LInk to 612 Breakfast page

If you're looking for 612 ABC Brisbane stories, you'll find them on the official 612 Breakfast page:

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Bmag Dec 17th 2013 - Love Actually

Breaking news. Donna Weeks has finally seen Love Actually! Who is Donna Weeks and why is this such a big deal? Donna is a political scientist. Last year, I was interviewing her about the Japanese election and stumbled on the fact she had never seen Love Actually. Was Donna the last person on earth not to have seen the classic Richard Curtis romantic comedy? I ribbed her about it on air and this led to someone buying her a copy on DVD, yet still Donna held out. Until last weekend when it was shown on the big screen at GOMA.

Donna’s verdict shortly. But first I’m going to put my (Christmas) cards on the table. Love Actually may well be the most divisive Christmas film ever made but I adore it. I could enchant/bore you for as long as the movie itself (and at 135 minutes, it is reasonably long) with all my favourite moments. And it all starts with that opening scene at an airport arrivals hall. Who hasn’t sat waiting for a family member to clear customs, happily observing all the kisses and hugs going on around them? Then there’s the romantic fumbling between the Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) and new staffer Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). Who wouldn’t have sent her to work elsewhere to avoid the awkwardness, only to chase her down and get her back? And how touching is Mark (Andrew Lincoln) and his undying love for the recently-married Juliet (Kiera Knightly)? First she discovers all the close-ups of her after Mark shoots the wedding video. Then, in a real tissue-grabber, Mark stands at her front door silently confessing his feelings (and letting her go) with a series of hand-written signs.

 There is so much in the film we can all relate to. And yet there are those who despise it. Among my friends and colleagues, captain of the negatives is radio producer Amanda Dell: “I just don't get it. I get none of the `awww’ factor that seems to drive the passionate love of this film. It leaves me cold and quite bored. Maybe it's just too twee for me.”

Jose Ferrara agrees: “Appalling. Makes me squirm if I ever see as much as an ad. Hugh Grant is a ham. He and Martine McCutcheon have zero chemistry. Clunky script supposed to be romcom but just nauseatingly saccharine and not very funny to boot.” And there’s no doubting how Stephanie Beames feels: “Bleugh!!! One of the all-time most gag-worthy, formulaic, predictable movies.”

Captain of the supporters is ABC family affairs reporter Susan Hetherington, who watches it every year without fail: “The 24 December is the day of viewing in our house. Others call it Christmas Eve. I call it Love Actually Day!” Siding with Susan is Sally Piracha: “It has Colin Firth. Aside from that, one of my favourite movies of all time. I can watch it anywhere, anytime, with anyone. One of the best casts ever assembled, top soundtrack, and it has Colin Firth in another lake.” Jo Stone says it’s a great film: “So many different interpretations of love in the world! And Hugh Grant dancing…gold!”

And from Adam Hay, who tied the knot just last week: “It’s my wife's favourite film. It has been watched every Christmas at both families’ houses since it was released. It is a beautiful film and shows how love actually is. Sometimes easy but most of the time unpredictable. Love it. Destined to watch it forever now!”

So, what did Donna Weeks think? After watching the film for the first time ever, Donna tweeted: “I’m with Amanda Dell…sorry.” She later emailed me: “Good ensemble, cute kid role, OK movie, glad I’ve seen it, pressure off. But really, as if the British Prime Minister would ever speak to the President of the United States like that! If only things happened in real life like they do in the movies, the world would be pretty cool, actually!” “OK movie”? Just OK?! Donna, I think you need to unwrap that DVD and watch it again straight away! From the Howsons to you and yours, have a safe and joyous Christmas. May your holidays be filled with love (and hopefully Love Actually)!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Bmag Dec 3rd 2013 - I'm not the only non-citizen in the village!

I’ll be honest. I was a bit nervous about the reaction I would get to the revelation in my last column that I had lived here for over thirty years without becoming a citizen. I thought some might have judged me harshly for remaining a pom all this time. Instead, I’ve been overwhelmed by readers and listeners ‘fessing up’ that they too have been tardy. I tell you – this country is full of immigrants who have lived here for decades without taking the plunge!

Valerie Kerr writes: “We arrived in 1976 and none of us kids has done it yet.” Valerie goes on to say she’s never really felt the need. And that’s where I was until recently. You can’t pressure people into becoming citizens. It’s a deeply personal and individual decision. Barbara Richards tells me her mum came from England as a two year old in 1911 and never became naturalised. Her younger sister eventually signed up when she turned eighty!

Others, like Ron Martin, have shared with me their epiphany moments: “I woke up some years back and realised there was no need to hold on to the past. So proud to own an Aussie passport and be in the best state and the best country in the world”.  I may have inspired Chris Williams, who says: “I came from the UK in 1964 and I must do the same! I should have done it years ago!”

Then there are stories like Phil Eldridge’s tale. Phil moved here from England, aged two in 1950. He was conscripted to fight for Australia, married an Aussie, then in 1983 they moved to New Zealand. When Phil’s wife died, he tried to move back to Australia. After all, he’d lived here over thirty years. He was told he would have to live here four years before he could even apply! Phil writes: “Spencer, this is an excellent decision”.

Aside from emails and social media comments, wherever I’ve gone in these past couple of weeks, people have wanted to talk to me about becoming true blue. I was in Regents Park the other night, recording a fabulous radio piece about a bloke’s love affair with his LED lighting. Gary Jones has multi-coloured flashing strips behind his wall-mounted plasma screen and is in the process of installing the same in his kitchen, at ceiling and floor height. He even has a device on the bottom of his kitchen tap that flashes rainbow colours when the water’s turned on!

Anyway, to get back to the story, when I rocked up to Gary’s place, his brother and sisterin- law, from Wales and Scotland, were having a cuppa. All three of them have lived here twentyplus years and immediately launched into this conversation about how they know they should, and will soon, apply to become Aussies! For those who are wondering, assuming you’re eligible, the process is incredibly swift and simple. You can do it all at From applying online, which took around an hour by the time I’d located and scanned all the documents you need, to sitting in the Immigration Department office on Adelaide Street completing the twenty question multiple choice citizenship test, took just four weeks. That said, there is a delay in being allocated a citizenship ceremony. At the moment, you’re looking at July of next year.

As for the test, it’s relatively straight forward, if you’ve lived here a while and have a good grasp of English. I felt for the woman who was in the booth next to me – I’m guessing she’s a more recent arrival – who had just failed for the fourth time.

