The Holy Grail

Wendy Borchers AM worked at the ABC from 1967 until her retirement in 2010. She says one of her proudest moments in her long television career was at Four Corners. She is co-author (with Tim Bowden) of the book “Aunty’s Jubilee: Celebrating 50 Years of ABC”, published in 2006, and is now ABC Alumni’s Rural & Regional Co-ordinator.

Film researcher Wendy Borchers at her Steenbeck, ABC Ultimo 2004.

THE HOLY GRAIL

By Wendy Borchers / 9 August 2021

The road to the birth of Four Corners sixty years ago was a rocky one for the founders of the program, executive producer Robert Raymond and presenter/reporter Michael Charlton. One senior ABC executive even snarled at them as he brushed past that the program would be transmitted over his dead body! 

I’m not sure what happened to the executive, but Four Corners – or 4Corners as we knew it back then – premiered at 8:30 pm on Saturday 19 August 1961. It was Budget night and that was the big story, with Charlton and a team of reporters posted in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne to explain every little machination of the Budget process – from an interview with Treasurer Harold Holt right down to pre-recorded film showing the ABC graphic artist in the Budget lock-up, hand-painting the key information on boards to be rushed over to the ABC studios for broadcast that night. 

It was different, and it caught on. Luckily the majority of ABC executives ever since have supported the program, which 60 years later is renowned as Australia’s most significant investigative program – and the holy grail for those who work in current affairs.   

As for the title, Robert Raymond could never quite recall who actually suggested Four Corners, but said he first heard it from Michael Charlton, who’d recited “Come the four corners of the world in arms and we shall shock them”.  According to Raymond, Shakespeare’s King John was often misquoted like this, in that it’s really “three corners of the world”… but he felt that four would do nicely for them.

A chance conversation

Key AM staffers in 1968, at the old ABC premises at 171 William Street, Kings Cross: then-secretary Wendy Borchers, journalist Hank Curth and presenter Brian Wright.

My own history with Four Corners started in a rather roundabout way. 

I started out in Radio Talks in William Street, Kings Cross, as secretary to the producer of AM when that program began in September 1967. This led to a job as assistant to the chief-of-staff in TV News at Gore Hill, followed by two years as production secretary on an all-film drama production called Delta, before returning to TV News just in time for the Qantas Hoax, a source of great excitement.

One day I struck up a conversation with one of the film librarians, Lois Lawson, head of Film Research, who used to visit News on a regular basis, usually to collect the daily film from the editors. Lois told me there was to be a vacancy for a researcher very soon. I applied for the job and was duly promoted to the position, which meant my life changed quite dramatically, especially as I was now on shift work with differing hours. 

As the junior researcher in the library, I was assigned to children’s programs, like Junior World, so I was asked to find films produced by such organisations as Encyclopaedia Britannica with intriguing titles like Root-knot Nematode and Tribute to Fangio. Only the more experienced researchers such as Lois, or Elizabeth Steptoe or Wendy Odlum, worked on more complicated programs such as This Day Tonight, Four Corners or documentary series such as Mister Prime Minister.

Five researchers and four cataloguers worked in our section of the Film Library and we were located on the mezzanine floor in the Gore Hill studio building, where we had a clear view of who went out to lunch with whom, which was most enlightening.

Wendy Borchers in the old Gore Hill archives, 1970s.

Terrorists – and my big break

One day, when everyone else was busy, journalist Gordon Bick from Four Corners came down to see us, bearing a piece of paper on which was written a list of material he wanted to illustrate a story he was producing on the fascist Croatian terrorist group, Ustasha, which had been active in Australia recently, especially in Sydney.  Here was my big break! I was allowed to take the assignment, which was extremely stimulating. I was on a steep learning curve, and it had the effect of my being hooked on the work ever since.  

Meticulously combing through the records, I managed to find many items showing images of the atrocities. Gordon Bick was immensely pleased and told me he was going to give me a visual end credit to show his appreciation. Wow, a credit, I hadn’t thought of that. When my name – Film Research: Wendy Borchers – appeared on the story, which Gordon called “Ustasha Down Under”, my flatmates and I cheered.  My mother, up in the Hunter Valley, saw my name up in lights too, having gathered some of the neighbours together to watch the show with her. It truly was one of the proudest moments of my whole lengthy career in the television and film industry. 

From Little Things Big Things Grow

So many talented staff have passed through the Four Corners’ front door in the last 60 years that it’s very difficult to select stories for special mention.  But some are iconic. Who will ever forget cameraman Les Wasley’s footage of he and journalist Allan Hogan running for their lives to board the last Chinook helicopter from the battlefield at Xuan Loc in the days leading up to the Fall of Saigon in 1975, for example? 

Archives and Libraries staff, Gore Hill circa 1996:  L-R, back row, David Crombie, Nat Vula, Jake Lloyd-Jones; next row, Salvatore Russo, Brian May, Bronwyn Dowdall, Rhiannon and David; second row from front, Chris Shale, Natasha Marfutenko; front row Robert Hodgson, Wendy Borchers.

