“Don’t burn down the studio” – The Coodabeen Champions and Channel 7’s 1986 Football Marathon

 

Just as it is going to be hard for current generations to contemplate life before the internet, AFL history enthusiasts will probably find it hard to believe that the annual Football Marathon show on television the night before the Grand Final used to be almost the only opportunity to see heroes and legendary events from previous decades. This was a chance to see old finals games, not just grand finals, and rare archival footage from the days before television. Past players, appearing as guests would speak, often with deep felt regret, of opportunities lost and never to re-appear. It was almost painful to watch Bernie Quinlan reflect one year on how one more goal could have seen Fitzroy win the 1983 Qualifying Final against Hawthorn and potentially go all the way, knowing how much this may have changed the subsequent history of his club.

 

 

The 1986 edition of the Football Marathon is consistently held up as a highlight for sheer entertainment. In 1986 Channel 7 had 3RRR radio station’s Coodabeen Champions, who were then only in their 5th year of existence, to host the show. In 2016, the “oztiger73” YouTube channel uploaded over 7 hours of footage from this edition, which is remarkable to re-watch for many reasons. I spoke to Coodabeens stalwart, Ian Cover and the show’s producer, (now co-owner of Black Sheep Films) Andrew McVitty who dusted off a few memories of their involvement with a part of football’s grand final week heritage. Supervising Producer at Fox Footy, Brad Smith also provided his insight as a then 18 year old production assistant in his first year as a Channel 7 sports department cadet. The 1986 marathon also turned out to take place in the last few months of Channel 7’s golden era of sports coverage, in the days when a prospective show didn’t require a pitch to a room full of bean counters.

 

The Coodabeens hosting the 1986 pre-GF marathon.

 

 

While mid 1980’s 3RRR was primarily a home for eclectic music, ranging from hardcore punk to country, Saturday mornings was a fertile breeding ground for future commercial radio talent. The Coodabeens with journalist Ian Cover, teacher Jeff Richardson, barrister (now Supreme Court judge) Simon Whelan and public servant (now 3AW football caller) Tony Leonard, were sandwiched between Ross Stevenson and Denis ‘Donoghue’ Connell on Lawyers, Guns and Money and John ‘Dr Turf’ Rothfield, Trevor Marmalade,  Mitchell ‘Slim Whittle’ Faircloth and Tony ‘Con Marasco’ Rickards on Punter to Punter. By 1986, the Coodabeens were already starting to build an audience further afield.

 

 

Ian Cover. I was doing some work at Channel 7 at the time, working on current affairs show ‘Day by Day’. Our office was adjacent to Gordon Bennett’s, Channel 7’s Executive Producer of Sport (see ‘Gordon Bennett, From Head of Channel 7 Sport to being head hunted by Paul McCartney’). He oversaw all of the sports coverage, football coverage, the Olympic Games and was the long-time producer of World of Sport.

 

 

During 1986 we had done the song about Hawthorn’s Robert Dipierdomenico. By this stage we were also doing a Saturday night show from 6pm until 9pm, after the footy, on 3AW. We used to do our own take on the week’s news, with mock interviews, presented by Simon Whelan as Richie’s News Of The Week, where he’d imitate Richie Benaud with Channel 9’s cricket theme as the musical background. Derryn Hinch started to replay this segment on his radio show on Monday morning.

 

 

And when Hinch’s producer heard us recording the Dipper song at the AW studio, Hinch played the song, it got a lot of coverage and the next thing they got Dipper on. Someone in the Channel 7 editing department edited up footage of Dipper and they played it on World of Sport. The next thing he wins the Brownlow. So we still tell Dipper we made him famous and he says, ‘No, I made you blokes famous’. So with Gordon having got the song and edited it up for World of Sport, I was hanging around the office and talking to Gordon about footy. He had identified himself as a Coodabeens fan from our 3RRR show and so he suggested we do the marathon. Of course we jumped at the opportunity but we said that we’re not going to just sit there and say ‘Let’s go to the last quarter of the 1966 Grand Final’, we want to try and make a show of it and go live. So Gordon engaged a fellow called Andrew McVitty to be the show’s producer.

