I used to host a viewer reaction program called BackChat twice a week on ABC TV from 1987 to 1994 – when most of us were all much younger. Much to my surprise, Bruce Elder unexpectedly said nice things about the long gone program in a column in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Guide magazine on Monday 26 March 2012.
The photograph of me holding up a stuffed furry animal (of which more in a moment) is me in front of one of our later sets, with a bookshelf giving a kind of ‘study’ look. The first set was very primitive indeed, consisting of a canvas flat with BackChat written all over it. I sat in front, perched on a high stool like a parrot. The viewers couldn’t see this, of course, but some became puzzled why I was never seen below the waist and wondered if I had a lower body and wrote in to say so. Colin Fairclough of Balingup, WA, wanted to know how my producer managed to control and strings and cables of the Tim puppet:
… of course you could dispel such negative thoughts by passing a baton over and around Tim’s swaying rocking body, and drop the camera angle to prove he does indeed have lower limbs.
‘I actually sit on a small Shetland pony’, I told Colin at the time. Meanwhile Mrs Danny Saunders of Jordanville, Victoria also commented:
I think may be you should show us that you can stand on your own two feet before you lose your credibility. Gwarnn Tim!! Flash the knobblies! (Or at least describe ‘em.) I am waiting glued to my set – which is exceedingly uncomfortable – for the scoop of the century.
As it happened, the lower Bowden body was encased in striped boxer shorts for the occasion, with knobblies exposed. We pulled the cameras back to show not only the Bowden knees, but the extremely spartan nature of the BackChat set – not unmindful of internal ABC politics in the hope that it might get us a better one the following year. (It didn’t.)
The unveiling of the Bowden knees was not a pretty sight, and was remarked on by Queenslander Peter Sonners:
Please never again expose the lower part of your body. It took us ages to calm the dog down.
Now to the furry animal. The ABC Props Department thought it would provide variety to my ‘study’ shelves. Viewers started to write in asking what it actually was. I encouraged speculation with the animal itself on its plinth to be the prize. (I never liked it much.) The money seemed to be on an Australian marsupial, a bilby perhaps, or a small bandicoot and so on. It was actually an import – a stuffed squirrel. I gave it away to the ten-year-old girl who had guessed correctly, but the Props Department was furious. ‘How dare you give away our property? They were quite right of course.
The first titles were rather primitive actually, and showed an angry viewer hurling a brick at his television screen. Not a good object lesson for the young.
I was surprised to be asked to front BackChat (the name came later). I didn’t think I had the kind of face for a television presenter – you know, eyes wide apart, regular features, gleaming teeth and a luxuriant head of hair. My old friend Ray Martin had all such attributes. I was more like the late Senator Don Chipp of whom someone once said, ‘He has a face like an unmade bed’.
The television critics thought so too. The late Jim Oram wrote in the Sydney Daily Telegraph:
BACKCHAT’s forum is astonishingly simple. Its commentator Tim Bowden (who reminds one of a koala and therefore should be protected) sits in fromt of a camera introducing written comments from the viewers.
I tried to give good news as well as bad about what people thought of the output on their ABC, but let’s face it robust abuse is more entertaining than what a lovely show it was, so criticism tended to get more emphasis. I quickly became aware of the love/hate relationship of people with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. People wrote in because they cared. And how they cared! But if the ABC got a rough ride, so did I. This letter came from Graham Illegible Signature, of Kalgoorlie:
‘We believe that the only cloud cast over the program is you and your arrogant condescending, buffoon approach to the comments conveyed by the viewers.
’You should remember that the program is for their entertainment, not yours… so why don’t you either modify your approach, or bug off!
’PS – I know we are country yokels and should not have an opinion, but there you go.’
Fancy setting me up for an exit line like that!
We had a policy of not running unsigned letters, or non de plumes. Yhen I found myself in spirited correspondence with one Mavis Frizzletit of Bonnell’s Bay, NSW. When I commented that there didn’t seem to be many Frizzletits in the phone book, Mavis wrote in most indignantly about how outrageous it was for people to make jokes about people’s names. She was eventually been interviewed on the program.
