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Peter Charlton, 83, has been a lifelong, loyal ABC fan and not just because he appreciates its programs, the ABC has been a significant part of his family history.

Elderly man sitting in an armchair tuning and old fashioned radio.

Peter Charlton remembers as a child gathering around the radio with his family to listen to the ABC.( ABC News: Shaun Kingma )

His father Conrad (Con) Charlton was the first voice on the ABC, announcing "This is the Australian Broadcasting Commission" before introducing then Prime Minister Joseph Lyons to launch the national broadcaster on July 1, 1932. He went onto work for the organisation for more than 20 years – on air and as a manager of ABC studios in Western Australia and Victoria.

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"The ABC was very special to my father, it was his life," recalls Peter Charlton.

"He was there at the start and he was very proud of the ABC, what it was doing then and what it could do. To be the first man on radio was historic. We were always tuned to the ABC. It was mandatory to have the news on every night and at 7.30 on a Sunday night there was an interview program, and it was important that the family after dinner would sit around and listen."

A quarter of a century later, Peter Charlton's older brother Michael, who'd followed their father into radio, became the first face on ABC television when it started in 1956 and, later, was the co-creator of Four Corners.

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Play Video. Duration: 5 minutes 28 seconds

The opening night of ABC TV hosted by Michael Charlton

Another brother, Tony Charlton, who made his name as a legendary sport commentator on commercial TV – part of the inaugural Channel 9 team covering the '56 Olympics, calling the first televised VFL match on Channel 7 and hosting the Tony Charlton Football Show on Channel 9 — called football on ABC TV in the 1970s.

Old newspaper article with photos of Tony and Michael and headline They're TV's double image.

Michael and Tony Charlton became household names in the early days of Australian television.( ABC News )

"It's an amazing family connection to the ABC and shows their pioneering spirit which I think we're all proud of," says Tony Charlton's son, Jon.

"We're all very proud of Michael and his role in creating Four Corners and the fact that it's still going today and is an amazing program. Having said that, I think all three Charlton men would acknowledge they were lucky men. They'd survived the depression and the war. They were aware they had some lucky breaks in life — media was just taking off, particularly radio in the 1930s and then TV in the 50s. I think all of them were grateful for the opportunities and wanted to give back."

Photo of a man sitting at a piano with a framed black and white photo of two small boys.

Jon Charlton with a photo of his father, Tony, and uncle, Michael, as boys.( ABC News: Natasha Johnson )

From the opening of the Harbour Bridge to WWII

After being seriously wounded in WW1, New Zealand-born Conrad Charlton came to Australia in 1921 as an opera singer with JC Williamson's theatre company.

Black and white photo of a man in an army uniform.

Conrad Charlton was badly injured fighting in France during WWI.( Supplied: Tony Charlton )

As worked dried up at the start of the Great Depression his deep baritone voice secured him announcing work with the Australian Broadcasting Company, a small, privately-owned network from which the ABC as a commission was formed.

He broke the news of the dramatic protest at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932 by Francis De Groot, who charged on horseback to cut the official ribbon before the premier of the day Jack Lang. Speaking about it decades later in an interview preserved in ABC Archives, Conrad Charlton recalled: "I must confess I, like so many others, was dumbfounded. I will always regret that while I was able to tell the thousands listening to the broadcast, I could not say who had done the dirty deed."

Con Charlton did everything from reading the news to sport commentary, interviewing celebrities to introducing religious and musical broadcasts, in the evenings sitting behind the mic dressed in a dinner suit. As a manager he and his beloved wife Hazel, an accomplished singer who occasionally performed on the ABC, often hosted visiting conductors, singers and musicians at their home, including William Kappel, Richard Tauber and Sir Malcolm Sargent.

Black and white photo of couple in evening wear presenting a trophy to a man and a woman in evening wear.