 

 

Andrew McVitty: I had been at the 7 Network for quite a while, starting in 1973 and when I came through as a producer I used to produce a show called Nightmoves. Cove was a reporter on the Geelong Advertiser and he rang me up one time and said if you ever want publicity down this way give me a call. That’s how we met. I’d left the network and gone freelance and I’d done a couple of projects with 7, special event projects and Gordon said to me ‘Are you doing anything at the minute? Do you want to do the Marathon with the boys?’ All the commercial networks knew of the Coodabeens, their popularity and potential. They’d ask them to come and see them, pour them a glass of scotch, put them down in a sofa and say ‘What do you want to do?’ and the Coodabeens would say ‘We just want to be the Coodabeens’ and the networks would say ‘No, that won’t work’.

 

 

So when these people came along and said ‘Oh no you’ve got to change what you are, because that won’t work’ so they’d just say ‘Forget it’. When we did the marathon, Gordon said ‘Well I think the Coodabeens should just be the Coodabeens’ and I said ‘That’s right’.

 

 

Part One of the Football Marathon (with thanks to YouTuber oztiger73)

 

 

Ian Cover: And so Andrew McVitty and Gordon had to go off to see Ron Casey to discuss whats happening in Grand Final week –

 

 

Ron Casey: ‘And what about the marathon?’

Gordon Bennett: ‘I’ve got these young fellas the Coodabeen Champions to do it’,

RC: ‘…and what are they doing?’

GB: ‘Oh they’re going to do it differently Mr Casey and they’re going to have a BBQ in the studio….’

RC: ‘Stop, I don’t want to hear any more. I don’t want to hear about it, just tell them one thing”,

GB: ‘What’s that?’

RC: ‘Tell them I don’t want them to burn the studio down.’

 

 

So we had to go to a meeting with Gordon and Andrew and they said ‘We’ve met with Ron and he said don’t burn down the studio’. So that was the last word on that. Because they asked us to do it and appointed Andrew as producer, Channel 7 said just go off and do it.

 

 

The Footy Marathon used to be Peter Landy or Sandy Roberts saying ‘Lets look at the third quarter of the…’. They’d sit down in the studio during the week and record the introductions and then someone would come in and insert all the replays. We got to choose the games. We told them we weren’t going to play all the same ones they always play. Obviously 1966 and 1970 would be there but also we wouldn’t just play last quarters. We were free to put the Coodabeens spin on everything we did.

 

 

Andrew McVitty: We sat down and said why don’t we get the best finals games. One of them was the 1984 second semi -final Essendon and Hawthorn and I had journalists ringing up and saying ‘Is it true you are going to show this?’. You have to remember that there wasn’t a lot of archival videotape available in a domestic sense because the machines weren’t available. I had a football journalist ring me up and say ‘Is it true you are going to run the second semi?’ I said ‘Yeah, we’re going to do the final quarter’ and he said ‘I’m going to stay up for that’.

 

 

Ian Cover: I think Andrew had to go back and say the boys want to go and film at the Brownlow and Carlton training and they have a character called Lindsay Airport and they want to bring him to life. We went to the Brownlow and filmed people arriving and leaving and then barged in with a camera. We walked in and no one seemed to bat an eyelid. We like to think we pioneered bursting into the Brownlow ahead of Street Talk.

 

 

Andrew McVitty: I’d been to or worked on several award shows and I knew the fun really began when they turned the cameras off so we came up with the concept of lets go look for the most, they get completely out of control these people, some of them, so I said why don’t we go and find the Downlow. It was the year Dipper won and he was being hustled out of the Southern Cross Hotel by all the Hawthorn hierarchy. The camera started rolling and they all said ‘No no he can’t talk’ and Cove was standing there with Richo and he (Dipper) said ‘No no, it’s the Coodabeens, I’ve got to talk to the Coodabeens’ and that’s still the case with them.

 

Interviewing Doug Hawkins.

