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The Golden Age Of The Argonauts
Friday September 13, 1996
For three decades during
the glory days of Australian radio, one memorable ABC program inspired and
nurtured some of our best creative spirits.
Ida E. Lea knows why we need the ABC. Lea follows the national broadcaster's trials and tribulations from her apartment in Cremorne, on the northern side of Sydney Harbour. "Last night on television [ABC chairman] Donald McDonald was being interviewed, and he was speaking warmly about the ABC," she says, "and he said, 'After all, it has influenced' - and I think that was his word - 'four generations of Australians.' I thought to myself, 'Yes, I belong to the first generation.' "
Lea, now in her seventies, started working for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (now Corporation) in 1938, six years after it began. A young actress who took care of the children's session in Victoria, she used her middle name, Elizabeth, reasoning that it sounded more like a compere's name than "Ida".
The ABC has a tradition of producing quality children's programs. Last August, the hottest ticket in Sydney was one to Play School's 30th birthday party. But this is not the ABC's greatest success story.
Although no-one under the age of 35 would remember it, The Argonauts ran on ABC radio for more than 30 years, and had a national audience in the hundreds of thousands. Ida Elizabeth Lea was
the program's founding compere, Argo 1.
It was the first place many heard some of the most enduring children's stories, including Ruth Park's The Muddle-headed Wombat. Fifty-five years later, many former Argonauts Club members still remember their ship names and numbers. And many credit the program with having first stimulated their interest in the arts and sciences.
More than just another radio program, The Argonauts was part of the fabric of life. Columnist and broadcaster Mike Carlton joined because, he says, "I thought everybody joined. It was one of those things you just did. It never occurred to me not to join. It was like puberty - it just happened."
The show had a lasting influence on its listeners. "When I was a fully fledged club member and I had sent off to far-flung Sydney endless packages containing my entire creative output of verse and painting, I received an art prize signed by all three of my idols, Elizabeth, Mac and Joe," says humorist Barry Humphries (Ithome 32). "It was the Sydney Ure Smith edition of Present Day Art in Australia, and it was my first introduction to the work of contemporary Australian artists."
Scriptwriter Tony Morphett (Antiphon 39), whose credits include Robbery Under Arms, Water Rats and Blue Heelers, remembers a game he used to play in coffee breaks when he was a member of the Literature Board of the Australia Council in the late '70s. It was called "Hands up all Argonauts". "From memory," he says, "our chairman, the late Robert Brissenden was one, Thea Astley was one, and I think Fay Zwicky was one." Morphett says the show was crucial to his writing career: "I may have become a writer anyway, I suppose, but I believe The Argonauts turned a key in my mind by saying, 'This is a valid thing to be doing - it's okay to be a writer.' "
AT the beginning of World War II, the ABC was racked with internal controversy. Men were no longer required to wear evening suits for broadcasts after 7 pm. Despite funding cutbacks, Frank Clewlow, then controller of drama, managed to convince the ABC Board to create one national children's session with a large enough budget to pay actors for serials - previously, children's shows had been State-based. Lea was offered the job of "Officer in Charge" of the children's sessions, overseeing a budget of "about #30 per week", but she nearly knocked it back.
"In those days, well-brought-up girls went for a trip overseas with their mothers," she says. "Charles Moses [then general manager] said, 'If you do this job for a year, when you go to England we'll give you entree to the BBC.' Well, you can imagine, I couldn't resist that."
The comperes were Lea (Elizabeth), actor Atholl Fleming (Mac) and artist Albert Collins (Joe). They formed the core of the Argonauts Club, which first went to air in January 1941.
