20 Years of Sunday
December 9, 2001
Producer : Larry Meltzer. Editor: Tim Wilson.
"Sunday doth murder sleep." That's a favourite saying of one of the program's producers, referring to how editing sessions always seem to last all night especially on a Saturday night. For many viewers, including the Treasurer, Peter Costello, it also changed Sunday from a day of rest to a day of politics.
When it first started on November 15, 1981, there were many industry insiders who thought it would never last. It began, says Alan Hogan, the foundation executive producer, when Sam Chisholm, then boss of Channel Nine, came to him and said: "Kerry's got this idea for a new program."
Jim Waley takes up the story: "Well, one wit suggested Sunday was created for four reasons. One to give Kerry Packer something to watch on Sunday mornings; two to have politicians actually walking the corridors of Channel Nine; three, to get the Monday morning headlines; and fourthly to amortise "the wok", that great big satellite dish in our backyard, which we all, of course, now take for granted. Nine had a lot of material from overseas that wasn't getting to air, and it was decided to put it to air in a time slot where it could create a market."
And Alan Hogan knew that Jim Waley was made for the presenter's job: "I met Jim ... I knew his background well and he was absolutely the right man for the job." Hogan's successor as executive producer, Peter Luck, agrees: "Jim has a thing called gravitas, where he has credibility. He had those wonderful presentation skills."
Hogan also hired a couple of superb reporters, Jennifer Byrne and Andrew Olle. Byrne had been a print journalist for 10 years with the Melbourne Age. Hogan said she "brought a really fresh approach to film-making for Sunday. Because she'd had virtually no experience at it, she didn't know there were rules, so she didn't bother with rules. She had an idea that you tell the story the way she'd thought she'd tell it, and it ended up being a remarkably fresh approach to television." Olle was with the ABC. "I'd known Andrew Olle for a long time and had a great deal of respect for his work," says Hogan. "And at the time, he was in some unbelievable backwater at the ABC. He'd fallen afoul of some ridiculous management figure."
There was "a week in review", which has continued to this day, and the political interview. That section began with three interviewers: Sam Lipski, Max Walsh and Alan Reid. And there was a young industrial reporter named Bob Carr, before he went into politics.
"Given the experimental nature of the program, there were bound to be some run-ins with Sam Chisholm and Kerry Packer. One was over a story on the Falklands War in 1982, as Peter Meakin, Nine's Director of News and Current Affairs, recalls: "Kerry rang up and was quite strong in his condemnation of the people who'd put the Falklands story together. I think he said words to the effect: 'Am I paying you good money to tell the viewers that Mrs Thatcher's going to send her ships halfway around the world to invade that little pile of bird shit in the South Atlantic?' And when he was told that was the way that professional opinion was going, he was less than pleased."
Jennifer Byrne remembers some of her best stories in the early days: "The Percy Grainger story was, I think, one of the funniest stories I've ever done, and partly because it was ... you know ... it was meant to be a serious story about a music genius." But she wound up interviewing two of Grainger's relatives, who were eccentric, to say the least: "It was one of those bizarre experiences where which was absolutely true of everything to do with the Percy Grainger story where you would ask a normal question, and insanity ... madness would come back at you. And I remember walking out during this interview and all of us actually getting down on the grass verge and rolling around, we were laughing so much."
Peter Luck says he is particularly proud of introducing the Hypothetical concept to Australia on the Sunday program, with Geoffrey Robertson. He remembers one back in 1984, which had a similar scenario to the September 11 attacks an unidentified airliner coming into Australia's air space. Australia's defence chiefs were given the challenge of deciding whether to shoot it down or not, when they couldn't identify it. Luck continues: "And I said to Geoff, why don't we try this in real time? I'll put the stopwatch on them ... and they have to decide in those 20 minutes what to do with it. And, of course, they agonised. There were sweaty palms in the studio, I kid you not. I've never seen so many people who were charged with so great a responsibility traumatised by a theoretical event. Eventually, they decided not to shoot it down, and, of course, sadly, it was full of terrorists."
The anniversary program also profiles several other Sunday reporters, including the late Robert Haupt, and Graham Davis. Former Sunday producer, now executive producer of the ABC's Foreign Correspondent, Peter Hiscock, has this to say of Davis: "He is one of the finest journalists on television. His interviewing style and technique is second to none. He always brings out the interesting angle. He has a great nose for news, if you like. He really pushes and challenges people to explain what they really mean in interviews."
Hiscock and Davis talk about one story they did taking on the giant Greenpeace. Davis says: "We delivered up the Greenpeace story in the middle of the night down in the edit suite. Alan Hogan, who by then had become the supervising producer, just looked horrified, you know, that we'd slaughtered this sacred cow." Hiscock adds: "It's the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise of the environmental movement, and very few people really understood that."
There was another memorable story, according to Hiscock, a collaboration between Davis and Charles Wooley, during an election campaign in the '80s. Wooley covered Howard and Davis looked after Bob Hawke. They shot all the material and brought it to Channel Nine's studios in Melbourne on the weekend, and worked in the problem of reporting all this. Hiscock said the story was covered in "a manner and a style I've never seen matched."
Wooley, now with 60 Minutes, always had a way with words, as former Sunday supervising producer, John Muldrew, puts it: "A little humour an important part of Charles' coverage of anything. That he's likely to take you on a little journey, a little detour. No matter how serious the subject, he'll find something."
Peter Meakin agrees: "Wooley's one of the best writers in television. He has a wonderful finger on the popular pulse. One of the best stories he ever did was done on Sunday, and then we ran it in prime time and it achieved massive ratings, and it was called 'Big River, Big Fish', which was a story about the Murray River cod."