 

 

The boys had an obsession with the bowls segment of World of Sport. It wasn’t the actual segment, it’s the music and they kept on going on about the music, ‘How can we use that?’ I sent them to Carlton training and we cut it like a Benny Hill segment and we put the bowls music under it.

 

 

One of the show’s production assistants was 18 year old Brad Smith, a first year Channel 7 sports department cadet. Brad went on to become a sports producer at Channel 7 in his own right and is now Supervising Producer at Fox Footy.

 

 

Brad Smith: I was very excited to be told I was working with the Coodabeens on a live version of the show, as I was an avid listener of their radio program. I was a raw, starry-eyed kid, so I just did what I was told and went with the flow. The pre-production was a lot of fun as I had to watch and edit great finals games and moments, along with the additional Coodabeens segments. The post Brownlow interviews were a highlight.

 

 

Part Two of the Football Marathon (with thanks to YouTuber oztiger73)

 

There was also a high profile guest in former Hawthorn champion Peter Hudson to talk about the 1971 Grand Final, not that he was particularly feted during his appearance –

 

 

Simon Whelan: ….Hawthorn won that day even though some of their better players, their big name players, let them down and one of the men who did let them down that day was Peter Hudson. Peter, it must have been disappointing for you. You had a great year, 148 goals coming up to the Grand Final and in the Grand Final, just the two goals.

Peter Hudson: Yes, Simon, it was disappointing but nowhere near as disappointing as that introduction.

 

 

In retrospect, the scenes with Simon Whelan’s character ‘Lindsay Airport’ are an eerie premonition of the future corporatisation of the then VFL, given a ticket to the Grand Final is accessible, just as long as you are willing to pay over $1000 for a corporate lunch. And while VFL Park wasn’t turned into a hydroelectric collaboration, selling it off as a housing estate isn’t that far off from Lindsay’s proposal in the show.

 

 

Ian Cover: Lindsay represented the ugly side of corporate football before it arrived. People didn’t pick up on it. He is a very bright man Simon. Corporate stuff was starting to take off in 1986. Where he came off with the name Lindsay Airport? Simon’s a St Kilda supporter and it might have been because Lindsay Fox got involved to save them. But Lindsay Fox didn’t own Essendon or Avalon airport at that stage so that was prophetic too.

 

 

And the girls in the scenes with Lindsay Airport ,they had appeared during the year in Palmers Punchlines in the old Sunday Press. They had the equivalent of a page 3 girl with slightly more clothes on. Sports Editor Scott Palmer would always have a bikini clad girl holding a tennis racquet so that legitimised it for the sports pages.

 

 

Just as it now seems strange to see shows from the 60’s and 70’s with everyone smoking, including the hosts and guests, it is surprising to see several cutaways during the show indicating a pretty well lubricated party was in full swing.

 

 

Ian Cover: So during the night people are drifting in and the cameramen are getting the shot of everyone in the studio and they’re all drinking and I remember saying to Andrew McVitty, ‘Gee I hope Ron Casey didn’t see that’ and he said ‘No, Ron won’t be up watching. He will have gone to bed before you started at 11pm and he will be getting up and going straight to the North Melbourne Breakfast. He won’t be watching. You won’t have to worry about that’.

 

 

Because the Marathon was live for the first time there was pretty much a skeleton crew. People weren’t rostered on but they came in on their day off since it was something different. We had a phone number so people could ring up for giveaways and there is a cut away at some stage to a blonde woman with a phone. That’s my wife. We had been married less than three years at that stage. When we told Channel 7 we were having a phone in, they said we haven’t got anyone to answer the phone, so we had family and friends involved. When we were showing the phone in prizes, one of the ladies doing the “hand talent”, pointing at all the prizes, was the head of Channel 7 publicity and the other one was her off-sider. TV had only been going for 30 years or so in Australia so it hadn’t had the chance to be over produced, sanitised.

