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Talking Heads -

View in ParlView


Screened: 10/09/2007

Bill Peach

A familiar face to Australian television viewers for most of his journalistic career, Bill Peach
was born in a little town called Lockhart, NSW in 1935. His father was a stock and station agent to
whom he attributes his taste for travel and humor and his mother's family were graziers. Bill says,
"I won the lottery of life really. I had good parents and you can't get a better start than that".

PETER THOMPSON: Bill Peach is a legendary face in ABC TV history. Each week night for eight years
he hosted the wild child of current affairs, 'This Day Tonight'. When he finally left the show, he
started a new type of television - 'Peach's Australia' - that in turn spawned a host of commercial
holiday programs. This week's talking head is Bill Peach. Bill, it's great to see you again.

BILL PEACH: Great to see you, Peter. Thank you.

PETER THOMPSON: And thanks for coming on Talking Heads.

BILL PEACH: Pleasure.

PETER THOMPSON: When you started 'This Day Tonight' back in 1967, it became a real nurturing ground
of a tremendous range of television talent.

BILL PEACH: It sure did. I mean, when people think of everyone, not only on the ABC after that, but
in current affairs on commercial television, which actually began after that, every name you can
think of had come through 'TDT'. It was a real... It was the furnace, I think.

PETER THOMPSON: Well, some of those people were like Peter Luck, Caroline Jones, Gerald Stone,
Richard Carlton. It was a who's who of young talent at the ABC. The style of program was quite
different. For example, you played a ukulele.

BILL PEACH: There were reasons for it. It wasn't that we were just trying to be a variety show. We
actually were not very good in terms of technical efficiency in those days. We had lots of
breakdowns. Partly because we were fairly ambitious. We tried to do everything live. But we were
filling. We were trying to get time. And we had two devices. One was the phone. I would pick up the
phone. They'd say, "Bill, say something." And I'd say something for 30 seconds, and then the phone
would ring again, and they'd say, "We still haven't got anything. Play the ukulele." You know, I
mean, that was the last, really was the last resort, when I played the ukulele, as anyone who heard
me play the ukulele knows. And yeah, yeah, it was really hairy. It was, um, a few sleepless nights
there, yeah.

PETER THOMPSON: Let's have a look at the early days of the young Bill Peach.

BILL PEACH: I was born in 1935 in the Riverina, in the eastern Riverina, a little town called
Lockhart. My father was a stock and station agent, and he travelled a lot around the country. In
fact, I think he gave me a taste for travel, and also a taste for humour. It was an interesting
marriage, actually, because Dad was from working-class Irish Catholic parents, my mother was from
graziers. They didn't quite see things the same way, but Dad had that sense of social justice, and
he always tried to help a lame dog over a stile. He said that was, what we'd say now, I guess,
doing the right thing. Mum was the most active woman I've ever seen. She buzzed around like a bee
in a bottle. She was very active in the community, and she was always trying to rouse them to get
together funds for the new swimming pool or something like that. A real live wire. I won the
lottery of life, really. I had good parents, and you can't get a better start than that. It was a
country boy's childhood, which means a lot of it was spent outdoors. More of it would have been
spent outdoors if I'd had my way, but I was forced to go to school, because they sensed that I was
capable of going on to something better than primary school. I really wanted to go to university,
rather than having any special thing in mind. I think I might have studied Medicine if they'd given
me a scholarship for that. I probably would have failed, because physics was not my thing. But
English and Latin, languages in general, were, so I did arts. What everyone does when they don't
know what they're going to do - I did arts. This is the quadrangle at Sydney University. There, the
old Fisher library where I read many books. A few of them were actually even on the course. And
over in the corner, the history and Latin lecture rooms. History was more important to me, because
that's where I met my future wife. So that was personal history. Shirley was very attractive, which
was the first thing that caught my eye. But the next thing I found was that we shared the same
outlook on things, we enjoyed the same things, and most important, we laughed at the same things.
We were really very compatible in every way. Back in the 1920s, when Darlinghurst was called
Razorhurst, this building, 171 William Street, was a gangster headquarters. But when I joined the
ABC in 1958 as a specialist trainee, this was home of the talks department, full of eccentric
characters. I thought it was only in the movies they told reporters to go out and cover the
waterfront, but that's what they told me to do here. And that's what I did. In 1962, when Shirley
and I had been married two years, we did what a lot of young people did at that time. We went
overseas. We sailed to London on a liner. And I was lucky enough to get a job with the BBC in the
overseas service in Bush House.

