Hey Hey It’s Saturday was appointment viewing. Australian TV has changed a lot since its demise

Hey Hey It’s Saturday was appointment viewing. Australian TV has changed a lot since its demise
  • PublishedJune 9, 2024

Daryl Somers was the face of Hey Hey It’s Saturday, but if you close your eyes and think back on the show, the voice you hear in your mind is probably not Daryl or even his longtime puppet sidekick Ossie Ostrich — it was the show announcer and MVP John Blackman.

John Blackman died earlier this week at age 76. No cause of death was revealed, but Blackman had been diagnosed with skin cancer, with part of his jaw removed in 2019.

His voice was iconic and part of the tapestry of Australian culture throughout the 80s and 90s. Providing snarky commentary as Hey Hey’s announcer and the voice of cheeky schoolboy Dickie Knee, Blackman was an integral part of the success of the show.

The audience never knew when they would hear Blackman chime in as the show’s voice-of-god to deliver a rude or savage joke, but Blackman was always there to deliver a one-liner or two. It was a crucial role on the show as it helped stimulate Hey Hey’s anarchic format and to help patch over any energy lulls that could be felt over the course of the lengthy two-hour show.

Australian comedian Mark Humphries commented on the passing of Blackman: “In combination with the character of Dickie Knee, he was able to play high status and low. His voice was the soundtrack to that show. It’s hard to think of many other Australian performers whose speaking voice lives in our collective memory the way that John Blackman’s does.”

Never to be repeated

It has been 25 years since Hey Hey It’s Saturday was officially cancelled by Channel Nine. Rating 1.2 million viewers on a Saturday night, a 1999 audience of that size deemed the show a failure. Today, many network executives would be very happy seeing numbers like that on a weeknight, let alone a Saturday night.

Since the cancellation, host Daryl Somers has never quite been able to leave the show behind. He famously got Channel Nine to revive the show a decade later for two specials. The audience was highly receptive, with the specials out-rating their competition, inspiring the TV network to revive the show as an ongoing program in 2010. Channel Nine mistook audience nostalgia for ongoing interest and the show was again cancelled that year.

The cast of Hey Hey It's Saturday smiling at the camera.
 Blackman (right) worked on Hey Hey until it was cancelled in 1999.(Supplied: Nine)

We probably won’t see a variety show like Hey Hey It’s Saturday on the air again — it is a type of TV that belongs in the past, out of alignment with the way that many of us watch TV nowadays. Running two hours every Saturday night, it was a loosely formatted mishmash of musical artists, sketches, repeated segments, and games. And while that sounds fun, it is difficult to make that appointment viewing in prime time.

There aren’t many shows like this on TV anywhere around the world anymore. In the UK earlier this year we saw the similar Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway take what may be a permanent hiatus and in the US variety TV died out decades ago. Late night talk shows are the only equivalent and even those are seeing a continual decline in viewership.

An Australian effort in 2019 by Channel Ten to launch a local version of Saturday Night Takeaway hosted by Chris Brown and Julia Morris came and went quickly with just eight episodes airing. That same year Ten launched Saturday Night Rove, but that was killed off after just two episodes aired.

Chris Brown,  Julia Morris and two children all wear tuxedos on a set with the neon sign 'Saturday Night Takeaway' behind them.
A local version of the UK’s Saturday Night Takeaway hosted by Chris Brown and Julia Morris was axed after just eight episodes.(Supplied: Network Ten)

Hey Hey worked because it was a loose and anarchic reflection of the daggy Australian sense of humour and identity. 

If we are being honest with ourselves, that sense of humour and identity hasn’t really changed that much (though, hopefully we are far less outwardly racist with our broadcast TV entertainment). But what has changed is the way we watch TV — we are watching less of it live and on broadcast channels.

An Australian voice

The accusations of racism levelled at Blackman and Hey Hey over the years need to be considered as part of John Blackman’s legacy also.

Hey Hey infamously welcomed Jackson Jive to perform on its second 2009 reunion special, a group reuniting after appearing on Hey Hey’s beloved terrible-talent competition Red Faces 20 years prior. After guest judge Harry Connick Jr stormed off the set after seeing the offensive blackface sketch being performed, it sparked a week of intense media scrutiny over the show.

While the Jackson Jive sketch isn’t attributed to Blackman, there was a long legacy of racist quips and targeted behaviour with Blackman often the instigator.

Regular guest Kamahl (who has been facing his own legal problems of late) was often the target of Blackman’s jokes, which he has spoken out about in recent years. In an interview with the ABC, he explained that he would often play along with the jokes to support his career:

“My theory is that as an entertainer, if you’re not on television they think you’re dead… I volunteered, knowing full well that there would be a downside to it. Never realising how offensive the downside would be… it’s a terrible feeling.”

It would be wrong, however, to only think about Blackman’s legacy only through the prism of these comments. There’s obviously no excuse for the jokes that he made, but it’s important to consider that neither he, nor the show more broadly, were being called out for this behaviour while it was on the air.

Australia had a permission structure in place that allowed Blackman’s jokes to be aired on TV each week. This was mainstream entertainment.

Blackman wasn’t just the voice of the show, but he was also reflective of the voice of mainstream Australia at the time.

SOURCE: ABCNEWS

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