 

 

Part Three of the Football Marathon (with thanks to YouTuber oztiger73)

 

Andrew McVitty: We wanted to get a party atmosphere as at the start they were pretty nervous. We all were, thinking, ‘sh*t we’re going to be on for 8 hours or so’. The other thing we did was with Greg’s stuff was that we’d take it out of the realm of ‘here’s Champs with a song’. We had all this fantastic footage so when we did Dermott Brereton is a Hood, we had all this fantastic footage or Dermott running round belting people. Which worked well.

 

 

Brad Smith: On the night, I remember a lot of people coming through the studio, some to appear on the show and some to just watch it. It was a pretty loose affair with the BBQ going and some guests washing it down with a few drinks. The show was a good change to how it was done previously and it was a shame it never had the chance to become a regular part of grand final day in that format.

 

 

Near the end of the show, the original AFL “news breaker”, Scott Palmer, Sports Editor from the now defunct Sunday Press newspaper, well known for his ‘Palmers Punchlines’, which broke the latest VFL news on Channel 7’s Big League, faced off against his alter ego, Tony Leonard’s Tony Piffle.

 

 

Ian Cover: Tony Piffle’s Palm Outs was the Scott Palmer pisstake but Scotty loved it. There’s a few Palm Outs sprinkled through the show. We would drink with Scotty, and Tony would put the jacket on he wore when he was Tony Piffle and everyone would think Tony was Scotty’s son. It didn’t matter that we’d tell Scotty it was meant to be him, he’d just say ‘Oh Piffle, he’s fantastic, isn’t he’.

 

Scott Palmer being a great sport by sending himself up.

 

 

It’s hard to see the modern high profile AFL journalists being that down to earth.

 

 

While the show went down well with those involved with the Channel 7 Sports Department, no one knew that Channel 7 was about to be turned upside by new owners, Fairfax Media.

 

 

Andrew McVitty: Unfortunately like many things in life you only hear back if the sh*t hits the fan. If you’ve got a success, they wouldn’t say, and that was the difference with culture and mentality. In those days one of the last things they’d say to you at Channel 7 is ‘don’t say f**k on air’. If you were in the 9 Network and kicked a goal, they would take you into the boardroom and congratulate you, give you a drink, shake your hand, pat you on the back and off you go. At 7 it was’ just don’t say f**k’.

 

 

Ian Cover: The feedback was that there hadn’t been any problems and it seemed to be enjoyable and had gone down well. There may have been talk that it was good and we will do it again next year, but between grand final in ‘86 and the ‘87 grand final, Fairfax took over Channel 7 in Sydney and the princes of darkness came down from Sydney and sacked the news department, the news reader and then they wound up World Of Sport.

 

 

The VFL gave the broadcast rights to Broadcom who were just an agent and they on sold it to the ABC for $2 million only 2 weeks before the 1987 season started so they didn’t know who was going to do it. Fairfax had already said they weren’t going to do it and had sacked everyone from Channel 7’s footy team so the ABC stepped in as the national broadcaster and they bought it. Tim Lane had 2 weeks to cobble together camera crews and producers and they made a good fist of it.

 

 

At the end of the 1987 VFL season an exhausted Tim Lane walked away from his ABC role and became Australian golfer Vaughan Somers’ caddy for six months.

 

 

Ian Cover: After Fairfax took over I was still hanging around the Day by Day office and was not ever a Channel 7 employee, I was more like a 30 year old work experience student who used to hang around for a bit of fun, get a couple of stories here and there for Day by Day. The Channel 7 building at Dorcas St only has 6 floors. The ground floor was called one so the top floor could be called 7. I get a call to go up to the 7th floor and there’s a couple of blokes from Sydney there. So they’ve said ‘so we’re going to have to make a few changes here and Ian unfortunately we’re going to have to let you go’. I was about to say ‘Well I never actually ever arrived’, so I said ‘Is it ok if I left straight away today?’ They said ‘Yeah that’s ok”. So I said ‘I thought there’s probably going to be a fair queue down at Centrelink so I thought I’d better get to the head of the queue before the others get down there’. They didn’t take that too well and I left. So that was the end of the Coodabeens coming back. It was a dreadful time at Channel 7.

