By David Hill*
So Kerry Packer calls me into his Park Street office.
“Listen son, I’ve done this output deal with NBC. There’s a bunch of sports tapes. I don’t want them sitting on the shelf. Use them to start a Saturday afternoon sports show on the Network.”
Probably 1982. We had survived World Series Cricket, and had been talking about expanding Channel 9’s sports coverage.
We talked about what we’d call the show. We agreed the best sports show name in the world came from ABC (US) – the ‘Wide World of Sports’ created by Roone Arledge.
“Hang on a tick”. Kerry called Russell Watkins, Channel 9’s rep in the States, and within days he’d bought the perpetual rights to Australia to use Wide World of Sports – so that’s what we called it.
Ian Chappell was a natural as a host. In my book Australia’s most respected sportsman, he’d become a great broadcaster on our cricket coverage, and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of all sports. I think the only sport he didn’t know intimately was bocce, but give him a day to research, and he’d be up there with the experts. And he had become a great writer – walking in the footsteps of Richie Benaud.
But who to put next to Chappelli as co-host?? I felt Ian’s iconic status made him almost unapproachable (even though in real life he’s anything but), and I needed someone who represented everyman. Who viewed sports as entertainment, as fun, as a diversion – not as WW3 as Ian was sometimes prone to do.
I’d been a fan of Mike Gibson, it seemed forever. I read his columns in Mum’s copies of the Woman’s Weekly, I listened to him on 2SM – and when I started at The Daily Telegraph, he was already a legend.
At Nine, all the various divisons (with the exception of news) worked in cottages around the perimeter of Channel 9’s Willoughby (Sydney) studio, and Gibbo had arrived at the Sixty Minutes cottage – working for Gerry Stone.
Memory is foggy, but I think Kerry wanted Gibbo to become Australia’s Andy Rooney (not a bad call!) on the show.
So we had a beer and a chat. Gibbo and me that is. Not Andy Rooney and Kerry.
It was love at first schooner. For those of you unfamiliar with this measure, it’s a 15oz beer glass. We had a number in what rapidly became our first production meeting.
And the bond was our belief that sport was the ultimate entertainment. ‘Reality television’ hadn’t been invented, but to us the unpredictability of sports – where the guy in the White Hat didn’t get to kiss the horse – it was the ultimate in entertainment.
We talked about how you’d cry when you heard our national anthem at the Olympics, the emotions engendered by sports – and how it was just so much fun.
And so we decided that what Wide World of Sports was going to become was an entertainment show, disguised as a sports show.
So I had two hosts, a bunch of American tapes of sports no one in Australia had seen or cared about (cliff diving? Table tennis? The Iditarod (huh?), two live Sydney races (thanks to a legacy of Sir Frank); and it had to be on air in six weeks. Luckily I also had a bunch of talented maniacs led by Brian C Morelli with Saul Schtein, Peter Guion, John Gayleard., Cheryl Amman, Jane Prior, and three or four others who are now cursing me because my memory is foggy, who were up for creating a new type of sports television.
Thanks to my five-year old daughter Jane’s box of colored pencils which she’d left on our kitchen table, I had a format (that’s another story), a show name, a studio, a production crew, and an on air date. Oh, did I mention the show was going national?
But unfortunately, I hadn’t kept my boss Sam Chisholm up to date with what I was doing, and he flipped when he found out Gibbo was going to be on air. So we had what I can only describe as a fairly inflamed phone call, and I opted to take the consequences of having Gibbo host. Must have slipped Sam’s mind to call me after the debut to say he thought Gibbo was OK.
So, the rest is history.
The pairing of Gibbo and Chappelli was an absolute delight, and building the show week by week was easy because of the two of them. Even though I must admit getting Ian not to appear like he was going to punch you was a challenge. I put signs under every camera saying “Smile, you bastard” which did the trick. They call it chemistry now, but with Mike and Ian it was just genuine friendship, and a huge mutual respect. In hindsight, Ian made Mike better and Mike made Ian better, and also in hindsight, I doubt I could have found any better pairing anywhere in the world.
But Mike Gibson was unique. His curiosity was unbounded, his writing ability unparalleled, his communications ability unsurpassed.
He genuinely cared about the little Aussie battler, he genuinely cared about the punter, he genuinely cared about going to North Sydney Oval to cheer on his beloved Bears. He was unfailingly positive, could see humor in every situation, shunned hypocrisy, loved athletes, loved The Oaks, loved the Mosman Rowers, loved his kids.
And he revered his Dad. There was a period when gas prices in Sydney went nuts, and I was complaining to him about the cost of filling my car.
“My Dad never complains about the price of petrol,” Mike said, “he only ever buys $5 worth!” Think about it. That’s genuinely funny.
I always believed one of the reasons for the huge success of WWOS – and everything that came from it, derived from our post show chat.
This always took place in our local – The Bridgeview – and everyone would come down for a few beers before we went our various ways.
All the techs, the camera guys, the audio crew, the editors, production staff, and of course Gibbo and Chappelli.
And we would dissect the show. What worked, what didn’t work, how we could make it better next week. And Gibbo would be having a beer with Warwick Bull, one of the camera guys, and Ian would be having a beer with Saul and BC, and what was said mattered, and we would make the show better next week.
It’s only after leaving Australia all those years ago, and working in Britain and the US that I realised how powerful those after show sessions were, how helpful, and how it just doesn’t happen that ‘on camera talent’ (note quote marks) mixes genuinely and genially with the crew.
The years rolled on, we did countless shows, did Olympics, did World Skating Championships with his beloved Katerina Witt, and State of Origins (they’re so mean up here at Lang Park, this mob would boo Santa – was a Jack Gibsonism which Gibbo loved), Rugby League Grand Finals (no, the Bears never made it!) – the list rolls on.
And throughout it all was Gibbo’s enthusiasm, his love of sports and sportsmen and women, his journalistic backbone, and his communications ability.
He left Channel 9 to go do breakfast television at Ten, then Saul got him on Foxtel with The Back Page and his mate Billy Birmingham – and although I never saw the show, Saul would email me on a regular basis with Gibbo’s witticisms.
We write letters to each other – yep, with stamps(!), and when I came back to Australia from time to time, we’d meet up, and have lunch.
The last time was a few years back, up at Sydney’s Palm Beach, on a perfect Sydney summer day, eating flathead and chips and drinking a robust sauvignon blanc. And he was happy, deliriously happy. He’d moved to the Central Coast, he was writing at a pace he wanted to write at (not churning out columns on a daily basis to pay for his kids’ education like he was during WWOS), and like every time we’d been together there was jokes, gossip, a laughter.
I’m coming down to Sydney at Christmas to see my brothers, and I was about to write Gibbo a letter inviting myself up to the Central Coast to go have lunch.
I also wanted to meet ‘Kerry’ a large goanna who lived in his backyard.
I got the news this morning. I cried. And I won’t be going to the Central Coast to meet ‘Kerry’.
* David Blyth Hill, not other David Hill (the smart one!) who ran the ABC, and the Railways, and Soccer, and who writes erudite books.