Sunday, April 3, 2011
Broadcasting for the ABC
I can’t say for sure just when it was exactly, but it was probably 1972. I shared an office with two other tutors in Asian history, Helen and Iem, at the University of Queensland.
The phone rang, and there was a booming voice at the other end. I pulled the phone away from my ear quickly.
‘My name is Aleisha Bonfield, from ABC Education Broadcasting. I understand you teach Chinese history.’
‘Yes,’ I said, not knowing whether making this admission was wise or not.
‘You were also a school teacher, I believe.’
This also sounded like an accusation, but as it was true, I owned up to it, though with some misgivings.
‘Good. I have something I want you to do.’
I didn’t say anything. This was one of those many times in my life to grab the opportunity to keep my mouth shut – something I probably should have done more often, I admit.
‘We have a schools programme going to air in two weeks. It’s a twenty minute broadcast on Dr Sun Yat-sen. Will you do it?’
The tone was very much one that said, ‘Is there any good reason why you refuse to do it?’
There were several good reasons why I shouldn’t have done it. For one, I wasn’t an expert on Sun Yat-sen and early twentieth century China, though the subject was not unfamiliar to me. I had never written for schools broadcasting before, nor had I been in a recording studio in my life. Neither - and this was what loomed largest in my mind - had I faced the amazing Aleisha Bonfield, and on the phone she sounded terrifying. A veritable dragon lady.
‘Tell me about yourself.’ I couldn’t see much relevance in the command, but I blathered on for a while.
‘Yes, you sound pretty good. The tone’s light, but it will work nicely, given the audience.’ She laughed, not unlike I imagine a lioness with the ability to laugh might, having run across a stray zebra foal. I regretted having brought the phone so close to my ear at that moment, and held it out again. I realised she had only been testing the broadcast quality of my voice, and was not really interested in my life story. It seemed to me that Aleisha Bonfield herself could have broadcast across the entire state of Queensland, very possibly without either a microphone or a radio transmitter.
‘We pay you of course. Let’s get the draft of the script in by Monday ten o’clock, and that’ll give you the weekend to finish it. We’ll go through it together.
It was definitely a good opportunity to acquire a new skill, though I wasn’t absolutely sure I’d survive the encounter with Aleisha Bonfield. But the die was cast.
Monday morning 10 am came around rather quicker than I’d hoped. I met Aleisha Bonfield in her office at the ABC’s Toowong facility, not far from the university.
She was every bit as fearsome as I imagined. Definitely the leading lady of ABC Education Services, she scrutinised me carefully.
OK, she actually did say hello and asked me to sit down before that, but she didn’t mess around. By my callow mid-twenties reckoning, she would have been in her mid-fifties; solidly built, with a shock of greying curly hair, and those half-glasses older people make you uncomfortable with when they look at you over the top of them. A newly-lit cigarette was hovering on the edge of the ashtray. I'll swear it was trembling.
Without viewing any of the other pages, she turned to the last leaf of the document I had laboriously typed on my Olympia portable typewriter the night before – the one I had used for every undergraduate assignment in my life except for the awful ones I had handwritten in my first year for Devahuti.
I had numbered the pages. Eight of them.
‘It’s four minutes too long.’
‘But you haven’t...’
‘I don’t need to. I can tell by the mere weight of a bloody script on my fingertips if it’s thirty seconds over. But let’s see if what you’ve written makes any sense, my darling. Want a B&H?’ She pushed the golden box of fags in my direction.
Why is it that the first thing everyone ever did for me when I first met them was offer me smokes? I declined.
‘Good thing. You’re going to need to look after that delicate little voicebox if you do any more work for me.’
She extracted the burning cigarette from the ashtray and drew on it like a navvy, as she read my four-minute-overweight biography of the good Dr Sun – the man who was the real founder of Revolutionary China by the way, not Mao Come-lately.
I sat there for ten minutes while she read it. It seemed like forever. The smoke had been stubbed out at the five-minute mark. For me it felt even worse than when Damodar sat at his desk reading my thesis chapter drafts.
‘The content is good. Just what I was looking for. But...’
I felt a qualified sense of relief, though I didn’t like the sound of that ‘But...’ and the subsequent pause. She lit another smoke.
‘But, my darling, it’s useless.’
Useless? Now hang on a bit. I didn’t mind the rather comforting matronising with ‘my darling’, but ... useless?
‘It’s a lovely essay, you see, but it’s NOT A SCRIPT.’
Even as she said that, I realised exactly what she was on about and I can’t imagine why the penny didn’t drop while I was composing it. The truth was I was concentrating on the content without giving any thought to the delivery mode.
I suppose I could have been forgiven for that. When did I ever submit a script to anyone before – something to be spoken, out loud? The way we speak, not the way we write. All I had ever written were papers complete with what I hoped was perfect grammar, graceful and balanced sentence structure; something meant to be read inside people’s heads, silently.
‘Read that sentence aloud,’ she said to me.
I winced. I could already see the problem.
‘Owing to the declining power of the Dowager Empress and the revolutionary fervour she had inspired in the Boxers, there was little possibility that.....’ It went on and on. Mercifully, I came to the end of the sentence at last.
I looked up. Aleisha Bonfield was sitting in her chair, chin on her remarkable bosom, making gentle mock-snoring noises through the cigarette smoke.
‘You see?’ she said.
‘Now, take your essay home tonight, TALK it through just as if you were explaining it to a rather uninterested child. Turn it into TALK! Sound enthusiastic! Repeat phrases, if necessary. Use sentence fragments, like I’m doing now. Use contractions. Listen to the way you’re saying things. You’re going to be reading this, remember? Acting it! And I want it to sound as if all these lovely ideas and insights had just come to you in a blinding flash of inspiration. Let’s have a look at it again tomorrow.’
She smiled and lit another smoke. I was dismissed.
Oddly enough, I wasn’t too put out by what she had thrown at me, because I got it. I knew exactly what she wanted, and I was looking forward to making this the best school broadcast of all time.
We went through it again the next day with a fine-toothed comb, and she knocked the rough edges off a few of the sentences and turns of phrase. I could tell she liked it.
The following day, I recorded my first ever broadcast at the ABC Toowong studios (another story entirely, and quite a good one) and on the day of the broadcast, turned on the radio in my room at UQ to hear myself identified by name and academic affiliation before the recording was played. I was rather pleased to think that at 11.40 am on that morning, scores of school radios were being turned on and hundreds of (probably unwilling) adolescents were sitting there in front of one of those Queensland Government issue big grey radio receivers. Oh, the sense of power!
It hadn’t finished five minutes when the phone rang. A man who identified himself as the History Master at Brisbane Boys’ Grammar complimented me generously on the programme and the fact that every boy was actually listening to it. ‘What’s the Producer’s name at the ABC for Schools Programming?’ he asked.
I invoked the name of Aleisha Bonfield, thanked him, and hung up, with a warm sense of satisfaction.
A few minutes later, the phone rang again. It was the unmistakeable booming voice of my ABC mentor.
‘I just had a call from a Very Satisfied Customer,’ she said. ‘Now I have just faxed over to your Department a list of all the school history broadcasts for this year and next. There’s Gandhi and Nehru, Chiang Kai-shek, Sukarno, the Vietnam War, Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai, Salvadore Allende (Allende? I thought. He’s Chilean!), India-Pakistan wars, Buddhism....’
‘Hey, hang on...’ I said as she paused to take breath and light a smoke.
‘Just take your pick, my darling. But do remember one thing. You’re ABC property now.’