Queen Mother’s visit to Australia 1958
We been riding high in the estimation of GTV management, the news service was out-performing the opposition, we had a good weekly documentary and everything was running smoothly. In February of 1958 an event took place in Canberra which attracted the attention of Jim Byth. It was the official visit of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother to Australia. She was to fly in to Canberra airport to be greeted by the usual VIPs and Government jobsworths.
The problem was that the event took place in the afternoon and the film coverage would have to be got back to Melbourne. In those days, there were no links or satellites, everything had to be done in direct line of sight up to fifty miles away, and that with an Outside Broadcast Unit.
Jim Byth, who had worked with the R.A.A.F. said that he would enquire whether an aircraft would be coming from Canberra to Melbourne at that time. There was no suitable scheduled flight.
The R.A.A.F told him that they would “lay on” a flight, using a Super Sabre fighter plane. Canberra had to be around 350 miles from Melbourne, so the flight would take almost an hour.
It meant that, even if we used the facility, it would still be difficult to get the story on the early evening news bulletin. I came up with my idea.
I put it to Jim Byth and Peter Maund. It was this: With my experience of royal visits from many years with Movietone, I knew that the event would be totally governed by a programme that would not be altered except if someone died or was too ill to attend.
So, the plane would taxi to a particular point on the tarmac, a red carpet would be rolled out, the VIPs would then line the carpet in a specific order. At the end of the carpet, would be the royal limousine into which the Queen Mother would disappear and then be driven off. The order of events would be absolute and unchanging.
Not only that, we, as members of the press, would be given a programme listing all these things and naming, in full, all the people on the carpet being introduced including all their titles and gongs. For this reason, I suggested that we go with a sound crew to Canberra, find a suitable camera position and shoot the whole thing from the one position. In order for this to work, Peter Maund would need to come to perform two jobs. First, having received the programme from the Press Office the day before, he would write a full commentary, second, while we were shooting the various stages of the event, he would read his commentary into the sound camera microphone so that the commentary was actually on the film and in synch with the pictures we were taking. If this could be achieved, when the film arrived at the cutting room, all the Jim Healy, the assistant editor, had to do was to cut out the camera stops and he would have a finished, polished news story.
Jim and Peter were excited by this idea and it was agreed to do it.
On the thirteenth of February our crew was assembled. We had, of course, Peter Maund together with Bob Lord, senior cameraman, Peter Purvis, cameraman, and myself.
Although Peter Purvis’ material from his silent camera was not intended for inclusion within our coverage, his coverage together with ours would be sent off to ITN in London.
GTV had a couple of camera vehicles, they were Volkswagen minibuses. We filled one with ourselves, the equipment and personal baggage.
Additional to all this was a serious quantity of Fosters lager which was contained in cans within boxes. These boxes had diamond-shaped holes cut in the front and back which were placed, and tied down, on to the roof of the Volkswagen. This was to ensure that whenever we felt the need, we could stop off and have a reasonably cool beer.
We set off along the Hume Highway towards Albury which is on the border with New South Wales. We were heavily laden and the progress was slow. The weather was not good, it was raining for most of the way. The further we went, the more the Volkswagen seemed to object to its load. Going up hill was painful and slow. After an awful journey taking almost three times as long as it should have, we crept into Canberra in the early hours of the morning of February 14th.
Peter Maund took the Volkswagen to a garage, a VW agent, to have it checked out. It was discovered that the VW had been fitted with a clutch suitable for a VW car, not a minibus. It’s a wonder we got there at all. Fortunately, they were able to fit a new clutch, but not immediately. It would not be ready for two days.
That was the least of our troubles. Bob Lord decided to run a test on the camera after its bumpy journey. We had some interviews to do. The camera did not work, it would not record the sound. Now were in real trouble. There would not be another camera available in the whole of the country. We were due to start shooting that afternoon.
I was no expert with sound camera, but Bob asked me to have a look. After experiment, we discovered that the lead from the camera to the amplifier was not working. In particular, the multiple wire plug was faulty. This was a complex lead with around six or seven coloured wires within it.
We enquired if there was a suitable repair shop in the town. There was none. Now we had hired a van while the VW was in the workshop; we drove around looking for some likely lad who might do the job for us. Eventually, we came across a place where refrigerators were serviced. We were running out of time, the Queen Mother was arriving in a few hours. We were all exhausted having been without sleep since the previous morning with no prospect of more sleep until later in the day.
I asked the man if he could help. He said that he was not an expert in this type of wiring.