Finally to Bill of Rosalie, thank you for your poem. Too long to print in its entirety, it starts: “Here’s to Spencer Howson, who’s finally seen the light. He’s going to become an Aussie. Now that’s a bit of alright.” Bill ends with the footnote: “Congratulations old mate, you’re a true blue, fair dinkum sport and your blood’s worth bottlin’. We’ll have to sink a few tinnies of the amber fluid at the Aussie Day barbie. All the best as you adopt the land of Oz.” Thank you Bill and everyone else who has extended the welcome mat. It seems I had nothing to fear in coming out as an unconverted pom!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Bmag 19th November 2013 - Service clubs, citizenship and Doctor Who

One of the best perks of my job as a breakfast radio announcer is I have time during the day to speak at service clubs. At least once a week you’ll find me addressing a Probus or National Seniors' Club, telling behind the scenes tales from my twenty-odd years at the ABC. My favourite part is the question and answer time at the end, which has proven to be the best and most direct way to receive feedback from listeners, and we do take notice of what they have to say. But these talks are also a great source of story material for my breakfast show.

Here are a couple of recent examples: At Cleveland National Seniors, a woman handed me a nude 2014 calendar! It turned out her retirement village had produced it as a fundraiser for Look Good Feel Better, which helps women manage the appearance-related side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I flicked through the hilarious and very cheeky photos and who should I find playing piano in the all-together? None other than the first man on Queensland television, Hugh Cornish! What a great yarn! (Yes, the calendars are available – call Renaissance on 3820 7700).

Then just last week, after giving a talk at the Mt Gravatt Men’s Shed, I noticed the members were putting together 300 flat-pack timber cubby houses. Apparently a large department store imported them, then realised they didn’t meet Australian design standards. So they’ve all been handed over to the Men’s Shed, where the blokes are assembling and fixing each one – mainly reinforcing the verandah railings. It’s a great little earner for the Men’s Shed and will set them up handsomely for 2014 but they’re running out of storage space! So if you know any children who would appreciate a cubby house for Christmas, please call the Mt Gravatt Men’s Shed on 3343 2216. They’re $495. If you’d like me to speak at your service club in 2014, shoot me an email.

In what’s been a very busy couple of weeks, I also wrote and performed “A letter to the woman who changed my life” at an event called Men of Letters. I wrote my letter to the whole of Australia. As I hinted in the last bmag, there was a bombshell. Here’s an abridged version:

“My dear Australia, I’ve been disrespectful towards you. You educated me (even if that did mean sitting me next to Kyle Sandilands at Manly State School), you introduced me to my wife, you employed me (including that dream uni job as mystery shopper at McDonalds! How can I ever forget sitting in the loo at Maccas shoving a thermometer into french fries?), and you embraced me as a breakfast radio presenter on your national broadcaster. Yet for all of these 32 years, I have continued to think of another as my motherland. It has taken me all this time, but I finally see how this must hurt and confuse you. So I am writing to ask – dear Australia, please can we formalise our relationship? Australia, I have loved you for a long, long time. Will you have me as one of your own? PS: I may still support England in the Ashes. Can I let you know after the Second Test?”

I guess the surprise is more that I’m not already an Aussie rather than the fact I’ve finally applied. I’ll let you know when Australia (i.e. the Immigration Department) replies.

This Saturday (23rd) marks the 50th anniversary of Dr Who. TV stations around the world are broadcasting the special episode The Day of the Doctor simultaneously – there is no better way to crush TV piracy than to broadcast programmes at the same time everywhere. ABC Radio is launching a pop-up Doctor Who channel from 24 to 30 November. Look for ABC Extra on your digital radio or radio app (eg Tune In Radio). I’m presenting a two-hour special on the channel which will have rolling 24/7 interviews and discussion about Doctor Who.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Men of Letters - To the Woman Who Changed My Life - November 10th 2013

My dear,

It’s been over 30 years since we were introduced to each other and perhaps you were beginning to wonder whether today would ever happen. The thing is it never felt right before. But it does now. There is a question I must ask you and I do hope you’ll say yes.

My dear adopted motherland of Australia,

I cried when mum told me we were moving here. I can still picture the scene, as if I’m floating above it. We’re sitting at the top of the carpeted stairs inside our two storey cottage in the northwest of England. It’s 1980. I’m 8. Mum’s 33 and has recently suffered the loss of her second husband – my step-dad – to cancer. But she’s met an architect from Brisbane and we’re off to live in you!

I cried, not because I didn’t want to meet you. (I mean, this Aussie bloke that mum was about to marry was all sorts of fun. He was into filming trains on his Super-8 camera, and we would chase all over the English countryside. He also designed The Big Pineapple. Which, as a child, I thought was pretty cool. Even today, if you ever hear me on radio defending the Big Pineapple – and I think I’m probably the only person in the media who still does – now you know why!) No, the reason I cried was because I would leaving my Dad behind in England. Still, he bought me the 1981 Muppet Show annual at the airport… and you took us in.

Talk about a "Sliding Doors" moment. Where would I be today, if Mum and I hadn’t come here? That moment – and you, Australia, my adopted motherland – changed my life forever.

But I’ve been disrespectful towards you. You educated me (even if that did mean sitting me next to one Kyle Sandilands at Manly State School), you introduced me to my wife of 17 years, you employed me – including that dream uni job as mystery shopper at McDonalds! (How can I ever forget sitting in loo at Maccas shoving a thermometer into French Fries?) – and you embraced me in a very prominent and public position as a breakfast radio presenter on your national broadcaster. In short, you have cared for me as you would one of your own.

Yet for all of these 32 years, I have continued to think of another as my motherland. It has taken me all this time, but I finally see how this must hurt and confuse you. So today, I am writing to ask – dear Australia, please can we formalise our relationship? Will you have me as an Aussie?

Perhaps you’re wondering - why now? What’s changed? Well, it’s complex and even I don’t fully understand well enough to articulate why I’ve never asked you before. When people do find out that I’m not a citizen – and it’s been so long that most just assume I am (a very good friend of mine was shocked when I told her why I was writing you this letter. She had no idea) – I’ve always just said: I love you, I live in you, I pay taxes to you, I hope to die in you, but I just need to hold on to something from my past. And that something has been the fact that I am British and not Australian.

Yes, I know you can be both. In fact, I kindly went and made my son a dual citizen without asking him first. But I always had this fear that the British Government would pull the pin on dual citizenships and I’d be left without that link to the UK – which really means a link to my father, who still lives there.

I always said it was something in my heart that I didn’t feel the need to justify – and I stand by that. No one should pressure you into something so deeply personal.

And I always considered it a blessing that, as someone whose job involves talking on radio about politics, I simply cannot vote. I have never had to crystalise in my mind which side of politics I would support.

But a couple of things have brought me round. At the deli, I picked up a free magazine called “The Local Bulletin”. It’s all about Kenmore and surrounding suburbs. And inside was a photograph of a small, local citizenship ceremony. I never fancied the big flashy showy affair at City Hall – the one that’s on the telly every Australia Day, boasting it’s the biggest in the country. Suddenly I saw the beauty in becoming Australian alongside others from my suburb and community – people I would bump into at the shops or school gate.

