Norman Spencer G.T.V 9 / H.S.V 7, and Alf Potter H.S.V 7.
Two of Victoria, Australia's, early television directors of note.
These two men had great impact on early television in Melbourne and
indeed Victoria. In a time when no-one had the slightest idea of what
Television was, what it demanded, what it could become, Norman Spencer and Alf Potter were both imposing figures. Spenser, a ground-breaker at G.T.V.9 and Potter, remembered for his early out-side broadcast coverages of the V.F.L. Football.
Both men were interesting.
Norman Spencer had worked in Radio, involved with the production of 'The Happy Gang,' an extremely popular wireless show, and so was already established as a proven Producer of programmes. He, like so many more, adapted to the new, visual concept and actually embraced it and made it work.
Norm was, in fact, the first television person I ever spoke to.
I was aware of Graham Kennedy's presence on radio, even as Clifford
Nicholls Whitta, the beloved radio star 'Nicky', was developing that
I was, as was my Mum, a 'Radio Listener,' some time before I went to
school aged six. I used to hear all the morning women's serials: 'Portia
Faces Life,' 'A Tree Grows In Brooklyn,' 'Blue Hills' by Gwen Meredith,
as well as Nicky and Nancy Lee, and later Graham, and waited eagerly for the afternoon programmes with Billy Bouncer (Norman Swain) and Binnie Lum. And then on to the fifteen minute serials such as 'Hop Harrigan' (With Tank Tinker) Tarzan, The Sea Hound, Superman ('Up with this, errgh, window.' I always wondered why Superman grunted when lifting up a window, but it was radio.) and of course 'The Argonauts'.
Me and my Mum were amongst the crowd that gathered around the church in Ivanhoe at 'Nicky's' funeral in 1956.
I was twelve.
That would be as close to Graham Kennedy, the man, as I would ever get.
But, as Kennedy progressed to television, I was impressed by the man he often consulted on I.M.T. Norman Spencer, the god-like voice from on high.
I began to write to him. Hand written letters asking for the chance to
'get into television.' I was 16 when he answered. The gist of the letter
was that I was very persistent and impertinent, however, if I rang
G.T.V.9 and made an appointment, he would take the time to see me.
Mum and I went in to Richmond on the train, found our way to 9, watched a bit of Thursday at One or something with Phillip Brady, and then I braved an audience with Mister Spencer, alone, in his office.
It was an absolute disaster. In written words I could speak. In person,
I was struck dumb.
Spencer took pity on me. 'Go back to school and finish there.' He
drawled. 'Then apply again. You're a young man with expectations, but
you have to continue your education. All the best…'
I left, shell-shocked, with Mum. To para-phrase the Beatles, I wanted to hold her hand.
I plodded on at school, became a Prefect, confiscated kid's fags, mags
and continued my hope that someway, somehow I should break into t.v. just as young, seemingly cocky, Graham Kennedy had done.
I ignored the fact that I had begun to write and illustrate stories and
was beginning to think about painting as a pastime. I also ignored the
fact that the guys in my class used to ask our Form Master to let me
read my latest during Form Meetings once a week. Well, I was a bit
unsure to begin with, but there were 16,18 in the class, and they were
happy enough to hear my stories, so I sat up on a stool, and haltingly
began to read the rough stuff I'd written. It was all 'Boy's Own,'
'Biggles'. My class mates actually listened. Actually listened!
Pity I didn't get that.
The lure of television was all I could understand. Vocational Guidance
tests suggested that I should seek employment in the Print Industry. The Print What?
When I answered an ad in the paper to fill in for two weeks as Channel
7 messenger boy, I applied and got it. That's when I first saw Alf
Potter. I was in the studio 1 bay just inside the big doors that led out
to the scenery racks. The show was 'Lady For A Day,' with Larry K.
Nixon, the big brash American comedian. The band was led by Kenny Wheate and the director was Alf. Larry was warming up the studio audience pre. the show, introducing the band members and others, finally finishing with 'And here's our Director, the man who directs better than anyone else, Mister Alf Potter!' Larry led the applause, staring up at the control room window as the door beside it opened and Alf stepped out onto the gantry above. The stairs that led up to that platform, unbeknown to me right at that moment, were to be the same stairs where, some seven years later I would ask Alf for a reference which would never be granted. This time, I glimpsed him between the raised heads of other 7 personnel: he was Olympian, a silver-haired God. He beamed down at everyone, nodded at the clapping of all the gathered housewives, and withdrew back into the mystery of the all-seeing glass eye that watched benevolently over all.