I told him what I thought the fault was. In the body of the camera was the female plug with the male equivalent on the lead to the amplifier. He said that he could not remove the female plug, so, now with an eye on the watch, I told him to cut it out. This he did revealing all the coloured wire behind it. I then told him that if he took the male plug off the lead, he would find a similar collection of coloured wires on that lead. I said “Can you join each wire to its colour equivalent and wrap it all up in tape ?”. He said he would try, he did try and it worked. Phew !!
It was February 14th and we all assembled down at the airport. We had been given the chance to shoot everything from the roof of a building which overlooked the whole proceedings. The camera was set up, checked, loaded and we were ready. Peter Maund had written his script and had even checked that there were no absentees from the line up of VIPs, Peter Purvis was on the apron filming close-ups for ITN. The aircraft touched down and taxied into position absolutely on time. We shot everything exactly as planned. When the Queen Mother left, Bob Lord unloaded the film into a 400’ can and sealed it. Waiting on the ground below our position was an R.A.A.F, dispatch rider. We lowered the film to him on a string. He took the film and shot off onto the end of the runway where the Super Sabre was waiting. He handed the can to the pilot who took off immediately. Apparently it was normal for flights using that runway to fly low and straight for some time before gaining altitude but our Sabre dipped his port wing as soon as he got off the ground and flew between two mountains on a direct run at Melbourne. He landed at Avalon, south-west of Melbourne where GTV had a car waiting. The film was rushed back to the studio where it was processed. Jim did what he was told, for once, and took the film down to telecine with only a few minutes to spare before the 6 o’clock news.
It was a triumph. It was shown as lead story and most people, including those not attached to television, must have wondered how the hell the material could be got from Canberra so quickly.
I got a letter from Jim Byth:
The general manager has asked me to pass on his congratulations for your fine work in the coverage of the Queen Mother’s arrival at Canberra.
This was extremely fine coverage, due entirely to first-class on-the-spot organisation and shooting. This station had by far the best coverage of the arrival in Canberra 24 hours before our opposition, due to your efforts.
The reputation of our station for news coverage has been considerably enhanced by your skilful work.
My personal thanks and congratulations.
Obviously Colin Bednall, The General Manager, was far too busy to congratulate us directly.
ABV2 and HSV7 would have been monitoring our news and, upon seeing our story of the Queen Mother so soon after her arrival, must have wondered how it could have happened. ABV2 would talk to me about it.
Back in Canberra, after the shoot, we set off for the hotel where we should have stayed the night before.
At the Ainslie Rex the bar was well occupied by the visiting press. They were all staying on to cover other events in Canberra concerning the Queen Mum’s visit, we were only waiting for the VW to be fixed, so that we could get back home. One of the assembled party was Mark McDonald, the Australian Movietone cameraman who had sent me food parcels at Christmas 1945. We had a few drinks and a long chat and then he invited me to have a week’s holiday at his place in Sydney. I agreed.
An amusing episode took place at the bar. With twenty or so men in the bar drinking, a man in a light suit called for attention. The gathered mob quietened to listen. He said, with the most Oxford of Oxford accents “I am Anthony Lawrence, I am the Far East correspondent of the B.B.C., and I would like you all to have a drink on me”. I don’t know what it cost him, but suddenly the gathered party became somewhat larger.
It was over forty years later that I heard an interview with Anthony Lawrence on the television in which he said that, after being appointed Far East Correspondent, his first assignment was the visit of the Queen Mother to Australia in 1958.
The reason that the B.B.C always chose people with accents like his for posts like the Far East was that radio communications at the time were not very good and it was essential that the voice should penetrate all the interference.
There was more to come. We decided to go down into town for dinner. This we did. It was uneventful, when we came out of the restaurant, it was anything but.
The Sydney pressmen were at large in the town, by now well into their cups. There also seemed to be many more of them as we walked back to the hotel. One event was that the Cinesound crew had taken their VW to town. Unlike ours it did not have a roof-rack. Apparently it filled up with drunken cameramen, soundmen and various members of the press, so that one of their party decided to climb on to the roof for the journey back.
We came upon this story when we met the passengers of the VW spread out across the road and walking towards us enquiring if we had seen their roof-riding colleague. Apparently he had not been able to hang on. In his inebriated state I doubt that he would have hurt himself and, if he did, he wouldn’t know much about it.
And there was another thing. The next day, there was a furore at the hotel, there were uniformed police and detectives questioning all the inmates. It seems that a ceremonial cannon, part of the Commonwealth War Memorial, which had been parked facing Government House, had been moved and towed into town and then left on the grass outside the police station. The only device that could possibly have pulled it out of position was the Cinesound VW with its tow-bar, but the police did not cotton on to that.
With our new clutch in place, our journey home was somewhat quicker than the outward journey. We got back to a lot of backslapping and drinks all round.
© Terence Gallacher and terencegallacher.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and terencegallacher.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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