Curator Simon Smith investigates the surviving footage of Australian television's opening night.
'Good evening … and welcome to television'. With these words, 27-year-old Bruce Gyngell ushered in the first evening of regular television broadcasting in Australia at 7.00pm on Sunday 16 September 1956:
The footage seen above, and endlessly repeated over the years, of the formally-dressed host in front of the TCN9 Sydney news desk probably does not originate from 16 September 1956.
Instead, the source for all subsequent repeats of Bruce Gyngell’s introduction comes from a 1966 special, Ten Years of Television or We’re Getting Sentimental Over Us.
For the week commencing 12 September 1966, the Nine Network chose to commemorate its 10th anniversary with a range of specials. Among these was the first attempt to compile a history of its most important programming moments.
Ten Years of Television or We’re Getting Sentimental Over Us incorporated footage supplied by the libraries of both TCN9 Sydney and GTV9 Melbourne.
Premiering in Melbourne on 13 September, the 90-minute special was telecast to Sydney audiences in prime-time three days later, on the exact night of the 10th anniversary.
Presented by Bandstand host Brian Henderson, it featured excerpts from some of the earliest, locally-produced programs.
Watch highlights from this program – including behind-the-scenes footage of Bandstand and bloopers from the earliest years of television – in our companion article, Highlights from the First 10 Years of TV.
While the usual source for the 'Welcome to television' footage is the Ten Years of Television special from 1966, it's likely that Bruce Gyngell re-created his famous moment as early as 1957, for TCN9’s first anniversary program.
Never one to miss an opportunity to self-promote as first on the air, the station telecast a 90-minute TCN Birthday Party special on Sunday 15 September 1957, hosted by Bobby Limb.
Listed in the Sydney Morning Herald as a pre-recorded program, the station may have decided to ensure the historic 'Welcome to television' moment was re-created for posterity.
Why this needed to be done raises further questions. While the first night of television in 1956 was affected by technical issues, the first broadcast was believed to have been recorded by TCN engineers.
From the first night of television, TCN9 archives retain a mute, 28-minute reel of 16mm film that includes excerpts from various shows telecast on 16 September 1956.
According to the night’s running sheets, these surviving minutes occurred approximately two hours into the four-hour opening night transmission, around 9.00pm. There is however no sign of Gyngell’s introduction, which took place at 7.00pm, on this reel.
If you compare Gyngell's appearance in the silent reel from September 1956 (below left) with the more familiar repeated footage (below right), they would appear to be shot on different occasions. He arguably looks younger on the left and his pocket flower has a different shape in the later image:
You can watch an excerpt below from the silent footage of TCN opening night and compare for yourself. Here, Bruce Gyngell prepares to introduce TCN9’s Mike Ramsden and Air Vice Marshal Allan Walters as part of The Air Force Show:
Adding to the intrigue is the question of sound. A careful comparison when isolating audio and image components from the 1966 special indicates several clearly visible syncing anomalies between Gyngell’s mouth and the audible dialogue.
This suggests the original opening night working script – a copy of which survives in the NFSA collection – may have been handed to Gyngell in 1966 to re-record the missing or damaged audio track from the 1957 re-enactment.
Stefan Sargent, producer-director of Ten Years of Television, was a member of Nine’s esteemed Project documentary unit and friends with Gyngell who, by 1966, was now TCN9’s Chief Executive.
A quickly arranged vocal re-record with Gyngell would have been entirely feasible, meaning that the vision and sound of this famous footage may well have been produced nine years apart – in 1957 and 1966, respectively. As Gyngell and Sargent are sadly no longer with us, this mystery may never truly be resolved.
Bruce Gyngell's famous television welcome will always be synonymous with the first night of regular television broadcasting in Australia. But the mystery surrounding the surviving film reminds us of the enduring magic of television – and that not everything we see on our screens is always as it seems!
Read more and watch highlights from the early years of Australian television in Highlights from the First Ten Years of TV and in the articles below.
With thanks to Peter Cox, Peter Kinna and Georgia Wright. Special thanks to Brendan Horgan.