Main content

Interview with Tony Charlton

2011 Hall of Fame - Tony Charlton Tony Charlton was one of the football's most respected broadcasters
Tony Charlton is just the ninth media inductee into the Australian Football Hall of Fame

TONY Charlton - just the ninth media inductee into the Australian Football Hall of Fame - is one of the most professional and dignified men anyone could wish to meet.

So it's a shock to learn that (had things turned out slightly differently over a period of two weeks late in the 1962 season) Charlton could have been held at least partially responsible for both the accidental maiming - and potential death - of a popular TV wrestler, and a serious leg injury to a Brownlow medallist just before a second semi-final at the MCG.

In an hour-long interview at Melbourne's Alfred Hospital (where the 82-year-old still works five days a week), Charlton reveals these two entertaining stories, which he insists "have never seen the light of day" … that is, of course, until now.

Both tales emanated from The Tony Charlton Football Show, which screened on Channel Nine on Sunday mornings throughout the 1960s, in direct competition to Seven's (and Ron Casey's) iconic World of Sport.

With fierce rivalry between the two programs, and their networks, Charlton felt an urgency to "do things differently (and) come up with new ideas".

After some creative brainstorming in 1962, Charlton decided to open a couple of episodes with Mack Sennett-style, slapstick comedy sketches. The MCG was the setting for both footy satires.

The first sketch featured fearsome Canadian-born wrestler "Killer" Kowalski (all 201cm and 130kg of him), who was cast as an ultra-mean fullback to terrorise the full-forward, played by former Hawthorn star Roy Simmonds (also a panellist on Charlton's show).

Simmonds' character had rigged a kerosene tin of water up a goalpost at the Punt Road end and planned to shower Kowalski when things got willing.

When Simmonds pulled the rope connected to the tin, the rope broke. Instead of water pouring down on Kowalski, the tin came crashing down upon his head.

"There's blood everywhere," Charlton recalls, almost half a century later.

"Wrestlers are good at acting, (but) this was no act. He was hurt. He gets back on his feet. Simmo's gone into hysterics, as he would.

"We were waiting for the legal letter to arrive, (but) nothing happened."

A couple of weeks later, they filmed a scene based around the newly crowned Brownlow medallist, Geelong's Alistair Lord.

The Cats were due to play Essendon in the second semi-final at the same venue that Saturday, but Charlton recalls Lord "kindly" agreeing to ham it up for the Nine cameras on the Wednesday.

The action starts with a fully-kitted Lord, with a ludicrously oversized Brownlow Medal around his neck, leading Charlton's panel onto the field.

In the next scene, the ball was to be bounced in the centre, with Lord to take the ball, dodge around a defender and kick a goal at the Punt Road end. Well, that was the plan.

Charlton reveals the startling reality: "At centre half-back, we've got the soccer international and controversial commentator Alex Barr, who, for reasons best known to him, as the champion (Lord) swoops past him, puts out his leg.

"Crack! I can hear the sound now."

Lord copped a firm boot to the thigh.

Charlton instantly thought, 'My God, we've broken the Brownlow medallist's leg.'

"They're both writhing in agony," he recalls.

"We get Alistair Lord up. He said, 'Oh God, I think I'm right'.

"Not a word was said. He played the final with a corked leg. And Alec Barr had physiotherapy for three months after that."

Lord was actually named fourth-best for the Cats in a 46-point loss to eventual premier Essendon. The following Saturday, Lord was his team's best player in the preliminary final draw against Carlton.

These are but two stories in a rich, seemingly bottomless, mine of yarns in Charlton's almost photographic memory of sporting contests, having called three Olympics, two Commonwealth Games, Test cricket, golf, tennis, the list goes on.

In regard to football, another story concerned one of the game's greatest scandals.

A member of Charlton's panel back then, and for several years, was Melbourne's supercoach Norm Smith. Charlton, a Melbourne fan, capitalised on their personal connection when news broke about Smith's sensational sacking on the eve of round 13, 1965.

It's no exaggeration to suggest it was probably the biggest story in the game's history.

After all, Smith had taken his beloved Demons to six flags in the previous 10 seasons. When he was sacked, he was actually the reigning premiership coach, having claimed perhaps his most famous triumph in the 1964 Grand Final.

