Television came to Australia in 1956, in time for the Melbourne Olympics. The big consoles were expensive and my parents had to save for the deposit and buy one on hire-purchase. We didn’t get a set until 1960, which meant that, for the whole of my youth, home entertainment consisted of radio.
I was a keen listener to radio serials – Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Superman, The Air Adventures of Biggles, The Amazing Mr Malone, Night Beat, and Tarzan, King of the Apes. The first three mentioned and Tarzan were comics as well, which I also read.
These characters were very real to me and fuelled totally innocent fantasies of adventure and personal puissance. There was no sex in the serials or the comics. That came later when I shoplifted Carter Brown novelettes from newsagencies.
My sister, three years older, also listened to some of the serials and most of my friends were as avid as I was. Biggles, like the others, was aired on one of the commercial stations and came on at 8AM on weekdays. A friend with whom I made the 45-minute bike ride to school also used to listen before we met for the ride and we discussed the morning’s episode. Each episode began, thrillingly, with the sound of a Spitfire engine warming up for take-off.
I can’t remember our discussions. We certainly didn’t talk about the racism and jingoism of the stories. I imagine we mainly speculated about what would happen next and debated which characters we preferred. I do remember that there were occasional changes in the actors, which we deplored. The new voice was never as good as the old.
The Amazing Mr Malone was a more sophisticated effort. Set in Chicago, it featured socialite John J Malone, who solved murders that baffled lawyers and the police. Each episode ended with Malone explaining how he’d cracked the case and with the admiring ejaculation from the police detective, ‘You’re amazing, Mr Malone’.
My all-time favourite was Night Beat. Against a throbbing drumbeat background, this opened with the line, ‘Hi, there, I’m Randy Stone and I cover the night beat for the Daily. Stories start in many different ways. This one started … and ended …’ The episodes involved blackmail, robbery and murder and were fast-paced and atmospheric with dramatic sound effects.
The stories ended with Randy hammering a few keys, pulling paper from the typewriter and calling ‘Copy boy!’ For a time I thought he was demanding coffee until someone told me he was calling for an underling to take what he’d written to be printed. It was an early and exciting introduction to crime writing and journalism, both of which occupations I was to follow. It might have had an influence; who knows?
When I helped actor Ray Barrett write his autobiography he told me about his time as a radio actor – how actors would race from one radio station to another to perform in a different shows, being paid according to the number of lines they delivered. He replaced Rod Taylor as Tarzan when Taylor won a competition that took him to Hollywood and stardom, and had to learn to do the famous ‘ape call’. All utterances by natives were gobbledygook improvised by the actors.
It was a magical world of fantasy and make-believe that stimulated the imagination. Its atmosphere was brilliantly captured in Woody Allen’s Radio Days.