Binny Lum's conversations with the stars
BY CHRIS ARNEIL
Binny Lum was known for her friendly, conversational style, and her programs were popular for their interviews with diverse Australian and international personalities. The NFSA presents a selection of her work, available in an unedited form for the first time ever.
Australian radio and television personality Binny Lum passed away in 2012 at the age of 97. A popular figure in Melbourne and country Victoria for many years, Lum worked in radio from 1934 to 1984, initially as an actor, accompanist, scriptwriter and compere of fashion shows, before becoming known for her children’s sessions (she co-hosted the 3KZ Children’s Session as ‘Cousin Binnie’) and magazine-format programs. She was also a pioneer of the small screen, host of the first daytime television program on Channel Nine in 1957, Thursday at One with Binnie Lum.
Binny Lum was known for her friendly, conversational style, and her programs were popular for their interviews with diverse Australian and international personalities. A listener once wrote to her, ‘I love your interviews, Binny; you have a way of making stars sound like ordinary people and ordinary people sound like stars’. Lum talked to personalities both visiting Melbourne and overseas, travelling with her trusted Uher portable reel-to-reel tape recorder to tape sought-after interviewees. She is most known for getting to interview The Beatles in London in 1964 when many others could not.
Thanks to the donation of Binny Lum’s surviving recordings to the NFSA by her daughter, Sharon Terry, the NFSA is able to preserve and make available this important part of Australia’s radio history. More than 100 of these interviews with people including Richard Attenborough, Jack Benny, Arthur Calwell, Tom Lehrer and Vera Lynn are available for listening on the NFSA SoundCloud page, and some highlights are posted below along with Lum’s recollections from her unpublished memoirs. Most of these interviews have not been heard since they went to air around 60 years ago, and the unedited versions made available here have never been publicly released.
On a visit to New York City in 1964, Binny Lum recorded an interview with American singer and actress Barbra Streisand after a performance of the original Broadway production of Funny Girl, shortly after it opened at the Winter Garden Theatre. Lum wrote in her memoirs:
'After a brief wait we were ushered up a flight of wooden steps and shown into Barbra’s dressing room. It was pretty basic, but let’s face it, the Winter Garden is an old theatre. I guess Barbra looked fairly basic too, in slacks and a sloppy joe top, but her personality was a different thing. She had a disarming, down-to-earth naturalness which the Americans might call ‘kooky’. We both commented on our respective accents. She spoke of a trip to London, which she’d loved, mentioned that her present apartment was one where Yip Harburg, the lyricist, had lived and so on – a delightful, inconsequential chat which was just what I wanted; it typified this young star. She told me she was most interested in Australia even admitting she’d love a kangaroo skin coat. She’s probably changed her mind since, but wearing animal skins was not a big issue then. We made our way to the next appointment feeling that lovely glow which comes of achievement and meeting someone special.'
Barbra Streisand on her role in the musical Funny Girl. Courtesy of Sharon Terry NFSA title: 1108854
Lum also had the opportunity to talk with American film and Broadway stage dancer and actor Fred Astaire while he was in Melbourne filming On the Beach in 1959. Astaire appeared in the post-apocalyptic film in his first dramatic role alongside Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. On this interview, Lum wrote:
'It wasn’t the easiest thing to arrange, but finally, in the confines of a dressing-room on the film set, we arranged it. Fred Astaire turned out to be pretty much like the polished performances you see in his films. We had the most easy conversation. Asked if he ever went dancing socially, he grinned and said, "Not much, I’m a very dull partner". He admitted being a racing fan and loved to walk and, while out here, he’d learned to throw a boomerang. I’d heard that Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck had been seen at a tennis match complete with minders, but Fred had snuck quietly into one of the seats without anyone recognising him. He laughed and said his son and daughter-in-law had talked him into going and he’d enjoyed it. I could have gone on talking to this man forever but tapes run out and radio time does too, so reluctantly, I thanked him. He, in turn, thanked me and said he’d really enjoyed it.'
Fred Astaire interviewed while in Melbourne filming On the Beach. Courtesy of Sharon Terry NFSA title: 1108384
Dame Joan Sutherland
During her visit to New York City in 1964, Binny also talked to Australian dramatic coloratura soprano Joan Sutherland. Lum wrote of her interview with Sutherland:
'She said the one time she could manage an interview would be now, so we wasted no time getting a cab to her apartment. An amusing remark by Weeny (Joan’s travelling ‘helper’) concerned the great opera director Rudolf Bing. Weeny told us Joan has him so bluffed that when she accepted his invitation to lunch he said, "Now, I’ll have to take some tranquillisers". It was terrific to hear Joan singing as she changed into a simple, elegant black frock for a picture with me. It was another unforgettable experience.'
Joan Sutherland on her career ambitions. Courtesy of Sharon Terry NFSA title: 1108374
American jazz pianist Dave Brubeck became a good friend to Binny Lum over his multiple trips to Australia. During their third interview in 1965, Brubeck and Lum discussed the future of electronic music. On Dave Brubeck, Lum wrote:
'I recall being pretty worn out when the Dave Brubeck Quartet first hit Melbourne. As I was introduced I said, "I think we’re both wishing we were somewhere else". And suddenly something clicked. He’d been refusing to do interviews at that time because of jet lag but my statement held his interest and I promised to meet him next day for lunch. The Brubeck Quartet visited Australia several times. On one occasion Dave came to dinner at home and later, as he was leaving, I said "Please, just play a chord on my piano". He smiled and did just that, a chord. But when he heard the sound he sat down and played an arpeggio, then launched into a haunting solo. "It’s something I wrote as a tribute to Chopin", he said. ‘"This piano is a lovely instrument".'
Dave Brubeck on electronic music. Courtesy of Sharon Terry NFSA title: 1108384
Sir Edmund Hillary
Lum wrote of her 1963 interview with New Zealand mountaineer and explorer Edmund Hillary, ten years after he reached the summit of Mount Everest:
'I was struck by the stature of the man; he has a towering strength. We met one afternoon in the old Southern Cross Hotel, scene of many interviews for me. Sir Edmund was paying a very fleeting visit to Melbourne. I’d been told he’d checked out so it was sheer chance I met him. He was on his way to catch a plane back to New Zealand when I discovered him in the foyer of the hotel and I was lucky to catch him. I asked was it true what he’d been reported as saying when Everest was conquered, namely, "We’ve knocked the bugger off". He laughingly admitted it. "Sheer exhilaration", he added, which I could well understand. I spent a rewarding few moments with this great man, who did so much more than conquer mountains.'