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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

50-year flashbacks: interview with Ernie


As an ambitious 18-year-old journalist, I requested an interview with Australia’s top-rating TV star of the time, Ernie Sigley.

It was 1975 and Sigley was besting the ratings with a twice-weekly variety program at GTV-9 Melbourne.

Sigley was not granting any interviews at the time … except this one to me, organ-ised through the channel’s publicity director, Myke Dyer.

It was a very kind thing for Ernie to do for a young bloke starting in his career. We kept contact over the decades.

In October 2016, his loving family released news that Ernie, then 78, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Accompanied by fellow Farrago journalist Richard Novak, I taped this interview was published on April 24, 1975.

(The interview came under the attention of Sunday Observer Editor John Sorell, who offered $300 – in three $100 weekly instalments, for reproduction rights. Respecting Sigley’s wishes, I declined the offer.)

“Ernie Sigley was born in Footscray. His first ambition was to be an accountant: ‘I don’t think I would have made it,’ he says,” my 1975 report started.

“At about 16 he began disc jockeying, and when TV began he had a teenage show.

“He then went overseas and worked three years on Radio Luxembourg as a DJ.

“Sigley returned to Australia and his TV show in Adelaide.

“He has had his own shows in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide for 10 years.

“Ernie maintains his links with Footscray; he is the footy club’s No 1 patron.

“‘Yeah, all the blokes I went to school with. They run the club; that’s why we never get anywhere.”

In the newspapers you’ve got an image as a sort of battler. Did everything fall into place or what?
Oh yes. I’ve had a lot of strife in my life … coppers and all that in Adelaide.
I used to get ‘blueys’ before I went on air.
I used to go on there at half past nine and the cops used to come in with the summons at twenty five past nine, and I used to read them on the show.
I was always getting in trouble with the police in Adelaide – it’s a police state.
It’s very bad over there and I used to say that on air.
I used to call them the Gestapo and everything – it didn’t go over very well. Adelaide is strange with their police – strange blokes over there.

Did you ever expect to have the success you’re having now? Did you ever hope for it?
No, I don’t think I was that ambitious really. I was very happy in Adelaide, just doing my thing there.

What do you classify yourself as? Singer, comedian, compere?
I’d say a bit of a gasbag, more than anything. I just like talking. I don’t sing very well and I crack weak gags.

Do you think you have some kind of special talent for television?
I think I can communicate with people, yeah. I think I’ve got a good knowledge of what people want.
Commercial knowledge: I can work out in some ways “they wouldn’t like that”. For example, we are doing the show from Pentridge next week.

There’s been a lot of adverse reaction to that apparently.
Yeh, I thought this might happen. I did it in Adelaide – a live show – but we didn’t get an adverse reaction. A lot of people think they fo in there and they should never have any entertainment.
Like the old days, they should just chop bricks. But anyone of us could be in jail.
I could have been in jail half a dozen times – it’s just I’ve been lucky. I still believe there’s a lot of guys who shouldn’t be there.

What sort of relationship do you have with the viewers?
Mainly, just a friend I suppose. A mate. I believe in live television, like I do, you’re virtually a guest in somebody’s lounge room.
A bit like the bloke next door who comes in and has a drink.

When you’re on the show you seem to address yourseld more to the studio audience than the home audience?
Yeah, that’s because they yell out a lot.

They force it upon you?
They want to talk to you.

Do you have many exchanges in between the program?
Yeah, Peter (Smith) and I mess around a lot of the time. We do some dreaful things between the commercial breaks.

You don’t want to talk about it do you?
At the moment we’ge got a photo of Graham (Kennedy) – we hang him. And do all those sort of mad things – you know, a bit goony. We put a dress on it the other day.

What do you think about the way the press has treated the supposed feud between you and Kennedy?
Oh, it was just good material for them, I suppose. We don’t ever see each other.

What about the press, say The Observer, with ‘Sigley Heart Attack’?
On yeah! Jesus!

Was that put up?
Yeah, Well I get up on Sunday mornings and see what happened to me. I nearly died when I saw that. I asked them why they did it and they said “to sell papers, that’s why”.

What’s your reaction to that type of publicity? ‘Any type of publicity is good publicity’?
Some of it upsets you a bit. ‘The Brawl’ thing, you know. My wife was in hospital and had just had the baby.
The nurse came out and said “your husband was in a brawl last night” because she’d only seen the poster. She thought I’d been in a punch-up at the footy.
I had a go at them. I rang up and told them that they had to cut it out, but they’re just out to sell papers.
I think, unfortunately, Sinatra was right in a few things he said about the Australain press, insofar as, with entertainers and that they seem to love to try and scandlise everything.
They’re a bit what the English press were about 10 years ago – I think they’re a bit strange – some of the blokes – the way they write.