Secondly, just before election day in September, a couple of recent arrivals to Australia were bemoaning the fact they couldn’t vote. They wanted to but couldn’t yet. That made me realise the value of being able to – and that I shouldn’t throw that privilege away.

And then, for some bizarre reason, I keep thinking about a scenario where I’m convicted of something – no, I’m not planning to join a bikie gang, or even chalk “I heart bikies” on the footpath – but in theory, I could be deported to the UK. Thousands of miles from wife Nikki and son Jack and you, dear Australia. I don’t want to think about life without you.

So you see how you’ve changed me? You can’t entirely take England out of the boy, but this boy left England long ago. He just didn’t realise it.

Australia, I have loved you for a long, long time. Will you have me as one of your own?

I know you’ll want to put me through a test. I don’t want to sound cocky, but I’m pretty confident. In fact, I am refusing to look at the sample questions online. I might not be able to spell Kosciusko or Palazszuk without checking, but I do know Bradman’s batting average so I’ll think I’ll go alright.

Are you going to ask me to quote some lines from that Franky Walnut song? I do hope so! I’ve been learning the words: “I’m as Australian as a sheep’s turd in the shape of Australia riding on the back of a sheep named Bruce who’s been shorn in the shape of Australia/I’m as Australian as a pie that’s been run over by a ute being driven by John Williamson while he narrates a documentary about Australia/I’m as Australian as a red-back spider and a funnel-web spider having a root inside a kangaroo scrotum purse/I’m as Australian as/I’m as Australian as.”

My dear Australia, I have attached the official paperwork. I await your response. Yours, if you’ll have me, Spencer

PS I may still support England in the Ashes
PPS Can I let you know after the Second Test?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Bmag 5th November 2013 - Separation of Powers

I wasn’t exactly sure how “The Meaning of Life” by Spencer J. Howson aged 17 ¾ would go down when I included extracts in my last column. I’m pleased to report the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. My favourite was from Julia Baker, a snake-catcher on Brisbane’s northside, who tells me she is about to start crowd-funding a TV show about her reptile-wrangling adventures.

Julia wrote: “Wow!! That is very impressive for a 17 year old! It took me over 40 years to realise that by doing things that make ourselves happy first, we are then naturally driven as humans to share that happiness and help create it in others. A win/win situation. Brilliantly written Spencer! The reason for working on and wanting this TV series so badly it hurts is my vision for what I want to do after it. I want to go into schools and speak in front of people that need an inspiration from someone that came from nothing, was pretty much labelled stupid, and show them how to set goals, dream big and achieve!”

You can count on some cash from me, Julia! Keep an eye on

Happiness is about as far removed as you can get from the way many people feel about the State Government granting Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie the power to overturn judges’ decisions and keep “the worst of the worst” offenders behind bars. Even Premier Campbell Newman says he’s uncomfortable with the Attorney-General wielding such power, but he says the community is calling for tougher sentences and that if you don’t like it, you’re “an apologist for paedophiles”.

But cast your mind back to high school and you’ll probably remember being taught that our parliamentary system is based on what’s called The Separation of Powers – the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. In other words, having made the laws, the parliament should leave it to the courts to apply those laws. No-one is being an apologist for child sex offenders. The concern here is the precedent this sets for governments targeting certain groups and then acting as judge, jury and executioner.

But is it possible the Queensland Government is in fact well within its rights to take ignore the Separation of Powers? A nuance that seems to have escaped most was pointed out on “7.30 Queensland” by QUT Senior Law Lecturer Peter Black. Peter Black explained that whilst the Queensland Constitution states that the Supreme Court has unlimited jurisdiction, it can be overruled “either explicitly or implicitly” by a subsequent Act. “The Queensland Constitution is just an ordinary piece of legislation. It doesn’t have any special status like the Commonwealth Constitution”. Federally, says Peter Black, it would be a different story: “The Commonwealth Constitution would probably prohibit those laws taking place at a federal level”.

So, would the High Court attempt to shut down this legislation? Peter Black says: “It would require the High Court to extend its existing doctrine. “But these laws I think are so provocative and arguably so offensive that this is the sort of case that might tempt the High Court to extend their existing doctrine so that they do have a mechanism by which they could restrict and strike down the constitutionality of these laws”. Of course all this leads to the question – how else can we keep “the worst of the worst” behind bars? Jarod Bleijie himself admitted on 4BC that a better way would be for the parliament to pass tougher laws, equipping judges with tougher penalties. There’s also been talk of introducing a US-style system where we would get to elect (presumably tougher) judges. Perhaps all of this will lead to judges taking the hint about society’s expectations and the Attorney-General will never have to use his new-found power.

The other thing that’s been occupying my mind this week is an invitation to speak at the next “Men of Letters”. Along with Tim Flannery, Ernie Dingo, Lawrence Mooney and others, I am to read a letter to “The Woman Who Changed My Life”. So who will it be? Come along to The Zoo on November 10th and you’ll find out. There will be a bombshell announcement about me and this woman! “Men of Letters” starts at 3pm. Tickets are $25. Proceeds to Edgar’s Mission.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Bmag Oct 22nd 2013 - Happiness is Healthy

I’m about to quote a very private essay I wrote when I was 17. I recorded the words into a micro-cassette recorder whilst lying in bed, then transcribed and finessed my latenight philosophising into a written document to be packed away in a box and not revisited until later in life.

This is the first time since then – 3 February 1990 – that I’ve looked at these three typed and dot-matrix-printed pages yet I have often thought about what I wrote and how I still agree with 17-year-old me. The essay is entitled – cue the dramatic music – “The Meaning of Life”.

What inspired me to share this with you now was a blackboard outside a clothing shop in Toowong. On the board were the words: “Do more of what makes YOU happy.” It stopped me in my tracks. On the surface, it might seem an egotistical approach to life. But I believe much good can and does come from people pleasing themselves.

Seventeen-year-old Spencer takes up the story: “While we cannot answer why we are here, we can explain why we do the things we do. “Having resigned to the fact that we are here, and that we are only here for a short time, humans all attempt to make the most of that time. It is my firm belief that every human being seeks pleasure as the number one lifetime goal. No-one ever does anything that does not bring pleasure or prevent displeasure. Every single human action has pleasure as its goal. Even the hero who risks his life to save a child from a burning house does so to prevent the possible displeasure he would otherwise feel for not trying. Given there is no reason, no why, no explanation for us being here, why do people breed more people? Again, for the pleasure. The pleasure of parenting, the pleasure of resuscitating the marriage, or the pleasure of security and care in the senior years”.