There was some wonderfuly inventive abuse. Some of my all time favourites are some letters on a mercifully long forgotten program called the KRYPTON FACTOR. It was a kind of super-yuppie quest quiz, blending assault courses with IQ and general knowledge tests. It came out of New Zealand, which did not impress Don Campbell of Darwin, who said the KRYPTON FACTOR served the function of making all other programs look good:
‘Boring concept, boring commentary, unexciting, dull competition, dull people – oh dear! And VERY Kiwi.
’PS The Kiwi is actually a nocturnal bird which prefers not to be seen by anyone at all.
Mary Forbes of Cremorne Sydney followed up with a literary reference to Joyce Cary’s novel, ‘The Horses Mouth’:
I am reminded of Gulley Jimson’s comment on Lady Beeder’s painting: ‘That sort of thing, Your Ladyship, is like farting ANNIE LAURIE through a keyhole. It may be clever, but is it worth the trouble?’
One problem I had was with people who believed in non-sexist letter writing. We had to make the sometimes unenviable decision whether to use a male or female voice with a 50 per cent chance of getting it right. Then there’s Murphy’s Third Law: ‘Anything you do to put it right will make it worse.’ I became aware that one of my regular correspondents, Mary Forbes, of Cremorne, Sydney and author of the classy letter I just quoted was over eighty. So I put on the script to use an ‘older’ voice for the reading. The following indignant letter came in the next mail:
I may be eighty odd, but I do not have a cracked voice. Indeed I have been told that anyone talking to me on the phone would be hard put to it to tell what age group I am in.
So please do not let any future contribution of mine be read as if I were the Witch of Endor.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Andrew Denton was just beginning his stellar television career. One of his first programs, THE MONEY OR THE GUN, was definitely aimed at the younger brigade – or young at heart. Although whenever I said this I got indignant letters from octogenarians saying how dare I be ageist in this way. Andrew also became noted – should I say notorious – with a similar style of program, BLAH BLAH BLAH – and then THE MONEY OR THE GUN, followed by ANDREW DENTON LIVE AND SWEATY. But getting back to BLAH BLAH BLAH, I was delighted to get a letter from a self-described ‘somewhat middle-aged good time girl’, of Brackenridge, near Reedy Swamp, via Tarraganda, Bega … wonderful address that, about BLAH BLAH BLAH:
I am most gratified to see that this program continues to be made by Merkin Productions [Andrew Denton's first production company], and to realise that merkins are not a thing of the past.
(At that point I had to reveal that for those who did not know, a merkin was actually a pubic wig! Back to Reedy Swamp….)
I am (said the somewhat middle-aged good time girl) most anxious to purchase a new merkin, and do hope you will be able to oblige me with the name and address of a quality supplier.
Not off the top of my head, I heard myself saying ….
Some of our viewers did give Andrew Denton a very hard time with the somewhat risque nature of some of the new comedy material.
We did actually produce THE BACKCHAT BOOK in 1990 and in it I grouped letters about sport and culture together in one chapter, partly because of the hue and cry every time the then arts show, SUNDAY AFTERNOON WITH PETER ROSS, was displaced by a football or cricket match. Nevertheless the cricketers drove one through the covers with some style. Michael Gunter, of Narrabunda Canberra countered the arts lobby thus:
I feel compelled to inform these under-educated souls, that the two quintessential properites of modern civilisation are the cover drive and the English language.
However Mrs Rose, of Grafton NSW countered by saying:
Lawn bowls on television holds as much interest for my family, as a dog has to a plate of lettuce….
And Mrs Marie Mitchell, of Concord, NSW found that, golf is slightly less exciting than naval-fluff collecting.
John Nieman, of Yackandandah, Victoria was a viewer who prefers to watch good movie rather than a ballet simulcast:
Back to the prancing neo-nancy boys with padded codpieces and their attendant fag-hags… he said glumly.