And there lies one major difference between Potter and Spencer.
The first bathed happily in the limelight; always, to my experience, did.
Alf, though he would never admit it, had an exceptionally large ego. And was forever endeavouring to prove himself without ever overtly
demonstrating the fact.
Norm Spencer was an animal of a completely different colour. Possibly
because he was shy of self promotion, perhaps because he understood that power could be commanded by exclusion rather than intrusion, he preferred to remain a 'Formless Voice.' It maybe that his concept was more 'Godlike' than Alf's.
My two weeks as messenger boy ended on a Friday at the Teletheatre.
I can't recall much. It was all so incredible. I was up the back near
the entrance to the seating and the Control Room door was just to my
left. Rehearsals. Buster Fiddess doing some walk-through routine. Can't recall the crew at all, but I knew that Norm Spencer was in the Control room.
T.V.Week, or perhaps Listener-In/T.V. had told us that Norm had left 9
and come to 7 as Assistant Manager/Production. Why did Spencer
sever his connection with 9 and Graham Kennedy? Apparently Norm resigned about the time that 9 was taken over by Sir Frank Packer, who had a reputation for being an extremely tough, unrelenting business man, who, if he took a dislike to someone, would make life very difficult for them. Spencer and he did not like each other. And also 7 had offered Norm a very good deal to join. There was a sentimental reason as well, in that Norm's radio days had been with 3.D.B. then owned by 7. Maybe that connection was enough to sway him.
I left before the audience came in and walked up to Lygon street and got the bus home. At seventeen I was expected to be home from my temp job by seven thirty.
But, I had been advised to re-apply at the end of the school year.
In early December 1961 Adrian Miller, H.S.V.s Chief Accountant, 7
Accounts located in the basement at Newspaper House, Collins Street,
Melbourne, hired me as 7 messenger boy, temporary/permanent. My weekly wage was 5 Pound, less 4 Shillings tax.
That about covered my board, bus expenses and lunch.
Seven, in those times, was labyrinthine, (Good word, I'll have to
remember that. Stick it into our next dinner party.) Keith Cairns'
office, and all the sales offices faced into Wells Street. The other
exec. offices faced into Dorcas Street. These were on the first floor,
along with the record library, various other show's offices, and the two
control rooms for 1 and 2. The News Department rooms, Photography and Telecine were further in. On the ground floor were Master control, the scenery bay, the product and props cages, canteen, studio 1 and 2, Foyer and Reception from Welles Street.
I began at 7. and was thunderstruck that first Christmas with a 5 Pound
bonus. Older employees got 10 quid. I'd been there less than a month.
Good old Herald and Weekly Times. How good was that?
Director and Ned Kelly aficionado Ian Jones and Publicity head man Dick Voumard put together a Christmas newspaper titled 'The Hair-Oiled,' filled with all kind of hilarious mischief and mayhem, and Frank Wilson bade farewell to 7 on his way to 9, following Bert Newton, who had defected some time before I started
I bumped into Norm…that is, Mister Spencer…during my first rounds as
messenger boy. He smiled, I shied away and whenever my duties took me to his office I never spoke about that first meeting.
He was a big, gruff man. But endearing in ways that I would later learn.
He was also a very astute fellow who could see further than most of his contemporaries.
Potter earned the plaudits as a great director of external and internal
programmes, but Spencer bettered him with his innate ability to find and encourage talent, and then to bring that talent to the public.
Yet both remain as early pioneers.
There's a story about two young guys on staging,(Let's call them Gary
and Graeme) kicking about the ground floor scenery bay and night-time
empty corridors on the floor above where all the Execs and
advertising/promo/sales people had vacated. This pair of hoodlums began a game of hide and seek, tearing around the halls and diving in and out of places like the mail room and anywhere that offered a hiding place.
The story goes that one of them, hiding behind a door, heard footsteps
coming down the hallway and assumed (Never, of course, assume. It makes an ass out of u and me) that it was the other protagonist. As the person passed, the assailant leaped out and tackled him, 'Gotcha!' only to realise that it was Norm. Spencer was too hefty to bring down, and was released immediately.