At this point, the essay really does start to sound like it was a written by a wide-eyed innocent 17-year-old boy, but I said I would share it with you so here goes: “The ultimate pleasures, according to the Krishna movement, are eating and sex. You can only eat so much before you become ill, and even sex has its limits.” How funny.

I’ll save you several paragraphs and jump to the conclusion: “Now we are coming closer to the meaning of life. Lifestyle, it would appear, is a conscious attempt to make the most of a limited lifetime. Whilst there is no reason for life, there is a reason for lifestyle.” It goes on (and on and on) but you get the idea. Over the years, whenever I’ve heard about people doing great deeds, I’ve found myself asking the question: are they getting pleasure from this? Invariably, yes, they are. And it’s not a bad thing. Happiness is not a dirty word. Charity workers, from Meals on Wheels kitchens in Brisbane to orphanages in third world countries, are all harnessing their own desire for happiness and using it to help others.

Even those working within church organisations who would say they are serving God are also making themselves happier in the process. As that blackboard said, “Do more of what makes YOU happy”. To take it one step further, I would just say that if you can find a way of helping others that makes you happy, then you’ve hit the jackpot!

Last column, I told you about my wife Nikki now working at 612 ABC Brisbane. I wasn’t overly anxious about the situation but I knew there would be some challenges and I quoted other couples who had worked together. I’m pleased to report that I have loved these past three weeks!

With me presenting 612 Breakfast and Nikki producing Tim Cox 3pm to 6pm, there’s only an hour or so where we’re in the office together. But for the eight years I’ve been on the cornflakes shift, I haven’t seen Nikki until she’s arrived home from work, usually after 7pm. So to be able to gaze at her for that hour a day has been wonderful. And so far, only once has she asked me over the partition to pick up milk and bread on the way home!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Bmag Oct 8th 2013 - Working with the missus

Have you ever worked in the same company as your significant other? Think about it. Could you work alongside your husband/wife/other half? My wife Nikki and I met at a community radio station in Brisbane in 1992. I was one of two paid staff and Nikki was a volunteer. In my diary that first day I wrote: “With me tonight were two trainees including Nikki, est. 17/18, blonde, short, shy and VERY CUTE!” And you know what? I can still see that straw hat she was wearing!

Several months later, I summoned the nerve to ask her out. I remember the phone call: “Would you do me the honour of accompanying me to the opening night of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat? How dorky. You’d have thought I was asking her to marry me! Anyway, she said yes – eventually I confessed that the tickets were freebies – and we’ve been together ever since.

Back then we were young and it sure was fun having your girlfriend with you at work. The stories I could tell. And yes, whatever you’re imagining right now, it probably did happen at that radio station when everyone else had gone home!

Fast-forward to 2013 and Nikki has just started working at 612 ABC Brisbane, producing Tim Cox 3 to 6pm weekdays. Now, I don’t want you to think I’m at all anxious about the distraction of my beautiful wife as I glance up from my computer screen, but there must be pros and cons. For example, do colleagues expect you to share the same view on company decisions, rather than seeing you as two different people? And then, if you don’t agree in the workplace, how does that play out at home? I’d love you to email me with what you know, what you’ve seen and what you’ve learned.

A former radio producer of mine, Majella Marsden, says it’s a minefield for co-workers. “What about where one partner has knowledge of events that may impact on the other?” Social commentator Brett Debritz says it can make colleagues feel uncomfortable, especially if one of the couple is in a more senior position. Just ask ambo Bob Hartley: “We had some issues as my wife was in a subordinate position to me for a while. We had to use the drive home as a defuse/debrief”.

I.F. and R.B. ran a company together for two years. I.F. says they would never do it again: “Too much arguing over business decisions which led to resentment at home. The best thing we ever did was sell the company. We have a better marriage for it". For Daniel John, it meant the end of the relationship: “It was the worst mistake ever. Constant bickering all the time. It was a contract cleaning job at a factory. We worked right on top of each other. We were partners before and not long after".

But there are success stories too. Real estate agent Brett Andreassen has made it work for the last three years. His tip: “Don’t take work home and don’t bring home issues to work". Kallee Buchanan and her husband Ross work for the ABC in Central Queensland. Kallee says it’s okay to take work home: “It’s great having someone who gets the passion for the job. But you need to have your own time, away from work and home".

Nataasha Torzsa and her partner work for a telco. They’ve devised three rules: “Don’t discuss personal things during work hours, act like friends at work drinks etc., and don’t discuss 'us' with other workmates”. But the most surprising story I’ve heard so far comes from admin manager Brendan Taggart: “I used to work in the same department as my partner. The only issue was travelling to work together. He was always late. He was SO slow in the mornings, it was legendary. I hate being late. So I got my own car. Problem solved!” That is one expensive solution.

Coincidently, you may have noticed the new series of Survivor (Thursdays on GEM) sees loved ones pitted against each other - uncle against niece, brother against brother, husband against wife. I can tell you Nikki and I were both relieved to see all the married couples survived the first tribal council! A good omen perhaps.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Bmag Sept 17th 2013 - Novelty songs

I can’t resist a good novelty song. Even better is a bad novelty song. The ABC’s music programmer Bill Riner diagnosed me years ago when he said I caught the bug as a young fella growing up in England, where there is a tradition of novelty songs “topping the pops”.

It is true that I was still living in the UK when, in 1980, the St Winifred’s School Choir spent eleven weeks in the charts, including two weeks at #1, with Grandma, We Love You. Look it up on YouTube – the lyrics might be simple but boy does it tug at the heart-strings. “There’s no-one quite like Grandma/And I know you will agree/That she always is a friend to you/ And she’s a friend to me.” Fortunately, two months later, I moved to Australia and was saved. Or was I? Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 20-plus years on Queensland radio, it’s that Aussies are suckers for a silly song too.

I was reminded of this recently when we did a story on 612 Breakfast about a new four-story building at the University of Queensland – a building with no toilets! Apparently this isn’t a problem, because the building next-door is well-equipped, but I wouldn’t like to be dealing with an upset stomach whilst working on the fourth floor of a loo-less office block! Anyway, I dragged out the 1997 song Don’t Go in the dunny after Dad by then-Kallangur primary school teacher Geoff Whitehead (and his students): “Don’t go in the dunny after Dad’s been in/No, don’t go in the toilet, don’t go in the loo/Don’t go in the dunny after Dad’s been in, if you know what’s good for you.”

The song made it into the top 40 in 2002 when it was covered by Jamie Dunn and Agro but I hadn’t played either version for well over a decade. One play on the radio and we were inundated with people asking whether you can still buy the song. For the record, yes, Geoff has copies of the CD and if you call him on 3264 5198, he’ll fix you up!