His Demons had then won the first eight games of 1965, before stumbling slightly to 9-3.

After the initial shock came the fallout - and it was massive.

On the Sunday morning, less than 48 hours after learning of his dismissal (via courier, if you don’t mind), a hurt Smith told his side of the story on The Tony Charlton Football Show.

It was perhaps the most riveting hour of football television ever filmed - and certainly the most dramatic period in Charlton's distinguished career.

Anyone privileged enough to have seen it (a brief snippet can be viewed on YouTube) would be well acquainted with the presenter's articulate and incisive, yet respectful, understated style.

Charlton covered the Smith sacking saga from all conceivable angles, and it's difficult to imagine modern news outlets doing a better job of nailing the story and its many sub-plots.

"I thought it was pretty amateurish," Charlton says, with the value of almost 46 years of hindsight. "All I know is we didn’t sleep."

As preparation for what promised to be a huge Sunday show, Charlton had a restless Saturday. He went to Coburg where North Melbourne hosted Melbourne; and where the then elderly five-time premiership coach Frank 'Checker' Hughes (a mentor of Smith's) took over as coach.

"It was like a death in the family," Charlton says.

"I've been quoted as saying, 'It was like Phar Lap not running in the Melbourne Cup.' Norm Smith not there with his Melbourne team? Six premierships? It was just extraordinary."

Charlton spent Saturday night on the telephone trying to get people into the studio the next day. In most instances, he didn't have to try too hard.

A potential issue was convincing Smith to keep his powder dry until the Sunday.

"I felt confident that we had exclusivity," Charlton says.

"The man (Smith) was big on integrity. Straight down the line, Norm Smith. And many will verify that.

"He'd had approaches from the rival network, Seven, and why wouldn’t he? And for substantial money … to break the agreement with us. But he never did."

Smith's appearance was mesmerising. This was a man who had also been big on keeping issues in-house, yet he revealed his inner thoughts to the world. The Sun devoted the first three pages of its Monday edition to Smith's comments on The Tony Charlton Football Show.

"God, it was powerful stuff," Charlton says.

"And I was just a conduit. It was all Norm Smith, not me."

For all his brilliant journalism in that episode, Charlton still harbours a major regret.

"We thought it was a good telecast and the ratings are going to go through the roof, so we'd better have a replay," he says.

"(We) arranged it for a couple of nights hence and Norm and (wife) Marj came … I've regretted it ever since because they had to relive this again and she started to cry again. I felt terrible about it. I wish I'd never done it … I'd like to have spared Norm and Marj the anguish of reliving that."

Of course, two days after his appearance on Charlton's show, Smith was reinstated. The Demons haven't won a premiership since, and many fans old enough to know bemoan the lasting impact of "the curse of Norm Smith".

Charlton, who spoke at the inaugural Norm Smith Oration at the MCG on Tuesday night, says a depth of feeling still lingers today about the debacle.

He encountered it recently at an AFL function when people asked him, "How could that ever have happened?"

Charlton's answer?

"To put it succinctly: old school tie versus no school tie." (ie. Melbourne officials were well-heeled public schoolboys leading professional lives, at odds with Smith being a state school educated tradesman.)

Charlton was perhaps always destined for an illustrious career in the media.

His New Zealand-born parents set high standards as public performers - mother Hazel was a talented opera singer; father Conrad was one of the original broadcasters on ABC radio (in fact, his was the first voice heard on the station) before moving into ABC management.

Charlton's elder brother Michael became the first announcer on ABC-TV on November 5, 1956 - a remarkable link with his father's historic contribution to ABC Radio.

Michael Charlton was also a co-creator of current affairs program Four Corners in 1961, and later enjoyed a long and successful career with the BBC in London.

Born in Sydney and educated at Perth's exclusive Scotch College, Charlton was, by his own admission, not much of a footballer. He says the only distinction of his brief football career was being knocked out in a school match for Scotch College at Subiaco Oval.

Charlton first made his name on Melbourne radio station 3AW in the early 1950s.

In 1952, Melbourne radio was shaken by "a seismic shift" (as Charlton describes it) caused by "the great man of radio", Norm Banks (also a member of the Hall of Fame), moving from 3KZ to 3AW.