The program was based loosely on Nina Murdoch's Argonauts Club which aired in Victoria in the early '30s. That got its name from the greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts, a band of variously talented sailors who set out to obtain a Golden Fleece, encountering various adventures along the way. In the radio show, listeners aged seven to 14 could become members of a "band of happy rowers", who searched for the "Golden Fleece" of knowledge by contributing stories and poems that were read out on air. From that original program the Argonauts Pledge was redesigned and updated - it was sent out to every child who wrote in to the show asking to be a member. Each one was also allotted a ship name and number. Ship names were drawn from Lempriere's Dictionary - the names were from all Greek myths, not just from the story of the Golden Fleece.
The children's session aired each day at 5 pm (EST), and sometimes opened with an explanatory play of Jason and the Argonauts, written by Elizabeth and featuring Mac as Jason. Along with readings of members' contributions, it also featured radio serials, talks about music, art, literature and natural science, and scripted discussion pieces called the "Brains Trust".
The theme song for the program was written by Elizabeth and set to music by Cecil Fraser. Previously she had written the opening theme to the children's session, still remembered by many listeners. Maureen Arns (Trozan 12) of Sydney's Manly can still repeat it word-for-word, as can Barry Humphries, who suggests, "a reissue of them on compact disc might be sure of a modest sale amongst nostalgically inclined Australian sexagenarians".
Members of the club could send in drawings, stories, or poems, some of which would be read out or discussed on air, and all of them would receive marks for their efforts. Those who reached 150 marks would earn a Dragon's Tooth Certificate. A further 250 marks and you received the Golden Fleece.
According to Faith Reid (Hylas 35), who became a member of the program's studio team (Argo 19), an award higher than the Golden Fleece, called the Golden Fleece & Bar, had to be created for Winsome Evans (Golden Fleece & Bar Taras 3).
"I don't know if that's true," replies Evans modestly. She and her sister Betty (Golden Fleece & Bar Taras 6) contributed reams of material to the club. "We were a very poor family and there was no money to spend on activities," Evans says. "So my mother encouraged us to write stories and paint for the program. It didn't cost us any money and it was interesting to listen to."
Evans now teaches music at the University of Sydney and runs the Renaissance Players, thanks to the Argonauts. Linley Evans (no relation), the program's "Melody Man", discovered her, obtained free tuition for her at the Conservatorium, and encouraged her to perform on the children's sessions.
From the beginning, each show was introduced by Elizabeth, Mac and Joe, and they were stars to the young listeners. Barry Humphries remembers the day he heard Elizabeth would be visiting Melbourne, and would appear at George's department store. "It was there I met her, heart-stoppingly angelic as I had expected," he says. "This nice radio actress was my first love, though it was an undeclared love."
Musician and broadcaster Dennis Condon (Bucephalus 8), remembers Atholl Fleming as Mac - and the voice of "Jason" - being the central character around whom the show revolved. "Atholl Fleming was very clever," he says. "He was very neutral and the others had a lot of personality."
Joan Hall (Syracuse 9), who used to listen to the program with her sister Elizabeth and brother Charles Mackerras, was also very impressed with Fleming. "I can remember when I was doing my Leaving Certificate in 1951, we were taken to see a performance of King Lear," she says. "He took the role of Gloucester. I remember thinking, isn't this extraordinary, that Mac from the radio could be this accomplished as an actor."
One of the program's real strengths was its regular guests. "Anthony Inkwell", who used to criticise and read out stories and poems by club members, was to become well-known as the poet A.D. Hope. The role of the program's art critic, "Phidias", was handled by "Joe" Collins until his death in 1951, then taken over by Jeffrey Smart. Smart notes in his autobiography, to be published next month, that he was constantly afraid a scandal would ensue if it was revealed that Phidias was gay, and he might lose his job. However, he managed to do his job well enough to influence the artistic tastes of many. Joanna Mendelssohn (Roxana 38), an art critic for The Australian and formerly The Bulletin, and a lecturer at the College of Fine Arts (UNSW), had an "exchange" with Smart in the pages of Art Monthly over a biography of him which she reviewed unfavourably. "He made some assumptions about my background and education," she recalls, "and I pointed out that the person who taught me most about art was Phidias, which he found very amusing."
