Quiz Contestant Barry Jones Challenges TV Host Bob Dyer over his question, “Who was the first Governor General of India?
Just as the best death is that which is unexpected, so is the best television.
My memory of Bob and Dolly Dyer’s Pick A Box is the memory of a spellbound schoolkid. My memory flickers in black and white, and strangely as every year passes the incident itself seems more detailed and embellished than on the very day it happened,
I can see Bob Dyer, household name “Howdy Customers” Bob Dyer, superstar of radio and television. By his side is Dolly, his beaming wife and omnipresent TV companion, looking beautiful in her 50s cotton dress as though fresh from baking scones or demonstrating a new Frigidaire.
Bob and Dolly are not merely a married entertainment couple, they are the married entertainment couple. More famous than the Prime Minister and his wife, Sir Robert and Dame Patti, Bob and Dolly are a double act, an institution, a televisual embodiment of the aspirations of the post-war generation, one single unit of baby boomer celebrity.
The show is BP Pick A Box. For 23 years, Pick A Box has been Australia’s dominant quiz show, first on radio from 1948 and then on television until 1971.
“Let’s go over and meet our contestant, the clever schoolteacher from Caulfield, Barry Jones,” enthuses Bob in his Texas drawl.
Seated behind the flimsy desk is the nation’s hirsute quiz champ, Barry Jones. A child of the depression who has used his prodigious capacity for learning to lever himself from his birthplace of Geelong to the selective school Melbourne High to a scholarship at the University of Melbourne, knowledge has always been Barry’s thing. As a small child, Barry would journey by tram to the studios of local radio station 3DB to watch William Alexander Osborne, Professor of Psychology at Melbourne Uni, dominate the early radio quiz shows with his rambling, know-it-all style. For a lonely young boy in a big city, Osborne became Barry’s male role model and would heavily influence not only Barry’s quiz show style, but his later approach to learning and life.
Now, in this era of television, it is Barry’s turn. For the past eight years Barry has dominated BP Pick A Box, winning $58,000 and becoming a household name. Barry is the Professor Osborne of his generation. Ask Barry anything. Go on. Barry knows the answer. Black and brooding, eyes afire, his moustache bristling in sagacious anticipation, Barry is Rain Man channelled by Merv Hughes.
Now, this is the bit that stands out in the library of my memory.
Asks Bob, “Who was the first Governor-General of India?”
Barry Jones is taken aback as if he has witnessed an assault. Barry thinks. Barry’s brow furrows and his eyebrows arch. Clearly something is troubling Barry. Finally Barry unleashes. Now follows a diatribe by Barry about the distinction between a Viceroy, a Governor-General, a Governor-General of India and that of Bengal. “Do you mean the Governor-General of Bengal? Because up until 1833 the position was styled as the Governor of Bengal. If you mean Warren Hastings, then technically he was only Governor-General of Bengal. But after the Governor Of India Act…” . Now Barry digresses to the subject of India. “India did not exist as one unified country until the 20th Century”, and on and on and on Barry opines.
A long, long pause.
Bob Dyer shuffles and examines his tiny answer card. This was not expected. Nothing on the card equips Bob to deal with Barry Jones’ monotonic smart arsery. Bob looks off screen to the unseen question writer George Black, but there is no assistance there.
Bob milks the moment like a dairy farmer with school fees to pay. Bob sighs, he looks for help, he shrugs, he mops his brow, he shakes his head, he shrugs again. Bob knows not what to do. Bob knows precisely what to do. Bob is an Eddie McGuire masterclass before there is an Eddie McGuire.
Mum and Andy and Dad and I sit spellbound in front of our TV.
Finally, when it seems the entire Episode has been consumed by the business of one small question, Bob utters his immortal line.
“Customers, I am in a dilemma.”
Even as I write, I can see this in my minds eye as clearly as when Andy and I sat cross legged, mouths open in front of the telly all those years ago.
By all objective measurement, this small incident from one quiz show on one station on one network in one year of 57 years of analogue television, almost certainly does not merit inclusion in any list of televisions greatest moments.
There were no celebrities. There were no grandiose production schedules or location shoots. No President was mourned nor any rocket launched. No budgets were blown or broadcasting tribunals outraged. No network promos announced the arrival of this moment several weeks in advance.
But at its essence television is a mad woman of a medium, defying common sense, and venerating the personal and the trivial and the bizzare. And the unexpected. By the wholly subjective criteria of a primary school boy entranced by immediacy and spotaneity, this was a moment of unpremeditated joy.
Each of us have our own private TV moments. It’s hard describe them to anyone who didn’t see them. You had to be there. That’s the very point. Like a great dinner party confession, or sitting in the audience of a concert when the star pulls an audience member on stage and you witness something you know is unique and out of the box, a one off, there is magic in the brilliantly unexpected. You had to be there.
Doubtless you’ve got your personal moment. This is mine.
Barry Jones went from quiz winning schoolteacher to become one of Australia’s great polymaths; a broadcaster, author, distinguished Member of Parliament, Minister for Science, President of the Federal labour Party, author of the Dictionary of Biography, member of UNESCO and on and on. Bob and Dolly retired from television and turned their enthusiasm to big game fishing.
Life moves on but the moments stick. The details might not be precisely as they happened; as Wodehouse observed, “Memories are like mulligatawny soup in a cheap restaurant. It is best not to stir them”.
But for me, that golden, triumphant, unexpected moment is exactly as I will choose to remember it forever.