Sunday Night Radio Two», I remember I’d do these series. For example, for one program I gathered together historians from around the world, including two Australian historians, a French historian, an American from Harvard — a German, originally, who had escaped from the Nazis. These things would come about, because — well, I was over against the Talks Department at that stage philosophically, because they seemed to me to be keen but they didn’t seem to have any use for history in their thinking. This is the way I saw it, and of course I could see that they made some very good programs, but I felt that some of their work lacked a sense of history.
And so I produced this program called «The Use of History», meaning what’s the use of history, as a kind of pun. We had several series like that, on Radio Helicon.
John Tranter: I remember a program called «The Cheese and the Worms». Was that Radio Helicon? [The program was adapted from the book by historian Carlo Ginzberg, about the cosmos as understood by a sixteenth-century miller, as revealed in the records of the Inquisition.] And there were the Australian historian Richard Bosworth’s programs about Europe drifting into World War One. [The programs made up a seven-part study of pre-1914 Europe which went to air in 1977 under the title «Europe before the lamps went out». It was repeated a number of times.]
Richard Connolly: Yes, Richard Bosworth was very good for his. He was made for radio, he really was. There were many others, all colleagues and friends.
John Tranter: I was going to ask about the difference between history writing, and creative writing, and how each of them fit into radio in different ways. I think that radio allows and encourages writers to write in ways they would not normally do, because the medium allows them to do things with their writing that you can’t do on a page exactly. I’m thinking, as an extreme example, the play called «Revenge», a thirty-minute play by Andrew Sachs, who played Manuel in «Fawlty Towers». It was first broadcast in 1978. It’s a radio play without a script at all, rather with a very detailed script, but no words, and recorded in true 3-D in Kunstkopf stereo.
Richard Connolly: Yes.
John Tranter: You can’t do that on a page, but you can in a radio studio. Whereas with historians, it’s almost always a lecture they might deliver, turned in to a radio talk with sound illustrations. It’s a more conventional way of writing, I think. They aren’t allowed to lie, as Plato’s poets did and found themselves banned from the ideal republic.
Richard Connolly: Yes, just different. I think of Alain Trutat, the founder I think of the Atelier in France, he was one of these people, he’s a famous man, but not terribly well-known in the Anglo-Saxon world.
John Tranter: I think I met Alain Trutat on that evening of radio in Paris.
Richard Connolly: Yes, these people don’t use capital letters, ever. Kaye Mortley doesn’t use capitals.
John Tranter: I find that a bit eccentric, actually.
Richard Connolly: Or Georges Perec, very eccentric. He wrote that book «Life, a User’s Manual».
John Tranter: That’s right. He came to Australia once; as writer in residence at the University of Queensland in 1981.
[During this time Perec worked on the unfinished detective novel «53 Jours» («53 Days»). In that book, now in English translation, he writes ‘five Englishmen: Sutherland, Oatley, Mortdale, Penshurst, Sydenham; three Canadians: Redfern, Rockdale, Hurstville; one New Zealander: Kogarah; two Frenchmen: Tempe, Como; one Lebanese: Janalli.’ These ‘surnames’ are all railway stations on the Southern suburban line in Sydney.]
Richard Connolly: Yes. I mean, people like him, and he may be a slightly extreme case, but they did extraordinary things with radio. They were the sort of people who really appealed to a particular kind of French way of doing things.
John Tranter: His lipographic novel — «Life, a User’s Manual», was produced here as a radio work in Australia, wasn’t it? Perhaps as a book reading, produced by Jane Ulman.
Richard Connolly: I think so, yes. I remember the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who produced the «Doctor Who» theme and things like that. Compare that to the radiophonic outfit in Paris, I mean, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were very practical people, and their feet were on the ground, whereas the mob in Paris were way up in the sky somewhere, very interested in radio maybe. It illustrates the old division, the two worlds, the English and the Anglo-Saxon empirical, practical world, on the one hand, and the French rationalistic anything-goes world.