"All of their comments, wonderful hints and tricks of the trade were broadcast for all of Australia's budding artists in every field," says Diana Hosking (Triton 24) of the program's studio team. Hosking later joined the on-air team as "Robyn" (Argo 32), and also was one of the actresses who played "Mouse" in The Muddle-headed Wombat. Ruth Park's serial began as The Muddle-headed Bunyip with Elizabeth playing Mouse - after her, Faith Reid took the role, and later, Diana Heath.
Heath (Andros 22), who joined the studio team in the '50s as Argo 28, says "All of us just wanted to give our best for the children for whom we were broadcasting. It was as if we all regained our childhood innocence and even the toughest old actors became part of that innocence again. It was a wonderful feeling."
Occasionally children who listened to the program would visit the studios in Market Street, Sydney. Heath remembers they tried to discourage younger children from coming in so their illusion of the serials wouldn't be shattered. However, she didn't believe too many illusions were ruined. "It was hard not to believe that Jimmy [John Ewart] was the Muddle-headed wombat, or that Gina [Curtis] or Barbie [Frawley] were Mouse," she says. "Taking up a position at the microphone involved a total suspension of disbelief."
Hilary Colefax (Helena 48) saw the magic of the program first-hand as her father Alan was on air regularly as "Tom the Naturalist". She says the team at the children's session was like her extended family. Not all visitors to the studio were impressed, however. Gael Hammer (Hesione 7) remembers making the trip into Market Street in school holidays. "It was so exciting I had butterflies," she says. "Mac and Joe stopped to talk, but Elizabeth was so frosty and aloof, unlike her radio persona, that I could hardly believe it was the same person. I learned much later that it was the country children for whom she really cared."
William Fraser (Acheaus 5), editor of The Australian Financial Review Magazine, has fond memories of The Muddle-headed Wombat. While working in book publishing (before joining Fairfax) he was given the task of editing one of Ruth Park's books. "When I first met Ruth, it was like meeting a hero," he says.
In its first year on air, The Argonauts attracted 12,000 members. It seemed to strike a chord with the listening audience in a way the other programs didn't. The ABC was not the only broadcaster offering a children's session in the '30s, '40s and '50s - most of the commercial stations had time set aside for that audience as well. However, parents such as Elspeth Dransfield strongly encouraged their children, Fran (Anauros 21) and Michael (Eumolpus 24), to listen because "I didn't think there was anything else interesting on radio".
"I encouraged them to join because it introduced them to all sorts of areas. It encouraged art and music, and as far as Michael was concerned, it played a very important part in his development as a poet, because it gave him goals." Michael Dransfield died at the age of 24 in 1973. Five of his six subsequent collections of poetry have been published by University of Queensland Press.
It wasn't only because the program was interactive that it appealed: William Fraser remembers, "It was a real window on the world. It's different now, but in the '50s and '60s there was nothing else like that about." Dennis Condon echoes these sentiments. "It framed my awareness of the outside world," he says. "It was terribly important - the only other activity we had was the Smiler's Club, the community singing club in the local picture theatre."
Fraser, who grew up in rural Queensland, says that in country areas the show was the only stimulus most children had.
The studio team were acutely aware of country listeners and often consciously catered to them as their target audience. "When the contributions came in, and we used to read a certain number on the air, naturally, we couldn't help but lean towards the ones that said 'I live in a lighthouse in the south-west of Tasmania', or something," says Lea.
Diana Heath says of outback children: "We were often the only contact these children had with people outside their immediate family group, and as such we became trusted confidantes and friends." She also remembers corresponding with
a planter in New Guinea, who had
written to the program to inform them that everyone in his village listened to the Argonauts together, every day - he felt
it was the one thing they could all share.
ABC-TV weather presenter Allan Humphries (Ampelus 38) - who credits The Argonauts with his 20-year career in ABC radio - grew up in the country and says the show defeated the tyranny of distance: "It overcame loneliness and linked me to other children from all over Australia."
