To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Australia’s most successful TV variety program, we are sharing some rarely seen sequences from 1970s episodes of Hey Hey It's Saturday (1971–2010), including the earliest known surviving colour footage from 1975.
Hey Hey It’s Saturday began in humble circumstances on 9 October 1971. Produced out of the Bendigo Street Studios of GTV9 Melbourne, what would become Australia’s most successful light entertainment show commenced as a Saturday morning cartoon program telecast only to its local metropolitan audience. The show was originally hosted by 2 television newcomers: 20-year-old New Faces-winner Daryl Somers and popular 25-year-old Collingwood VFL footballer and budding pop singer Peter McKenna. McKenna left the show in 1972 as club pressure mounted from the Magpies, suggesting the 3-hour on-air commitment was affecting his on-field performances.
McKenna’s replacement was a bright pink feathered puppet who went by the name of Oswald (Ossie) Q Ostrich. Daryl and Ossie, the latter operated by talented comedy writer and performer Ernie Carroll, had a winning on-air chemistry. By 1973, Somers and the pink puppet could no longer be ignored north of the border, and from 8 September, Hey Hey It’s Saturday debuted to TCN9 audiences in Sydney. Throughout the next 3 decades the show was a consistent ratings triumph for the Nine Network, collecting a swag of Logies Awards – including 3 Gold Logies for Somers as Most Popular Personality – along the way.
An unpredictable mixture of ad-libbed comedy, guest artists, talent contest, unscripted sketches and viewer competitions, within its first decade Hey Hey It’s Saturday had progressed from a low-budget cartoon program for young children to a fully-fledged variety show with a devoted university student audience.
Central to each episode’s spontaneity were the frequent comedic interjections of booth announcer John Blackman, sound effects specialist Murray Tregonning and captions writer David Ross. As Somers later reflected to TV journalist Jim Murphy in 1981, 'It’s competitive in the sense that if one of us throws a line, it’s up to the other to top it. But knowing when to stop, when to leave well enough alone, is the art. It’s a team effort'.
The show continued to grow, graduating from a morning to an evening show in 1984 while accumulating a roster of onscreen talent. Among the best remembered are co-host Jacki MacDonald, musicians Red Symons and Wilbur Wylde, comedian Russell Gilbert, cartoonist Andrew Fyfe and music icon Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum. But at the show’s heart was its anarchic, larrikin spirit, which writer Cul Cullen noted in 1980, 'seems to be trying all out for an AO [Adults Only] rating' while still in the morning children’s timeslot.
Hey Hey It’s Saturday nevertheless retained educational elements within its earlier years. The following 2 clips derive from a Umatic videotape containing 2 half-hour episode excerpts from 1977. This tape was part of a Victorian government schools education collection acquired by the NFSA in 1990.
In this rarely seen sequence from May 1977, Tregonning demonstrates a sample of the sound effects in his collection of over 1,000 tape cartridge sound loops:
In this fascinating snapshot of long-obsolete technology from a September 1977 episode, Somers takes a walk upstairs to the videotape department where a GTV9 tape operator demonstrates the process of how advertisements are put to air. We believe this footage has not been broadcast since 1977:
Underpinning Hey Hey It’s Saturday’s success was the unrehearsed chaos that pervaded each episode. From the weekly ‘Red Faces’ talent competition and absurdity of 'Chook Lotto', to recurring characters Mrs Mac, Angel, Plucka Duck and Dickie Knee, the program’s most enduring segments remain well remembered today.
One of the longest running was ‘What Cheeses Me Off’, which featured viewers sending in their common grievances. In this early surviving example from May 1977, a letter from one entrant triggers a burst of one liners from veteran gag writer Ernie Carroll through his popular ostrich alter ego:
The NFSA presently possesses only a small selection of the more than 1,000 Hey Hey It’s Saturday episodes produced, as the program archive is well maintained and made available here on the dedicated HeyHey.TV website.
However, a recent discovery in the NFSA collection features what is believed to be the earliest known surviving colour footage of an episode. This dates from the opening weeks of colour broadcasting in March 1975 and features a live performance of ‘Summer Breeze’ by Melbourne band Stylus.
This footage was sourced from a Umatic videotape of early Stylus GTV9 television performances compiled for the band’s management in 1975. This surviving 5-minute excerpt is presented here in full for the first time since it was broadcast:
After 28 years, the Nine Network called time on Hey Hey It's Saturday in November 1999, with Ernie Carroll quietly retiring Ossie 5 years earlier.
Further specials and a final season in 2010 kept the memories alive into the 21st century. For a light entertainment program, the show’s cultural impact remains remarkably powerful. Like many comedy programs of its time that are now being reexamined through a new lens, Hey Hey It's Saturday has acknowledged and apologised for some of its content that has caused offence.
In a 2016 readers poll on Television.Au for the most popular Australian-made program over 60 years of television, Hey Hey It's Saturday ranked at number one, ahead of Homicide, Countdown and Fast Forward.
A 50th anniversary special, reuniting many of the key cast members, is scheduled for broadcast on the Seven Network at 7pm on 10 October 2021.
With thanks to Daryl Somers OAM and David Tonner at Somers Enterprises Australia Pty Ltd, Milton Hammon, Chris Keating and Peter McKenna. All Hey Hey It’s Saturday material copyright and courtesy of Somers Enterprises Australia Pty Ltd.