John Tranter: Yes. The French will go to great extremes, won’t they, to get an idea across?
Richard Connolly: It sounds silly to say it, but they do work from principles. They work a priori, where the Anglo-Saxons generally are utilitarian, a posteriori.
John Tranter: Pragmatic. I remember John Ashbery said to me once, as we were talking about experimental poetry, and either he or I said this, I can’t remember which, that no matter how experimental the French become, and they become wildly experimental, they always keep perfect grammar, spelling, and syntax. They obey the rules, even when they’re breaking the rules.
Richard Connolly: But in any case, I’m thinking of a program, one of Kaye Mortley’s, I think… it didn’t travel from A to Z in delicate steps or anything. Neil Hutchison, who came out to Australia as BBC representative, he decided he liked the place and he stayed and he became head of Drama and Features. Then he was Controller of Programs, but he went off to London to be manager in London for quite a few years and when he came back, he wanted to come down to his old neck of the woods and see what we were getting up to, and Kaye was here, she must’ve been here on a visit from France, or maybe she hadn’t left at that stage, but she was doing one of these French things and he was taken with Kaye beforehand and he listened to the program, and found it very difficult to grasp, with its strong French radio production influences. That’s just the different ways of doing things.
John Tranter: It interested me that the department you ran there had so many different kinds of producers doing different kinds of things all the time.
Richard Connolly: My motto — and I had two mottos on the back of my door that nobody ever saw, because it was always open, you see, and I was the only who ever saw them — one was from [the Latin playwright] Terence: ‘Homo sum: nihil humani a me alienum puto’; ‘I am a man; nothing human is alien to me.’
John Tranter: I’ve often wondered where that came from.
98:Richard Connolly: Yes. And the other one was from Jim McAuley, from a poem to the Madonna. It’s one of his very late poems. ‘Give us back the images. And shut / The foolish mouths.’ [From ‘Madonna’, from the book «Time Given», 1976.]
John Tranter: That’s interesting.
Richard Connolly: It’s a good radio motto.
John Tranter: I’ve always thought that radio had the advantage over any other medium, because the pictures are better; an old motto, but a good one.
I was going to ask you about [Australian poet] James McAuley. You knew him for a long time, didn’t you? He was an old friend.
Richard Connolly: He was a valued contributor, and in the last three years of his life, he made some very good programs for radio.
John Tranter: I didn’t know that.
Richard Connolly: Yes. he did a fantastic talk on Andrew Marvell and we were supposed to broadcast him, and in fact, we commissioned his, who was that German poet…
John Tranter: Georg Trakl was it?
Richard Connolly: He was interested in early Trakl, not late Trakl. We commissioned McAuley’s translations of Trakl, and — I won’t say who — but the head of ABC publicity at the time was enthusiastic about publishing this, as a book to go with the broadcast, and a nice feather in the cap for the ABC, translations of Trakl. When it came time to talk business, McAuley had done this program, and it was all ready for publication, we thought, and the head of publicity was probably having budget troubles or something, and became all shirty with me, and said, what are you doing? And the whole thing fell through. It was very embarrassing. They were published by another publisher, but when they were published, there was no acknowledgment of the ABC at all, which was mortifying. Anyhow, those are the things that happened in big organisations.
John Tranter: It’s intriguing that McAuley did that for radio, and perhaps he may not have done it otherwise; or he may have.
Richard Connolly: No, he wouldn’t have. It was my idea. He had done a Trakl poem, one or two, but I said, could you just have a go at that, and he did. This is my memory of what happened.
John Tranter: And then you did McAuley’s long poem «Captain Quiros». How long? Did that run over a number of episodes?
Richard Connolly: No.
John Tranter: Was it just one reading?
Richard Connolly: It was about two hours, I think, and I wrote music for it.
