A recent videotape discovery shines a spotlight on Australian TV's first movie review duo and their program, Two on the Aisle, which debuted in May 1973.
Before David and Margaret, there was Ivan and Jim. More than a decade before David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz commenced their remarkable 28-year run in 1986 on Australian television as the nation’s best-known film reviewing double act, another pair of cinephiles were quietly creating commercial television history.
In May 1973, the bespectacled duo of HSV7 musical director Ivan Hutchinson and media journalist Jim Murphy found themselves fronting Two on the Aisle, a forerunner to The Movie Show (SBS, 1986–2008) and At the Movies (ABC, 2004–2014).
With little surviving footage, the show is almost completely forgotten today. But the recent discovery of a VHS dub of the show’s final episode from December 1975 recalls a series that forged a path for film appreciation on Australian television, during an exciting time in local theatrical exhibition when our national film industry was experiencing a significant creative renaissance.
Here is a clip from the opening of the Christmas 1975 episode featuring a review of The Return of the Pink Panther (Blake Edwards, UK-USA, 1975):
There had been other Australian television shows dedicated to contemporary cinema to have gone before. The ABC produced the short-lived Cinemagazine featuring ‘pictures from over the world’, first glimpsed by Sydney audiences in December 1956. HSV7 Melbourne followed suit with Movie Guide, presented by the versatile Jean Battersby in August 1958. And from June 1967, radio presenter and voice of 1960s Cinesound newsreels Phil Haldeman hosted Showbiz for 18 months to Sydney audiences on ATN7, featuring coverage of the local film and theatre scene at a time when the Australian feature film industry was in an especially moribund state.
Two on the Aisle (HSV7, 1973-75) however can lay claim to being the first dedicated film review show on Australian television fronted by two knowledgeable film buffs, in a similar format later to continue with Stratton and Pomeranz. For three years, Hutchinson and Murphy discussed the latest features playing in Melbourne cinemas, accompanied by specially selected film clips, exclusive interviews, letters from viewers and competitions. Coinciding with a renewed confidence through government support of local big-screen production, Two on the Aisle helped to promote the burgeoning revival of the local Australian feature film industry.
Here, Hutchinson briefly reviews Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975), succinctly detailing what made the film such a success:
The origins of the show began in the South Melbourne office of HSV7 General Manager Gordon French. Hutchinson was a noted film buff, his cinema passion first ignited as a 7-year-old boy mesmerised by Fred Astaire in Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, USA, 1935).
Murphy, journalist and film critic for Melbourne’s weekly media periodical Listener In TV, had been similarly entranced by Hollywood films since boyhood. The duo shared a love of musicals and proposed to French that they create a program where they came in before, during and after a classic Hollywood film to discuss its virtues, similar to Bill Collins’ work on TCN9 in Sydney with Golden Years of Hollywood.
Dismissing this idea outright, to their surprise French suggested instead the pair host a dedicated film review series about current releases. With a virtually non-existent budget – Murphy recalling episodes cost $130 to produce, with a host salary of $50 each – and to almost no publicity whatsoever, Two on the Aisle broadcast its first episode on HSV7 on Friday 4 May 1973 at 11.35pm.
Interviewed at TV World Media Museum in 2004, Murphy modestly reflected, ‘I suppose we were pioneers in Australia, as nobody else had done a movie review program [in that way] to that point’.
Pre-recorded on Thursday afternoons, Two on the Aisle began as a late evening half-hour series each Friday. Depending on the duration of the film or program preceding it, broadcasting commenced anytime from 10.00pm to 12.15am! Shifting to Thursdays for 1974, the series reverted to Fridays from July, where it remained until its cessation in December 1975. Final-year episodes in the colour television era doubled in duration from 30 to 60 minutes.
Growing a loyal following, the show sometimes rated in the double figures, an outstanding return for a late-night program given little publicity exposure. Told by French never to expect more than a 3 or 4 audience rating figure, Murphy recalled in 2004, ‘one night we went on quite early after the boxing [TV Ringside] when everyone got knocked out early – we ended up with a 13 (rating) – we were more surprised than anybody!’.
