When it began, Somers was just 20. Variety in the 1970s was the spice of TV life and the audience never seemed to get enough of those who would turn our front rooms into comedy theatre. But Daryl was still with the kids, breaking up the Saturday morning cartoons like a slightly desperate Donny Osmond.
We’ve always loved uninhibited Australians on TV. Particularly if they are able to take risks and be irreverent while being reassuringly in control. We like them to seem ordinary, but do extraordinary things. Graham Kennedy wrecked live commercials and sets for us, Bert Newton dressed up and teased the overseas guests, and Mike Walsh easily switched from sharp-witted interviewer to bawdy pantomime joker.
In such company, Daryl Somers learned quickly. Ernie Carroll, his connections to Ossie always good for a laugh, joined him in 1971, replacing football star and Cartoon Corner co-host Peter McKenna. A year later, John Blackman came aboard to provide witty voice-overs, and sound-effects specialist Murray Tregonning added another vital ingredient. With its fantasy angels, Chinese restaurateurs and curious callers, Hey Hey It’s Saturday quickly won over the coolest of kids.
Somers was soon heralded as the clown prince to Kennedy’s king. He was guest host of The Graham Kennedy Show in 1973 and then became a regular choice as the host for other entertainment specials. It was clear that Channel 9 considered him more than just its variety-show apprentice.
When we met at Nine’s Bendigo Street studios on Thursday, Somers was clearing up his dressing room and in a reflective mood. He asked me whether I recalled a lunch we shared in a Richmond pub after I had taken my son to one of his Saturday morning shows. It had been a memorable day for us, though I was surprised he recalled it.
Apparently, he returned there recently for a farewell and had been astonished to see little had changed. Only the dates, Star Wars was being seen first time around when we were there. My ‘young’ son, I told him, was now in his mid-20s and an industrial designer. Oh the years, the years.
“It really is the end of an era, you know, and not just for Hey Hey but for this network, and this station, GTV, in particular” Somers says. “There was IMT the early years, which had that lovely family unit. That was a major reason why this station was successful. Apart from the innate professionalism, there was that family thing.
“It sort of carried over into The Don lane Show and then with us, with Hey Hey, when we went to night-time In 1984. So it’s been an awfully long period.”
But hold on, we’ve zipped through Hey Hey’s adolescence. Remember, when parents tuned in the Saturday morning kids’ show and were shocked by the risqué jokes? There were mild double entendres by today’s asterisking standards, but questions were asked, eyebrows raised, and an audience built.
The late ’70s were frenetic for Somers and Carroll. They made comedy specials for Nine before moving briefly to Channel 0 (now Ten). Then it was back to where they knew they belonged at Hey Hey. The bubbly Jacki MacDonald joined them to spend 10 years on the show as co-host. Jacki was the most successful of the female co-hosts. Hey Hey has had its blokey moments. Wilbur Wilde and Red Symons added their musical talents and more than a dash of comedy in the early ’80s. In 1983, Daryl Somers won his first Gold Logie.
Then they were hitting primetime. Was this really our first cross-generational show? Hijacked by the parents, Hey Hey was given a 9.30pm Saturday timeslot. In 1985, the year Somers married Australian Ballet dancer Julie da Costa, the show was moved to 6.30pm and to further success with all the family.
New segments like Red Faces were introduced. Red Symons made its villainous gong-pounding judge. Ian Molly Meldrum, who had made the mumbled interview an art form on Countdown, began battling DIckie Knee in Molly’s Melodrama. The show became a fast-moving montage of comedy, music, chat and panel show. And in came the stars … Jon Bon Jovi, Madonna, Tom Jones, Kylie Minogue, Jimmy Barnes, the Eurythmics, anyone who wanted to attract a cluey audience.
Somers is saddened not to reach that 30 years with Hey Hey It’s Saturday. That had been his longtime target. He still doesn’t believe the show was tired. The ratings, he says, dipped in Sydney and Brisbane but were respectable and strong elsewhere. He disputes the suggestion that the show’s audience was ageing, claiming that a large part of his audience was in the coveted 16 to 39 age group.
“I’ve never seen the show as a tired old fossil, though it’s been written up that way in the last year or two,” he says. “There’s been this ‘Let’s savage Hey Hey‘ approach to us because we became the established show. Now that we’re going, a hell of a lot of journalists who have been putting the knives in are thinking again.
“We keep hearing about alternative programs. But that’s what they are, alternatives. Only that. It’s almost as if to be mainstream is just not in vogue.”
