One afternoon in 1980, when I was in Year 3, my mother looked up from a school notice I’d just handed her and said, “Oh. Who else was given a note like this to take home?”
Unlike the weekly newsletter or an excursion consent form, which would have been distributed to every student in the class, this notice had come in an envelope and was given to only certain students. It explained that the school had been approached to provide kids for a spot of filming, to take place at a park after the day’s lessons had been completed, and inquired whether my parents would give permission for me to be involved. (It was long before the days of Bill Henson.) The body seeking to have the footage shot was SBS, the ‘Special Broadcasting Service’ that was about to launch a new television station that would cater to ‘multicultural Australia’ with multilingual programming (that is, shows that wogs would want to watch). Well – would cater to multicultural Sydney and Melbourne, initially.
Much as the ABC was ‘Channel 2’ for most people back then, we knew SBS as ‘Channel 0’. Although the nought was a numeral, it was always pronounced ‘oh’ rather than ‘zero’. On air, voice-overs would also refer to the station as ‘channel oh-twenty-eight’ (Channel 0/28). I have no idea how that worked – which parts of Australia could turn a channel dial (because it was the age of dials, and not buttons and remotes) to ‘28’ when they only seemed to go from zero (yeah, all right, ‘oh’) to only as far as ten. Although, anything was possible in the old days of analogue; old television sets had a setting on their channel dials for a station between 5 and 6. It was 5A. Why? What got broadcast on 5A? Who by? And to whom? (The answer, I discovered while writing this, is Riverland Television Limited – a commercial station broadcasting in regional South Australia.)
Anyway, point is, SBS was about to launch Channel 0/28, and so Mama Romeo surmised there’d be a fair whack of other non-Anglo Australian parents reading a copy of the same letter that evening. And she was right. While token whiteys were also approached – they outnumbered us at the school – the closest of my mates who happened also to be second generation Australians were certainly invited to partake. Tony, whose family came from the same southern Italian village as mine, and Clement, who was – and still is – Chinese Malaysian.So one sunny afternoon after school we were collected by a chartered bus and delivered to a park. I’ve no recollection which, nor of the teachers and possibly even parents who accompanied us, but I do remember Japanese kids playing cricket nearby, and being approached, with my best friend Clement, by one of the crew as we stepped off the bus. A tubby little Italian and a Chinese kid fitted the bill perfectly. We soon had our ankles bound in order to partake in a three-legged race. We were clearly ‘the compliant ones’ rather than The Defiant Ones.
We only feature for a few seconds, but I’m sticking with ‘feature’ over ‘appear’. I don’t know why they went for it – well I do, actually. We’re coming last in race, but I know I’m giving it my all.
Despite the fuzziness of the screencaptured image (the videotape hasn’t dated well, and there’s not much call to digitally remaster a 30-year-old station ID) you can see me, the fat kid on the right, powering on. Look at the pair on the left having trouble holding onto each other, their legs going in opposite directions… despite the binding at their ankles, they’re clearly competing against each other.
I was lost in the moment. I must have been – I was too young to worry about making a dick of myself in public, and didn’t know enough to be conscious of the cameras. Neither did anyone else, I’m sure; we were just kids. But in the second take (there were at least two) they moved me ‘centrestage’, as it were. Although hidden by an audience cut-away, you know there’s a second take because there’s a continuity flaw: Clement and I change sides.
That I’m getting right into it is evident even in this poor-quality image. Look at the expression on my face! And maybe there’s a subtext being conveyed: those foreigners – they may not be at the forefront of society, but gosh, they work hard! Although that’s not any more deliberate than the parallel I’ve already drawn, between the three-legged race consisting of foreigners and outlaw fugitives. More amusing are some of the broader signifiers that, 30 years on, come across as funny.
Why is it that the baby most keen to read a book happens to be Asian?
The Australian flag makes a dark-skinned child flinch – shouldn’t that be the effect of an American flag?
Does the fact that the tailor shop is called ‘Klein’s Clothes Clinic’ suggest the schmutter trade runs in the family, but there was a disappointed Jewish mother who really wanted a doctor for a son?
Were cops that polite to new Australians ever in the history of white occupation? (Possibly, back when cops, too, were new Australians; but I suspect they called themselves ‘English’ then, and were nice only to people they called ‘sir’.)
Is it wrong to note that it’s the less white-looking kid in the canoe who has the ‘Bankcard’ symbol on his shirt, and may well come from a family with a shop or restaurant so successful that they actually used Bankcard facilities often enough to warrant related merchandise such as clothing?
Do all Italian men in Australian television have to wear moustaches so that we know they’re Italian?
I’d like to point out how wrong such broad observations are, how ignorant you’d have to be to make them – but 30 years on, I’m an Italian with a moustache. So the only generalisation I can speak about authoritatively is the one that, for me, happens to be true. Of course, I don’t have a moustache in the ad; I was only nine when it was made and puberty was still a matter of – oh, I don’t know – months away. But I know the station drew an audience who saw the ad repeatedly because, by the mid-80s, well past puberty, I was still being almost recognised in the street: “Aw mate – you know who you look like? That guy on Channel Oh!”
I still get on television from time to time, either as a guy laughing (and hiding an edit) in the audience of a comedy performance, or as an extra in a comedy show sketch. Fittingly, my next appearance, in the background of a sketch, will again be as a token Italian, pretty much because, for all intents and purposes, I still look like someone on Channel 0.