 

 

Andrew McVitty: When the word came that it was all over and that they were going to take over the whole thing, Ron Casey just packed up his office and went home. Channel 7 didn’t have the proper structure of say a Nine Network. Or even to a lesser extent Channel 10 because there was this Melbourne Sydney thing, always. It was always played big time, while at 9 you had this central figure called Packer and you did what you were told.

 

 

There are two things that happened that could have probably only happened then. The Footy Marathon was actually produced. It was put together in a way that it had a beginning, a middle and an end; it had certain themes running through it. Your job is to entertain people. The second thing is: and that’s the reason the Coodabeens work and will still work until they drop dead is precisely the reason they got together in the first place. That before they were on RRR they were a bunch of mates that went to the footy. And they had the wit about them to say that if we take what we say in the outer and put it on the radio, why can’t that not work? And so the other thing is that, the common language, they are such a diverse group of people, barristers, etc., that thing that glued them together is that, they bring in a new segment every so often and that’s fine, the show is the boys talking to one another and taking the piss out of themselves and the footy.

 

 

If Ron (Casey) liked someone he would have this funny thing where he would walk up and punch them in the arm. This was his way of saying ‘You’re a good bloke’. That was the year that 7 lost the contract and he said to me, ‘You’ve been hanging around this network since 1973 and I’ve managed to keep you away from football the entire time and the one time I let you get anywhere near it and we lost the rights’. But he punched me in the arm as if to say that’s all right.

 

 

Brad Smith: The Fairfax changes were a debacle. It was a classic example of an interstate owner having no feel or understanding of a local market, mixed with a combination of arrogance and sheer stupidity. In hindsight, the end result was obvious.

 

 

Ian Cover: For us the big thing was doing the Marathon. For Channel 7 the biggest thing was doing the Brownlow on Monday night, doing the Grand Final coverage and World of Sport the next day. They were all focussed on that and we were a little side project. I don’t know if we got paid. I cannot recall. In 1986 we might have only just incorporated ourselves because we were doing our work at AW and they were going to pay us. We met a bloke who was hanging around television but he was a corporate lawyer, specialising in entertainment law. He took a $2 shelf company called Dynasty 2 Pty Ltd and turned it into Coodabeen Champions International Pty Ltd. The lawyer’s name was Steve Vizard.

 

 

If I had my wits about me I would’ve gone to Channel 7 in 2016 and said ‘Its 30 years since we did the Marathon, why don’t we do a 30 year anniversary of the Coodabeens doing the Marathon?’ They could’ve played old footage of us with mullets and you’d actually have a show that people could watch. Maybe I should pitch it next year as the 32nd anniversary.

 

 

Breakout box

Gordon Bennett, ‘From Head of Channel 7 Sport to being head hunted by Paul McCartney’

For people who recognised the name Gordon Bennett as one of the senior Channel 7 staff on any sports production in past decades, it may have come as a surprise that at one stage during the marathon there is a shot of Gordon Bennett manning one of the cameras.

 

 

Ian Cover: Gordon went off to dinner and then came back to the studio about midnight. He said ‘I haven’t been on a camera for years, I want to get back on camera’. Gordon had worked as a cameraman back in the legendary days of This Day Tonight with Bill Peach. He was one of the cameramen for either Channel 7 or the ABC when the Beatles came to Melbourne in about 1964. He filmed the crowd outside the Southern Cross Hotel and the Town Hall and that sort of stuff.

 

 

Andrew McVitty: The cameraman that was booked for Wings’ mid ‘70s tour of Australia had to go to Darwin to cover Cyclone Tracy. He suggested Gordon as his replacement via McCartney’s promoter here, Paul Dainty. When the tour ended McCartney asked Gordon if he wanted to continue on to the USA tour and he did.

 

 

Ian Cover: This tour was the setting for the documentary Wings over America. There is a book that goes with that documentary and there is a photo of a hallway of a hotel somewhere and there is a bloke silhouetted and the caption is ‘The tour cameraman relaxes after a long day on the job’ and it’s Gordon. They didn’t even say who it was so we used to call him ‘Tour Cameraman’.

