Long-lost footage of John Farnham preserves a moment in Australian TV history

Home Arts Long-lost footage of John Farnham preserves a moment in Australian TV history
Long-lost footage of John Farnham preserves a moment in Australian TV history

It’s November 1972 and Australia’s reigning King of Pop, Johnny Farnham, is in a Melbourne television studio performing the Motown classic For Once in My Life.

Gathered around him at the end of the song is a who’s who of the Australian pop music scene, including Allison Durbin, Jeff Phillips, Colleen Hewett and Debbie Byrne, along with soon-to-be famous music reviewer Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum.

It was a sad day for the musicians and production crew: Farnham’s performance closed the final episode of Happening 72, a four-hour Saturday morning pop music show that aired nationally on what’s now known as Network 10.

A group of people on the set of a TV show in the 70s.
Simon Smith says there is not a huge amount of pop music television footage from the era.(Supplied: National Film and Sound Archive)

Despite winning a Logie, Happening was axed after three seasons, the producers showing their displeasure by carrying a coffin in the background during Farnham’s finale.

For decades, it was thought no recording of Farnham’s performance had survived, but Happening’s host, Jeff Phillips, recently stumbled on a battered two-inch reel in his Melbourne home.

A battered case in an evidence bag with a label saying 'mould' on the front.
Jeff Phillips had forgotten what was on the tape, which he found in his Melbourne home.(Supplied: National Film and Sound Archive)

The tape had travelled with him as he pursued a singing career in London and Los Angeles throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.

But 50 years later he’d forgotten what it contained, so he took it to Melbourne-based National Film and Sound Archive curator Simon Smith.

“I said, ‘What do you think is in this?’,” Phillips recalls.

After technicians cleaned off mould that had accumulated on the tape, Smith had an answer.

“What we are watching is the last six or seven minutes of the last great, important pop music show of the black and white era,” he said.

A two-inch reel lying beside a battered, upright case with a bright red label.
It had previously been thought there was no recording of Farnham’s performance.(Supplied: National Film and Sound Archive)

The vision has now been digitised and the reel stored at the NFSA’s Canberra headquarters.

“It’s a really important find because there’s not a huge amount of pop music television from the early 70s,” Smith said.

“To find a little bit of pop gold from the end of this influential show is fantastic.”

Union, executives sound off

Happening’s axing marked the end of an era for Australian pop music shows.

A few months earlier, Channel Nine’s Bandstand finished up after 14 years on air and the ABC’s Hit Scene was also cut in 1972.

Their demise was partly due to a campaign from the Musicians’ Union to get more bands playing live on television.

A man in a blazer, sweater, and a shirt with a turned-up collar looking serious.
Jeff Phillips says the absence of Happening 72 was felt within the music industry(ABC)

At the time, singers would mime to their own records because it was cheaper than bringing in bands to play live.

The practice had long irked the union and in 1972 it slapped a ban on miming.

But television executives reacted by cutting the music shows, leaving the industry without a platform and teenagers with no way to watch their favourite artists.

“For all the new bands that would be welcomed on Happening to get going and promote them there was nothing,” Phillips said.

Footage from the final episode of Happening shows a funeral-like atmosphere on the set, and as the credits roll, crew members can be seen lifting Meldrum into the coffin.

People gather around a mock coffin on a TV set.
A still from the final episode of Happening 72.(Supplied: National Film and Sound Archive)

Countdown spells sector revival

Thankfully, it wasn’t the death of Australian music shows.

Two years later, Meldrum was “reborn” after convincing the ABC to try a new live music show named Countdown.

“When Countdown came along it was such a huge explosion, the teenagers of Australia were just dying for something to get behind,” Phillips said.

Molly Meldrum speaks with Prince Charles on the set of Countdown.
Molly Meldrum speaks with the then Prince Charles on the set of Countdown.(ABC Archives)

With the enigmatic Meldrum at the helm, Countdown would become the defining music show of the 1970s and 80s, taking advantage of the arrival of colour television to inspire a new generation of artists like Skyhooks, Hush and John Paul Young.

Fittingly, the guest host on the show’s first episode in colour was also a member of the Happening alumni, Johnny Farnham.

“I’m Johnny Farnham and this is Countdown, the first edition of 1975 in glorious colour,” he said as the show opened, before throwing to Skyhooks singing Horror Movie.

A man with long golden hair stands with a microphone in his hand.
Johnny Farnham opening the first edition of Countdown in colour in 1975.(ABC)

Jeff Phillips looks back on those time with fondness and says finding Farnham’s final performance on Happening has brought back a flood of memories.

“I’m thrilled it’s been restored,” he said.

“We were all a real team, artists, bands, everyone, we were all in the same business and we all wanted to go somewhere.”

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