The late 1970s. The days were longer, the months were longer, the summers were longer back then. In the weeks after Mum and Dad went back to work each January, my brother and I would fall into the comfortable routines of the school holidays. In the morning, I would be in my room, working on important projects: drawing page after page of comics, colouring them with textas, binding them with staples and trimming them with Dad’s Stanley knife, straight through the paper into the criss-crossed carpet underneath; or building cubby houses and pitching my World War Two action figures against a pitiful army of ragged bears.
Outside, the sun would bleach the sky blue and the grass pale gold, turning the world into a slow oven. By the time my room started to get seriously warm, it was time to draw the curtains and head into the cool of the house for the day’s main event: midday television.
We had a couple of TVs: a black-and-white in a sturdy wooden cabinet and, from about 1977 onwards, a colour one in fake-wood veneer and black plastic. They moved from room to room as the lounge migrated from one end of our big old weatherboard home to the other, with the colour TV always in the prime vegetating location. The black-and-white usually ended up in the dining room.
Each one came with a stretched copper spring of an aerial, and neither had a remote control. They hardly needed them; owning two TVs guaranteed 100% coverage at all times, because in 1970s Tasmania there were only two stations—the ABC on channel 2, and the commercial station, which in the south meant TVT6.
The difference between them was straightforward enough: the ABC showed British shows and a few home-grown ones, and channel 6 showed the American stuff. Naturally, all the kids at school watched channel 6, steeping themselves in Welcome Back Kotter, The Six Million Dollar Man and Happy Days.
We were the ABC household. One of the few.
In an age of cable it’s hard to believe that watching one of the only two channels available could mark you out as a freak, but mark you it did. A typical exchange:
“Did youse all see Fantasy Island last night?”
“No... I watch the ABC.”
“What are ya, some kind of snob?”
“He is, he’s bloody posh, he’s posh he is.”
“Am not.” [Cowers pitifully in corner and wishes he knew what “Da plane!” meant.]
ABC kids were weird: we watched old re-runs of F-Troop and My Favourite Martian (American, but not cool, because they were in black and white and clearly not from the ’70s); we watched the medieval wizard Catweazle and his familiar, Touchwood; we watched Harry Butler before he became Les Hiddens before he became Steve Irwin; and, most importantly, we refused all appointments between 6.00 and 7.00 p.m. to watch The Goodies and Doctor Who, again and again. The ABC continuously repeated every episode it had: Bill and Graeme and Tim battling giant kittens and Big Bunny a hundred times; Jon Pertwee turning into Tom Baker and back again and forward again and again and again. What today’s obsessive youth need DVD collections to achieve, the ABC did for us for free: drumming every line and plot-line into our formative minds.
Sometimes they’d fall down on the job, though. When they ran out of Goodies episodes (which happened more often than they ran out of Doctor Whos) they would swap an American sitcom into the six o’clock slot: the aforementioned Martian or F-Troop (tolerable), or the unmentionable The Ghost and Mrs Muir (sentimental schmaltz guaranteed to make any self-respecting ten-year-old puke). Yet still we watched.
Or I watched. My brother would sometimes defect to the other room—or eject me to it, depending who had the upper hand on that particular day—and we would watch apart, the trans-Atlantic divide recreated trans-our-joint. In later years he would be a minority of one, watching The Dukes of Hazzard and The A-Team in black and white while the rest of us watched ad-free in colour; the VCR and a second colour telly didn’t arrive until the late ’80s.
The ABC of the ’70s wasn’t all British imports and ancient American repeats, though. Throughout the summer, for two hours in the middle of each weekday, channel 2 was the place to be—because that was when they showed the Hanna-Barbera cartoons.
The Banana Splits. Top Cat. Atom Ant. Lambsy, Mildew and Bristle Hound. Speed Buggy. Squiddly Diddly. The Roman Holidays. Flat, garish colours. Repetitive back-drops. Minimalist animation of lips and eyeballs. Outlandishly groovy accents, and deliciously childish jokes. The channel 6 kids had nothing to compete with this; only Mike Walsh’s midday show for the mums. So they would be outside, playing in thirty degree heat, at high noon, under an incipient ozone hole, while we ABC watchers stayed indoors—uncool, untanned, but unburnt. Who says TV is bad for you?
The channel 6 kids didn’t even get to see the Hanna-Barbera their northern counterparts got. TNT9 showed Scooby Doo and The Jetsons, but TVT6 didn’t. (As a born-and-raised southern Tasmanian, I was one of the few people to see the recent Scooby Doo movie without ever having seen the cartoon show. Fortunately, decades of nostalgic Gen-X references had long since filled that gap in my pop-cultural education, and I thought the movie was rrrrabulous.)
Looking back, it can only have been for a few short years that the ABC showed those particular cartoons in that particular timeslot. The Goodies were gone by the early eighties, repeated only once more a few years later; Tom Baker turned into Tristan, and soon the Doctor’s days were marked. But for anyone of my age and background—mid-30s and middle-class Australian—those years, those pre-pubescent years that stretch into half a lifetime in the memory, defined television. TV for this kid was Tim Brooke-Taylor in his union jack waistcoat, Mildew being flung over the horizon from the end of Bristle Hound’s stick, and Jon Pertwee fading into Tom Baker at the end of “Planet of the Spiders”. It was getting up to change channels, fighting with your brother over who had to watch the black-and-white, and curling up in a bag-chair to stare at a curly aerial.