Here's how I re-construct the conversation: 'Oh sorry Norm, I
'Yeah, yeah! Ya Crumb-Bum! Who're the others?'
'Ummm right, I wouldn't dob in my mates either. If you're all still
working, get back downstairs and get on with it! If you're not, piss off
out of the station and take your mates with you!'
That story, true or false, went the rounds and very much raised the
respect for Norman Spencer, above and beyond his reputation from 9.
It's worthy of note that neither Norm or Alf swore overly much. Being
both of the School of Hard Knocks, there is no doubting that they knew
all the words, but I only ever heard Norm use 'Bloody' or his term
Alf's favourite was 'Christ!' As in 'Christ man, what are you doing to
me!' Rarely he used 'Bloody.'
And perhaps when they did use those expressions, people actually took notice.
Alf Potter, (I believe he told me that he was the son of a Storeman and
Packer.) was solid, stolid, dedicated, unswerving. He believed in
Himself. His goal, I think, was ego-driven. He was a teatotaler (Though
it was rumoured that his wife had had a serious drinking problem.) and
he was Bullish, though not a bully.
He liked to take the High Ground with anyone who challenged his
Sometimes Alf did it by seating people in his office, then remaining
standing. Or, and I know this by being on the receiving end when asking for a reference after resigning, which was never forthcoming, though he didn't say no. It was simply implied. I had betrayed him: And he was several steps above me on the same stairs leading down from the control room over studio One that he had stepped out onto years before, when Larry K.Nixon had proclaimed him, 'The man who directs better than anyone else!'
Nixon, of course, was a showman. Everything he did had a purpose: that was publicity. Larry knew how to promote everything around himself, and himself. Alf included.
I think Alf secretly loved the adulation, though strove hard to appear
above it all. He certainly enjoyed the praise heaped upon his working
style for Outside Broadcasts from people like Mike Williamson and Ron
And he knew his business. Alf was pretty much there from the beginning,
I think. He was also a bit of a conundrum. He could direct in house
programs with exacting demands, although I think he worked better as an Outside Sporting Director. The answer to that, I will never know. I was not to become a part of his outside team.
And I wasn't present one day in the 7 canteen at a table of six or seven
crew, with Alf, having a morning tea break. I can't recall them all, but
I know Bob Meillon was there, because he relayed it all afterward to me.
John Haddy possibly, Graham Arthur, Gary Jones, Graeme Rowland, perhaps Joe Wharton or Lyle Hughes.
As I heard it, the conversation began with someone saying how much they enjoyed seeing a movie in the city the night before. What ever it was, the American director was mentioned and praised. Some at the table turned to Alf for his considered opinion. Potter, enjoying the spotlight at a table of 'his boys,' praised the said director, but found one or two faults with past films.
Someone else chimed in with another director and their movie career.
Alf was expansive on this subject. There was doubt that he had studied as much as he could on directors local and overseas, ancient and modern. He found flaws in that one and the next, and the next.
Hitchcock, of course was clever, but unashamedly ego-driven. Why else would you want to appear in cameo in your own films? DeMille suffered from delusions of grandeur, John Ford was an unforgiving tyrant, John Houston, a drunken loud mouth, George Cukor, well? George Cukor, rumoured to be 'One Of Them.' Howard Hughes, a megalomaniac.
Not totally unreasonable appraisals, though all carefully guided in the
By that time, 'The Boys,' Alf's 'boys' were getting the vibes: Having
disposed of all overseas competition, what about our local talent?
Brian Green in Sydney? Norman Spencer? Dick Jones? All manner of names were paraded for Alf's pontification. Each offered name was given due consideration, praise and disparagement.
After forty or fifty minutes, only one name had not been mentioned…
Meillon thought it a subject of great humour: Alf Potter had held court
on all the world's directors and found them wanting. But, magnanimous in his own considerations, was too modest to present himself.
Alf Potter knew, even way back then, something that today's directors
have either chosen to ignore or are completely ignorant of.
THIS IS THE RULE OF LINE CROSSING.
The principle is simple. The earliest people in films discovered it by
accident and scratched their heads at what it did to what they were
attempting to do.