Is it good for your ratings?
No, I really don’t think the people take much notice of what’s in the paper unfortunately. I mean that generally. I don’t think enough people read newspapers to know what’s going on around the world. Incredible!
People … you know, you start talking to them about something that happened yesterday and they just don’t know what you’re talking about.
I’m a mad magazine reader. I read a lot and fortunately I’ve got a photographic memory.
I can remember everything I read and I just can’t understand people, and the way they don’t read newspapers. It’s sad.

What would be the most important part of the show?
The way the ratings are, the people stay for the whole show. There’s no drop off. Sometimes they finish off higher Do you get nervous?
No. I never think about it. When you’re out there you don’t.

Are you always under pressure to make a funny line?
No.

You never find you have one of those nights when you can’t get anything flowing?
Plenty of times. We do a lot of bad shows. Sometimes you get half-way and you think that you just want to get it over with.

Do you think the show would be more of a success if you spivved it up, tied up the loose ends?
No, I think the charm of it is that you never know what’s going to happen. See the easy way out like they do in the States or in England is that they take three weeks to do one week.
They videotape it all and cut out all the bad things. To me that looks plastic. Anyone can do a TV show that way.

Do your producers point out certain ways that you do the show or is it mainly your own style?
It’s mainly my own style. My producer has just come out of hospital actually. She was my secretary in Adelaide and came across here as producer.

How does the crew like being brought into it? Are they genuinely shy?
Oh yeh, a lot get camera shy, but they’re a good mob. They’re good guys.

Do people watch the singing, the acts, or you?
No I don’t think people care much about the singing unless it’s a real good act.

What about the sketches?
Oh, they got bad for a while. They’ve improved.

Who writes them?
We let anyone write them and if we run them, we pay them. Which is a good idea, I think, because you get 30-40 people putting in gear to you.
And since we’ve started that we’ve got some good stuff.

What part of your work is most rewarding?
I suppose it is the ham in you: when yo get good ratings, the applause – that’s rewarding.
I don’t believe anyone works in it for the money. The money’s good but it’s not your first thought. I like doing floor shows interstate.

What do you feel about local content – you wanted to go into the promotion part of it – should it be the 75 per cent?
Not at the moment I don’t think, because I don’t think the stations cannot afford it yet.
See these guys who run around flag-waving, your Ted Hamiltons and those blokes who went to Terrigal, they forget.
They want residuals and all that but they forget there’s only 13 million people that live in Australia, whereas America has 284 million and England/Great Britain 65 million. They just can’t afford it.Have you, what would be considered internationally, a smaller or larger audience?
On pro-rata we’ve got an enormous audience. There’s 3½ million throughout Australia, whereas Johnny Carson in America has six million viewers.

Do you prefer pre-recorded stuff or live?
Well, you really, if you are recording you still look as if you’re doing it live anyway. It really doesn’t make much difference anyway. You will go straight through as if you were doing it live. But I suppose ‘live’ is better.

I might be quite insulting here but I think there is a sort of similarity between your show and Hal Todd, would you believe …
Hal Todd!
… insofar as there’s always the sense that something utterly chaotic going on. I think that’s one of the big things that sells it. Do you actually try and get that effect?
Well I never really know what I’m doing. Like tonight, I don’t know who’s on the program at all … never know.
Toddy … I can see that similarity actually with Toddy. Toddy’s a bit more outspoken than I am. Toddy gets on to some real wild subjects.
He’s a pretty intelligent guy actually. You know he was doing a thing on Judaism the other night … I didn’t know he knew so much about it.

How long do you spend over each sketch?
If nothing goes wrong – half the time we mess around – I suppose we’d do ten in an hour.

You never do any rehearsals or anything like that?
We do the commercials at half past two, the agencies like to come in.
On the show the other night someone almost won a car – the question seems to get harder all of a sudden.
Yeh, we knocked off 11 cars – we have so far – and all of a sudden they do seem to be a bit harder.

Where did ‘Ding Dong’ get her niockname from?
Oh, I just made it up one night by accident. There was a girl at 3DB and her name was Denise. I used to call her ‘Ding Dong’. I’d only been on a couple of weeks and I said ‘Ding Dong’ or something, and it just stuck.

Does she ever object to her physique being remarked upon?
Sometimes she did last year. Every time we did a comedy, the other time we’d use her was to show her boobs of. She got a bit dirty with that. She said she wanted to do a bit of acting.

