Bruce Gyngell: the life of a media legend
September 10, 2000
Forget Milton Berle, Jack Benny and Bob Hope. As far as Australia was concerned, he was Mister Television. Bruce Gyngell was more than just the first face on Australian television ...he was the guiding force behind Nine's success in the early years of the industry, helped direct the Seven Revolution in the 70s, and in the 80s, shaped multicultural television at SBS, as well as playing a major role on British television. He was an elder statesman of television, for as long as we can remember.
Through all those years, Bruce Gyngell was generous to a fault, not only shouting restaurant bills when you weren't looking, but more importantly, helping young people get started, and looking after the old-timers who helped to make television what it was.
But every biography will probably begin with this historic moment: "From Channel Nine comes the first television programme in Australia. Station TCN presents: 'This is television.' Good Evening and welcome to Television."
Bruce Gyngell was the first man to appear on Australian television in 1956 ... he was also the first TV quiz show host ... a much more forgettable achievement.
Although Australia came late to television, Gyngell knew it was going to be his career the first time he saw it.
"I went to the Headline Bar on Broadway, beneath the Daily News building on 42nd Street, and I had a very strong feeling this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life."
And television was his life, though he quickly moved into management as programme director and chief executive at Nine ... then leading the Seven Revolution in the early seventies, before heading off to Britain to work for the television mogul, Sir Lew Grade.
Always willing to lend a helping hand, Gyngell created and encouraged many of Australia's fledgling television stars.
Gyngell came back from overseas to become the foundation chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal in 1977. His ties to the commercial networks sparked controversy, as usual when John Button, Shadow Media Minister criticised his appointment.
"I think appointments to these jobs should not only be sound in fact, but they should appear to be beyond reproach, and I don't think the appointment is in that category at all," he said.
Gyngell was eloquent in his defence: "I think you're in a much greater position to be able to probe and needle and seek change of a group of people with which you are totally familiar, than if you have no familiarity."
He also backed Australian content ... an issue that reverberates today: "Nobody can deny that there should be an Australian look. Australian TV should be recognisably Australian, there should be more programmes that excite, delight and give us a great interest.
"Ladies and Gentlemen. Good Evening and welcome to multicultural television. I'm Bruce Gyngell, and I feel tonight the same enthusiasm, the same excitement and the same unfounded optimism that I felt on that day, September 16, 1956."
Twenty-four years later, Bruce Gyngell presented the first multicultural broadcast of SBS, which was then called Channel 0. For several years the chief executive inspired the underpaid and overworked staff, with this kind of enthusiasm.
"And in my view, the advent of multicultural television is the most exciting idea since television began."
Gyngell took his gift for inspiration to Britain in 1984 where he brought colour and controversy to TV-AM.
Anne Diamond: "Nobody had ever seen anything like him, he was a very brash Australian who was very single-minded and he got up the nose of many establishment broadcasters in this country."
Among his finds, his secretary, whom he promoted to weather girl, Ulrika Jonsson.
"At TV-AM he wanted to bring them eternal summer, he would hate me today in black, he liked brightness, happiness and jolly-ness."
Gyngell broke the union's grip on television, but TV-Am lost the franchise in 1991 and he received a note of apology from Margaret Thatcher for setting up the bidding system that caused the loss.
He returned to Australia as executive chairman of Nine in 1993, ;still praising Australian television.
"What I do notice coming back to Australia after ten years of being away is what to me was a characteristic of Australians is that near enough is good enough seems to have gone and it's the thing I notice coming back home."
He also came back home to defend his Packer connections.
"Would you prefer Mr Packer to stay as a major share-holder in the Nine Network?" he was asked.
"Mr Packer is my oldest friend. I'm happy with him here," he replied.
It has always been a mutual admiration society, Packer once said, "he's been my oldest friend for 50 years. I think I met Bruce when I was ten or 11 years of age. My old friend, I hope everything you want in life you get, and preferably from someone else."
A fitness fanatic for years, Bruce Gyngell was into macrobiotic food, before it was called macrobiotic food, often giving herbal Japanese tea to unhealthy journalists, along with a dose of confidence.
"I believe quite firmly that you can achieve any single thing in life. There's not one thing you can't get if you want it."
Nicknamed the Pink Panther because of his passion for pink shirts, Bruce Gyngell was a great character, held in high esteem by his colleagues in the television industry.
His television appearance on Logies night last April when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame demonstrated that esteem.
John Howard has paid tribute to Bruce Gyngell saying, "it's a big loss to the Australian television industry. In a way, he probably contributed more to the industry than just about any other Australian."
Bruce Gyngell is survived by his wife, Kathy, and their two children, and his three children from his first marriage to Ann. He also leaves behind a legion of genuine fans in the dog-eat-dog world of television.
"I can always remember Sir Frank saying to me one day, without a doubt, Gyngell, you have the most stupid ideas I've heard in my life, but for Christ's sake, don't stop having them. And that's what it's really about.
"Don't let people put you down, feel courageous, be bold, say what you feel because television is the ultimate cooperative. It is a group of people getting together and doing what they really believe in passionately."