I think that starts with him introducing the poem and I suggested to him that there’s a poem of his called ‘The Introduction to the Poem’, which I like very much, ‘Midnight once more; the untended fire sinks low’, and it’s midnight, and there’s a blank sheet of paper, and it won’t come. Nothing will come, and then suddenly, ‘The ships of Quiros, on their great concerns/ Ride in upon the present from the past.’ [The quotes are from ‘The Inception of the Poem’ by James McAuley, from «Collected Poems 1936–1970»] And he gets the idea of Quiros.
I observed this change in our vocabulary in the 90s, because of all the self-help books that the Yanks are telling us, you mustn’t be ‘worried’. It became okay to be ‘concerned’, and I heard people being interviewed for the BBC «Today» program, just ordinary people off the streets, saying ‘I was very worr — concerned’ (meaning ‘very worried’), but when I think of that line, of ‘the ships of Quiros, on their great concerns’… now things are ‘concerning’ instead of ‘worrying’, and you wonder how long ‘concern’ is going to hang on to that sort of meaning. But that’s the fate of things, and the language changes.
John Tranter: Things change, don’t they? You can’t stop them. It started with «How to Make Friends and Influence People», I suspect, a long time ago, and American salesmanship, how to drive a deal or how to make everyone like you, and buy whatever you’re selling.
I was interested to discover there’s a name for a word that only appears once, ‘hapax legomenon’.
Richard Connolly: I know, I learned that when I was studying Greek.
John Tranter: I came across the idea recently and it seemed wonderful to me that — for example — there’s a word for describing a snowflake, ‘flother’, but it’s only used once in a text from 1275 and it never has existed anywhere else in English, except for that one occurrence. Perhaps it’s a portmanteau word, a blend of ‘flurry’ and ‘bother’. It’s remarkable.
Richard Connolly: Yes. I had a wonderful Greek teacher who also taught philosophy. He was in a seminary, but he had an adventurous mind and somebody asked me who was the best teacher I’d ever had, and I had some pretty damn good people at Sydney University, one or two anyway, but I’d say that this bloke, Frank Meacham, as a young man, particularly in language, he was doing Latin privately by correspondence with London University and myself and another bloke, we’d both gained honours in Latin, so we were told not to go to the ordinary Latin class, but to do Latin with this bloke, Frank Meacham.
John Tranter: Didn’t they broadcast «The Aeneid» on «Sunday Night Radio Two»?
Richard Connolly: They did, and I have the first six books out there on tape, with the typical ABC echo. Do you remember that awful tape, the type of tape that gave print-through problems? Someone can very likely fix that these days, but it’s very difficult.
John Tranter: Because it varies, depending on where you are in the loop of tape.
Richard Connolly: That’s right, you couldn’t do it purely by mechanical mode.
John Tranter: No, it’d have to be adapted somehow, but you could do it, I guess. But it’s interesting that digital recording is so much better than tape, because it doesn’t have those problems. It’s very peculiar.
Richard Connolly: No, and it doesn’t happen on BBC tapes. The BBC tapes are fine, but the ABC… I think engineers just… I don’t know what they did, I think at some stage, anyway, they made very poor decisions about tape quality.
John Tranter: And what sort of tape to buy. I know, I remember when the fifteen-inch BASF tapes came in with the backing on them, that black charcoal type of backing, how marvellous they were. They were very thick tapes. Anyway, that’s all history now. They have chips to do it for us. But you did broadcast all of «The Aeneid» on «Sunday Night Radio Two».
Richard Connolly: Yes. And do you know, that of all the programs I made, it certainly would have been one of the three that got extraordinary reactions.
John Tranter: Audience response.
Richard Connolly: The three that stand out in my memory: there was one that I did when I’d been at the ABC about two years called «Rediscovering the Psalms», about a Frenchman who had put the psalms in to French, a bloke named Gelineau, quite famous, but dead now, a young Jesuit, and his work became famous all around the world later on. He had put the Psalms into French — and he was a scholar, of course — using the Hebrew sprung rhythm, the Hebrew poetic, prophetic devices, so you were getting nearer to the original, and instead of whole sentences, you get juxtapositions.