So what’s the latest novelty song to attract my ear? Well, it won’t be released until next year, but I have been listening to a new Chad Morganesque album by Brisbane’s own Franky Walnut. This really has the potential to go somewhere, I reckon. It includes the song As Australian As. “I’m as Australian as a sheep’s turd in the shape of Australia riding on the back of a sheep named Bruce who’s been shorn in the shape of Australia/I’m as Australian as a pie that’s been run over by a ute being driven by John Williamson while he narrates a documentary about Australia/I’m as Australian as a red-back spider and a funnel-web spider having a root inside a kangaroo scrotum purse/I’m as Australian as/I’m as Australian as.”

But then the song takes an ironic twist: “I’m as Australian as a surfie who gets really bloody hungry and then he goes and eats some sushi/I’m as Australian as sushi.” And eventually, “I’m as Australian as the moon (when viewed from Australia).” So who is this Franky Walnut? Well, he’s the creation of Keir Nuttall, Kate Miller-Heidke’s husband and collaborator, so this record has some serious musical clout. And yes, Kate sings backing vocals.

The first time I played As Australian As on 612 Breakfast, tweeter @JaneofAustralia tweeted @FrankyWalnut: “Catchy tune. Note sure re lyrics”. Franky replied: “Neither am I. Actually, I’m not sure about the tune either.” For now, the CD is only available at gigs.

Finally, thanks for all your emails and tweets about Teddy and Pun’kin, who we recently adopted from Red Hill cat rescuer Katina Balson. Katina was thrilled to be mentioned in the magazine. She wrote: “Thank you so much for the lovely write up in bmag. Fab message about the sweet scaredy cats. I get so teary when I hear how well-loved my/your babies are. They are lucky boys. Give them a big kiss for me. Love your work, Katina.” As I mentioned in my last column, Katina can be found at the Pussies Galore charity shop on Musgrave Road or you can peruse her “scaredy cats” online at

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Bmag Sept 3rd 2013 - Welcome Teddy and Pun'kin

It’s twenty years since I last owned a cat but when Teddy and Pun’kin asked if they could live with the Howsons, how could we say no?! It took me a long time to get over the death of my grey, half-Persian childhood companion Pompeii – named after the exhibition which came to Brisbane in 1981.

Pathetic, I know, but I still have Pompeii’s collar and used to smell it to feel like he was back with me. Okay, that sounds weird – but scents are a powerful trigger for memories. I once asked listeners what smells they had kept of their deceased loved ones. We were inundated with calls, with everything from pillows to jumpers being put aside, unwashed, so they could be brought out for a hug and a smell.

But back to Teddy and Pun’kin. Once I started making noises about having another cat, our word-of-mouth enquiries led us to Katina Balson. Katina runs the Pussies Galore op-shop on Musgrave Road, Red Hill, and her nearby house is full of strays, ferals, abandoned and abused cats all just looking for love. Many of them have terrible backgrounds and some have been with Katina for months, too shy to sell themselves to potential families. Katina calls them her “scaredy cats”.

When we arrived, they scattered to all corners of the house. You wouldn’t have known there were 22 kittens and cats hiding under the furniture and behind the curtains! Then, one by one, they emerged, wandering past and looking us up and down. Until the most remarkable thing happened. Two of them chose us. A well-fed (thanks to Katina) ginger feral with a beautiful white tummy hopped onto my lap and a much thinner tiger-striped kitten that had been abused in Darwin (apparently lots of rescued cats are flown down from the top end) lay down next to Nikki. And with that, we were cat owners once again. Teddy and Pun’kin had a new home.

I can’t recommend Katina highly enough. Living with the cats, she knows their personalities. Everything she told us about Teddy and Pun’kin has turned out to be spot on, from their food likes and dislikes, to the way they play, sleep and interact with each other. An abused animal might not be for everyone – as Katina explains, you can’t expect them to be all over you from the minute you get them home – but it has only taken a few weeks for Teddy and Pun’kin to come out of their shells and the five of us couldn’t be happier.

It’s election day on Saturday and while the main battle is between Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, the competition can be just as fierce when it comes to which polling booth has the best sausages and lamingtons! To help you decide where in your electorate to vote, the Booth Reviews website is back. Click on now and you’ll get the idea. Once you have voted, go back to the site and leave your comments. As the day progresses, it will become more and more useful for those who have yet to vote. (Mischievous Spencer loves the fact that a sausage-review-based decision on where to vote will completely muck up Antony Green’s analysis on ABC TV on Saturday night when he talks about the way certain booths voted in 2010).

Meanwhile, 612’s Saturday Breakfast presenter Phil Smith has already crowned his Best Booth in Brisbane. Phil ran a competition over a couple of weeks and will broadcast from the winner, Seven Hills State School, on election day.

Finally, in response to my column on kids vs children, ABC radio family affairs reporter Susan Hetherington says: “Don’t you remember the Sesame Street song that says `goats have kids, like people have kids’? Case closed”. And from Brisbane author Nick Earls: “With `kid’ first used to mean `child’ in the 1590s, I think I’m ready for us to relax the `only for goats’ rule.”

Roman Masiarek goes further: “There is a much more important issue - the insidious way the Australian language is being sold out to the Americans. More and more, our biscuits are becoming cookies, our chips are becoming fries, our toilets are becoming bathrooms and our Zeds are becoming Zees”. But then Pauline Taylor asks: “For folks who persist in calling them kids, how would they like to be addressed as `goats’?”

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Bmag Aug 20th 2013 - Kids v children

Years and years ago, long before my radio show ever won the ratings, ABC colleague and mentor – now Channel Nine newsreader – Andrew Lofthouse whispered in my ear that the only way to be successful was to be yourself. This came at a time when I had taken over the ABC breakfast show from Peter Dick – we’re talking 1997 or thereabouts – and it’s fair to say I was feeling the pressure to replicate the style of my predecessor. Since then, I’ve relaxed and become more confident in my ability to bring to the table what I believe makes for essential morning radio listening – new, useful, interesting, and local information with a laugh or two and some great tunes.

In 2013, there’s no doubt in my mind that what you hear on my breakfast radio show is 100 per cent me. Or is it only 98 per cent? Because, truth be told, there are two things I say differently on air and off air.

The first one exploded when I raised it on Facebook recently. You can read some of the responses below and it is this: though I will use the word if we’re chatting casually in the street, I still avoid saying ‘kids’ when I’m on the radio (except the odd, unscripted moment where it can and does slip out). The reason being, we used to get a complaint every time: "Kids are baby goats!" In recent times, I haven't heard anyone saying that (about goats) and I've noticed both the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader use the word ‘kids’. Is it time I relaxed my stance and gave myself permission to say ‘kids’ on air?

Here are some of the Facebook replies, which have left me thinking, on balance, it is probably better to continue using the more formal (and respectful) term, but what do you think? In favour of ‘kids’ is Tony Bellette: “PC nonsense has to disappear. When I was a young bloke, announcers were trained to sound British and it was great to hear the Australian sounding voices on radio when they were given permission to be themselves.”

