EXCLUSIVE: This week marks 40 years since Simon Townsend’s Wonder World premiered on Network 10.
In a rare interview with TV Tonight, 73 year old Townsend recalls his pioneering children’s current affairs show.
Wonder World ran on 10 from 1979 until 1987. Screening 5 afternoons a week, it employed 17 reporters over its life span, producing some 8000 stories and nearly 2000 episodes.
Amongst its reporting team were Angela Catterns, Jonathan Coleman, Edith Bliss, Hugh Piper, Sheridan Jobbins, Maurice Parker and Alita Fahey.
Townsend had worked as a newspaper reporter, and had been conscientious objector against the Vietnam War, before he met A Current Affair host and producer Mike Willesee at a dinner party.
“I liked him a lot. He invited me in for a talk and on the basis of one interview he said, ‘When do you want to start?’ I said, ‘Right now!’” he recalls.
“This morning you didn’t have a job, and tonight you’re a TV star!”
His first ACA story involved interviewing a mother who had lost her young son.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing but I had the instinct that I should keep the woman talking. She talked to me through her tears and it was an emotional story.
“That night it was the first story on A Current Affair and my mother rang me up, saying, ‘You’re such a clever boy, son. This morning you didn’t have a job, and tonight you’re a TV star!’”
He also had shares in Zoot, a Children’s newspaper which, together with his ACA experience, led to the idea of a magazine-style TV show for Children.
“Nine paid for a pilot, Seven paid for a pilot but no-one took it up. Then the law changed and the channels had to have a half hour of Australian quality television. So I was given a C rating and I had something to sell,” he explains.
“The rest is history.”
The first theme song for the show was ‘Afternoon Delight‘ by the Starland Vocal band until he realised the suggestive nature of the lyrics.
He then commissioned ‘Welcome to my Wonder World’ originally recorded by John St. Peeters, released as a Top 40 single and even performed on Countdown.
Wonder World covered eclectic and educational magazine stories for its young audience, under the premise that “the world really is wonderful.”
“We travelled a lot, across the whole of Australia and internationally. We went to Hawaii, India, Bali, Hong Kong and other countries,” he continues.
“I suppose the hallmark of the shows was that they always involved humour and popular music. That was how they came together.
“The reporters had to come up with the idea of how to produce them. It was very hard work.
But it also tackled difficult topics such as terminal illness, animal cruelty and homelessness. In 1983 Prime Minister Bob Hawke presented the often-giggling Townsend with a special award for his 1000th episode, congratulating him on his contribution to the youth of Australia.
Audiences also loved his permanent sidekick, a large, droopy bloodhound named Woodrow.
“Angela Catterns did a story on bloodhounds and the final shot was one little puppy. I said, ‘Can you find out if that puppy has been sold?’
“(Woody) dripped a lot of saliva and I always had to have a towel.”
“I wanted him as a family pet. My late wife was horrified. She said, ‘Look at his paws. He will grow up to be a big, big dog!’ And he did. He dripped a lot of saliva and I always had to have a towel. But he was a darling dog, both my family pet and programme mascot,” he remembers.
But ‘Woody’ had a mind of his own, walking off when he was bored or once even taking a dump on the studio floor. After Woody’s death Townsend introduced a cockatoo, and a Labrador, but none achieved the same popularity.
“The cockatoo was a bit of a failure. He would fly away into the upper reaches of the studio and the next morning he wouldn’t come down.
“The Labrador didn’t attract the attention of Woody, because Woody just looked so sad with his bloodhound features.”
“It was the worst mistake I ever made.”
But Townsend also reveals his one regret from Wonder World, in not giving a young researcher named Amanda Keller an opportunity on air.
“We needed a new female reporter,” he explains.
“Everyone on my team was saying ‘Simon, you’ve got to make Amanda a reporter!’ but I chose someone else. It was the worst mistake I ever made.”
Following Wonder World (which had a separate run on Nine with reporters Catriona Rowntree &
Sonia Kruger) he then sold review show TVTV to the ABC’s David Hill.
“I just rang and cheekily said, ‘I think I can solve your 6pm problem.’ I went in and sold it to him on the spot,” says Townsend.
“They put pressure on me not to praise ABC shows because it looked false.”
TVTV ran for 3 years reviewing television shows and presenting TV news & interviews, including shows from other networks. Once again Townsend was breaking all the rules.
“They put pressure on me not to praise ABC shows because it looked false. I just said ‘Nonsense!” he continues.
“A lot of people at the ABC thought it was very unfair I came in from outside. They preferred it to be in-house. So I was only there for about 6 months and they agreed to pay me out. Then they had various comperes and panellists.”
James Valentine was one of his replacement hosts. While Townsend happily took royalty cheques, he never tuned in again.
“It wasn’t my concept anymore. But I appreciated the money.”
“I’m very well but a couple of years ago I suffered 5 strokes.”
These days Townsend is retired and has endured his share of health battles.
“I’m very well but a couple of years ago I suffered 5 strokes. I don’t walk very well, sometimes with a wheelchair or a stick. But I feel very well.”
And once a storyteller, always a storyteller…. News and Current Affairs are still his preferred viewing habit.
“I watch a fair bit of Foxtel and still, 5 nights a week I watch A Current Affair.
“Sometimes I think, ‘We did that story years ago!’”