PETER THOMPSON: Bill, in those young days, as a boy in Lockhart, how did you amuse yourself?

BILL PEACH: It was a sort of a Huckleberry Finn childhood. Unfortunately I didn't have the
Mississippi River, I had the Brookong Creek, which is about five feet wide in a flood. But it did
have giant yabbies in it. I was able to sail a small canoe on it. I had a lovely time in the little
country town. And I didn't appreciate going to school, but my mother and Sister Joan, the nun who
taught me, insisted that I should, because they thought there was something in that material that
could be somehow worked into something useful.

PETER THOMPSON: I went to boarding school, and it was the shock of my life. Was that the case for
you? Because boarding school for you was at Bathurst, at St Stanislaus', pretty tough regime in
those days, and a long way from home for you.

BILL PEACH: Absolutely. My old grandmother could never handle where I went. She used to write me
letters to St Santa Clause College, Bathurst, and she actually used to put pennies... A great
tribute to the postal department of the day, Peter, because those pennies always came through to

PETER THOMPSON: They were honest.

BILL PEACH: Yeah, three or four of them in an envelope.

PETER THOMPSON: You taught, but not very successfully. You were a disaster, I'd say, as a teacher,
weren't you?

BILL PEACH: I was a brief comet, I'd put it that way. I was very lucky that I turned over a page of
a newspaper and saw an ad for a specialist trainee, ABC talks department. And I applied for that
and I got it, and that was the total change in my life.

PETER THOMPSON: Well, as we saw, you and Shirley went off overseas, and given your lifelong
interest in travel, that must have been very important in opening up your horizons to other places.

BILL PEACH: It was, Peter, it was, because neither Shirley nor I had ever been out of the country,
and in those days, to get to Southampton, as we went to, took five and a half weeks. We were on an
ancient Greek liner. Shirley and I were possibly the most elderly people on the ship, being 25
years old, and almost certainly the only married couple. And the average 20-year-old Australian who
was on there was even less sophisticated than we were. When we came to Athens, I remember, one of
our ports of call, one of them came back to me and said, "Bill, this place is full of new
Australians." And I said, "Yeah." And he said, "Wouldn't you think they'd do something about them
old buildings that they haven't repaired?" He was referring to the Parthenon, which we'd visited
that morning. But yeah, it gave me a great taste for travel, being in London and then New York for
the next three years with the BBC. In fact, our first daughter was conceived in New York, but we
wanted her to be born in Australia, as she was.

PETER THOMPSON: Bill, let's take a closer look at 'This Day Tonight'.

BILL PEACH: These were the old ABC television studios in Gore Hill, Sydney. We all thought Gore
Hill was very aptly named, because quite a lot of blood was being spilt here in those turbulent
times. Now it's all been changed, a lot of it's coming down, no longer the ABC. But I think there
could be some restless ghosts still wandering around this site. When I joined the ABC, it was with
'Four Corners', but Ken Watts, who was in charge of television, actually had a revolutionary new
thing in mind. That was 'This Day Tonight', a national nightly current affairs program, the first
in Australia. And luckily I got the job. I was the host of 'TDT' when it began in 1967, and every
night for the next eight years, till the end of 1974. Good evening, I'm Bill Peach, and the program
is 'This Day Tonight'. We're up against some pretty stiff competition, like 'The Man from
U.N.C.L.E.', which I guess makes me the man from Auntie. There were several things that were
different about 'TDT'. Firstly, that it was live every night. I think that gave it some excitement,
especially when we crashed and burnt, which we very often did. Secondly, it introduced the idea of
debate, controversy, especially about politics, but also about all sorts of other things. There was
no formula when we began. It was a magazine, and we could more or less put in anything we liked. I
did eight years of 'TDT', and doing a program like that live every night, I think there's a
wear-out factor. And I was very happy when I got the chance to do a documentary series in 1975,
which we called 'Peach's Australia'. I suppose you're wondering why I'm doing this. Well, it's to
test a theory that Giles expressed while he was in the Nullarbor, that this whole thing was so
level that anyone could ride a bicycle across it. I'd begun the 'Holiday' program as well, and we
did five years of 'Holiday', and of course, we could go everywhere. And certainly a striking story
for me was China in 1979. I don't think there's anyone with a soul so dead that he'd come here,
have this experience and not find it overwhelming, absolutely unforgettable. I think we were the
first tourist documentary makers ever to come into China. By the time I finished doing all the ABC
documentaries, I had travelled a great deal around this country in particular, and I knew that the
roads were about twice as long and half as wide as they ought to be. And I knew there had to be a
better way to travel Australia, and in 1984, I got together with a lady called Nancy Knudsen, and
we began a venture, Aircruising Australia. We had to change the concept, in a way, of what a
holiday was, because a lot of people, a lot of Australians, in those days, felt it wasn't really a
holiday unless you went overseas. Staying here, that didn't qualify. I think the best thing that
happened to me in my life was marrying Shirley. And the worst thing was losing Shirley. Shirley was
a very healthy and happy person. It was a big shock to her and to me when she got breast cancer in
the '90s. And we tried everything we could, but this was one that we couldn't beat. And I lost her
in '97. We were married 37 years. We were very happy. We had two lovely children and a good life.
She was my reporter, researcher, camera person - she did everything with me. And it was a terrible
blow to lose her.