It wasn't just country children listening. The program appealed to children all over the eastern seaboard - listeners who responded to Good Weekend's call for former Argonauts (see box, page 16) invariably felt the program was their own: Wendy Simpson (Erymanthus 30), general manager of TNT Express Worldwide NSW/ACT, says, "I loved having a radio show which was 'mine'. I would listen to the radio in the kitchen when the rest of the family were in the lounge room. It was my time to be alone."
It also offered an escape, says June Pople (Metis 21). "Out of the atmosphere of two world wars, a terrible depression and meagre returns to hard workers, the ABC offered yearning to the hearts, minds and souls of impressionable, idealistic youth."
Filmmaker Margot Oliver (Herodotus 31) suspects the show's appeal lay in class barriers. "My parents were ABC-ophiles," she says. "They encouraged me and my sister to listen regularly. The commercial stations were seen as inferior. And we grew up in a working-class neighbourhood, so I think they believed listening to the ABC set us apart from everyone else there."
Joanna Mendelssohn disagrees. "On reflection, The Argonauts and the ABC did more to break down barriers of class than any self-conscious affirmative action programs from later years," she says. "I came from a working-class background. No-one in my immediate family had been to university, and my parents left school without their Intermediate Certificates. But the world of The Argonauts encouraged me to read Greek mythology and later, history. The whole experience took me out of the fibro suburbs and later down the road to university and my own writing."
The most important issue, according to Diana Heath, was quality. "That really was paramount," she says. "There was enormous talent pouring forth. We had the very best writers, and there was a dearth of work for writers and actors at the time."
"All the people were the top people in their professions," says Faith Reid. "There was a tremendous sense of belonging. I think there's a yearning for heroics and stories of idealism, and that appealed to us. We were making a better world."
Ida Lea agrees. "Do you know what I think the magic was?" she says. "It sounds a bit pompous, but it was quality. The writing was good, the adventure serials were good ... It was honestly quality in the end."
Gradually the Argonauts club became less popular, although the reasons why aren't entirely clear. Margaret Throsby (Androcles 26) suspects its fall from grace had something to do with the rise of teenagers as a target market. "James Dean and the birth of rock'n'roll made teenagers interesting as a group," she says. "In its own way, Australia responded to that by putting on radio programs like Teen Time on 2GB. I was a rebellious Argonaut - I got a membership, then snuck off and listened to Teen Time when my mother thought I was listening to The Argonauts."
Faith Reid remembers the program was taken off the air in 1972 after a survey was done "and it was found that most of the listeners were over the age of 40. They were listening in their cars on the way home from work." Others have said the program was killed by television. Ida Lea points out that "the BBC's theory is that what you see is eight times more compelling than what you hear."
In 1984, Barbara Niven (Dracon 15) tried to organise an Argonauts' reunion in Victoria, working under the auspices of the Council for Adult Education. It never eventuated, she says, because "the event had to break even, and we were two
Niven, who tuned into the show until it finished, tried to organise the reunion after she realised how many former Argonauts were around, and how they felt about the program. "I ran into A.D. Hope at a seminar once," she recalls, "and told him I was an Argonaut, and he said, 'Oh no! Not another one.' "
Remarkably, the club members have not forgotten the show, and those who know the people behind it will often surprise them with their memories.
"A month ago," says Lea, "I was up at Cremorne Junction walking around and ran into Mike Walsh. And I was having a little talk with him, and as he moved off, he said, 'By the way, I was Pontos 7'. I said, 'Good rowing.' "They're still out thereAt the end of July, Good Weekend ran a notice in Your Turn. It read - "Calling All Argonauts - If you were a member of the Argonauts Club we want to hear from you ..." The magazine received more than 480 replies.
