Candour is the quality that comes first and last to mind when I think of Tom.
The little boy of the leafy Sydney suburbs and Queensland bush, with blazing green eyes, entered the world with two luminous and irreparable conditions that set the course of his life. He was born with an over-active bullshit detector and an under-active filter between his brain and his lip.
As a result, by the time he burst into our lives in the late ‘50s he was a man of breathtaking honesty and candour. Disconcertingly outspoken and of high intelligence, volcanic energy and impulsiveness, he suffered neither fools nor dullards gladly. Tom was contemptuous of bad argument and, vexing for his bosses, he was nobody’s lackey. And he had that most precious of showbiz combinations – talent and flair.
I thought of him as an electric man. High voltage. Lit from within. Radiant.
With all this, he had highly developed political and ethical ideals that swung around his concern for justice and his outrage against its antithesis, social injustice. If you believe, as I do, that justice is the highest expression of love, then Tom was imbued with love in its highest degree, even when it expressed itself tempestuously.
This is not a description of an ordinary man. He wasn’t. Dear, impossible, wonderful man, I never met anyone like him.
It was absurd then that the Fates, mischievous as ever, sent this eccentric, passionate, outspoken, anti-authoritarian, free-thinking entomologist to work in – of all places – an ordered, hierarchical, conservative, public service bureaucracy – the Australian Broadcasting Commission. It was not always a good fit, yet this awkward duality worked. While on the one hand Tom rebelled explosively against the dull wits, intellectual lassitude and inertia he encountered in the institution, on the other hand the ABC gave him a secure, well-funded ground in which he could make his often audacious programs – there were people in high places at the ABC who admired and supported him.
I met Tom in 1958 at the ABC. We were soon good friends and colleagues, though I had cause to doubt how deep the bond was when, after he told me that he and Nan were to be married, he asked me if I would be his best man and co-witness.
‘Oh Tom,’ I responded, perhaps a bit too effusively, ‘thank you, thank you so much…’ But he stopped me. ‘That’s okay mate,’ he said. ‘You have lovely handwriting and we thought your signature would look good on the marriage certificate’. We never looked back.
It was a decade and a half of tremendous social change, political activity, and creative vitality. Australia was waking from its wartime severities and the staid 1950s. It was the time of Vietnam War protests, freedom rides for Aboriginal rights, the pill, women’s liberation, sexual experimentation, hippiedom, the Nimbin communes, the Beatles, the Stones, bell-bottoms and flares. And a revived sense of national identity in the creative world was inspiring a tentative re-emergence of an Australian film industry.
The tallest landmark in Sydney was the AWA radio mast, stoic symbol of a passing era. Johnny O’Keefe was rocking around the clock, and the trams still ran down William Street and all the way out to Watson’s Bay via Kings Cross, where, at the Metro Theatre in 1969, 24-year-old Jim Sharman directed the first production in Australia of Hair – with film inserts by Albie Thoms. We were all young and gorgeous and a bit drunk on the exhilaration of the times. I sometimes think that Tom was not so much eccentric as a living expression of the throbbing tumult of the times – albeit out on the extreme edge.
One of his early roles was the Australian researcher and director for the BBC’s landmark Great War series of 1964 under Executive Producer Tony Essex and BBC Researcher Therese Denny. Even with the prestige of the BBC behind the project, the ABC was staggeringly slow to provide an office for him and Therese. When staff arrived at the Brysons Building production offices in Woolloomooloo one Monday morning, the lift doors opened to reveal a desk with Tom seated behind it, studiously at work and using the lift phone. In protest at the delays, he had commandeered it as the Great War office, and he stayed there, going up and down, until a stationary office was found.
The Great War aside, Tom was, like all of us, initially one of the ABC’s Production Pool, a kind of primordial pond, from which, amoeba-like, we were scooped up every fortnight by the program boss to be allocated to any and all types of live-to-air programs.
One effect of this ponding of producers – an apt collective noun – was that people from the whole gamut of ABC production disciplines and departments met and shared ideas. The venue was the Gladstone Hotel in William Street – the Gladdy – and here Tom was in his element with colleagues from News, Rural, Education, Children’s programs, Drama, Talks, Light Entertainment and Sport – the place was always furious with argument on politics, television programs, the social order and football – Tom in the middle of it, often sparring with his scholarly friend, John Croyston – Tom incandescent with enthusiasm or indignation, and always punctuating the air with his characteristic mannerism – the Manefield Stab, the fist tight, the third finger ramrod straight. He was at home in that eclectic bibulous milieu.
When, from the Pool, Tom was allocated the production and direction of Womens’ World, he found an intellectual match in its presenter Mary Rossi. They stood the program on its head. They turned it from home-making, fashion and lamingtons to current affairs, social issues and lamingtons. When the sale and promotion of margarine was being resisted by the dairy industry and the powerful Country Party influenced the ABC to restrict the use or mention of it (in favour of good cow-uddery butter), Tom and Mary defied the ban. Not too subtly either. Whenever a recipe called for margarine, Mary would say to camera, in exaggerated invisible inverted commas ‘now take two ounces of that well-known substitute for butter ’. Tom sang the phrase at the pub as a slogan of political defiance.
Controversy clung to Tom’s ankles. As Executive Producer, he engaged me as national producer/director of one of the first live satellite broadcasts – an exchange between Australia and Japan called Over the Equator. During the live transmission, two cameras broke down in the Melbourne studios, and the remaining camera, having no other option, continued to track in on a go-go girl dancing in a cage, and then slowly zoom on to a big close-up of her navel and gyrating tummy as it was being painted as a flower… flower power and hippy days!
The following morning Tom and I woke to headlines across Australia that the ABC had transmitted an obscene program to Japan. Alarmed that the ABC seemed to be acknowledging the charges to both media and Parliament, without even checking the reaction in Japan, Tom and I tried to see the General Manager to explain what happened. No luck. So we decided to phone our counterpart producer in Japan. Denied offices and phones (we had been suspended from duty), Tom and I got two bags full of two-shilling pieces from the bank, went to the public phone booth at the William Street Post Office, explained to a bemused international operator that it would take a long time for us to insert the coins required for an overseas call, and eventually spoke to our Japanese colleague. There had been no reaction in Japan. What we remember most is that at the end of the conversation, the Japanese producer said: ‘Tell them not to worry. There are much more interesting things in Tokyo we could have showed Australia.’ The incident became known as The Great Navel Scandal. To this day, I still feel a wicked frisson at having been associated with Tom in the only program that ran off the top of the program classification chart beyond R and X, to the unimaginable O for Obscene. Of course, it didn’t deserve the notoriety. It was pretty tame really by the sexy standards of the day – just a reminder of the underlying conservatism against which Tom continually flung himself.
Tom’s gifts to his craft and to us were his high intelligence, honesty, a cool, editorial and analytical savvy in the hot business of creative production, honourable dealings with the subjects of his programs, real flair, hard work, and courage.
For all Tom’s flamboyance and outspokenness there was in him a deep still centre of compassion and humanity, the qualities that most enduringly marked all his work and his life.
His friends and colleagues of these early days, would, I am sure, want to say with me:
'Dear Tom, thanks for the tumultuous journey beside you, for the intellectual stimulation, and for the way you stabbed away at injustice, hocus-pocus, cant, bad argument, the shabby, and the incautious – and thank you for the imperishable gift of your friendship'.