Who do you think in Australian television is similar to you?
Daryl Somers actually, who the kids’ shows – I think he will end up doing a ‘Tonight’ show one day.
Daryl’s about the closest.

Who are your favourite local performers?
That’s hard. I don’t watch variety shows – I don’t like variety shows as a viewer, I watch documentaries – the news a lot. I probably watch Channel 2 more than anything. My favourite show at the moment show at the moment in World At War which I think is great.

Favourite performer? I’d say Denise would be my favourite.
I like Mary Hardy actually on her own. I saw her one night on her own and I thought she was brilliant. It was when Mike Williamson was sick and she did a 10-minute opening routine and she was brilliant. But the two of them together – it’s not on!

How come?
It just doesn’t work. He’s bloody dreadful, Williamson. If he had a brain, he’d be a … He’s a nice guy though.
That what they said about Snedden … who do you vote for?
I voted Labor last last time. I vote for whoever I think is going to do the right thing.

Who do you think you’ll be going for next time?
Oh I don;t know. I really don’t think they’re doing that bad a job. The trouble at the moment is world-wide. It’s not just Australia.

Do you think Malcolm Fraser will help them any?
No I don’t fancy Fraser actually. He strikes me as a bigot. He doesn’t appeal to me.

He doesn’t appeal to the normal working class man?
God no!

Do you feel related to the ordinary guy?
Well I am an ordinary guy.

Do they consciously see you as that?
Yes I think most people realise I’m just an ordinary working bloke: the same as theyare – just a bit luckier. I believe there’s a lot of people who could do the same job as I do if they had the break.

Do you get a lot of reaction on your comments?
Yeh, I’ve been sued 11 times for libel.

How many times have you won?
None. Although they haven’t all gone to court. There’s still a few coming up in Adelaide. I’ve lost five – I’ve gone to court.

What were they?
Well they were legit things I was talking about. Unofrtunately with our archaic bloody legal system in Australia, and England, you’re not allowed to tell the truth. That’s why in one way I agree with America because you would never have found out about Watergate.
Watergate could be going on here everyday and no one would ever know because you’re not allowed to talk about. The libel laws should be changed.

What sort of influence do you think you jhave when you make comments on the screen? Not just yourself but TV people in general.
I don’t think many people take much notice of what I say. They’d only say “Oh, Here he goes again, he’s only raving”.
With selling I think they do. If I sell things in commercials they do. But I don’t advertise things I don’t believe in anyway.
There’s a lot of fakes in show business. A hell of a lot of fakes. You get breaks and that, and really live it up. They really think they’re stars. I don’t believe in the word ‘star’ or ‘personality’.

Do you feel you’re an established figure now, or do you think sometimes there will be an overnight demise?
No. I don’t know. The public are always very fickle. But I’ve been doing ‘Tonight’ shows for 10 years non-stip in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne.

Have there been any changes in TV production in that time, or in your style?
Well I always keep up with what’s going on: news and everything. News and rock groups: I think I was the first to use rock groups – over in Adelaide.
A lot of people ring up and say ‘We don’t want bloody rock groups’ then you sdtart to get a different audience.
And these things on television you’d like to do but can’t do because of the type of show you’ve got.
I’d like to do a oncer: I’d like to an hour interview program – interviewing people. I’d love to do that. I’ve watched Frost and I reckon he’s a fake.
Fifteen researchers and he’s sitting there with a clip board – anyone can do that. I like interviewing.

You’ve had people on the show – which ones have you enjoyed interviewing?
Secombe was a good one – he’s mad Harry.
Warren Mitchell was a good one. He’s a very intelligent guy – Warren.

What about the time you were with Alf Garnett and he dropped a four-letterword? Do you think anything is going to happen over that? Did you expect him to do it?
Oh yes. But he’d say anything, Warren. Every time I’ve interviewed him he’s always said something. But he doesn’t care about it.

What about Peter Smith?
We give Peter hell.

Does he practice his parts at all? Or has he got used to be treated like that?
Yeh, Peter never smiles. Never laughs.

He is incredible when he dcoes the news. Do you watch him do the news?
Yeh, never smiles.
If you asked what was in the news straight after he wouldn’t know.

He seems to realise that nobody on the other side is listening to what he is saying, he does the craziest things with his voice.
Yeh, he did that because he reckoned no one watched it at last time – those night news services.
Sometimes he had to come in, say Friday nights at 19 past 12 and read the news. He’d be in bed and get out of bed, to read the news. He used to get nice and dirty. He’s a funny guy – Peter.

