As in many other countries, the early days of Australian radio and television drew heavily on theatrical traditions of variety performance dating back to the Victorian music hall. Largely comprising musical performance and sketch comedy, variety programming’s heyday on Australian radio began in the 1930s and ended with the arrival of television in the 1950s; this was the period historian Bridget Griffen-Foley describes as ‘the golden age of entertainment’ for Australian radio, when local production of drama, quiz shows and variety dramatically expanded—partly because of a wartime demand for light entertainment. Talent shows such as Australia’s Amateur Hour (1940–58) were particularly important for variety programming on radio, unearthing an impressive number of future stars, including Rolf Harris, Johnny O’Keefe and Joan Sutherland.
Over these decades, the radio production industry went through a number of significant developments, which embedded the production of variety programming into its structure. Radio stations and networks established their own troupes of performers, studios, orchestras and performance venues. Sydney’s 2GB built the Macquarie Auditorium in 1942 as a venue for its variety, drama and quiz programs. The ABC established the ABC Dance Band in 1935, which was transformed under Brian May into the ABC Show Band in the late 1960s. A second important change was the direct involvement of advertising agencies in program production. Colgate-Palmolive set up a special radio unit, which operated from 1940 to 1955, producing drama, comedy, quiz and variety programs; it employed its own 40-piece orchestra and directly contracted stars such as Jack Davey and Roy ‘Mo’ Rene.
When television arrived, the programming shifts required to respond to this new competition resulted in the gradual phasing out of variety programming on radio. In any case, variety had almost instantly moved to television as one of the most attractive forms of locally produced programming possible at the time—despite the fact that much of it had to be performed ‘live’ well into the 1960s. Lacking the slickness and the stars that were available via the top US variety shows—such as The Ed Sullivan Show—local variety programming migrated from prime-time into slightly later night-time slots, where it became a standard feature. Significant exceptions to this pattern were the prime-time local talent shows New Faces (hosted by Frank Wilson, 1963–76 and by Bert Newton, 1976–85) and Young Talent Time (hosted by Johnny Young, 1971–88 and by Rob Mills for its revival in 2012). Like the radio talent contests, major future performers were discovered through these shows: New Faces found Paul Hogan and Daryl Somers, while Young Talent Time found Jamie Redfern, Tina Arena and Dannii Minogue.
Three notable tendencies shape variety programming’s history on Australian television. The first is the early establishment of a number of long-running programs with roots in vaudeville, burlesque and live theatre, which were among the first genuine ratings successes of the local industry. Prominent is the series of programs produced and hosted by Bobby Limb: The Bobby Limb Show, which became The Mobil–Limb Show (1958–64) and Bobby Limb’s Sound of Music (1963–72). Sharing the hosting duties with his wife, Dawn Lake, Bobby Limb presented middle-of-the-road light entertainment—show tunes, dance numbers and slapstick comedy sketches featuring the Buster Fiddess. The Mobil-Limb Show is reputed to have been the first national Australian television program. The Bobby Limb Show was voted the Most Popular Program in New South Wales in 1961, the third year of the Logie Awards; Bobby Limb and Buster Fiddess were awarded a joint Logie as Best Comedians in that year, and Bobby Limb picked up the Gold Logie in 1964. A slightly more classy, prime-time variety show was Digby Wolfe’s Revue ’61 (1961) and Revue ’62 (1962), which copied the look of the big American variety shows—dinner jacket for the host, the infinity look produced by the studio’s white walls and floor, classic wardrobes for the dancers. Further still up the class ladder were Eric Jupp’s orchestral presentation of light classics, The Magic of Music (ABC, 1961–74) and the slightly more populist Lorrae Desmond Show (1959–63); Desmond was the first variety star to pick up the Gold Logie, in 1962.
One of the hallmarks of Australian television since the late 1960s until relatively recently has been the longevity of various versions of the ‘Tonight’ format. The initial model was NBC’s Tonight Show in the United States, which was a talk and variety show hosted first by Steve Allen (1954–57), then Jack Paar (1957–62), but most definitively by Johnny Carson (1962–92). Australia had at least two versions, usually identified with their host cities. Graham Kennedy’s raucous, iconoclastic and ramshackle nightly variety show, In Melbourne Tonight (IMT), began in 1957 on GTV9 and ran until 1970. Building upon their early partnership in radio, it featured Kennedy’s famous sidekick, Bert Newton, from 1959. The Sydney variant was slick and slightly better disciplined, with the most successful example being Tonight with Don Lane (1965–69). The two versions eventually combined in the Melbourne-based production of The Don Lane Show (1975–83), where Lane was joined by Newton for a twice-weekly, two-hour show with the improvisational unpredictability of the earlier IMT, constantly running over time and generating surprises. The variety element remained important, however: the show had its own orchestra and played a significant role in discovering new local talent.
The cheerfully subversive approach to the conventions of television formats that distinguished both IMT and The Don Lane Show has been an almost generic characteristic of variety programming in Australia ever since. Possibly the best example of this—and certainly the longest running—is Hey Hey It’s Saturday. Initially a children’s program, it began in 1971, with three apparently unscripted hours produced every Saturday morning. When it moved to prime-time in 1984, Hey Hey brought its own idiosyncratic mix of interviews, popular music, talent contests, quiz formats, audience participation, stunts and general mayhem. It ran—mostly with great success—on Saturday nights until 1999 (its host, Daryl Somers won Gold Logies in 1983, 1986 and 1989). A decade later, in response to a popular campaign for its return, Hey Hey enjoyed a reunion season in 2009–10 but the show was not renewed.
As a format, variety lost some of its mainstream presence over the 1990s as its audience aged and as advertisers became more interested in attracting a younger audience. From this time on, the tonight show format mutated: variety gave way to talk as the dominant form of content. At the same time, the programs clearly targeted a younger audience, featuring young stand-up comedians, rock musicians and rising stars from film and television as their guests. Tonight Live with Steve Vizard (1990–93) was modelled on the next generation of US late-night talk shows—such those hosted by Arsenio Hall and by David Letterman—with an in-house band, a boisterous audience and a focus on the fashions of popular culture and celebrity. Unafraid of breaking the conventions of the format, Vizard included a controversial news segment; the focus on newsreader Jennifer Keyte’s appearance was thought to undermine her authority as a journalist.
Rove McManus’s Rove (1999) and Rove Live (2000) used a team of in-house comedians and a highly targeted schedule of celebrity guests to secure the youth demographic for Network Ten. It too had a news segment, but it was a parody, with fake news items presented by comedian Carrie Bickmore. The variety focus was on comedy—stand-up, chat, sketches and stunts—but there were also musical performances. Rove Live ran as a tonight show until 2006; a reformatted Rove ran in a Sunday night prime-time slot with mixed success in 2007 and 2008.
At the time of writing, there are no direct equivalents of these programs on air; no local tonight shows and limited opportunities for variety performers to appear on television. Elements of the Rove style of talk survives, along with former Rove Live alumni such as Carrie Bickmore, on Network Ten’s The Project, but live variety has moved elsewhere: into the high-profile hybrid reality television talent shows such Australia’s Got Talent, Australian Idol, The Voice, Dancing with the Stars and I Will Survive. Many of these formats, in line with their reality television orientation, foreground the ‘ordinary’ contestant rather than the professional, and offer audiences a narrative of their discovery and success rather than the presentation of favourite performers. The ‘light entertainment’ variety program that was a staple of wartime radio and early Australian television has effectively disappeared.
REFs: B. Griffen-Foley, Changing Stations (2009); K.S. Inglis, This is the ABC (1983); J. Tulloch and G. Turner (eds), Australian Television (1989).