When Alf Potter directed a V.F.L. football game he had three cameras at his disposal. The ground was oval, and he chose to place his three
cameras on one side of the oval. One was a wide shot of the general play and the other two covered closer parts of the action. Sometimes there were only two cameras: one wide the other close up. The point is that those cameras were positioned on only one side of the oval. There is a very sound reason for this: Imagine a railway line. On one side you place a camera. The train is on its way. Now you place a camera on the other side of the railway line.
The train is still coming.
Now imagine a television/movie screen. The train thunders past. You take a shot of it from both cameras. Cut them together and you get a picture of a train coming from right of frame to a picture of a train leaving right of frame. The train has turned around. Why? Because the LINE has been CROSSED.
This is a principle that works always. And Alf Potter knew the principle
and practised it.
Now, any director that thinks he knows his business, but still wants to
flout convention tries to get around it, with failure the result. That
is why viewers of A.F.L. Football, or any other sporting event,
constantly complain of being disoriented, seeing the players and ball
hurtling one way and then the other. (Horse Racing will get another
mention in later posts.) As for those directors who consider that they
know better, they don't.
The others have never read the old treatise works, such as Rudy Bretz's thoughts on 'Motivation' in his book 'Techniques of Television
If Alf Potter didn't read the above, then he imagined and invented and
innovated. Alf Potter was not all bluster, nor a fool. That he choose,
at times, to ignore what was blatantly staring him in the face rather
than confront it, was considered weak. He refused, for instance, to
acknowledge that The Dungeon was a place where alcohol was consumed, although he knew it. He never set foot down there. If he wanted a crew member he'd stand in the doorway at the top of the stairs and call out.
At times he had to shout above all the commotion going on below.
And he had a delight in discovering information that the layman would
not ordinarily know. One such moment came when Alf was directing 'Music For The People,' at The Myer Music Bowl.
The following Monday, Lyle Hughes was almost in stitches, relating the
tale to us.
'The orchestra was about to start the show and Alf asks me for a
"tootie" shot! A "tootie" shot! I'm thinking "peoples feet?" I haven't a
clue, so I flick on my mike and say, Sorry Alf, what's a "tootie" shot?
He heaves a big sigh as if I'm totally stupid, and says "It's a musical
term Lyle. It means all together, the entire orchestra. Christ! Just put
up a wide shot man!'
(Tutti is an Italian word literally meaning 'all' or 'together.' In this
instance, the entire orchestra.)
Alf, I think, in some ways quite resembled a masculine version of Mrs
Hyacinth Bucket (Her pronunciation was Bouquet) from the t.v. series
'Keeping Up Appearances.'
Incidentally, Lyle was much taken with words or phrases that tickled his funny-bone because of their 'Goon' factor. When, on Video Village, Chris Christensen sang the Maori song Waiata Poi (Tiny Ball on End of String.) Lyle was childishly impish: the phrase amused him. It was like something that Bluebottle would have said.
When we taped 'Coles Three Thousand Pound Question,' Hosted by Malcolm Searle, and later Roland Strong, Alf was in complete control…
But wait! That's a part of The Teletheatre tales.
Let's leave this memoir of two men who rose from the ranks to become, for a time, part of the dynamics of the fledgling industry of Melbourne Television. Both influenced the industry positively and both are worthy of respect and a place in the Hall of Fame of the early pioneers.
I said goodbye for the last time, on the occasion of a 'Do' for Harry
I can't remember where it was held, possibly the Danish Club, but I do
remember Hap's genuine astonishment that so many people had turned out to wish him all the best for his next step in life.
'Keep smiling. Keep smiling. Stay happy! All you need is to smile,
be good and don't forget to brush your teeth!'
Very late in his life, Happy Hammond was still 'finger-snipping,'
mercurial and brimming with positivity.
Both Norm and Alf were there.
I told Alf I was sorry to have sold him out, but believed it was better
that I went over to Channel O. He wouldn't comment on that. I said to
him that he looked much the same, hadn't changed much over the years.
His answer, 'Ken, I was old when I was young.'
Sagacity? Piety? Or simply Alf?
I apologized to Norm for not acknowledging him in the Forrest Hills
shopping centre when we passed each other in the street (Norm was doing some sort of radio presentation for the centre at the time.) because I had been working for some years by then at 0/10 and didn't think he would remember me. He had, he said. And he didn't have any hassles about that. The gravelly voice intoned, 'After all, we're all old Crumb-bums together.'