Chris Williams agrees: “I have always used ‘kids’ as a term of endearment even in my teaching career. No one ever complained to me!” Writes Stephen Mackie: “To complain about it is ridiculous. That falls into the `sort of nonsense up with which I will not put’ category.” From Gold Coast singer Vivica: “Just be yourself and say what you want. People will not stop listening because of one word millions of people use.” And from Dan Beeston: “If you're letting the sort of person who's that pedantic about language govern your show you're pandering to the wrong audience.”

But, I don’t see this as pedantry. For me, it’s about using respectful language. Having said that, ‘kids’ is more affectionate. See how I swing from one side to the other? Ann Lacey remembers: “My grandmother would say that about kids and goats. I have worked in the child care profession for over 36 years and I just can't say kids. I always say children. If you do say it I hope it’s only rarely.” Says Andrew Mason: “Some of us have to maintain standards Spencer!”

And Sheila Wilson asks: “Why can't we call children CHILDREN? I know... because everything has to be shortened to suit our laziness. Good on you Spencer. Children are children.” Leanne McKnoulty reminds us what’s really important here: “I'm always perplexed by this conundrum. My conclusion - what matters most is our attitude toward each young person not the label.” Finally, from former Triple M breakfast host Sammy Power: “There are a lot of worse words you could say!”

I mentioned there were two things I say differently on air and off. The other one isn’t just me. It’s an old radio convention still applied by the ABC (and some other stations, I’m sure) and that is to give the time as “16 minutes to four” instead of 3.44. At home, I say 1.25 or 2.55. On air, that becomes 25-past-one or five-to-three. Send me an email. I’d love your feedback on ‘kids’ versus children and how you would like radio announcers to tell the time.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Bmag Aug 6th - Troggg

Politicians will talk up, or talk down, the economy, depending on what suits them. But they (and I) hardly need to tell you that plenty of people are doing it tough at the moment and jobs are hard to come by. Just ask Brett Hansen. The 34- year-old from The Gap has worked a myriad of occupations, from janitor and dish-washer to marketresearcher and admin assistant. But for the past eighteen months, there’s been nothing. So Brett has created a job by taking matters into this own hands – literally.

Turning to his childhood love of the Muppets, he’s designed and created a fluffy blue monster called Troggg– “the middle g is silent” – and launched himself on the Brisbane entertainment scene! Troggg is unashamedly Muppet-like with his squishy round red nose, ping-pong-ball eyes and black bushy mono-brow blending seamlessly into a bright orange mop of hair. Protruding incisors confirm monster status!

“I had him built professionally by an ex-Jim Henson Muppet builder,” Brett tells me. “I wanted one where I could operate his hand. You can’t buy those sorts of puppets so I figured I might as well go all out and have one of my own designed that I could use as the star of all my shows.”

Entertaining is clearly in Brett’s blood. When his hands are not inside puppets, he plays keyboards in a couple of bands (Headkase, Sound Distiller) and with theatre group, ImproMafia. But it’s puppetry that Brett has studied all his life. “[As a child] I would be glued to the screen whenever the Muppets were on. I would sit there with puppets on my hands and mimic the lip-synch and the movements and the way they walk.

“They were always doing all sorts of weird and wonderful things to make them seem real, right down to Jim Henson in a cage under water puppeteering Kermit when he’s singing Rainbow Connection. Filming them outdoors – no one had ever done that before until Henson.”

Brett’s become known around Brisbane for his love of puppets: “I’ve been doing a bit of consultancy, which was my official title in Avenue-Q (the musical) last year, but I’ve been working with some QUT students who are doing a web series about an angry rooster so I’ve been helping them with the movement of the puppets.” And that technique isn’t as easy as you might think. Brett explains: “Eye focus is a big thing but lipsynch is the trick. Also the head moving forward when you emphasise a word. And making sure the puppet remains alive at all times. A lot of people flop the puppet to the side if it’s not talking but just keep it up and nodding and alert and looking around.”

Troggg’s first big break came last month when he was invited to co-host The Late Nite Show on 31 Digital. I was in the 31 studio that night. It felt truly special. Like watching Kermit’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. I looked at Brett operating Troggg and couldn’t help but wonder where all this might lead. Brett enjoyed it too, as did Troggg: “I think he felt at home on television, under the lights with his crazy blue fur.”

Of course there’s not much call for puppets on Brisbane television, so Brett is casting a wide net: “I’ve been doing a few kids’ puppet shows, Troggg’s even got an MC gig at a film festival!” He is available for MC gigs at corporate functions, wedding receptions, trivia nights and comedy nights. Given the enormous success of the adultconcept/ themed Avenue Q, perhaps it’s the Muppets’ core fans – the children of the seventies and eighties – that Brett needs to target.

After all, look at the way Peter Combe has reinvented himself. These days, Combe still performs his 1980s toddler hits Toffee Apple and Newspaper Mama, but at nightclubs! The audience is the same, just 25 years older. Brett says he’s open to the idea: “I really enjoyed Avenue-Q. I guess people were reminded of the Muppets and they could relate to the [more adult] subject matter as well. So I can see an adult puppet series happening, either a theatre production that I do with Troggg or a TV series or a film would be nice.” Best of luck to you, Brett, I’m expecting big things from you and Troggg!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Bmag July 23rd 2013 - Free newspapers and music

Did you notice what you paid for The Sunday Mail this weekend? It’s just gone from $2 to $2.50! This 25% hike comes just weeks after the introduction of a paywall on the paper’s website. In this column, I will show you how to get newspapers - and music - for free. I’m also going to increase your chances of winning a prize at your next school, club or church fundraiser! After that introduction, just try skipping to the next page! You know you can’t!

The Courier-Mail and The Sunday Mail have introduced what News Corp Australia (the former News Limited) calls a ‘metered digital subscription’. You get a limited number of articles for free, more if you register, but after that you must pay. Even News Corp Australia’s Quest suburban newspapers – free when delivered to your door – are part of this ‘metered’ paywall when viewed online. Around the country, it’s a similar story. And not just the Murdoch press. Fairfax’s Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have just introduced paywalls.

There’s a very good reason for newspapers going down this path – with fewer people paying for the physical newspaper, and with revenue from the classifieds shifting to various websites (real estate, cars, second-hand goods, etc.), there is less money for journalists and the quality of news is under threat. Indeed, Jonathan Holmes used his final words on Media Watch to suggest: “Whatever your politics, or your preferences, start subscribing to at least one media website. Pay just a little to keep real journalism alive.”