With typical modesty, Charlton recalls, "Somehow, (Banks) chose me to be his sidekick."

The pair combined to present 3AW's first football broadcast, an Essendon-Richmond clash played in heavy rain and under substandard lighting at the Melbourne Showgrounds.

"There I was, frightened out of my wits (and) not knowing the great Norman Banks had difficulties with his vision," Charlton says.

"When the players came close to the commentary point, he did the commentary; when they disappeared into the gloom of the showgrounds, it being lit as a trotting track, not the inside area where the game was played, he handed over to me.

"Death by a thousand cuts. I nearly died that night."

After establishing his credentials as one of the most promising young broadcasters in the country, Charlton, "with the good graces of 3AW", joined John Clemenger Advertising.

John Clemenger senior had been a leading tennis player "in the era of Hopman and Crawford and Patterson" (Charlton notes with a hint of nostalgia) and was an Australian Davis Cup captain. Charlton says Clemenger was "very kind" to him, and encouraged him to pursue his sporting commentaries.

Charlton hosted two successful Clemenger radio productions called The Kia-Ora Sports Parade and The London Stores Football Show.

Charlton says the London Stores show attracted "sacks of mail" and was "big in its time", but The Kia-Ora Sports Parade was "a phenomenon".

This is best exemplified by a broadcast tailored specially for Essendon fans mourning the career-ending knee injury suffered by their superstar, John Coleman.

Charlton had called Coleman's last match. It was round eight, 1954, and the Bombers were hosting North Melbourne at Windy Hill.

Charlton remembers it as though it's happening before his eyes.

"The most simple thing," he says of the incident that ended one of the great careers.

"It was a two-out affair. They raced for the ball, all of a sudden there's a tumble (and) Coleman writhing in agony on the ground, holding his knee. And he wouldn't let the trainers touch him - he brushed them off. Finally, he had to let them get him to his feet.

"And we never saw him play again."

Charlton then had the "extraordinary experience" of introducing Coleman to the stage, and the devastated Bomber faithful, at Melbourne Town Hall this particular night.

It was Coleman's first public appearance after what Charlton describes as an "absolute tragedy".

"Nobody could have been prepared for the reaction of the crowd," Charlton recalls.

"It was packed - they were hanging from the rafters. Well! They stomped and shouted and cheered and screamed and whistled and cried for seven minutes before we could get the show going again.

"Such was the appeal of that Adonis, who just stood there on crutches with his knee heavily bandaged."

The advent of television in Australia coincided with the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games - and Charlton was at the forefront of the Nine Network's Games coverage.

The following year, he was headhunted by Seven to be part of the network's first televised coverage of football.

Charlton loved the immediacy of live telecasts. "It was happening now and you either came up with the right words at the right time or you failed the test," he says.

In 1960, Nine made him an offer he couldn't refuse. For the next 10 years, Charlton called football on Nine and ran a sports show 48 weeks a year for three hours each Sunday.

The rivalry with Ron Casey's World Of Sport didn’t diminish Charlton's respect for Casey. Surprisingly, the two hardly spoke. Both were too busy.

Charlton recalls Nigel Dick (general manager at Nine before transferring to Seven) telling him of his plan to appoint Casey as manager of Seven, during which Dick "spoke very highly of (Casey's) capacity outside of sport (and) his managership skills."

Casey died in 2000 at the age of 72.

"A tragedy that he was lost to us … Taken from us far too early," Charlton says.

"Did I have much to do with him? Extraordinarily not. We were head-to-head (and) came across each other crossing paths before doing telecasts, but (I) never really sat down and talked to him, and I regret that because (he's) very highly thought of.

"At the MCG, we have the Ron Casey Media Centre - a great tribute to him, and he deserved it."

The AFL deserved the $1.25 billion it earned in the latest media rights deal, says Charlton, who recalls "the dim days" when he negotiated with the VFL on Nine's behalf for the network's right to televise football. He can even remember complaining when told the rate had risen to £2000 ($4000).

"We screamed," he says. "We said, 'We'll go broke. We can’t afford that.'