Would you like to have a program that Hal Todd has? He takes a lot of liberties and has a captive night-owl audience.
I’d never – there’s always something that stops me in the mind – I’d never rave on like Hal does. There’s always something in there that says ‘Hey c’mon, go easy’.

Have you any great fears that when you do shows that something terrible is going to happen?
No. You never think about it.

Are you always conscious of saying the right thing?
I suppose sometimes it’s in my mind. I really don’t believe how I don’t swear more than I do on television because I swear a hell of a lot. Something must stop it.
I think actually most swearing on television isn not an accident. I reckon if someone is going to swear they’ll plan it – deliberately do it because once you’re talking into a microphone or on TV something really does stop you from swearing.

Do have many sexual jokes on the show?
Oh yeh that’s been a topic since man. Sex: there’s always something inferring sex all the time.
You are get wowsers ringing up complaining.

It doesn’t worry you?
No, they’re a minority. Some people are demented – like the Festival of Light. They’ll see dirt in anything. You brush your teeth, they’ll say it’s something to do with sec. They get me in those people. They watch all the porno stuff and then say you can’t see it.
I see Pat Boone came ot for them, didn’t he? I think he shits ice cream, he’s so sweet.
How many students at Melbourne University?

About 15,000.
Are there!?

Do you think they watch it?
Yeh, we get a few uni students in sometimes in the audience. I wouldn’t say a great percentage would. I know what I’d be doing if I was at Uni – I wouldn’t be watching television of a night.
If I was a bachelor, I wouldn’t be watching television for sure.
There’s about half a dozen of ‘em that live next door in a terrace place. I’m there sometimes and they’re there swinging away and I think I’ll have to get in there. I’m waiting for an invite.

Do you get many people down at your house?
Oh kids love pressing the buzzer and running – before I coume out. I don’t get pestered much.

What do you think about that type of stuff? Do you mind doing autographs?
I don’t really mind it. I said to my wife the other day, I don’t really understand why people hunt for autographs because I could never imagine asking someone for an autograph.
You get the real dedicated ones. Sometimes I come into work here and there’s young girls out here by the gate and jeez, they’ve got about 30 books with photos of me. They take photos, they’re really dedicated. They bring in presents.
The audience bring in a hell of a lot of gear.

Has it ever been a struggle to keep your feet on the ground?
Not for me it hasn’t been. A lot of people I’ve seen have got bigheaded in this business – really carried away with all.

How much of this does it take up of your private life? How much of a private life can you have?
I have a good life because I don’t let it worry me – I just don’t carried away with it.
I just do all of the ordinary things through the week, like around with my mates.
Fortunately, I’m the sort of person that people yell out and talk to you and all that, but they don’t have a go at me – so I can have a private life.

What are your hobbies and pastimes?
Golf, reading, drinking – that takes up a fair bit of your time. I’m a bit of a bugger on the booze.
I used to play my LPs at home. I like classical music too, strangely enough. I was driving along the other day in the car with this organ playing Bach.
I had it turned right up and I pulled up at the lights – I was in a sort of dream.
The guy was looking as if I were bloody mad. But I get sexy with classical music – I think it;s very horny. I really do. I like wild rock too.

Do you people typecast you and expect you to behave in a certain way?
Yes, a kot of people, a lot of the press think I’m an ocker, but I’m definitely not an ocker!

What would an ocker be?
I don’t know really. I don’t know what the definition of ocker is – but unfortunately
in this country, as soon as you become successful the press try to rip you down.
I’m not a professional Australian: I don’t work at being Auistralian. It’s just what I am.

What you drive incidentally?
A Mercedes. That’s been one of my fads all my life: cars. Plenty of cars. Wouldn’t buy a Holden on principle. It’s supposed to be the wokingman’s car – no bloody way in the world it’s a workingman’s car. And I don’t like GMH.

How do you get on with the management of Channel 9?
I don’t have much to do with ‘em. Telkl ‘em to nick off sometimes. I’ve had a few blues with ‘em.

Where does Ernie Sigley go from here?
Well I’d like to get out in a couple of years and …

Retire?
Yeh. I’d like to have a production company and it sound a bit corny, I suppose, but help Australian talent. Not so much in variety, but doing drama stuff. I think our drama is shithouse what we do on television.

You mean Crawfords?
Yes Jesus!
And you know I think it’s a young man’s game: television. I think there should bed more young people in it.
It’s a young wiorld, 65 per cent of the population is under 35. But that’s my ambition, to go into production.

As a promoter, or acting in or directing?
No, having a go at putting all the right people in charge.