Con and Hazel Charlton presenting a trophy to the winners of the 1941 Circular Waltzing Competition in Perth when he was manager of the ABC studios in WA.( ABC Archives )

Peter Charlton remembers his father as a wonderful man and a broadcaster of high standards.

"I remember [over the years] if an announcer made a mistake like pronouncing a wrong name Dad would race to the phone and ring them up. I remember one famous time there is a township in Victoria called Moe [pronounced mo-ee] and this announcer called it 'mow' and Dad hauled him over the coals."

Head shot elderly man smiling.

Peter Charlton didn't follow his father and brothers into broadcasting, instead forging a successful career as a marketing executive, but he's a keen ABC viewer.( ABC News: Shaun Kingma )

Jon Charlton's favourite family story is one that points to his grandfather's ability to improvise when things didn't go to plan.

"The story I remembered growing up was that one time he was on air and the Bureau of Meteorology didn't get their [weather] report through one time and so on live radio he was announcing the news and said 'well, we don't actually have the forecast for tomorrow, but I think it's going to be this'. The switchboard lit up the next day and callers said 'sack all the people in the Bureau because they never get it right but you, off the top of your head, predicted it'. He knew sometimes you just have to wing it."

Black and white photo of two men in suits and hats, one holding a small child and a woman in coat and hat.

Con Charlton (L) with a Mr Wells, who was appointed Schools Broadcast Officer at ABC WA in the 1940s, and his family.( ABC Archives )

The family recalls that as manager of ABC WA during WWII, just after Broome was bombed, Con Charlton was called by then Prime Minister John Curtin and asked to go on air and warn the people of Perth that the Japanese were coming.

"Dad was a good friend of John Curtin and he rang when the Japanese fleet of warships were off the West Australian coast and I think they were very apprehensive they'd invade Perth," says Peter Charlton.

"I was about five or six year's old and I recall it was pretty tense. I remember the warnings going out and him talking about the warnings to women and children to go out into the country and able-bodied men to stay and fight. It was pretty grim."

"My dad (Tony) remembered being scared witless — everyone was scared witless — when his father got on the radio and warned Perth people to prepare," says Jon Charlton.

Con Charlton was also instrumental in setting up the Kindergarten of the Air, a radio program to entertain and educate children when kindergartens were forced to close because of fears of air raids, which became a national program that endured beyond the war.

A woman sits at a desk and reads from papers into a microphone.

Ruth Fenner, kindergarten teacher, introducing Kindergarten of the Air, January 1943.( ABC )

After the war, Con Charlton took over running the ABC in Melbourne as his son Michael was forging his way on radio in Sydney. Michael Charlton was a popular announcer and highly-regarded cricket commentator when he was chosen to host the opening night television broadcast on ABN2.

Black and white photo of two men looking at an old fashioned film camera.

Prime Minister Robert Menzies gets a quick lesson on the new TV technology on the night he opened the ABN2 in 1956.( ABC Archives )

Launched by then Prime Minister Robert Menzies, the program, which also gave viewers a behind-scenes-look at how this new technology operated, was beset by technical problems including moments of no audio, sounds of a light stand crashing to the floor off camera, and the first newsreel film broke as it went to air and the camera cut back to Charlton relaxing with a drink and cigarette. At one point a presenter declared: "Things go wrong on opening night programs the world over. There are bound to be a few moments of panic and tension and we're having one right now!"

But Michael Charlton shook off the opening night glitches and went on to great success on television, hosting the ABC's first federal election night coverage in 1958 and producing ground-breaking reports for Four Corners, which he conceived of with producer Bob Raymond.

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Play Video. Duration: 3 minutes 8 seconds

The ABC’s first election-night broadcast in 1958.

"You see snippets of Four Corners from those days and it really was cutting-edge journalism. I am struck by some of the interviews he did in the great Australian Outback in Indigenous communities, trying to shine a light on some of the big issues being faced," says Jon Charlton.

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Play Video. Duration: 2 minutes 55 seconds

"Do you think people just don't care?" Michael Charlton talks to Aboriginal people living in poverty in this 1961 program.