In this sequence, taken from the surviving last eight minutes of the Christmas 1974 program – the 78th, and final black-and-white edition produced – the duo appraises disaster epic Earthquake (Mark Robson, USA, 1974):
Exclusive interviews across the series featured both local and international guests. Among those appearing included Australian actors Frank Thring, Charles Tingwell and Graeme Blundell, visiting British performers John Le Mesurier, Michael Craig and Eric Sykes, playwright Robert Bolt, Exorcist author William Peter Blatty, American director Rouben Mamoulian, and many others.
In this excerpt from the final episode, Jim Murphy interviews actor George Mallaby about his starring role in Australian psychological thriller End Play (Tim Burstall, 1976):
With the introduction of colour transmissions in March 1975, the additional weekly cost and longer colour processing times required by Victorian Film Laboratories to create the pair’s carefully curated clips became an issue. HSV7 did not have 35mm telecine facilities, and the purchase price of such a set-up was cost prohibitive for its likely limited ongoing usage. Consequently, only five colour episodes across 1975 were added to the 78 black-and-white episodes produced in the first 18 months of 1973-74.
With as little fanfare for its departure as it had received upon its arrival, Two on the Aisle quietly vanished from HSV7’s 1976 schedule. The annual extended Christmas holiday film round-up, broadcast on 22 December 1975, was the final episode seen by audiences in metropolitan Melbourne (HSV7) and Shepparton (GMV6, the only other location where the program was broadcast).
Though Murphy mentions in the surviving footage this last episode is being seen by Sydney audiences, I could find no corresponding entry in printed television guides. When asked recently, David Stratton recalled that ‘when we started The Movie Show in 1986, Margaret and I were completely unaware of the existence of Two on the Aisle because Channel 7 in Sydney didn’t run it’.
Across the 83 episodes of Two on the Aisle that were telecast, in total, little more than 10 minutes of snippets from three of the 1974-75 episodes were known to survive either at the Seven Network or in the NFSA collection.
Fortunately, Jim Murphy – the show’s co-host and a noted videotape collector – had requested a U-matic videotape dub of the last episode from the original two-inch master, soon after its December 1975 telecast. Murphy had this copied to VHS sometime in the 1980s, disposing of his original in the process. The NFSA had been liaising with Jim Murphy to select additional tapes from his extensive collection when he passed away suddenly in May 2019. A close family friend located the VHS dub, generously donating it to the NFSA in March 2023. Since digitally resupplied to Seven Network’s archives, the only known copy of the last episode had been saved.
After careful cleaning of the VHS tape, digitisation by our technical staff revealed the 60 minutes of highlights from the final 90-minute episode to be of good quality. As well as the colour clips already featured in this article, watch an excerpt in which Hutchinson reviews The Story Of O (Just Jaeckin, France, 1975). The following clip features an interview by Jim Murphy with the American producers of Jaws (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1975), Richard Zanuck and David Brown, who discuss how they came to acquire the story, and whether the film is suitable for children:
Sadly, none of the program’s three principals are still with us, with Jim Murphy’s passing in 2019 preceded by the death of Hutchinson in 1995 and program producer Geoff Owen-Taylor in 2016.
Alan Finney OAM, former Village Roadshow MD and Chair of the Australian Film Institute, acknowledged the importance of Two on the Aisle in his NFSA Oral History interview: ‘If you were interested in films, it was the first time on television you'd had two people who knew about movies, who loved movies, and who were terrific guys. It was that marvellous counterpoint, of Ivan and Jim… you know, it set a ground-breaking pattern for that [type of show].’
With thanks to John Budge, Graeme Dickenson, Ian Dodds, Paul Harris, Mary Murphy, David Stratton AM, the Seven Network and television historian Chris Keating for his research assistance.
Listen to Jim Murphy discussing Two on the Aisle in an excerpt from his NFSA Oral History interview from 2011.
All footage of Two on the Aisle © and courtesy Seven Network.
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Main image: Two on the Aisle hosts Ivan Hutchinson and Jim Murphy with producer Geoff Owen-Taylor. NFSA title: 1708546.