Another story which springs to mind is Frank Bennett’s “The Price of Equality”. 

In 1966 Frank had heard that Gurindji Aboriginal stockmen were on strike at Wattie Creek, part of the vast Wave Hill cattle station in a remote region of the Northern Territory. Frank jumped on a plane with a camera crew to find out what the fuss was all about. 

Out there, Frank learned that the stockmen, domestic workers and their families were tired of injustice over wages, living conditions and land rights. Led by Vincent Lingiari, they refused to keep working for the owners of Wave Hill station, the family of the British peer and businessman, Lord Samuel Vestey.  

At Wattie Creek, one of Frank’s interviewees, along with Vincent Lingiari, was Robert Tudawali, star of Charles and Elsa Chauvel’s 1955 feature film, Jedda. It was powerful stuff. 

The strike lasted seven years and influenced the first legislation, passed in 1976, which allowed Aboriginal people to claim land rights. 

The struggle is also the subject of Paul Kelly’s iconic recording of “From Little Things, Big Things Grow” (written by Kev Carmody):

Eight years went by, eight long years of waiting,

Till one day a tall stranger appeared in the land,

He came with lawyers and he came with great ceremony

And through Vincent’s fingers poured a handful of sand,

From little things, big things grow, from little things, big things grow….

Kerry O’Brien wants some footage

In 1985 I was assigned to a story Kerry O’Brien was producing on the 10th anniversary of the tumultuous sacking of the Whitlam government. It was a subject close to my heart and I felt I’d managed to find all the footage required by Kerry to illustrate his work, so I was feeling rather smug!  

It’s quite true that pride comes before a fall because Kerry then explained how on the night of 10th November 1975, the night before the Dismissal, the Whitlams and the Frasers had attended the Lord Mayor’s Ball in Melbourne. At the last minute, Mr Whitlam offered Mr Fraser and his wife Tammy places on the VIP prime-ministerial jet, meaning they would all be back in Canberra in plenty of time for the sitting of the House of Representatives the next morning.  

“There’s footage of this,” Kerry said, “because George Negus [ABC’s Canberra Parliament House reporter back then] was on the plane and he told me the cameras recorded the evening’s events, especially the arrival of the jet in Canberra in the middle of the night.”

My heart sank; never had I heard about this incident and I certainly had not seen footage of it. I searched high and low, muttering darkly about needles and haystacks, and the film failed to materialise.  

In the knowledge that the images were critical to Kerry’s story, and Australian history into the bargain, I kept searching for the elusive vision, realising that it was obviously uncatalogued and I had little hope of finding it. Never say die, as my mother would have said, because there came the day when once again I was searching for stray cans of film in the vault and noticed a row of two-inch videotapes – most unusual because two-inch tapes were not usually kept in our vault, but stored in the Federal Film Library in another building altogether. 

So I took a closer look, and written on the label of one was the date of recording 10/11/75 and the title, Nationwide. This was suspicious because the current affairs series Nationwide was not launched until 1979!  Suddenly I was convinced this was it. I grabbed the tape and rushed it up to Videotape to put it on a machine so Kerry and I could view it. This was it alright! There were the shots of the Whitlams and the Frasers together on the tarmac in Canberra early in the morning of 11th November 1975, only a few hours before Malcolm Fraser was set to drive to Government House to meet with the Governor-General, John Kerr, to discuss the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government. The row of two-inch tapes had been despatched to the Sydney library from Canberra, many years earlier, where they were placed on a shelf in the vault and their presence had been forgotten. I had been searching for 16mm film!  I think this was my greatest Eureka moment of all time!  Thank you, Kerry for making it possible!

Wendy Borchers in July 1982 at a staff celebration for the completion of a documentary commemorating 50 years of television, From Carbon Mikes to Satellites.

An enduring legacy

It’s impossible to acknowledge everyone with whom I worked, but I would also like to salute the Four Corners Clippings Librarians, Gwen Greenfield (who began the collection in the very early days), Adelaide Beavis, and Kate Owen who continued Gwen and Adelaide’s tradition. The collection is invaluable; I know, because I had the pleasure of stepping into Kate’s shoes when she went on extended leave in the early 90s.  Once upon a time this library was only available to Four Corners’ staff, but by the time I arrived it was accessible to all departments.  

Film Research department at Gore Hill, mid-1980s:  L-R:  Wendy Borchers discussing a filming request with 4Cs journalist Shaun Hoyt (foreground), with film researchers Christina Purcell and Cindy Wood, cataloguers Tim Gallagher and Marilynne Vietnieks, archivist Wendy Benson, and other researchers in the background.

I have greatly enjoyed the opportunity to share my memories of working on what I consider to be one of the greatest programs the ABC has ever produced and I raise a glass to everyone who has contributed over the years and especially to those who who are still there, ensuring that Four Corners remains world class. Robert Raymond and Michael Charlton would be so proud of you!

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