But there is an alternative for those who are steadfastly against paying for news. All you need is a Brisbane City Council library card and you can have unlimited free access to over 2,000 newspapers and magazines from around the world. Visit, enter your card number and you’re away. (Any resident of Queensland can join a Brisbane City Council library – you don’t have to live in Brisbane). You won’t get updates throughout the day, as you would with online access, but for someone who just wants to read the paper over breakfast, it’s all you need.

Once you’re a member of a Brisbane City Council library, there’s another online perk. Every week, you can download three free songs. Have that library card ready and click on www. Four library cards in your house? That’s twelve free songs every week.

But wait, there’s more and this next tip comes from a politician! You’re about to gain a huge advantage next time you play Heads-and-Tails at a fundraising event! Heads-and-Tails involves someone tossing two coins and participants guessing which way the coins will fall. Everyone stands up to 'bet'. Hands on your head for heads, hands on your backside for tails and one hand on each (head and bum) means you’re guessing one head and one tail. Anyone who is incorrect is eliminated, then the coins are tossed again, until there’s a winner.

At this year’s Graceville State School trivia night, we were on a table with local state MP Scott Emerson. Scott’s obviously been studying these games at the myriad events he attends so just before Heads-and- Tails, he whispered to my missus the secret that would double her chances with every toss. He explained there are four possible combinations: Head-Head, Tail-Tail, Head-Tail and Tail-Head. If you go for heads or tails, there’s only a one-in-four chance you’ll be right. But if you put one hand on your head and one on your bum, you’ll have a two in four chance (you’re covering both Head-Tail and Tail-Head)! And that’s it.

Nikki did as Scott suggested and won the prize – which happened to be a very flash bottle of wine donated by the local federal MP Graham Perrett. Now who would have thought two politicians in a room could be so useful? Bottoms-up!

Finally, Cheryl Stevenson’s email sums up reaction to my column on John Murdoch and his Happy Bus: “What a wonderful man! The world needs more positive people like John”.

POST-SCRIPT by Doug Corner, Mount Ommaney

Hi Spencer, I have now found it via the following string:

1. Type into your browser and hit ‘enter’. This should get you onto the eLibCat Library Catalogue page.
2. Click on ‘databases’ at the top of the eLibCat page. (Ignore the ‘log in to My eLibCat Account’ on the right hand side of the page).
3. O n the ‘databases’ page - click on ‘newspapers and journals’.
4. Under the ‘library press display’ heading, about halfway down the newspapers and journals page, click on ‘remote access. This should bring you to the library press display login page where you can type in your library bar code, using all the digits on the rear of your library card. Hit the ‘login’ tab and voila - enjoy! I’ll give the free songs a try when I next have a couple of hours to spare J Spencer, by the way, we love your bmag column!

Doug Corder, Mount Ommaney

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

July 9th 2013 - Brisbane's Happy Bus!

As you probably know, whenever the President of the United States of America is aboard a US Air Force plane, the official call sign for that plane is Air Force One. Well, whenever John Murdoch is behind the wheel of a Brisbane City Council bus, it becomes the Happy Bus! There’s no special signage. No rainbow colourscheme. Just a regular-looking driver and a busfull of smiles!

On this particular day, the Happy Bus is the 444 from QPAC to Moggill. I’m sitting just a couple of rows from the front. It’s the perfect place to observe as people hop on. We pull into King George Square, the doors open, and it’s show-time: “Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon! The Happy Bus welcomes you on board, how are you?”

It’s impossible to resist a smile. “Bring on those happy faces! This is the Happy Bus to Moggill!”

Half a dozen passengers join us at Toowong and there’s a greeting for every one of them: “On a beautiful day like today, how could you not be happy? Good afternoon, keep the happy smile on. That’s one terrific happy smile you have there!”

At Taringa, a woman hops off at the back and John calls out: “You look after yourself, till the next time you’re on the Happy Bus, enjoy the rest of your afternoon and keep that beautiful smile please, ba-bye!”

Seconds later, he opens the front door and three more join the club: “Welcome to the Happy Bus! There’s a happy smile, keep that with you please!”

I leave at Indooroopilly, completely touched by the experience. I catch a lot of buses and I always say g’day to the driver as I hop on. But John Murdoch really does take customer service to the next level.

Next day, I catch up with him at the Toowong bus depot. He tells me: “Being a talkative person, I was already welcoming people on the bus. More and more I told people to come on-board with a happy smile and they seemed to appreciate it. It just grew from there.

"I care about my passengers and this is a way for me to make their trip more enjoyable. When I finish my work and get back to the depot the feeling is ‘Hooley Dooley, what a day!’, but I enjoy being more involved with the passengers,” he says.

John tells me I’m not the first person to suggest special livery for the Happy Bus: “People have asked, ‘Can we have anything on the front of the bus so we know it’s the Happy Bus?’ The best I can suggest is we have a Mr Happy fridge magnet but every bus I drive is the Happy Bus, two different buses a day.”

After chatting for a while, John Murdoch opens up on why he’s so positive. He tells me he was involved in a head-on car crash on the Warrego Highway: “My heart stopped three times on the way to hospital. I wasn’t meant to survive. They wanted to turn the life support machine off. I woke up three weeks later with a new lease on life.

“When you have a near-death experience, you do see life differently. You only have one life. You might as well live it. It doesn’t matter if you’re happy or grumpy, you’ve only got the one.”

John proudly tells me that in his five years driving buses, he has received no fewer than 114 commendations from passengers. (Every time you ring Translink to report a positive bus experience, your comments are printed on a certificate which is then presented to the driver). “If I receive one, I receive one. If I don’t, I don’t. I just like going out there and having a happy and enjoyable trip and a safe one for everyone," John says.

By this stage, I’m soaking up the positivity. So I ask John for some final words of wisdom. “When you wake up in the morning, choose your attitude. It reflects what sort of day you’re going to have. Even if you do have some hiccoughs, they may happen, but if you say you’re going to have a good day and approach it as a good day, at the end of the day you will say ‘I had a good day’.”

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Brisbane puppeteer Brett Hansen talks about his new creation Troggg

Brett Hansen recently unleashed Troggg on the Brisbane entertainment scene. Expect to see Troggg popping up at parties (not just for children), weddings, comedy nights, on TV, and even hosting the odd film festival! Some of this conversation will make its way into a future bmag column.

Brett, where does your love of puppets come from?

When I was just a baby, my parents would put Sesame Street on in the mornings and I fell I love with it straight away. At the time the Muppet Show was on TV as well. Sesame Street, Muppet Show, loved them. Became aware of Jim Henson as a person and performer and really got interested in the behind-the-scenes side of it from a very early age - while [Jim] was still alive. Because I was so interested I would just be glued to the screen whenever Sesame Street or the Muppets were on, and the movies as well. I loved the movies. 

