WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons.
This is the third article in a 5-part series on women’s contribution to early Australian television production. For creating the series, Jeannine Baker received the 2022 Oral History Australia Media Award.
While key creative roles in Australian television in the 1950s to the 1970s were dominated by men, some women also forged careers as producers and directors, mainly in light entertainment, children’s, educational and documentary programs. The NFSA collection helps tell the stories of some of these groundbreaking women.
At the ABC, radio producer and accomplished musician Margaret Delves was one of the first 6 producers selected for ABC television in 1956. She produced live entertainment and game shows, and the ABC’s first educational TV program, Kindergarten Playtime.
Other early ABC producers include Marion Ord (pictured right), a radio and television scriptwriter who also wrote and directed two films for Young People’s programs – The Island (1971) and Valley of the Sentinels (1971) – and Therese Denny, who returned from the BBC to the ABC in 1963 to produce a series of documentaries including pivotal film A Changing Race (1964).
English-born Joyce Belfrage arrived at ABC Melbourne in 1958 as its first female producer in TV Talks. She wrote, directed and produced a range of programs including panel show The Critics, interview programs such as Women at the Top and magazine program Spotlight:
Driven by socialist ideals of equality, Belfrage was proudest of the programs she made for the Inquiry Into series, on beatniks, alcoholism and migration, but she remained frustrated by what she saw as a lack of support for serious program ideas. In this oral history excerpt Joyce recalls the events that led to her quitting the ABC in 1963, hurling 'a horrible old typewriter' out the window on her way out:
While female-only jobs such as the script assistant role were essential to television production, they rarely led to higher-status key creative positions. But in the first decade of television a handful of women advanced from production support roles to producing and directing, including Bev Gledhill.
Beverley (Bev) Gledhill came to ATN7 Sydney from the ABC in 1956, initially as a production assistant on live variety and children’s programs, including the live variety show Sydney Tonight. Here she recalls being offered her first producer role at just 17 years of age:
From 1959 Bev produced and directed variety and children’s programs at TVW Perth, before moving to ABC Sydney as a pool producer, which meant 'that you did any bloody thing that came along'. She produced 3 innovative and wildly popular series – Why Is It So?, with American physics professor Julius Sumner Miller; children’s program Mr Squiggle; and The Inventors, which began in 1970 and lasted 12 years:
We used to open between 800 and 1,000 letters a week and handle new inventions, people wanting things. People just loved the show. I suppose there was something very Australian about it because, you know, they say give an Australian a piece of fencing wire and you can fix anything.
Here Bev Gledhill reflects on the appeal of The Inventors:
This episode of The Inventors features a children’s bicycle seat invented by Rod Page. Examining it are host Geoff Stone and regular judge Diana Fisher:
Women were also employed as producers and directors at independent production companies such as Crawford Productions (including Dorothy Crawford herself) and at Artransa Park Studios, Sydney.
Kay Roberts began working at Artransa in 1956, initially as a casting director and script assistant on commercials, but soon graduated to directing documentaries and drama. As Kay explains in this clip from her oral history interview, she didn’t realise until much later just how uncommon her career was:
In 1964 Kay Roberts directed The Never Never Land, a filmed version of the Elizabethan Theatre Trust’s Aboriginal Theatre, featuring 45 performers from the Tiwi Islands, Yirrkala and the Daly River. Kay replicated many aspects of the theatre version, commenting that she ‘was extremely careful with all the lighting and everything like that to get this wonderful fire-lit value that they had on the stage and translate that into film’, but added narration by dancer and choreographer Robert Helpmann.
In this excerpt from her oral history interview for the NFSA, Kay recalls working with the dancers:
This clip from The Never Never Land shows a fish hunting dance from Yirrkala, performed by Bäŋgil Munuŋgurr, Gambali Ŋurruwutthun, Mäw Munuŋgurr, Yaŋgarriny Wunucmurra, Rrikin Burarrwaŋa, Daymbalipu Munuŋgurr, Djuṉmal Munuŋgurr, Ḏaḏayŋa Marika, Warrinyi Munuŋgurr, Djarrkudjarrku Yunupiŋu, Wadaymu Ganambarr, Muluŋ Yunupiŋu, Ḏuṉḏiwuy Waṉambi, Dhuŋgala Marika, Rriŋga Yunupiŋu, Djayila Munuŋgurr, and Bokarra Maymuru. Overhead shots using a crane camera convey the beautiful symmetry of the dance:
Kay Roberts also directed several episodes of an early children’s science-fiction series, The Interpretaris (1966), and was second unit director on Whiplash (1960) and Riptide (1969). In the 1970s she wrote and directed several documentaries in the Ask an Australian series, commissioned by the Department of Immigration to explain Australian culture to recent migrants, and wrote, produced and directed the groundbreaking documentary A Little of Don Quixote (1973). One of the first making-of documentaries, it takes viewers behind the scenes of the filmed version of Don Quixote and features Helpmann, Rudolf Nureyev and Lucette Aldous.
Ailsa McPherson started working as a script assistant on drama programs in the early days of ATN7 Sydney and rose to become a versatile studio director across news, drama, light entertainment, comedy and panel discussions. Ailsa’s scrapbooks (now at the NFSA) trace her career, beginning with early drama programs such as A Tongue of Silver (1959) through to Romper Room, Television Tutorial and the Asian Amateur Singing Contest (1979):
Here Ailsa McPherson tells Brendan Horgan about her first break as a studio director, and the varied career that followed:
Babette Smith had worked at the Elizabethan Theatre Trust and for theatrical producer Harry M Miller on rock musical Hair, before starting at TCN9 Sydney in 1970 as an assistant producer on the live music program The Sound of Music with Barry Crocker.
Here Babette reflects on typical gendered roles in television in the 1970s, and the barriers to women advancing to decision-making roles:
When The Sound of Music folded, Babette began producing a swag of live television programs, including telethons and outside broadcasts. She talks about some of the challenges:
As Babette recalls, there was an 'assumption that women were lesser, less worldly, and more suited to subordinate roles', and she faced some resistance from other staff:
Babette Smith was also responsible for one of the first women’s current affairs television programs, Town Talk, discussed in part 4 of this series.
This is the third part of a 5-part series, The Women Who Made Australian Television, written and curated by Dr Jeannine Baker, media historian and Honorary Fellow in the Faculty of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Wollongong.
This series was made possible with the generous support of the Media Studies Commission of FIAT/IFTA, the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, Seven Network, Nine Network, Network 10 and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation – Library Sales.
Read The Women Who Made Australian Television Part 1 – The Beginnings of Television, Part 2 – Behind the Scenes: Women Technicians, Part 4 – Women's and Children's Programs and Part 5 – Rosemary Eather.
Main image: Producer Margaret Delves on the set of the ABC’s live game show Find the Link with compere Bruce Beeby, 1957–58. Courtesy Australian Broadcasting Corporation - Library Sales
Image with quote: Bev Gledhill at the ABC, circa 1965. NFSA title 533340
Harris, Amanda. Representing Australian Aboriginal Music and Dance, 1930–1970 (Bloomsbury, 2020)
Andrews, Kylie. Trailblazing Women of Australian Public Broadcasting, 1945–1975 (Anthem Press, 2022)