Nine’s Chief Classification Officer & Director of Program Standards Richard Lyle has seen it all at TCN9.
He is the longest serving employee at Willoughby, but this weekend will join with staff to farewell the historic television site.
First opened in 1956 with Bruce Gyngell’s famous words “Good evening and welcome to Television” (from the basement before the rest of the night was broadcast from St David’s Hall, Surry Hills), it has been home to such shows as Bandstand, Tonight with Don Lane, The Mike Walsh Show, Midday, The Paul Hogan Show, Australia’s Funniest Home Videos, Today, 60 Minutes, A Current Affair, Sunday, Kerri-Anne, The NRL Footy Show, and more.
It has famously been under the watch of the Packers (Sir Frank, Kerry -twice), Bruce Gyngell, Alan Bond, David Gyngell (twice), David Leckie, Eddie McGuire and Hugh Marks -and Lyle remembers them all.
“I was working in the News department in one of my first jobs as a cadet in about 1969,” he tells TV Tonight. “After about six weeks they finally asked me for a drink at the Bridgeview Hotel,” telling him they had initially been reluctant “‘…you talk so posh, we thought you were a spy for Sir Frank Packer!’
“It was all due to Frank Packer I got the job”
“But it was all due to Frank Packer I got the job, because he decided he should have 4 cadets at Channel Nine like they had at the newspapers. Bruce Gyngell managed to get 3 but had trouble getting the 4th. The pay was $28 a week.
“I heard later that I was a shoo-in, but I was sweating bullets thinking ‘Will I get the job?'”
Sir Frank was so determined the 4th cadet be found that Lyle was fondly known as “the fourth f***ing cadet.”
The senior Packer sent chills through the ranks, sometimes firing people on the spot if they appeared to be aimless, both at Nine and Park St print empire Australian Consolidated Press.
“There was an agreement between the two switchboards, that when Sir Frank left ACP, to make a surprise visit, they would call the switchboard at Channel Nine, and everybody would be alerted,” he recalls.
“The minute Sir Frank Packer’s car would come in the lower gate we all jumped in our station wagons and fled out the top gate to the local park and hide!”
Across his rise in the ranks, Lyle -brother to TV pioneer David Lyle- undertook some surprising tasks.
“I got to meet probably the most famous person in the world”
“One of my very earliest jobs for Mr. Gyngell was to be a gag writer for Don Lane. I knew nothing about gag writing but while I was there I got to meet probably the most famous person in the world.
“Ramon Navarro, like Mary Pickford and Rudolph Valentino, was a silent film star and everybody from India to an igloo knew who they were.”
“The Packers never spent any money if they didn’t have to”
The original TCN9 was smaller than the footprint it now occupies, and will soon be handed over to property developers.
“Originally it was a shithole!” Lyle laughs. “It had been built in about 1954, very basic at just two storeys high. The highest part was the studio because it had to have a certain height for the lights. The Packers never spent any money if they didn’t have to.”
Over time the Packers would acquire adjacent properties, to be known as Nine’s ‘cottages.’
“They never made a genuine offer to anybody, they just waited… until a death notice was posted! Channel Nine was on the door offering condolences to a widow, and ‘…by the way here’s the deed, sign now!'”
“Somebody has to answer it within three rings!”
Kerry Packer had his own hotline to TCN9 -a red phone that kept staff on alert.
“The first thing you were told, ‘If that phone rings, somebody has to answer it within three rings!’
“If he had the slightest complaint, it was escalated if the phone hadn’t been picked up within the first three rings.”
Packer infamously cancelled Doug Mulray’s Naughtiest Home Videos while it was on air, but Lyle credits the calmness of Nine’s Helen Cashman who took the call.
“To her credit, she always said he was perfectly polite on the phone. He just wanted it gone. She said ‘The next day I got the most enormous bouquet of flowers I’ve ever seen in my life!'”
“Bondy was as flash as a rat with a gold tooth”
In 1987 Alan Bond famously forked out $1B to Kerry Packer for the network -later selling it back at just $250m. But the ’80s was an era of excess.
“Bondy was as flash as a rat with a gold tooth. He was convinced by (TV boss) Sam Chisholm, ‘You must build!’
“He was talked into building the extra storey on the famous third floor …where Ray Martin accused the executives of being ‘carpets strollers on the third floor!’
“When Kerry Packer bought it back, and saw the renovations, with marble on the third floor only seen by the executives, it annoyed him so much that for once he reached into his pocket and had carpet laid so he didn’t have to look at the extravagance.”
TV folklore also tells of boozy parties, and Kerry Packer emptying mini-bars of alcohol.
“The story is that he threw it all out -no. He had it all taken back to the liquor store and Mr. Packer made sure they got a credit for the liquor that was returned,” Lyle recalls.
Then there was the motorbike gifted to Sam Chisholm on his 50th birthday.
“What do you give to the man who has got everything? They couldn’t make him any taller, so they gave him a Harley Davidson motorbike. Rather than have it downstairs in the carpark they got a crane or a cherry picker to haul it up so it could be brought into the boardroom on the third floor.”
“Don’t try the helicopter pad”
But there were also parts of TCN9 that had more sordid stories, especially around the time of a Christmas party.
“Somebody thought a discreet place to make out would be the helicopter pad on the night of the Christmas Party. You must remember as a helicopter pad you do have security cameras going full time,” Lyle teases.
“So if you are looking for a discreet spot, don’t try the helicopter pad!”
Lyle continues to work full-time for Nine, although COVID restrictions have meant he has not been in his new North Sydney headquarters as much as his days at Willoughby.
But he will bid the site a fond farewell this weekend, where he started as a cadet over 50 years ago.
“If it hadn’t been for COVID we would have done one last great big, long lunch on the third floor,” he smiles.
“I want to get some marble, quite frankly.”