PETER THOMPSON: Bill, in those dark days of Shirley's illness, how did you find the strength to get
through it?

BILL PEACH: Well, with great difficulty, Peter, as anyone who... It's like having a limb amputated
when somebody has become so much a part of you and you've become so much a part of them. I suppose
you go on to do the things that you've been doing. Travel by then had become very much my life. And
I continued travelling. I wasn't enjoying it very much in those years after Shirley died, but I was
going away. I was trying not to sit there and stare at the wall. And what can I say? You've got to
go on.

PETER THOMPSON: Let's talk about 'TDT'. It was such an experiment, wasn't it?

BILL PEACH: Remember, this was the time of the Vietnam War. There were a lot of things happening in
Australia, and part of what made 'TDT' exciting, but also made us friends and enemies, was because
we took on big issues, we had furious debates, we had people attacking each other in the studio,
and I mean physically as well as verbally. And we had riots going on inside and outside the studio,
and of course they were happening in the country. And I thought it was great that we could see and
show Australians getting excited about politics, instead of saying, "I don't care about politics.
Who's going to win the football on Sunday," you know? It was important, and we tried to show the
importance of it.

PETER THOMPSON: Just prior to 'TDT' Menzies had been prime minister, and he would deign not even to
go on television, or would do so only very selectively. Now, 'TDT' introduced the idea of the empty

BILL PEACH: It did indeed. Menzies had said that he thought television was a passing fad. Certainly
he was not going to be quizzed by young pups like us. And his people inherited that for a time, and
said, "Why should we come on television? You're only going to ask us nasty things." But when they
found out that we were still going to ask the nasty things and their opposition number would get
the chance to answer those things, and we could put an empty chair there and say, "This is where
the minister would have sat had he been prepared to come on, and this is what we would have asked
him," it didn't take very long before government ministers were all over the world appearing on
television. So, in a way that changed the country, I think. The government at that time, the
government at all times, has had the attitude that they owned the ABC. They don't. The people own
the ABC. But the government thought that they owned it, they were paying for it, they could shut it
up. And we were inclined to resist that attitude. We always wanted the management to support us in
that attitude, and fortunately in most cases they did.

PETER THOMPSON: One classic incident was that clip we saw of 'Run the Bastards Over', the song.
Just explain the background to that.

BILL PEACH: The Vietnam War probably was the major mover and shaker of those times. It really did
divide people and split people. People were being conscripted to fight in that war, and LBJ was -
Lyndon Johnson - was the great exponent of this policy. He came to Australia. Sir Robert Askin, the
Premier of NSW, rode with him in the motorcade. The protesters were out on the street, and LBJ
said, "What are we going to do?" And Askin apparently said to his cohorts and to the police, "Run
over the bastards." So we thought, "We can take this further." David Salter, who was a producer at
that time, ran up a little ditty called 'Run, Run, Run the Bastards Over, As I Said to LBJ'. And
that's basically what we thought was doing.

PETER THOMPSON: Bill, these days, you're taking things a little bit easier. Let's have a look.

