Before social media, there was Tim Bowden’s ‘Backchat’

He’s been called ‘a cuddly koala’, ‘a supercilious clot’, and lots else besides. In this latest story in our series celebrating ABC’s 90th Anniversary, veteran broadcaster Tim Bowden looks back on his years presenting ‘Backchat’, the popular twice-weekly program (1986-1994) where viewers sent their bouquets and brickbats to the national broadcaster. And in two new and timely ‘Chatback’ videos for ABC Alumni – Scotty and Lachlan – Tim shows he hasn’t lost his trademark wit – or that wry smile!

By Tim Bowden / 14 May 2022

Backchat’s forum is astonishingly simple. Its commentator, Tim Bowden (who reminds one of a koala and therefore should be protected) sits in front of the camera introducing written commentary from the viewers.

          – Jim Oram, television critic, Daily Telegraph, Sydney, 10 September 1989

The first Backchat went to air in January 1986. I was surprised to be chosen as its compere, as I had the belief that my middle-aged rather crumpled face was far better suited to radio than television. I had last appeared on ABC TV in the early 1970s when, as an associate producer for the current affairs flagship This Day Tonight, I sometimes had to do a studio interview when one of the regular more telegenic reporters was not available.

Chatback 2022: Scotty has a problem.

Radio interviewers use their faces a lot and move their bodies to encourage people to talk, rather than muttering ‘aha’, or ‘um – goodness gracious me’, or giggles plus other things that make later sound editing difficult. Television interviewers, at least back then, sat like graven images by comparison. Every time the director cut to a shot of me, I was invariably grimacing, or jumping about like a cane toad about to be swatted with a No. 7 iron. The more I thought about the likelihood of the camera switching to me, the more nervous I became. The more tense I became, the more one side of my mouth closed up as if afflicted by a partial stroke. I was happier away from studio cameras.

Some years later even Backchat’s first studio director, Ron Elliott, found it hard to find a diplomatic description of the compere he had to put on camera, when asked by the Sydney Morning Herald’s television reviewer.

‘Tim is one of the real people – not super pretty!’ (Thank you, Ron.)

How it all began

In the 1980s I was working as the executive producer with ABC Radio National’s Social History Unit. That is where Peg McDonald, then Head of Research and Development for ABC television (later, Director of Television), came in December 1985 to broach the possibility of me fronting a letters reaction program for ABC Television. Paddy Conroy, the ABC’s then Controller of Television Programs wanted such a program, and Peg was his emissary.

‘But why me?’, I remember asking. ‘Because we think you can write a witty script.’

‘Thanks for saying that,’ sez I, ‘but there must be another reason.’

Peg paused, and said almost defiantly, ‘We like your strong larrikin streak.’

I replied, ‘I think that’s the nicest thing senior management has said about me for years!’

We began planning. The first essential was to find a name. I wanted to call the program Dear Auntie, but Paddy Conroy didn’t like that, and we had a week to come up with something better. Backchat leapt out of the pages of Roget’s Thesaurus to hit the shortlist. It seemed appropriately short, pungent, and cheeky. It wasn’t until the program had been running for some months that we discovered it was also the name of a regular column in the Adelaide Advertiser and several instructional magazines. Backchat newsletters, we realised, were produced by: The Border Collie Club of Victoria, The Backpain Research Foundation in Western Australia, and The Australian Ankylosing Spondylitis Society of Victoria.

Fortunately, there is no copyright on titles. In the absence of any letters for a program that had not yet appeared, we went to ABC Departments for a selection of their mail. And so, on 28 January 1986, I faced the cameras with an almost unfrozen lip – ‘Another of the ABC’s stable of unlikely faces’, according to The Age Green Guide. 

And so, perched on a stool in front of a fairly primitive backdrop, I heard myself saying:

Good evening and welcome to the first Backchat – a program where you, the ABCs consumers, can make your views about the ABC known, the radio and television programs, that we’re doing, not doing, or perhaps should be doing. Brickbats or bouquets are equally welcome, in fact anything you want to say about the ABC…

On a personal note, I’m Tim Bowden, last seen on ABC TV in the black-and-white days. We are heavily into recycling these days… 

Chatback 2022: Tim responds to Lachlan.

