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Television's 10 Most Dramatic Moments

Sydney Morning Herald

Sunday May 19, 1996

By James Cockingtin. Doug Anderson for HOT SHOT, Tony Squiresfor HAMSTRUNG HUMOUR, Jon Casimir for IT'S MOMENTS LIKE THESE...

THE unfortunate incident on Tuesday evening involving Melbourne's Today Tonight host, Jill Singer, demonstrates the dramatic potential of live television. The words "TV Star Collapses" on a newspaper are enough to guarantee extra sales, even if the star collapsed off-camera and is virtually unknown to Sydney audiences.

Even Hendo gave his opposition network some free publicity during the National Nine News.

A list of the most dramatic incidents on Australian television will always include those unscripted moments that have us sitting back thinking, wow, we are now watching television history in the making.

TAKE ONE: March, 1992. During the Cangai homestead siege in which Leonard Leabeater, Raymond Bassett and Robert Steele abducted two children after killing five people, Mike Willesee phoned the media-friendly gunmen and asked to speak to the hostages. The ensuing conversation was recorded and played on A Current Affair that evening.

"Do you know that Leonard and Robbie have killed some people? Have you seen Leonard and Robbie do some bad things?" Willesee asked the kids.

Although certainly dramatic, this chilling episode inspired the highest number of viewer complaints to the Australian Broadcasting Authority that year. At the inquest into Leabeater's death, the methods of Willesee and reporter Mike Munro were criticised by the police and psychiatrists.

"I'm not aware of anything that came out of that interview that really furthered anything other than the motive of Mr Willesee and his program," said a consultant psychiatrist, whose name was suppressed.

TAKE TWO: 1981. George Negus was one of the pioneers of 60 Minutes, but if any one interview made him a star it was the one he recorded with Maggie Thatcher at 10 Downing Street. According to John Little's book, Inside 60 Minutes, the Balmain Cowboy had always intended to crash-tackle the Iron Maiden, but even he could not have expected the following exchange.

Negus: Why do people stop us in the street almost and tell us that Margaret Thatcher isn't just inflexible, she's not just single-minded, on occasions she's just plain pig-headed and won't be told by anyone?

Thatcher: Would you tell me who has stopped you in the street and said that?

The interview continued in this vein with the Prime Minister demanding, in her best school marm manner, to know the names of any disloyal subjects who had called her "pig-headed".

"We've never been treated this way before," complained Thatcher's press secretary after the interview.

TAKE THREE: April, 1978. Feminist author Shere Hite staged the first in her series of live television walkouts on the Willesee at Seven program, after objecting to Mike Willesee's line of questioning. When Willesee asked her whether she thought her early career as a model affected her credibility as a serious researcher, she refused to answer. Willesee repeated the question. Hite then asked Willesee if his trivial questions affected his credibility as an interviewer.

This stalemate (or maybe that should be stalemistress) was broken when Hite calmly got up and left the studio. Turning to the camera after her exit, Willesee said that he refused to be censored by "the up-tight Ms Hite" and read out his remaining questions.

TAKE FOUR: May, 1967. On his Tonight show, Don Lane asked World Championship Wrestling's Killer Kowalski to demonstrate his lethal "claw hold", a kind of sadistic massage on an opponent's mid-section.

"Killer seemed to be in a joking mood for once," recalled Lane. But when Kowalski had demonstrated how to apply the hold to Don's stomach - "Hey, you'd better get in shape, Don baby. You're pretty soggy around the middle," he joked - the live audience noticed a gradual change in the Killer's demeanour. His eyes glazed over and suddenly, painfully, Kowalski was applying the claw hold with deadly intent.

Kowalski ended his demonstration by tossing Lane onto the floor like a wet tissue and storming off the set. In agony, Lane screamed out to the cameraman: "What the hell have you got the cameras on me for?" We all know the answer to that dumb question. Ratings, Don, ratings.

TAKE FIVE: August, 1980. The Lanky Yank strikes again. When Don Lane realised the ratings potential of psychic television, paranormals such as British medium Doris Stokes and Israeli spoonbender Uri Geller were regular guests.

But when the Canadian sceptic James Randi rode into town claiming that psychics are frauds, the scene was set for a confrontation. Lane didn't disappoint. After Randi, himself a conjuror, attempted to demonstrate how Geller bends those spoons, Lane ended the interview by scattering Randi's props from a desk and telling him to "piss off".

TAKE SIX: March, 1988. Like the aforementioned James Randi, Richard Carleton is a sceptic and a magician. Together they were the perfect team to stage-manage the infamous 60 Minutes Carlos Hoax. Great concept. Shame about the result.

The idea was to invent a phony channeller (Carlos, played by an American artist, Jose Alvarez) and expose the apparent fraudulent nature of spirit mediums and gurus. It cost an alleged $50,000 to set up the sting which, after sucking everyone in, would be dramatically revealed on 60 Minutes. This meant keeping the operation top secret. From everyone.

This explains why the visit to Australia by Carlos was widely promoted by other Channel Nine shows. The Today Show, A Current Affair and even Nine News gave Carlos free publicity.

When the hoax was revealed that Sunday by a suitably smirking Carleton, all hell broke loose. Willesee was ropeable, demanding to see Nine's news supremo, Peter Meakin, one of the few Nine insiders to know of the stunt.

"The 60 Minutes wank exposed the low-grade value system of that industry of which it is a leading exponent," commented The Australian.

Nine boss Sam Chisholm had the last word, claiming that the Carlos story achieved its aim of proving the gullibility of people. Especially some of his highest-paid employees.

TAKE SEVEN: August, 1989. Mike does it again. Filling in temporarily for Jana Wendt on A Current Affair, Willesee appeared to have trouble focusing on his autocue, was slurring his speech and suffered fits of the giggles while attempting to interview businessman Roland Bleyer. He also used the phrase "bullshit artist".