 

 

Wings fans might be interested to know that Gordon Bennett is also credited as the director of the video for the song ‘Silly Little Love Songs’. A very multi-talented man.

 

Check out the enormous variety of writing by returning to the homepage of www.footyalmanac.com.au

 

Pieces from Coodabeens regular Swish (Schwerdt) can be found HERE.

 

Comments

  1. Laurence Cavill says:

    Great work Richard

  2. greg champion says:

    Great to see !!

  3. That is a great reminiscence, Richard. Thanks.
    I still have the first three hours of that marathon on VHS tape somewhere – I used to watch it ocassionally.
    Re Peter Hudson, I’m pretty sure that he was introduced thus: “And here is Peter Hudson, the man who has taken all before him…and eaten it!”

  4. Brilliant gold medal material and full of gems! I have bookmarked this to watch the whole thing

  5. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Thanks a million for this piece Richard.

    It’s such a pity that these guys didn’t kick on.

  6. DBalassone says:

    I remember this well. I too, had huge chunks on a VHS tape. Highlights for me were:

    – not only the 84 2st Semi, but the 1980 Prelim, to give us long-suffering Pies supporters something to cherish (other than 64,66,70,77,79 & 81 GF losses).
    – following Doug Hawkins after the Brownlow, completely off his nut. ‘The Downlow Medalist’. Hawkins barely able to walk because of his recent knee op, but still setting the pace.
    – Greg Champion singing a cracking song about ‘Ricky Kennedy’ to the tune of ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’.

    I also recall Darren James (who was doing a morning radio show with Uncle Roy at the time) being part of the show. Was he an original member of the Coodabeens?

    Great memories. Thanks for the post.

  7. Michele Davis says:

    Great reminiscing. Can’t remember if I watched it but maybe I did, I remember it being hectic . The good old days

  8. Richard Prentice says:

    Thank you everyone for your kind comments. I also taped most of it at the time but a lot of footage was lost over time so I’m very grateful to Ian, Andrew and Brad for their time. It was a fascinating to hear their recollections.

    Smokie, that comment was made by Dr Duke, in a presentation made to Peter Hudson shortly after the section mentioned in the article, which is verbatim. Before I checked it I had also thought the same as you. It’s around 14 or so minutes in in part one of the You Tube clips.

    DBalassone, I don’t know if Darren was an original member but he did seem to be fairly involved that night.

  9. Laurence Cavill says:

    Darren did many of the voices for the talkback calls for many years

  10. Stainless says:

    Thanks for the memories, Richard. Pretty sure I did the all-nighter to watch this and then stood all day at the ’86 Grand Final. Ah, the stamina of youth!

  11. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    Just superb, Richard.
    ‘Drop Kick, in the old fashioned way’ almost brought a tear to my eye.
    So many great memories and really awful ads that seem so daggy yet quaint, nowdays.
    Coodabeens are best when taking the piss. Never gets old. Thanks for sharing. Cheers

  12. Ian Cover’s hair is a thing of beauty.

  13. Chris Weaver says:

    Great read, Richard.

    Simon Whelan was a very talented performer.

  14. Mick Bolt says:

    Brilliant work Richard, brought back many memories.
    Excellent article, you should do a few more.
    Having skimmed through the first clip I am now looking forward to spending a few hours reliving the joy of staying up and waiting for the 66 GF and trying to have my son understand what it was like watching footy before soulless stadiums, plastic commentators and so called sports journalists.

    Would love to see the Coodabeens have another crack at the footy marathon but doubt that the freedom they had back in the day would be tolerated. Dare say any attempt at clever Coodabeens humour will fly over their corporate heads, be squashed by the bean counters and stomped on by the political correctness wowsers at ch7, most who are unlikely to understand the sentiment, intellect or wit of the Coodabeens, spoiling any chance of reminiscing what could be a fantastic marathon of football entertainment.

    Look forward to another trip down memory lane with your next submission

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