In that first program we fielded comments on television comedy, children’s programs (Flash Gordon), the exit of Community Hymn Singing on ABC Radio and the advent of the more Contemporary Sounds of Sunday, outrage at cricket displacing children’s programs (a continuing theme over the years), complaints about the broadcasting of Parliament on ABC Radio National and, not to be forgotten, the letter from teenager Bronwen Halls (North Carlton, Vic) writing ‘On behalf of about six trillion people who are still amazed by The Young Ones’ and asking the  ABC to repeat the entire series. Which we did.

Viewers very quickly perceived that Backchat was the place to complain, praise, make program suggestions and put forward opinions on ABC policies. Only a small percentage of the mail actually made it to air of course. And even if we could not broadcast all of them, we made sure that these letters – be they questions or complaints about news, current affairs, sport, music or drama – were referred to the appropriate ABC specialist departments for a response.

And no, we did not make up any of the letters. There were always plenty to choose from, and the variety of responses to the ABC about our programs were a constant delight. 

I did not broadcast anonymous letters, nor people trying to use nom de plumes. Following correspondence from a certain Mavis Frizzletit (Arcadia Vale, NSW), I remarked to camera that I had grave doubts about the veracity of her surname because there weren’t any other Frizzletits in the phone book. Mavis wrote back in alleged distress because I had made fun of her name. Perhaps she had a silent number, or was using her maiden name. In real life she turned out to be a psychiatric nurse and later came on the program to voice her anguish. On camera, she said, ‘But there are hundreds of Frizzletits in the phone book.’ I said I had looked and there were none. She said, ‘Yes there are, it is Gaelic for Smith.’ This was a pre-recorded segment and the production staff fell about in fits of laughter and could not go on, so we had to do it again. (For the record her name was Smith.) 

Many people wrote to the ABC simply to say how much they appreciated the work of the national broadcaster, and its commercial-free programs. I did run those letters occasionally, but it is the nature of the beast that the letters of complaint tended to be more interesting and entertaining. 

One of the cardinal rules of radio and television is: ‘Thou shalt not bore’, and some of the more inventive invective tends to go to air rather than more conventional correspondence. It’s just as well most of the ABC’s presenters had fairly thick hides. When Andrew Denton fronted his program The Money or the Gun (1989-90), Ian Morrison (Frankston, Vic) did not mince his words. ‘Who was on quality control patrol the night this little dud emerged from the primaeval slime?’ 

Fortunately, Andrew Denton can take it as well as deal it out.

I had total freedom with the selection of letters – subject to the usual constraints of the laws of libel and defamation. (Andrew Denton didn’t sue me.) The admirable Peg McDonald helped with the sorting and indeed replies to the letters, continuing her association with Backchat from its birth for the next nine years. Doing the program without her help and wise counsel was unthinkable.

Brickbats among the bouquets

Reactions to Backchat were mixed. Athol Molesworth (Karhiba, NSW) said we were:

All chat and nothing back, an empty pointless waste of TV time – albeit executed with flair!

There was always a good deal of interest in the voices used to read out the letters. Non-sexist letter writing is all very well, but we had to make a decision whether to use a male or female voice for each one. I suppose there’s a fifty per cent chance of getting it right! Some writers put in a PS along the following lines:

I am a middle-aged Yorkshireman, so please don’t make me sound like Ben Bowyang west of Woop Woop…

Or:

I’m a cow cocky from the Mallee, so make sure I don’t finish up with one of those poncy Pommy voices you seem to have so many of…

The age of the writers presented another challenge. An occasional Backchat contributor was Mary Forbes (Cremorne, NSW). In one of her letters she mentioned that she was in her eighties. I was misguided enough to suggest ‘older voice-over’ in the script. The following epistle zinged back from Mary:

Dear Mr Bowden, 

I maybe 80-odd, but I do not have a cracked voice. Indeed I have been told anyone talking to me on the phone would be hard put to tell what age group I am in. So please do not let any future contribution of mine be read as if I was the Witch of Endor.

The traps are many. Duncan Harris (Churchill, VIC) even alleged that we displayed disgusting bias in the way we selected the voices of our readers:

I have noticed it when people’s letters are being read out, those complimenting the ABC are spoken very nicely, so as to present the image of someone who has thought about what they are saying, and not just writing a crank letter.

When a letter is read criticising the ABC, an angry voice is used to make people think a crank has written the letter.