"I've been a school chaplain and I did ask Michael once what do you think of Christianity? He said, 'it's a social gospel'. I took away from that it's about trying to improve society, so there's more equity. I understood he was big into social justice, and I think that's what drove him as a journalist."

Black and white photo of old TV studio with man sitting at a desk smoking.

Charlton hosting Four Corners in the early 1960s when smoking on set was common.( ABC Archives )

Michael Charlton was then hired by the BBC, enjoying a long and impressive career reporting for its current affairs show Panorama, covering major events, such as the moon landing, and interviewing world leaders and newsmakers, including an exclusive interview with exiled Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that made international headlines in 1976.

Black and white photo of man with old fashioned microphone and headset on face.

Tony Charlton commentating on the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.( Supplied: Jon Charlton )

Tony Charlton's specialty was sport. He called football, Olympics, cricket, soccer, golf and tennis and secured a few headline-making interviews of his own – an exclusive with legendary AFL coach Norm Smith after he was sensationally sacked by Melbourne in 1965 and a world exclusive with British sailor Sir Francis Chichester, who had completed a history-making solo voyage around of the world. In later years, he was highly respected for his role officiating at the Anzac Day Dawn Service at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.

Black and white photo of man holding an old fashioned telephone.

Tony Charlton commentated on football for the ABC in the 1970s. After a legendary broadcast career, he was inducted into both the AFL Hall of Fame and Sport Australia Hall of Fame.( ABC Archives )

"My father would always say you have to treat people right and he genuinely did," says Jon Charlton.

"When Chichester finished his journey, the world's journos descended on Plymouth [in England] but he gave Dad the exclusive TV interview because he said, 'you treated me so well when I was in Australia.' I think that's where Dad and Michael's niche was. They could get people to open up and get a good story without embarrassing the interviewee or being disrespectful. I think this comes back to those high standards, set by their father, Con. They had a great sense of valuing people, they didn't cross the line, and I think their decency drew people to them to tell their stories."

Con Charlton died in 1976 at the age of 88. Tony Charlton died in 2012, aged 83. Michael Charlton, now 95 years old, lives in London. He preferred not to be interviewed for this story.

"The Charlton men are quite shy," says Jon Charlton.

"So, it's interesting they were, however able to come alive in front of a microphone. They were public men but actually quite private."

Man sitting in lounge room reading a newspaper article.

Jon Charlton reading up about the family history ahead of the ABC's 90th birthday.( ABC News: Natasha Johnson )

But as the ABC marks 90 years on July 1, family members are keen to acknowledge the contribution their relatives made to Australian broadcasting and the growth of the national broadcaster since Con Charlton first announced its birth in 1932.

"The ABC is the voice of Australia and I think in times of disasters like bushfires they're outstanding and they've done a great job, particularly, in the regions," says Peter Charlton.

"I love the ABC," says Jon Charlton.

"I love its independence and I wish there was some more funding because we have to tell the stories of Australia and I'm proud that three relatives of mine have played a significant part in telling some incredibly important stories to help our nation progress, be progressive and prosperous."

Read more about the ABC's history on ABC Backstory and a special two hour TV program celebrating the ABC's 90th anniversary, ABC 90 Celebrate! goes to air on June 30 at 8pm on ABC TV and ABC iview. 

And on Friday July 1 from 11am AEST, Richard Fidler hosts Tuned In – 90 Years of ABC Radio, a one-hour special featuring your favourite voices and memorable moments through the years of ABC Radio. Hear it on your local ABC Radio or ABC RN, live and on-demand on the ABC listen app.

Watch more videos and programs marking ABC 90 on ABC iview

Posted  25 Jun 2022 25 Jun 2022 Sat 25 Jun 2022 at 8:52pm, updated  15h ago 15 hours ago Mon 27 Jun 2022 at 9:57pm


Source: Google News