That was one program, and the other two were ‘Remembering James McAuley’, naturally enough, that was advertised properly, and I got letters from lots of poets and literary people.
And I produced «The Aeneid» with Derek Williams. I mean, he was the world’s great Virgil scholar, one of the two or three. It just so happened that I rang one of my old teachers at Sydney University. There was still a Latin department back at Sydney University back in the 70s, and I told him that I was thinking of doing something on «The Aeneid» and he said, you’re very lucky. Professor R.D. Williams is going to be out here for some months. I remember taking him to one of the Italian restaurants around the place, and we got on quite well, and talked about it, and then somewhere along the line, I thought, God, this man’s utterly brilliant, so I decided we’d do the whole thing.
I actually wrote a bit of music, too, I gave it the whole works, and we did a big introduction and the ABC printed a little booklet. The first night, I think there were twelve programs, I can’t quite remember, and I managed to get the actor Wynn Roberts. In some ways, I’m sorry I didn’t get Ron Haddrick, a different approach. But Wynn Roberts, a Victorian actor who really didn’t have Ron’s beautiful voice, was wonderful.
He did a really terrific job. I had the whole thing produced and then I decided to take some long service leave, after the first episode was produced. I went off to Europe for a bit of a holiday and when I got back, there was a stack of letters on my desk, and one came from a schoolboy. There were several from school kids and this boy just said, it had been a great radio serial adventure.
John Tranter: That’s nice when you get a response like that, isn’t it, because often, with radio, you broadcast it, and it goes out in to the galaxies, so you never hear anything again.
Richard Connolly: No.
John Tranter: In fact, I saw again, a little phrase I have known for many years from Alexander Woollcott, the American writer who said that publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting to hear the sound when it hits the bottom. It’s rather like that with radio, I think.
Now, I should get on to Peter Porter, too. I think I was in Perth in 1983, when you and Peter Porter were there at the same time.
Richard Connolly: Yes we were, and so was that marvellous English jazz man George Melly.
John Tranter: Yes, trad jazz kind of stuff. I think that was when you decided to ask Peter to write the autobiographical radio programs that he did, or was that earlier?
Richard Connolly: I think that was his idea. I think so. I first met him when he was at the Adelaide Festival, the first time he came back to Australia in 1974.
John Tranter: He was a wonderful man, and I got to know him a couple of times. My family and I, Lyn and the two kids, stayed with him for a week in that flat in London in 1989. He was so generous and kind.
Richard Connolly: Yes. When we lived in the west of England, they came and stayed with us once, but whenever I went to London, because in the early days in England, I’d be recording poets for the ABC and so forth, and I’d just always stay at Peter’s place and we’d argue about the existence of God or something, up until two o’clock in the morning.
John Tranter: He was a wonderful talker, wasn’t he? He could just talk the legs off a table.
Richard Connolly: Yes. He couldn’t stop himself in a way, because he was thinking out loud, his music out loud. But I met him, and I was going to tell you a story that Robyn Hughes told me, I think possibly before I ever met Peter Porter. Robyn Hughes worked at the BBC before she even ever came out here; this is years and years ago. It’d be back in the mid-60s or something like that. She was at the BBC and she said she’d met Peter Porter and I can’t remember what the exact expression was, but something about Australia or Brisbane, one or the other, and his attitude to it was extremely negative. He came out here to Australia in 1974 to the Adelaide Festival and I went to hear his talk, and I just thought, God, this man is absolutely brilliant. He gave a talk. Do you remember Pi O?
John Tranter: (grimly) I remember Pi O.
Richard Connolly: Pi O was there and Pi O very rudely interrupted. This bloke’s just giving a very…
John Tranter: Pi O wanted attention all the time.
Richard Connolly: Yes. but anyway, it all finished up okay, but I just thought, this man Porter, apart from anything else, I just heard his talks, and I thought that you could just broadcast these.