"I was plagued by ill health and due to this I did not attend high school," wrote Elizabeth Parker (Calpi 41), who grew up on a farm outside of Wagga. "I would sit in front of the large battery wireless on a cushion that had worn to the shape for resting my ear against the lower part of the wireless ... I lived a very isolated childhood and the Argonauts Club meant everything to me."
Similarly, Helen Marsonet (Carpathious 27) was "in the house like a shot" from the farm when the program came on.
Peta Murray (Archimedes 21) listened in Port Moresby, and wrote: "It was so important, especially being so far away, to feel that there was somebody, something 'out there', receiving my
letters, my drawings, my stories, my appalling poetry."
Whole generations of some families were Argonauts. Jane Southcott (Golden Fleece and Bar Delos 1), wrote that her mother, Heather Southcott, was an Argonaut during World War II (Urania 17), and her younger sister, Anne Marie, was Dragon's Tooth Tarichea 7. Others described how the children's session set their listening habits for the rest of their lives.
Mark Ewin (Valentia 46) remembered his disappointment when he had a contribution read out on the air, and he missed it. (Thirty-five years later - this year - he had a letter read out on Richard Glover's program on 2BL: "No certificate this time," he noted.)
Gael Shannon (Euclides 12) said she formed a lifetime habit of listening to the ABC because of the quality programs such as The Argonauts, adding "If I'm forced by budgetry cuts to depend on ghastly stuff [on other stations], life won't be worthwhile."
Some of the most moving letters came from people who were members during the war years. Margaret Schaffer (Boreas 49) lived in North Queensland, above the Brisbane Line. Her family had plans for suicide in case the Japanese invaded, the army was camped outside town, rationing was in full force and the laundry was filled with Molotov cocktails. The only news was war news, she wrote, and "In the midst of all this madness, the sound of the title tune of the children's session was a welcome and comforting reminder of a normal childhood."
Many correspondents were touched by the loss of an Argonaut - when Joe Collins died in 1951, wrote Jenya Osborne (Arctos 32), "He was the first person to die that affected me. I can remember being inconsolable. I don't think I was aware of death before that."
Along with the emotive letters came questions as to why we were hunting down old Argonauts - several people thought Good Weekend was trying to
re-form the club.
Rod Yates (Minoa 24) suggested that the magazine send some merit certificates for those who replied.
One correspondent wanted to join the club - that's not possible, Vickki. Others asked for their badges to be replaced. Finally, Jacqueline Digby (Mercury 18) sent a two-line fax saying: "I was one of the earliest Argonauts but would like to know why you want to know before I answer your question."
Well, Jacqueline, now you know. The
Front RowersAlthough not all of them remember their ship names and numbers, a lot of familiar names are in the rollcall of former Argonauts. Here are just a few:
Marian Arnold (Achilles 31): broadcaster, ABC Classic FM
John Bannon (Golden Fleece Charops 37): former Premier South Australia, member of ABC Board
conductor with the Australian Opera
Mike Carlton (can't recall): broadcaster, 2BL
Dennis Condon (Bucephalus 8): musician and broadcaster
Nick Enright (Alastor 35): playwright
Winsome Evans (Golden Fleece & Bar Taras 3): director, Renaissance Players
William Fraser (Acheaus 5): editor, The Australian Financial Review Magazine
Di Gribble (can't recall): deputy chair of ABC
Barry Humphries (Ithome 32): actor, writer, manager of Dame Edna and Sir Les Patterson
Donald McDonald (can't recall, but Golden Fleece
& Bar): chairman, ABC
Sir Charles Mackerras (can't recall): conductor
Hilary McPhee (Leander 39) chairperson, The Australia Council
Clive Robertson (can't recall): broadcaster, 2GB
Anne Summers (Dragon's Tooth Pytheus 41): editor, Good Weekend
Dame Joan Sutherland
(can't recall): diva
Margaret Throsby (Androcles 26): broadcaster, ABC Classic FM
Mike Walsh (Pontos 7): former TV personality, owner Hayden group