This week’s blog browsing has been a treat–the memories of television shared with us are such a privilege to read. I’ve been really struck by the way that television history is regionally specific, especially in reading stories about people who came to the Illawarra from somewhere else, or who grew up watching television in another country. First up, the beautiful story of Baba Mia and the Brand New TV. Baba Mia — Maria Rewak — was born in 1921, and came to Australia from Croatia, where she had had limited access to radio or television.
Baba arrived in Australia in December, 1961. After moving in with her husband, my Ukrainian grandfather Dedo Bill, she explains that he already owned a TV. She recalls it to be a big 3-in-1 unit – a TV, record player, and radio, all in one! She laughs, “this one beautiful, have remote control with string (a chord.)” Unlike my grandfather who could speak and understand many languages, Baba struggled with English, and as such would often just listen to Croatian records in her spare time.
Read the rest of the blog to find out what happened next! In Television Rules the Nation, Emma Shipley shared the story of her Nana, Valerie Palmer, watching the Queen’s Coronation in the north of England, on a television that she still remembers in detail as a household object that changed the way people in the UK connected to each other’s lives.
Nana’s mother, Olga, was renowned for splurging on goodies perhaps not entirely essential, unbeknownst to her husband, Wilf. So the story goes, Wilf came home from work and “low and behold, there’s a TV in the living room.” And not just any television – a top of the range TV, encased in a mahogany wooden cabinet, complimented by folding doors.
Angus Baillie also interviewed someone for whom television and migration to Australia were entangled, in A Migration in Television Culture: An Interview with my Father. Angus’ father was born in Glasgow in 1948, and by coincidence also arrived in Australia in 1961.
My father, who had grown used to the slick production of British television, found Australian TV to be very amatuerish to him. a lot of ad hoc jokes in front of a live audience with variety entertainment – singers, dancers, jugglers, magicians, etc. It was an attitude of ‘let’s film it and whatever happens, happens’.
This interview was one of a number that revealed the Australian history of rented televisions, including in this case coin-operated televisions. Angus writes about this:
I found this aspect to be particularly fascinating. The idea of allowing a relative stranger into your living room, your family’s media space, to extract money from the back of the TV seems so alien to me – invasive even. But even more than that, even the presence of a rental TV that requires coins to run seems just as invasive. The object just as much a stranger. Like having your fridge replaced with a vending machine. It almost violates how one would normally think of a home – a space where everything is yours to use as you wish.
Quite a few interviews shed some light on Australia’s transition to colour television, a significant and expensive hardware upgrade. In Instead of 50 Shades of Grey, It was Like a Technicolour Yawn, Jacob Foster talked to his dad Tim about growing up in Shellharbour in the 1960s:
[He] remembers his late father walking through the door one night with this Rank Arena colour television, so that he could watch the FA Cup as he was a big soccer fan. The initial reception wasn’t great so they needed a new antenna, but when they had that sorted out, they were the first ones in the street to have coloured television.”
Jade’s mum Vicki also remembers exactly how this happened in their family, in This is Colour Television? Oh We’ve Gotta Have One of These!
They had gone to their cousins house for the specific reason to watch the new TV so that they could experience “what all of the fuss was about”. Vicki still remembers the line her father used when he laid eyes on it: “this is colour television?! Oh we’ve gotta have one of these!” The next day a brand new, top of the line, “biggest screen I had ever seen” colour TV was sitting in the lounge room. Vicki says that their family suddenly became one of the most popular families in the neighbourhood; everyone was always at their house watching the TV together. “Everyone wanted one”, she said.
Watching other people’s televisions, or having family and neighbours round to watch your television, was a common theme for many stories. In Living Colour Jen talked to Jeroen van Dyk, who came to Wollongong from the Netherlands in 1970 as a child:
We’d had a black and white TV for as long as I can remember, and then in 1976 (around the same time as my parents forked out on an extension to the house), we became the first family in our street to have colour TV. I was as surprised as anyone, because we generally weren’t up with these things. It was a big deal back then, and a bit of a status symbol thing at the time perhaps – ‘dirt-poor immigrants made good’ sort-of-thing. We suddenly became popular. There was lots of interest from young kids in the neighbourhood who came over to our house to watch TV. Pretty quickly, other kids’ families got colour TV too, and everyone would go around to each other’s houses to watch TV.
Other people’s memories of television, many of them relatively recent, shed light on how television has played a part in family culture, that is rapidly changing. Keiran Mannion’s lovely interview with her dad, #TBT: Throwback Television, brought up a significant story of how television and cinema have not been as far apart as you might think:
In his house Saturday night was the most exciting night of the week because there was always a movie of the week on. Although it was usually a war or western film the whole family would gather around the TV with a block of Cadbury’s chocolate to share. He jokingly added on that movies had no surround sound. If you wanted that you had to turn the TV up.
Finally, one of the distinctive features of Australian stories of early television is of bad reception, and various fixes. In A Licence for Television, Adelaide shares her Grandad’s hair-raising but actually quite typical story of Australian ingenuity:
Because they lived 150km away from Sydney, the signal was never reliable, so Grandad, being an engineer, developed a theory. Whenever the signal would cut in and out, him and my Grandma’s brother, Ted, would climb up on the roof, and spray the antenna with water, finding that it would help them get much clearer reception (turns out there was actually no benefit of doing this, but at least they tried).
I’ll stop here, but I could quote so many others — these interviews really are an extraordinary archive in an under-researched area of Australian cultural history. Please thank all your friends and family members who shared their stories with us. It’s been an absolute joy to read them.