Hey Hey It’s Saturday had in recent years become the final TV oasis for many visiting overseas stars keen to promote their records, tours or movies. As other variety shows disappeared, it almost had the monopoly on the business.
“There’s going to be an enormous vacuum when we’ve gone,” Somers says. “I know this from record companies and promoters who have been contacting us in droves saying we’re going to miss the show, and there’s no outlet any more.
“They knew they would get the maximum spread with us. The record companies would do their little surveys on the Monday and find out they had just sold 40,000 units of Celine’s single because of her appearance on Hey Hey. And local artists benefited in the same way.”
Why did Hey Hey survive as long as It did? The show maintained high ratings and big profits for the Nine Network over many years.
Why did Hey Hey reach the end do Saturday? Well, it could not survive the financial cuts the network required. There are enormous costs involved in digital conversion and a general drop in the audience for free-to-air television. Pay TV, the Internet, videos and other activities are drawing people away from free-to-air TV. With the Olympics at Seven attracting sponsors, Nine needed to reduce costs. And Hey Hey, was expensive.
Nine has undoubtedly cast an envious eye at Ten’s simple and presumably inexpensive chat show The Panel. The series has been fashionably minimalist and though just a little off the boil in recent months creates the sort of Generation-X buzz the network would like. Nine had hoped Mick Molloy might do the trick; now the network seems to be nurturing comedian Rove McManus.
For Daryl Somers, it’s all a little perplexing. Hey Hey has been attracting weekly audiences of 1.2 million, with more than 400,000 tuning in here in Melbourne. The affable entertainer is still passionate about his show, reluctant to accept that it has passed its use-by date.
Although Nine is looking at programming “packages” that might involve his company. I wondered whether he felt there was still a role for him at Nine as a performer.
“I don’t know. To some degree one’s in an emotional daze and fixed on the present. I’ve talked already to [Nine programming executive] John Stephens and there are some package ideas they’re interested in … there might be something there.
“In terms of an on-air situation, clearly the answer is no. Unless I can come up with something very different. There’s still life in me as a performer, but I don’t think it would be right for me to come back on air yet.”
So what sort of production would Somers consider? He makes it clear that it’s all too early for this kind of speculation, but perhaps it would entail a trip back to the beginning. A mini-Hey Hey for Saturday mornings “to give people a chance to learn and at least have an apprenticeship area on the station”.
“I think that’s what they should be looking for,” he says. ‘They should start something cheap and then build it up.”
Television is no longer the magical machine we grew up with. We look back and wonder. We gaze into the cool fire and try to understand. The TV entertainers of the ’60s and ’70s took risks and delighted us with their live, on-screen magic. Was Hey Hey It’s Saturday really so tired, really that corny? It still did something for a huge, grateful family audience every week.
Today, of course, there’s a less sympathetic climate. A new, conservative generation has taken over the TV baton. It has seen the potential and the dangers of pay TV and other media and has sometimes appeared less concerned with entertainment or service than the bottom line. Times change.
Daryl Somers tells me how he felt after he heard the network’s decision.
“I had to go back to the office and tell all the gang and, while I was trying to keep my head clear. I said to them my primary concern was that we should go out with four good shows.
“I am very concerned for their future. I’ll do anything I can to help in that regard, but there’s not a lot of work out there, especially in light of the cutbacks… the cutbacks at Seven, Ten and elsewhere. It’s very difficult right now to think of a bright future for the television industry in terms of coming up with programs.”
We talk of his other interests. Of the desire he once had to sing. No, he says, that hasn’t vanished. But it had never been easy with Hey Hey. He worried that it might be seen that he owned the show, hosted the show, and also sang on the show. All too much.
“But I do miss singing and I would like to get back to it. It’s always there with me, even if it was simply singing and playing drums in a smoky little jazz club,” he says.
And, finally, we come back to the big question. Did he really believe that Nine had picked the right time to give away Hey Hey It’s Saturday?
“You know, over the years we’ve made a show that has reflected the Australian way of life at many different levels. Sadly, I think it’s been taken for granted.
“Only time will tell if this was the right time to bring the program to an end. Much as I wanted to get it to 30 years, I also wanted to make sure we left the audience wanting.”
Television variety, we agree, will never really die. In months or years it will re-emerge in some different form. We need to be amused. The easy entertainment of Hey Hey It’s Saturday has been a fine family friend throughout the years.
But Daryl Somers is already moving on.
“I’m looking at this as the start of a new era and not just the demise of that old one,” he tells me. “I’ve always been the eternal optimist, ‘ you know that. I see this as going forward … there is still something exciting about the challenge.”