Koo Stark. Eating prawns in bed with John Cleese. The girl in the red bikini - breakfast TV had arrived in Australia. Di Morrissey was there at the start.
It was late 1980. Rupert Murdoch had bought the Ten Network, always the bridesmaid to the other networks. So when he got wind that Kerry Packer was planning a show patterned on Good Morning America on his Sydney station TCN-9, Murdoch decided to get in first, grabbing the name Good Morning Australia and to be on air in three months. This coincided with chief of staff Peter Brennan's decision to leave Murdoch's US west coast newspapers to head home to Australia. According to Brennan, he wrote a kiss-arse letter to Murdoch asking for a job at his newly acquired Ten Network, even though he had no TV experience.
Peter Sutton had been a cadet on the Daily Mirror in Sydney when Brennan was chief of staff and was now at Ten News Sydney. "Brennan had all these great ideas but no clue how to glue them together. I knew TV," says Sutton. Brennan, who is now based in Los Angeles and is still producing television, could rest on his laurels after creating Judge Judy and Hard Copy. He recalls that Gordon Elliott arrived at Ten from radio about the same time as he did. "Gordon had a great radio voice, so I used him as a workhorse to audition every male radio/TV host in Sydney and beyond. Turned out he was better than anyone we auditioned, so he became Good Morning Australia host at age 23."
Still relentlessly ebullient, Gordon Elliott gives a hearty laugh when Skyping from his home in New York, where he is a household name from his time on US TV and now produces successful cable TV shows. "When it was a slow news day we were able to have fun," he recalls. "I switched jobs with people like David Hill, who was running NSW trains, so I drove the train and he hosted the show! We did anything crazy and out-of-the-box that had never been done before."
The search for the female co-host ended when Sutton and Brennan saw a tape of New Zealander Sue Kellaway, who was a reporter for TVNZ on a show similar to 60 Minutes. Speaking from her holiday home in Mexico, Kellaway (now Sue Bidwill) recalls, "I got the job, even though I'd never done live TV and was terrified. What was weird was that Gordon was 23 and I was 40. Gordon gave me a hard time on air. I dealt with it, but he was terrifyingly self-confident."
Laurie Oakes was persuaded to get out of bed at 6am to comment on the politics of the day. "It worked because of GMA's strong news focus," says Oakes. "I used to do all the political interviews, whereas now the anchors do them." He remembers the quirky stories better than the hard news. "There was a rumour that Andrew Peacock had undergone a facelift. During my interview, the cameraman focused on his eyes, showing them as smooth as a baby's bum."
Brennan heard Tim Webster read the news on radio 2UW and nabbed him without knowing what he looked like. "I'd never been on TV, maybe a telethon in Newcastle," says Webster. "But I became aware it was more a visual medium when there was a lot of fuss about my hair, and what jacket and tie combo to wear."
I was last to be recruited. Arriving home from overseas, I saw a snippet in the paper about this planned early am TV show - which was predicted to bomb as the belief was Australians wouldn't turn on their TVs at breakfast. I'd had my own live morning women's program on CBS-TV Honolulu, so I rang Brennan, who said he had only one slot left to fill: entertainment. I was in.
Essentially, GMA was radio with pictures. The idea was viewers would switch on and listen while they got breakfast, brushed their teeth and if a story caught their attention they went and watched it. If there was an important story, the entire show was dumped to run with it for the whole morning. One such time was when we snagged the "red bikini girl" - Liliana Gasinskaya, a Ukrainian woman who had dived overboard from a Soviet cruise ship in Sydney Harbour in 1979 wearing only her swimsuit. She'd swum ashore and then was brought into the studio.
But there were hiccups. Peter Brennan thought that Kellaway was too serious as a journalist: "She wanted to do stories on politics and medicine, not Duck Week!" he says. Kellaway had been courted surreptitiously by Sam Chisholm and Ian Frykberg at Nine for its morning show (which became Today), so she left before the year was out to spend months in protracted contract negotiations in court between the two networks.
Her replacement was Brisbane's Kerri-Anne Wright. "She was in the studio and heard we were looking for Sue's replacement," says Brennan. "I'd seen her on TV in New York, where she was the lotto girl. I thought she looked pretty comfortable on air so we hired her." (Gordon's description of her big hair and flowery cocktail dress for the audition is less kind.) Kerri-Anne (now Kennerley) wryly says, "In terms of credibility, I did have to earn my stripes. I was young and green."
The public may have liked them both, but relations between Kennerley and Elliott turned from disdain to frostiness that reached the control room. On air producer Anita Jacoby (now managing director of ITV Studios Australia) says, "Gordon was condescending as he didn't consider her his intellectual equal. I don't think the audience at home ever picked it up."
"I didn't know Gordon didn't like me until about four years in," says Kennerley. "He took the mickey out of me but it was the '80s and I was a big girl. At that time TV execs were chauvinistic all the time, so you took a deep breath, braved it out and looked out for yourself. On camera I think it worked but behind the scenes we didn't speak for five years."
For the first few years GMA consistently out-rated its direct opposition, Channel Nine's Today Show, creating a deep wound in Sam Chisholm's ego. In response, Chisholm sprang random raids on GMA's talent - especially Peter Sutton. "Here's a contract with your name on it. Fill in the blank where it says salary. Whatever you want," was how Sutton recalls his first meeting with Chisholm.
Young reporter Liz Hayes joined Ten News and did stories for GMA before joining Nine News. She later become co-host of the Today Show with George Negus. But it was the arrival of young reporter Mike Munro on secondment from the Ten newsroom that really sent the ratings soaring, scoring front-page news and sparking government investigations.
Munro went undercover to expose some huge stories: the Sydney heroin wars, the scandalous lack of care in NSW nursing homes. He used his boyish looks and charm to get himself into the customs hall at Sydney airport, where he regularly managed to upstage or snaffle celebrities away from other networks. Even his own.
"Koo Stark, the former [soft] porn actress ex-girlfriend of Prince Andrew, was flown out to be on Michael Parkinson's show on Ten," recalls Munro. "I grabbed her at the airport and said I was taking her out the back way to avoid the scrum. She saw the waiting Rolls and said, 'Do we have to go in that?' And I said, 'No indeed, let's get a taxi.' We had her in the GMA studio before the press knew she was AWOL," he says, laughing.
Tim Webster was snared from GMA to front Ten's 6pm Eyewitness News with Katrina Lee and was replaced on GMA by Ron Wilson, who retired at the end of 2012 after 34 years at Ten.
Once we had the "Live Eye" satellite available, I was able to do interviews almost anywhere, but these could be unpredictable. John Cleese agreed to a live chat in his hotel room over his favourite food - seafood. I had restaurateur Peter Doyle bring up a magnificent platter, but Cleese wasn't in the mood, mooching in his bathrobe wanting to stay in bed. With minutes to air, I put on the other bathrobe and joined him in bed, with the seafood platter. As we peeled prawns, he began to talk for the first time about suffering from depression.
By the early '90s GMA had undergone a number of format changes and had had many hosts. Eventually, Bert Newton snaffled the GMA name and hosted it out of Melbourne as an infotainment show.
Says Brennan, "The problem is people who run stations now come out of accounting or sales rather than the creative field. The minute you go for the dollar and not the story, where you make sacrifices creatively for the bottom line, that's what kills it." Adds Sutton, "Shows today are too structured, predictable, risk-free."
Now that Ten's ratings have sunk to an all-time low, there may be a lesson in Sutton's comments. Network brass at Ten might do well to reflect on Ten's heyday and a team who flew by the seat of their pants without today's technology, relying on bright people, humour, and getting the story first.