John Tranter: You could just turn the microphone on. That’s all you needed.
Richard Connolly: Yes.
John Tranter: He was so erudite and funny.
Richard Connolly: Then, because he went back home after that and Jannice, his wife, killed herself, and that event gave rise to that extraordinary poem based on Bishop King. Do you know that poem, ‘An Exequy’?
John Tranter: Yes. He’s marvellous.
Richard Connolly: But John Pringle I remember said to me, that he thought that a poem of that kind, a better one had not been written for a long, long time.
John Tranter: It was an elegy, really, I suppose, wasn’t it?
Richard Connolly: Yes, that’s right.
John Tranter: Very hard to do well, mourning. So he wrote a three-part talk, wasn’t it?
Richard Connolly: That’s right. I’ve got that out there, too. They’re all sitting there on ancient cassettes, probably printing through as hard as they can go. [Note: cassette tape, because it is very thin, has a big problem with print-through, where the sound on one piece of tape “prints through” onto a previous or a later part of the tape. J.T., 2015.]
John Tranter: They are, as we speak. Although some cassettes do really quite well at long-term storage. It’s surprising.
Richard Connolly: Yes. Mind you, I regard them as the greatest [thing…] [talking of a] song and word man, sort of singer-songwriter of the twentieth century, I have no doubt, Cole Porter ranks very, very high, but I think of Charles Trenet.
John Tranter: I don’t know his work at all. Charles Trenet being in French, I don’t know French.
Richard Connolly: I was going to say, and I don’t think many French people would agree with me nowadays, because he’s so old hat, and a lot of what he celebrates is a kind of France that doesn’t exist anymore, but simply for the mechanics of putting words to tunes.
John Tranter: Getting that flow right.
Richard Connolly: Cole Porter also.
John Tranter: There was Ira Gershwin, of course.
Richard Connolly: Gershwin, Cole Porter, and also, not to be entirely neglected by any means, Irving Berlin. I used to despise him when I was young.
John Tranter: Did you?
Richard Connolly: Anyway, we’ve gone off that subject, but Peter did a lot of programs. I think he called that ‘In Exile’ and then the subtitle was ‘an anti-biographical autobiography’, and it was a very interesting way of introducing, because you see, so many of his poems are all about childhood, an enormous number.
John Tranter: Yes, displaced to some extent. He always displaces things, and I think poetry itself is a displacement of an engagement you might otherwise have with yourself.
Richard Connolly: Anyway, those three tapes. He was very taken, Peter was chuffed with the music that I wrote for those programs.
John Tranter: And he knew his music very well, didn’t he?
Richard Connolly: Yes, but I think he was a bit taken aback later on, for some reason or another, he heard another program that I’d made with the same theme, because that theme was originally, that particular theme, and what I did for Peter was get a really good recording done by the, I can’t remember their name now, not the Austral, but after them, a really lovely quartet, who were a lovely group of chamber players and the version of the thing I did for Peter’s program was very superior, but the original version was done by very good musicians, including Don Burrows, and George Golla, but it was for Alec Hope, and that was another program that Julie-Anne produced, Alec Hope re-wrote Marlowe’s «Doctor Faustus».
John Tranter: I didn’t know that.
Richard Connolly: Yes, and that’ll be down there in Canberra, in the archives somewhere, and Alec wrote to me, and this was really after I’d given up largely writing music, where I couldn’t, because I’d done most of my soundtrack and all that stuff for the ABC in the 1960s to early 70s, when TV producers largely used to get me to write music, but by the time I was Head of Department, for one thing, you were taking bread from the freelancers.
John Tranter: Starving musicians.
Richard Connolly: And that is a consideration. But Alec pleaded, and he wanted me to do the music for «Doctor Faustus», and I did, and everybody loved the music, except Max Harris.
John Tranter: (laughs) Really?
Richard Connolly: I think Max had to have a grizzle somewhere.