"$1.25 billion. Just extraordinary. Good luck to them all… What a wonderful thing has been created."

One thing Charlton despised about TV was the requirement for make-up.

"They used to plaster this make-up on you and I hated it. Because I never had much hair, they put black boot polish - Kiwi, for God's sake - here," he says, pointing to the middle of his head.

"And you'd get it on your collars.

"There wasn't a Sunday, in running that sports show for an interminable time, that I didn’t object to the make-up girls sticking this clobber on me."

Charlton much preferred "just being one's self", and "either it worked or it didn’t".

Asked to recount some of his best lines, those which all commentators seem to be able to recall with pride, Charlton claims he can't recall any; and doesn't think he uttered many great lines in any case.

Charlton is not a man who thinks everything was better in his day, and this includes football commentary. He volunteers his thoughts on today's commentators.

"The boys today do it excellently," he says

"Their only problem, I think, is the exposure - it's on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and sometimes Tuesdays, so their vocabularies tend to get repetitive. But they'll work that out.

"Today is a far cry from what it was then and I salute the excellence of the (telecasts), both in terms of commentary and in coverage."

He regards Dennis Cometti, Tim Lane and Bruce McAvaney as "absolutely outstanding figures", affording special praise to McAvaney for "raising the bar significantly in terms of Olympic coverage and excellence".

Perhaps surprisingly considering his dignified demeanour, Charlton is a fan of The Footy Show and, in the main, its star Sam Newman.

Charlton vividly recalls Newman the footballer, having called the Geelong-Collingwood game in 1967 in which Newman copped an errant knee that cost him a kidney and a Grand Final appearance ("I can see that happening now at centre half-forward at the MCG"), and also Newman's first game in his famous white boots.

"Overall, I think The Footy Show's fantastic and I watch it regularly," he says.

"And I think Sam Newman is an extraordinary character, no fool by any means. A wonderful personality. But he knows, because I've told him directly … he goes too far and things can tend to get a little grubby at times.

"But overall, it's marvelous entertainment and I don’t like missing it."

Charlton rarely missed a Grand Final during his career. Of the 12 he called, three stand out as exhilarating contests. Coincidentally, each of them were nail-biting Collingwood losses.

In order: Carlton's "riveting" comeback in 1970, the "pleasure" of his Demons last-gasp triumph in 1964, and Barry Breen's winning point for St Kilda in 1966.

"They're all wonderful events and great theatre," he says.

"Reminds me of (The Age writer) Greg Baum's quote: 'The theatre of the great and grand.' And so it is."

Charlton enhanced our understanding of that theatre, and has been recognised as such with his Hall of Fame honour.

For someone accustomed to receiving awards - he is already a member of the Sport Australia and MCG halls of fame, among other gongs - his humility is disarming.

"As a commentator, you’re supposed to be able to produce words like bubbles in champagne," he says.

"(But) I find it difficult because it's such a lovely thing to have happened. And the more so because it was totally unexpected.

"So I'm grateful to my peers for thinking highly enough of me to pay me this honour, and I can only hope I'm worthy of it."

However, he has never been driven by personal glory.

"I'll borrow a line from Norm Smith: 'It's not the victories, it's the friends you make'," he says.

"What an extraordinary statement, but true. I've got such a wealth of friendships formed out of sporting circles and they continue to this day.

"It's wonderful to have them, I rejoice in it, and I'm uplifted by it."

Charlton quotes Jack Little, who called the wrestling on Nine.

"Jack would say, 'I want them to think only one thing of me: that I am professional.' Well I'm the same … If people, when I pass on, say, 'Well, he was a professional kind of cove', that'll do me."

Indeed, a professional with the warmest of hearts. A mark of the man has been Charlton's longstanding, far-reaching work with The Alfred Hospital, to which he feels he owes "a personal debt".

Twenty years ago, surgeons at The Alfred gave his daughter Cathy a life-saving heart transplant and, ever since, he has devoted five days a week, as an unpaid volunteer, to organising and hosting charity events to raise money for the hospital.

"I just give my time to the place," he says.

"You see the good that comes out of places like this."

And it's inspiring to see the immense good that radiates from rare individuals such as Tony Charlton.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of the clubs or the AFL