Bill Beams films The King overseas

BY SIMON SMITH

In Melbourne Tonight (IMT) was flagging. Four years after helping to usher in the exciting new medium of television into Australia, GTV9’s flagship program had lost much of its energy. Media reports during 1961 depict the show as stale and in a rut. IMT’s original creative mastermind, Norm Spencer, had recently defected to rival station HSV7, taking with him fresh programming ideas and plans to topple his former show. And as the program’s central host over 1000 editions, Graham Kennedy had carried a huge load. With a new contract to be negotiated and in desperate need of a holiday, the fatigued King of Television needed a break from the constant attention of his subjects.

Graham Kennedy stand with a Beefeater at the Tower of London

Graham Kennedy at the Tower of London, 1961. Courtesy Gabrielle Beams. NFSA title 1496288

Ever adept at wrangling products and services at a sponsor’s expense, Graham orchestrated a deal with major IMT advertising client Glo-Weave. The shirt manufacturer agreed to pay for a three-week overseas trip in exchange for filmed advertisements shot in the various locations visited. These inserts were then sent back to GTV9 to be replayed in Graham's absence on editions of both IMT and the national Graham Kennedy Show. IMT’s newly promoted producer Bill Beams (1933-2016), formerly a station news camera operator, accompanied Graham to ensure he met his commitments to the station. On Wednesday 18 July 1961, the pair flew from Sydney, bound for Europe via a stopover in India. Bombay (Mumbai), Rome and London would each provide suitable backdrops against which to film the sponsor’s product.

 

 

The surviving 16mm films, generously donated to the NFSA by Beams in 2006, reveal the ever-private Kennedy revelling in his anonymity abroad. Away from the prying eyes of starstruck Melburnians, Beams’ carefully composed films capture a relaxed Graham wandering the Colosseum in Rome and Trafalgar Square in London without attracting the usual stares.

Yet even overseas, Graham had reminders of his fame back home. Beams’ wife Gabrielle recalls of the sequence filmed at the Trevi Fountain that 'some people who were Australian and who recognised him shouted out “there’s Graham Kennedy!”. Graham froze and Bill got him into a little café where he could hide. He hated this sort of publicity and Bill was always conscious of this.'

Graham Kennedy with Silvana Alliotti sittingon the edge of the Trevi Fountain, Rome

Graham Kennedy with Silvana Alliotti; Trevi Fountain, Rome, 1961. Courtesy Gabrielle Beams. NFSA title 1496288

The Trevi Fountain was also the scene of a major talking point with the press back home. One of the two women seen acting suitably impressed with the quality of Graham’s Glo-Weave shirt was 20-year-old Italian Silvana Alliotti. Working as Graham’s travel guide while in Rome, Silvana was asked to appear in one of the advertisements. For reasons never fully explained, Graham soon requested she visit Australia to appear on several editions of IMT. Though friendly with each other, there was no suggestion of romance. Silvana said the host’s busy work schedule had not allowed for any quality time to be spent together. Following some well received appearances on the show hosting a Cultural Quiz Show segment, Silvana returned home, her brief appearance in Graham’s life an otherwise curious footnote.

Bill Beams was also an accomplished stills photographer, and had been a cadet with the Argus newspaper in 1949. An image he captured of Queen Elizabeth II within husband Prince Phillip’s outline during their 1954 Australian tour was selected for the front cover of a Time-Life magazine edition. Putting these skills to use, Beams captured a range of stunning colour slides of the trip, several included in Mike McColl Jones’ coffee-table book Graham Kennedy Treasures (2008). The following gallery includes several previously unseen images (click image to open):

Upon his return to Australia on 9 August 1961, Graham was interviewed by TCN 9 Sydney’s John Godson about the trip. This interview is believed to be the earliest known surviving with Graham as the subject.

With Graham suitably refreshed from his trip, a major GTV9 rethink over the future of IMT saw the show completely remodelled in October 1961. The host’s popularity outside of his home state gradually increased with the production of the nationally viewed The Best of Kennedy the following year. Bill Beams’ career also bloomed; he remained at GTV9 for 22 years including producing and directing the Logie Awards for seven years before being headhunted as Head of Presentation to successfully reverse the sluggish fortunes of STW9 in Perth.

With thanks to Gabrielle Beams and the Nine Network.

For more about Graham Kennedy's life and career, including rare footage and memorabilia, see our online exhibition Graham Kennedy: The King and curated collections Graham Kennedy Highlights, Graham Kennedy TV, Graham Kennedy Film and Graham Kennedy Radio.