BILL PEACH: I came from the country, and I guess in many ways I still love the bush, it's in my
heart. But I've lived in Sydney for a long time now, and I love Sydney too. It's a wonderful
privilege to live, as I do, near a beach and near a park, but still in the middle of this big city.
I'm fairly active. I play tennis regularly every Sunday with some old pals, including my old ABC
colleagues. Peter Luck, Peter Ross, play with me regularly. 'This Day Tonight' was a sort of
proving ground for many of us. We were mostly very young when that program began. And it was a long
time ago now. 40 years. But it's good that we've stuck together. I think because we came through
the same furnace, in a way. And many of my friends from those days I still see. Many of them, I'm
glad to say, came to my 70th birthday not too long ago. I think family is the most important thing.
Both my daughter and my son are here pretty regularly. Meredith is quite unusual, actually. She has
both sides of her brain working. She's a scientist and an artist. And Steve, he's a musician, and
he also has a diploma in audio engineering, so he's a music producer. And as well as that, and most
important, they're both lovely people. I'm delighted at the arrival of a grandson, and he's named
for my father, Joe. So I hope he'll be as good a man as my father was. I'm sure he will be. He's a
very promising lad already. Shirley's oldest friend, and the bridesmaid at our wedding, in fact,
was Pam. And Pam and I are now partners. We travel together, and it's good for both of us that we
have each other. Nobody wants to be alone, and we're not. I was always a writer, I guess, in one
sense or another. I wrote all of the documentary programs, the scripts for that. In fact, before
that, on 'This Day Tonight', I wrote the scripts for that. And I find writing quite hard. It's not
easy to do. In fact you have to compel yourself to sit down and do it. I've written 10 books at
this desk. I still write today. I write for the 'Australian Heritage' magazine about Australian
history, and I still write like that, in longhand. I don't use that computer. My typing is so
terrible that it would take me forever to do anything. And luckily Shirley, and now Pam, can
understand my handwriting. And so I think I'll stick with this. Unless I go back to a quill,
perhaps, but this has worked so far. I've done a lot of things in my life, I guess. I still even
do, occasionally, television and radio. But as something regular, what I do now is Bill Peach
Journeys, that's the travel outfit. And I travel with our groups of people maybe half a dozen times
in a year, hosting trips, not just in Australia but overseas. We've been to both ends of the planet
now, and everywhere in between. Bye-bye, Jill. Bye-bye, Peter. I like travelling. I always like
travelling. I think I like it because I'm a natural sticky-beak. I'm inquisitive about people and
places and about the world. Everyone says to me, you must have been everywhere by now, but of
course I haven't. Nobody can be everywhere, not even in Australia. And I always think there are
places I still have to see and stories I'd still like to write about them, and I'll never get to
the end of that. But that's a good way to be, I guess.

PETER THOMPSON: Bill, you've always had the great gift of following your passions.

BILL PEACH: That's what I've done, and it's a good formula. But it's not always as simple as that.
You have to live. You have to find something that actually turns a quid as well. But fortunately,
in my case, I don't think the important thing is to worry about making money first. The important
thing is to do what you want to do first. And I think if you do it well enough, often the rest

PETER THOMPSON: Is the golden age of travel over? Is mass tourism killing the excitement of travel?

BILL PEACH: It is a worry in one way. If you think about places like, say, Antarctica... When I
first went there in 1989, we couldn't... People said, "Well, are you going to do your sort of air
cruising to Antarctica?" We couldn't. No civilian planes could land there and there were no hotels.
You couldn't stay there. And that was a very good thing. It meant it was preserved as pristine,
original, the animals come up to you, the whales will breathe all over you, the seals will sort of
rub you on the shoulder and the penguins will gather round you, and it's because there are no
people who live there and they've never been hunted. Now you find that there are large ships going
down there, huge numbers of people, and even in a place like that, so remote, you start to think,
well, the impact of this will ruin what has until now been like another planet, like going to
Mercury or Jupiter or something. So it does worry me that way. But on the other hand, people have
got a right to see what the rest of the world has to offer. I really don't know the answer to this,
Peter, how you control numbers, how you stop a people jam from preventing you from seeing, you
know, the great work by Leonardo da Vinci or something like that. But it would be a fairly tough
thing to say to people, "Well, don't go."

PETER THOMPSON: You've seen a lot and done a lot. What quickens your pulse these days?

BILL PEACH: I suppose, two things. Firstly, Australia, as always, because I love Australia. I think
that I'm now of the generation that sees the beauty of the desert and the rocks and the things that
repelled the earlier people who were looking for green mountains and big rivers, and the things
that they'd come from in Europe, and who thought that this was a hell on earth. You have to have a
different eye to see what is beautiful about dry country, arid country. And of course it's not all
like that. We've got nine different climates, we've got tropical wetlands, we've got everything.
But I think I can appreciate the Australian landscape and the Australian people and their sort of
laconic take on all that. And the second thing is that there's always somewhere new. There are
places I haven't been. I haven't been over the top of Siberia. There will always be some place on
earth that I haven't been to that I'd like to go to, and life is not long enough to do all that.

PETER THOMPSON: Bill, it's been great talking to you.

BILL PEACH: Thank you very much, Peter.