The executive producer who followed Peter Luck was Ian Frykberg, a man with superb contacts in the Labor Party. Peter Hiscock remembers him: "He was a giant of a man, really. He was a big man in many ways. He had a big heart and a big reputation and a great way of encouraging people to do the best that they can. It was under his guidance that the Sunday program really shone. And he broke big stories on Lionel Murphy and Neville Wran, and countless others."
And, beginning in 1986, Sunday's political landscape changed ... with the highly respected Laurie Oakes joining the program as its full-time political editor. Jim Waley comments: "Laurie Oakes is simply the best in the business. He's seen it all, he has reported it all. He is the doyen of the Canberra press gallery."
Some politicians have mixed feelings: former Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, for example: "I have changing views about Laurie. Basically, I like him. Sometimes I'd like to whack him, but he is without any doubt one of the great figures of Australian political journalism." Treasurer Peter Costello uses a cricketing metaphor: "Laurie is very searching. He reminds me very much of a Shane Warne leg break. You think the ball is going wide, and all of a sudden it turns and it comes right in, and attacks your wicket."
In 1994, Sunday took an investigative turn, under its new executive producer, Stephen Rice. "His administration's been marked by a lot of highly distinguished investigative stories," says Peter Hiscock. "When Stephen arrived, he challenged everyone to do the sharp investigative stories that really enhanced the Sunday program's reputation for revealing stories that weren't done anywhere else." Sunday's investigative reporter, Ross Coulthart, agrees: "Sunday has very deliberately been encouraged by Stephen Rice to move into a style of journalism which is much more questioning and much more rigorous in trying to analyse the issues of the day."
Ross remembers his first story: "CARE Australia was probably the toughest story I've ever been involved in investigating on Sunday." It was heavily 'legalled', but there was still one word the lawyer wanted to excise as the story was going to air! Producer Hiscock talks about the drama: "I had to run up to the sound booth at that time, and wait for the offending word to come up as it was going to air, and order the sound guy to drop that fader at that particular point so that it literally didn't go to air."
Peter Meakin has high praise for Rice: "Steve's an interesting kettle of fish, actually. He's a very serious sausage. He loves creating disturbances, he likes rattling cages. He's one of the few producers who can be an EP and produce a glorious story on the road as well." Jim Waley concurs: "I don't know of any other EP who goes out on the road with reporters and crews, and I'm not talking pretty picture stories, I'm talking frontline stuff Bosnia." Waley and Rice have covered everything from Bosnia to elections in Britain and Russia, the Hong Kong handover, and the East Timor crisis.
Sunday is not afraid of controversy, as John Muldrew points out: "One of the strengths of the Sunday stories is that the program's never been afraid to tackle orthodoxies or political correctness. I think a lot of journalism has become a captive of certain philosophical attitudes." One of those stories was "The Stolen Generations," reported by Helen Dalley: "...many stolen children who had reported their stories to the Human Rights Commission had had a lot of coverage. We decided to have a look, I guess, at the other nuances that the story brought up," says Helen Dalley. Producer Paul Steindl says: "One of the reasons we looked at the Stolen Generations story was Sir Ronald Wilson's report. It was basically a report of all the negative side and he had admitted this to us that he had not included any of the other stories that were not negative." Helen summed up the reaction of many viewers: "We just found some extraordinary stories, stories that made me cry at the time and bring a tear to your eye when you think about them now. Stories of people who dearly loved the Aboriginal people but were perhaps blindly carrying out government policy that was racist."
And, of course, Sunday is all about the arts.
Under the direction of arts editor, Catherine Hunter, Sunday profiles many of Australia's leading authors, actors and artists. In our anniversary program, Catherine remembers one story she did with Helen Dalley a feature on the biography of Patrick White by David Marr as a way of telling the author's story. "We have always featured a number of important books we know are coming out each year, and I know David Marr had worked closely on that book for about six years. It was going to be an important book, and I still think it stands up as one of the most important biographies written in this country," says Catherine. "We were actually able to stay in the cottage where Patrick had written that book (his first novel). And it turned out to be a very poignant, emotional, strong interview. I guess the spirit of Patrick was very much there."
Catherine Hunter has always been a leading promoter of Sunday's art coverage: "I think Sunday has always had a strong commitment to the arts because it's a magazine program, and people, on a Sunday morning, after they've seen the Laurie Oakes interview, after they've had a fairly hard-edged cover story, need a bit of relief. And hopefully, the arts provide that."
Someone who often provides a bit of relief to Sunday viewers is Max Cullen, actor, artist and Sunday reporter. "The great thing about Max as a reporter, is that he's not a trained journalist. He's an actor, he's an artist," says Catherine. Playwright David Williamson is also a fan of Max Cullen: "Max is wonderful because ... he's a very smart guy but he presents as your average knockabout guy, who isn't elitist, who hasn't got pretensions, is very down to earth."
And finally, there are the film reviews. Author Phillip Adams praises Peter Thompson: "Can I tell you my favourite part? It isn't political as such, but it's your film critic. Mr Thompson's young brother, and I think he's just marvellous."
Peter has been with Sunday since day one, and his philosophy is simple: "I try to avoid passing judgment or opinion on a film because I really think the most wonderful thing about films is the subjective experience that you enter in and surrender to the film." David Williamson's verdict on Peter Thompson: "Peter loves film. And he loves good film. And he's passionate about it, and he conveys that passion to us. He conveys positive things you should see."
The final word goes to former supervising producer, John Muldrew: "If a public affairs program is to turn a mirror on the society it's reflecting, then in Sunday you've got a bit of a Palace of Versailles."