John Tranter: He likes having a grizzle doesn’t he? He loved complaining about things.
Richard Connolly: Yes, but that was very good, because what was good about it was that Max Harris wrote very nicely about what Alec had done, and the pair of them, and I remember Bob Brissenden, already in the early throes of that awful thing he died of, that narcolepsy down in Canberra. I had to go down there for something, and he said, wasn’t it great that Max Harris should’ve written what he did about it, and I said, no, the bastard. He didn’t like the music!
John Tranter: I think in the Ern Malley affair, A.D. Hope was very supportive of the idea that Max Harris should be completely humiliated and skewered and so forth, although I think everyone matured as the years went by.
Richard Connolly: I remember John Thompson produced, John Thompson did something on television about it.
John Tranter: Did he?
Richard Connolly: I think so.
John Tranter: I have a copy of the radio documentary he did.
Richard Connolly: But the radio program with McAuley and –
John Tranter: Harold Stewart and Max Harris and all of those people. Tess van Sommers and Colin Simpson.
Richard Connolly: It was just the right time.
John Tranter: Clement Semmler, in his book, «[For] The Uncanny Man», published a transcript of the whole tape, but I think with McAuley, the interesting thing about James McAuley is that he was a –
Richard Connolly: We were extremely close friends, a large part of which is documented in the «Australasian Catholic Record», called ‘Writing Hymns with James McAuley’, an article that I was invited to write by the editor, while we were living in England, in 1997. It says a bit about our friendship. But Alec Hope, I mean, what a job. Some of the people I got to meet and talk to…
John Tranter: I think I did hear of somewhere when Alec Hope was a younger man he was ‘Anthony Inkwell’ on the Argonauts.
Richard Connolly: Yes, and my kids used to watch (listen to) the Argonauts, and also, Jeffrey Smart, the artist. He used to teach them how to paint. Yes, these brilliant people. Various people, so many inspired people starred in the Argonauts.
John Tranter: I can remember when I commissioned Amanda Stewart to do a program on poet Michael Dransfield. She dug up a piece of tape from the Argonauts when Michael was about twelve. He’d sent in a poem and he’d won this little prize and he was explaining about poetry to the announcer, and it sounded very quaint and charming.
Now, audience ratings. Did you ever feel that ratings were an issue? I can remember occasionally, in Radio Drama and Features, someone would say, have you looked at the Nielsen’s Ratings for this week?
Richard Connolly: Yes, we used to get them and I don’t know, really, how exact they were, as that’s none of my business. What I do know is that at one stage, according to Nielsen, we used to get about five or six thousand listeners in the whole of Sydney, and I remember saying to somebody, that’s more than they sell of the little magazines in those days.
John Tranter: Many more.
Richard Connolly: Yes. that’s right.
John Tranter: Poetry magazines, you’d be lucky to sell five hundred of them.
Richard Connolly: Precisely.
John Tranter: And I remember, thinking at the time, hearing that «Sunday Night Radio Two» had got something like fifteen thousand listeners Australia-wide and I remember thinking, if you had a novel that sold out in one night with that amount of copies, you’d be dancing with joy.
Richard Connolly: Precisely, and this is my memory. You can look them up and see for yourself, but I think Sydney and Melbourne were in the thousands.
John Tranter: Of course, for television, ratings are more vital in determining what you do next, whereas with radio, you can afford, to some extent, to… not exactly ignore them…
Richard Connolly: No, and the art of programming came in, as they call it. Allan Ashbolt was very scathing, and rightly so, about that. But the funny thing about Allan was that he and I were opposed philosophically, but every time there was any kind of difficulty, we lined up on the same side. I hate to say this, but in many ways management so didn’t understand the troops, or failed to grasp what was bugging them at times. I can still remember not working on the first day that the ABC went on strike. Well, I did go to my office, but I went down and fraternised with the strikers. John Challis did, too, and Bob Connolly, the film maker now, he was from the Rural Department then. They came in and slapped us on the back and said, good on you, mate. We used to say wryly, Allan Ashbolt and I are philosophically opposed, but when it comes to brawling with management, we are on the same side.