It wasn’t just the program copping flack, so did its compere. After I had been absent from the program for some two months in 1989, J. ‘Speedy’ Daisy, (Nyngan, NSW) wrote:

In all my years as a viewer of Aunty this is the first time I can recall her doing the right thing. I see they sent Tim Bowden of Backchat for a stretch of time in the Antarctic. It’s about time they kept that supercilious clot down south and kept him on ice.’

And I cannot resist quoting from the most savage letter I received in my whole nine years with Backchat. Notionally from one Louise Jones (Hobart, Tas), who wrote directly to the then ABC Managing Director David Hill:

Dear Mr Hill, 

You ought to do something about Tim Bowden. Not only is he supercilious (unbecoming in one so old) but his sensibility is juvenile and his taste tacky.

We had occasion to help organise a talk he gave at a writers’ weekend in Hobart, and the consensus afterwards was: ‘He’s shallow and he’s slimy’. He has influence in the ABC because so many decades have a lapsed since he joined, and brighter and more to the point, honest souls have moved on elsewhere. 

We did not wish to be shown the Russian ballet dancer Nureyev’s cock on Backchat (27/2/92). It was, though, Bowden who exposed himself – cheap, and oh so smart. 

Will never watch him again. 

Sincerely,

Louise Jones and like-minded Mrs Vanessa Pringle-Jones.

Backchat was even accused of interfering in the emotional life of viewers. 

L. Hite (Gladstone, Qld) wrote to tell me how much her husband liked the show:

I was feeling quite amorous that night, but we had to wait for Backchat to come on. I thought I would fix that. I went away, completely stripped, came back and stood in front of the TV naked as a bird. His response was: ‘Do you mind… I am waiting for Backchat’!

Congratulations ABC you are ruining my love life…

All chat and nothing back

But what was the point of it all? A fair question, addressed by that doyen of letter writers, the late Larry Foley (Townsville Qld), who asked if many of the cogent letters suggesting program changes ever went further than the Backchat desk?

There is no evidence on my screen that anybody important takes the slightest notice of letters to Backchat. These letters serve merely to provide slightly elegant and patronising amusement for the higher-ups. Or don’t they watch Backchat?

One executive who certainly watched Backchat was its executive producer Patrick Furlong, the ABC’s Head of Presentation. He was also responsible for all promotions run on ABC TV, ranging from highlighting the ABC’s forthcoming attractions to parading the wares of ABC Shops. At one point our viewers expressed forcefully to Backchat that they thought the hard sell was being over-done. So I devoted one whole program to bagging the work of the department run by my own executive producer! It is to Patrick’s eternal credit that he swallowed hard and copped it sweet.

As the public broadcaster, the ABC is responsible to all Australians for the quality of its service. And our consumers told us frankly and cogently what they thought. None of the commercial stations offered a similar feedback-style program – and one can speculate about this. Perhaps advertising pressures might have made it too difficult, or perhaps the egos of personalities and producers might have been more fragile than their ABC counterparts? 

In my opinion, justice is generally done in the longer term – reflecting the perceived worth of a production. 

The ABCs drama serial GP took a drubbing on Backchat when it first started. After several months, letters did pay tribute to its actors, storylines and quoted instances where the medical conditions written into the script have been of great assistance to mothers of hyperactive children, schizophrenics, people with drug dependency problems of one kind or another – the mail was very positive. 

However, another long-running ABC drama The Last Resort was constantly savaged by newspaper critics and Backchat’s correspondents through all its episodes. GP had worked, The Last Resort hadn’t. The reality was mirrored in the mail. 

Although we were on the receiving end of many complaints, we were dealing with our own consumers. There was a love-hate quality to Backchat’s mail that was almost family, if I can put it that way. People wrote to us because they cared. 

A penultimate word from the up-and-coming viewing generation came from seven-and-a-half-year-old years old Elissa von Badegraven (Canberra, ACT):

Hey, I don’t want to say this, you are boring. Why do you need to put on these silly comments every week? You make me go to sleep… PS My dad thinks you’re great!’

Thanks Dad, sorry Elissa. 

And the last word from Diana Richard (Casuarina NT):

Backchat – the program that makes heckling the ABC worthwhile!

Broadcaster Tim Bowden presented ‘Backchat’ twice a week – Tuesdays and Thursdays – on ABC-TV from 1986 to 1994. You can see sample Backchat episodes here.

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