People mostly wrote letters of course in those days, with the ubiquitous emails still to come, and BACKCHAT also kept an eye on telephoned comments to the ABC’s switchboards. Someone rang in one night to allege:
The ABC is full of Nazis disguised as clever academics.
Aunty is an independent-minded woman in her sixties who lives in the Dandenongs, wears a parka and inclines towards eating what we weren’t meant to eat and believing what we weren’t meant to believe.
Thank goodness for the ABC. I love it, enthused Jill Cartwright, of Lenah Valley, Hobart. It is an intellectual life-raft in a sea of hogwash.
Our long-suffering ABC switchboard staff did get, and I am sure still does, some quite curious calls from time to time.
A lady became very abusive when told that the ABC could not assist her to find her lost parrot. Advised her to ring a commercial station, and was insulted in language that would have made the parrot blush!
On another occasion a film maker Mark Lewis, of Darlinghurst, Sydney alerted us to the problem that was plaguing ‘Pud’ a very large British Bulldog, twice a week:
Whenever the title music sequence of BACKCHAT appears on television, the bulldog charges across the living room floor, head-butts the television and then continues to bark at the television until the music sequence finishes.
Fortunately this dog has since been cured of this particularly nasty habit as the result of only one lesson at the Sylvia Wilson Advance Dog Training Academy.
I have to say that appearing on television twice a week did not allow me to get too carried away with my own image following the kind of comments penned by viewers like Miss K Jones, of Bardon, Queensland, after I had been away from the program for a time:
It is good to see Tim Bowden again. He reminds me of an old crumpled teddy I once owned and loved.
Come to think of it BACKCHAT’S first producer Ron Elliott seemed to be struggling for the right phrase when he told a journalist who asked about the program:
Tim is one of the real people – not super-pretty.
Thinking back over those days (and glancing through the out of print BACKCHAT BOOK, I’d like to finish with one letter I liked a lot, following the failure of a jury to reach a verdict in the trial of Sir Joh Bjelke Petersen for alleged perjury during the Fitgerald Inquiry. Phil Hentry of, Balhannah, South Australia wrote to say he had been wrestling with a most distressing problem. It concerned a 7.30 REPORT interview between Quentin Dempster and Wayne Goss after the Sir Joh trial in Brisbane:
I recall that Quentin asked Mr Goss his opinion of the ‘sensationally hung jury’. My wife immediately went into loud and uncontrollable peels of laughter, demanding to know what a sensationally hung jury looks like!
Do you have any footage of this? (No pun intended). I have felt quite inadequate and deeply psychologically disturbed ever since.
Is this the reason why I have never been called for jury duty?
Come to think of it I’ve never been called for jury duty either.
And while we’re talking about Queensland, I can’t resist sharing one of my favourite letters of all time, following the telecast of a documentary on cane toads. It was written by Dr Simon Easteal, of Canberra:
I particularly enjoyed the reconstruction of the observation by an American scientist Wilhoft, of a toad performing a sexual act. I spent many years studying cane toads, but I never saw anything quite this interesting.
Wilhoft noted three things out of the ordinary. The toad’s female partner had been dead for some time, the act was formed in the middle of the road, and it occurred at 3 o’clock in the afternoon – having presumably lasted for at least eight hours.
It seems that Wilhoft failed to observe one further unusual aspect to this extraordinary event. This lascivious toad, it would appear from the reconstruction, was female.
Necrophiliac, exhibitionist – and gay as well? Surely not in Queensland!
As Bruce Elder pointed out in his article, there are a couple of early BackChats on uTube – when I perched in front of the of our meagre backdrop on a long-legged stool. (Both clips of BackChat begin a little over a minute in, so be patient. Come to think of it, the wait might not be worth it…)
And also on the Australian Screen website:
Ah well, ‘the night the old nostalgia burnt down’ as my old pal Bill Peach is wont to remark. Perhaps there is a place for BackChat still. I’d be happy to front it, but the ABC’s current Managing Director has not yet picked up the phone to invite me back.
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