But I remember I did go in to the audience figures, and what we did have was something much bigger than what you just said.
John Tranter: A larger audience than a novel would hope to find. I mean, the average first novel these days in Australia, if you sell two thousand, it’s not so good, but if you sell ten thousand, it’s really excellent. And the ABC found a larger audience than that on every Sunday night.
Richard Connolly: The other point to be made, that I used to make, was that you can have lots of kinds of broadcasting, with people chatting on, on Radio National nowadays and good luck to them, and with almost any music broadcast, from the sublime to the just very mundane, you can broadcast that and the audience need not really listen carefully to it. They need hardly pay any attention to it. But with the sort of material we broadcast, the listener had to pay attention to it, or there was no point having the radio turned on at all.
John Tranter: Yes, that’s very true. You have to listen to it carefully.
Richard Connolly: It was good material to work with, large and exciting ideas, and it was a great job to have. It really was. It’s wonderful to be…
John Tranter: To be paid good money to make good radio programs.
Richard Connolly: Julie-Anne Ford said once, you know, we’re the luckiest people in the world. They’re paying us to do this!
John Tranter: I used to think, that when I worked at the ABC on and off, now and then, I’d find myself at the end of the week too tired to do much of my own writing. And then I’d think, but wait a minute, I’ve been making radio all week long, and I’ve been paid for it. It’s like being paid to write poetry, but with a much larger audience. It is really the best job I’ve ever had.
Richard Connolly: These days the bar seems to be set a lot lower.
John Tranter: That’s right.
Richard Connolly: I mean, you might hear the Reith lectures, and the Canadian lectures, and the ABC’s Boyer lectures, but you’re not likely to hear a philosopher, or a historian, or a litterateur, or a writer, a poet talking at length, and thought out, on radio now at all, it’s a whole different ball game.
I remember Russell Warner, the head of current affairs. I used to spar with him all the time in a friendly manner, and he would not forgive me because I pinched Robert Peach from him at one stage — and Bob Peach was his voice of current affairs — and I remember Russell saying to me, you bastard! Getting Bob Peach to leave the vital sort of stuff that we do, stuff that’s really important day to day, to go and work in your department! I said, Russell, you are the director of ephemeral affairs, and I am the director of eternal affairs. I was putting a humorous edge on it, but it was a serious point. I said, what you broadcast won’t be important the day after tomorrow, but what I broadcast was important a long time ago, very likely, and is going to be important a long time in the future.
John Tranter: It was around that time that you put forward the idea that producers of programs should announce them on radio rather than to leave it to an announcer to do it, who might gets things wrong. We had Arch McKirdy come in and train us to talk well on radio. It was very useful.
Richard Connolly: And I decided, after not very long, that it was a good thing if you could line people up, there was such a big field, the world was one’s oyster. But if you got people lined up with their own enthusiasms, they were likely to work more happily, and, more important, they were likely to do better work. You could cover a broad spectrum. We used to broadcast stuff that I wasn’t keen on personally, but you had to be editorial. There were enough people in the department with different sort of tastes.
John Tranter: An extraordinary range of interests and tastes.
Richard Connolly: I mean, you had Andrew, who as somebody said, put everything but the kitchen sink in his programs.
John Tranter: Andrew McLennan, yes.
Richard Connolly: And we were both at his retirement, and it was funny to see Andrew retiring as an old patriarch of radio, when I remember him as…
John Tranter: He was the hot young firebrand.
Richard Connolly: I remember we all went over to Julie-Anne’s place, the whole department, to have lunch, just on the spur of the moment, I think, just before Christmas, and Andrew got out on the kids’ trampoline and Andrew was a dancer, you see.
John Tranter: He used to do these dramatic gestures, occasionally.
Richard Connolly: Yes, and he started doing all sorts of things on the trampoline.