Channel Nine issued a statement saying that Willesee was "a little rusty".

Derryn Hinch interpreted it differently, opening his Channel Seven current affairs show with those memorable words: "I'm Derryn Hinch and I'm sober."

After a similar performance the following night, Willesee was replaced by Richard Carleton. Willesee later explained to a Melbourne newspaper that he was on medication at the time: "And, before I went on air, I had a drink ... I blew it, I did it, I'll wear it."

He may have blown it in his eyes, but not in the arena that really matters. Willesee's temp hosting of A Current Affair boosted the show to its highest ratings result so far that year.

TAKE EIGHT: September, 1990. Ray Martin's Midday show. Everything's going nicely. Enter special guest Frank Thring. The Thringster, dressed in funereal black and sporting sunnies, immediately set the tone by knocking over a microphone and wisecracking, "Reminds me of my first husband".

While Martin struggled manfully to keep control, Thring was determined to create television chaos.

"What would you like to do now?" asked Martin in desperation.

"Go home," replied Thring.

But the quote that had the Midday paramedics on red alert was when Martin asked his guest which was his favourite stage role.

Long pause. "The critics liked me when I was playing a 75-year-old cockney butcher who had a heart attack on stage while he was trying to screw his daughter-in-law," said Thring. Legend.

TAKE NINE: July, 1991. "It was a very good punch and I'm proud of it," boasted Ron Casey after the infamous Midday show stoush. "If I had the chance again, I'd thump him harder," replied Normie Rowe. This was the republican battle we had to have.

Referee Ray Martin got much more than he bargained for when he staged a studio debate between Normie's monarchists (the blue corner) and Ronnie's republicans (the red corner).

The fists flew after Rowe called Casey "a low rat". Then Casey accused Rowe, a Viet vet, of being a "a sanctimonious RSL ... you live for the badge". The two men kissed and made up the next day.

TAKE TEN: September, 1992. "I would like to thank whoever was responsible for making my transition from radio to television such a spectacular success," said Doug Mulray after the first episode of his new show, Australia's Naughtiest Home Video Show, was terminated at 9.02 pm - 28 minutes before its scheduled closing time.

An on-air announcement blamed technical difficulties and an episode of Cheers took its place.

But it wasn't just anyone who activated the kill switch. It was Kerry Packer himself, not amused, who rang the station. "Take that show off the air," is a G-rated version of what Packer had to say.

Up to that point, the show had featured home videos of dogs making love. Bare breasts and bottoms were seen. A popular male party trick involving toilet paper and a box of matches was revealed.

Fortunately, Mulray was in Fiji at the time, safely out of Packer's reach. Regardless, the truncated show rated an impressive 33.

HOT SHOT

MOMENTS when seamless televisual illusion shears into jolting reality are far too few.

The scene in Network, in which the newscaster, Howard Beale, threatens to top himself, live (as it were) on air, was borne out in actuality when an American newsreader, fed up with the whole gig, pulled out a revolver, placed it to his head and let loose a round.

Spontaneous, inspirational and dynamic stuff! Entirely preferable to Hendo's limp and egregious sign-off.

But an apocryphal incident, with equal appeal, concerns another newsreader - said to be Chuck Faulkner but I fancy not - who arrived late and soaked at the studio having been caught in traffic jammed by torrential winter rain.

The presenter took to the set, in still-sodden trousers - a radiator placed beneath his desk for warmth and comfort. Midway through the bulletin, with a commercial break still some way off, composure finally succumbed to reaction as smoke rose and the now smouldering trousers became a too hot to endure.

Doug Anderson

HAMSTRUNG HUMOUR

THERE are so very, very many moments of television's unintentional drama, it's difficult to chose a favourite. So, let's simply go with the funny ones.

Although there had been a precedent in rugby league grand final pre-match entertainment, when the cast of 42nd Street traipsed out onto the field to tap and lipsynch to some music from the show, only to realise somebody had left the tape in the car, nothing compares with last year's festivities. Launching the Optus era, a mockery of television characters paraded about before climbing into a box under a giant television set. The black set was then flown above the ground by wires, before the sides were to open to allow a zillion balloons to climb into the footy-fan-inflamed air. The sides opened, broke, and crashed to the earth, frightening the pants off several school-aged banner wavers and leaving the TV set hanging damaged and defeated, like a hotel portable after a visit from Elvis Presley and his handgun.

On a smaller scale, it's difficult to forget the contestant on the talent show Pot Of Gold who pulled a hamstring in the middle of what was an exceptionally interesting, if hopelessly unco-ordinated, dance routine. He tried valiantly to reach the end of the song, dragging his useless limb behind him.

Tony Squires

IT'S MOMENTS LIKE THESE

THERE was the great moment a couple of years back where the Channel Nine cameras zeroed in on Mal Meninga before a State of Origin game. He was giving a rousing speech to his troops, straight out of Henry V. It brought a tear to the eye, until he decided to insert a few choice swearwords in phrases Shakespeare never dreamed of. Thank God for all the money they spend on sports coverage - we could hear everything perfectly.

Then there was a clearly substance-altered Billy Idol informing the audience at the Countdown Awards of how much sex he'd had on his Australian tour. But my favourite was the episode of Aspel and Co that featured Oliver Reed and Clive James as guests. Reed turned up pickled as an onion, carrying a jug of what looked suspiciously like vodka and orange, incapable of coherent speech but determined to make his point, even if he had to stagger over to the band and sing a song. Aspel froze and Clive James came to the rescue, taking over and berating the giggling Reed.

Jon Casimir

© 1996 Sydney Morning Herald

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