My parents ended up buying me a couple of puppets to play with, kids’ puppets. And I would sit there with puppets on my hands and just mimic what I was watching. Mimic the lip-synch and the movements and the way they walk and I was just mirror exactly what I was seeing on TV and I would watch behind-the-scenes footage whenever they played it. 

We had an old videotape of The Muppet Movie taped off television, probably the night it premiered on TV and after the movie was a special, behind the scenes of Jim Henson and the Muppets. And there was footage of Sesame Street and Muppet Show characters and a sneak-preview glimpse of the upcoming film, The Dark Crystal. And I was just intrigued. That’s when I sort of learned about Jim Henson and that all of these characters were part of his creation and they showed the puppeteers operating them. They showed the live hand puppets and the rod puppets [and] yeah, I just loved it.

Why are you still so interested that you’re now carving your own puppeteering career?

I always – even then [as a child] – thought that those adults with those puppets looked like they were having such a good time. They go to work and they stick their hands up puppets for a living, make good money doing it. Why not have fun in your job?

At the same time, Henson took it very seriously, didn’t he?

Yes certainly, it’s a puppetry style on its own. They were always striving to make their puppets look more and more believable. As funny as the Sesame St and Muppet Show characters looked, they were always doing new things with television – with green screen, or with certain props that they would use to dangle legs over to make it look like they were actually sitting down. You could see their whole body. In the Muppet movies, they’d have Kermit the Frog riding his bicycle! 

They were always doing all sorts of weird and wonderful things to make them seem real, right down to the point of Jim Henson in a cage under water puppeteering Kermit from underneath the pond where he’s singing Rainbow Connection. And in the second movie, Frank Oz is weighed down with bricks in a swimming pool with Miss Piggy coming out and he’s got people giving him air to breath every 30 seconds or something but he has to hold his breath while he’s puppeteering! 

They did all these crazy things to make their puppets as realistic as possible. Filming them outdoors – no one had ever done that before until Henson. No CGI. All real, which was always very impressive. And you could occasionally see rods and you could see parts of the live hands puppets where you could see where their hand would go up and say “Oh look, there’s an extra bit down there, that must be where they stick their hand” and it was interesting to see how it worked but they did a really good job of keeping that illusion of realism.

Tell us about Troggg. Who’s Troggg?

Troggg is a character who I designed, a blue monster who I describe as an alien monster from the planet Crouton. I designed him towards the end of 2012 and waited six months for him to arrive. I had him built professionally by an ex-Jim Henson Muppet builder who used to work on Sesame Street.

How do you do that? Lots of emailing of designs?

Yes, that’s it. To-and-fro email conversation. I drew a picture, sent him a sketch and he said “Can you give us a bit of an idea of the textures that you would like?” So, because I really wanted that Muppet style, my design but in a Muppet style, I sent him pictures of different fur textures from other Muppets. Nose and eye and hair textures and I said these are the sort of colours and textures that I’d be after for this drawing and he said “Yes, I can do that”. 

I wanted it to be a live hands puppet – one where I could actually operate his hand.  You can’t buy those sorts of puppets. You can buy rod puppets – there are hundreds of those available for the public to buy – but you just can’t buy live hands puppets. So I figured I might as well go all out and have a special custom-made one of my own design that I could use as the face of my business, my logo, the star of all my shows. So that’s the story of Troggg.

And what are the shows?

At this stage, I’ve been doing a few kids’ puppet shows, for three and four year olds. But on my website, I’ve advertised to do MC gigs. I’ve got Troggg MCing at corporate functions, wedding receptions, trivia nights, comedy nights, impro comedy nights. He’s got an MC gig at a film festival coming up in July so he’s going to stand there behind a lectern and welcome everyone to the film festival and they’ll look up and see this puppet monster hosting and it’ll be weird but that’ll be good.

Troggg’s TV debut was meant to be on AGT but he arrived a week late?

He didn’t arrive on time. I had a stand-up comic act ready for Troggg and I went to the Australia’s Got Talent audition – one week before Troggg arrived, that was the day of the audition. So I had to go in with one of my other [commercially-available] puppets and I gave them a photo of Troggg and I said “just pretend that this is who it is”. It didn’t work out because it didn’t have the impact that Troggg would have had so I might try again next year.

But Troggg debuted on TV a few weeks later?

Troggg was a guest sidekick on The Late Nite Show on Channel31, throwing out various comments and jokes here and there based on the topics that came up. And I was quite happy with how it worked out. Got a few laughs and had a few tweets saying “Wow, Troggg’s cool”. I think he felt at home on television, under the lights with his crazy blue fur.

How was that, being under the desk for an hour?! 

Only for very brief moments was it comfortable! I had to shuffle around quite a bit cause my feet fell asleep. With the Muppets, the puppeteers stand up and their arms are stretched right up. It’s actually a lot more comfortable to stand and be upright when you’re performing puppets like this. 

The sets on The Muppet Show and Sesame Street are actually way up high and you’ve got these puppeteers standing upright with their arms stretched right up with their puppets and they’re quite heavy puppets. I mean Troggg is built in the style of a Muppet so he’s very heavy so to be crouched right down behind a very small desk, and have my arm stretched up, it just got a little bit uncomfortable at times but we got there in the end.

But it was good, just to have a puppet up there and then they’re doing the countdown “we’re going to be on air in ten seconds” and I thought “here we go, Troggg’s going to be on air. It’s going to be great!”

What’s Troggg’s TV future then?

I can see him either doing something similar, like a new Agro or Ossie Ostrich, sitting there and nodding and adding funny comments here and there, either on a kids show or on a comedy variety show. But also I can see him entertaining kids on TV as well. 

I’ve been doing a bit of puppetry consultancy, which was my official title in Avenue-Q last year, but I’ve been working with some QUT film students who are doing a puppet web series about an angry rooster puppet so I’ve been helping them with the movement of the puppets and one of the actors in the web series is in a Channel Seven kids show that has puppets so he said “look, if we’re ever after another puppeteer, we know where you are”.  So I can imagine being on a kids show either with Troggg or with other puppets that they provide.

So look out Jamie Dunn and Agro?

That’s it! Well Jamie Dunn is not doing a whole lot with puppets these days. Agro occasionally makes a public appearance but that sort of thing would be good. To bring puppets back to television, cause we haven’t seen many puppets on TV in recent years, ever since Agro and Ossie Ostrich disappeared.

Why’s that? 

Kids shows are a lot more hip these days. You’ve got these kids who look they’re just out of high school being really cool and hip and they’re hosting the kids shows now. No puppets, just these kids yelling at the camera and the camera zooming in and out. “Yeah, we got prizes, we got prizes, let’s cut to a cartoon” and there’s no puppets. I don’t know why that is. Maybe kids think puppets are lame. 

But I think with the Muppets making their triumphant come-back last year and with the sequel in the works, I think puppets are starting to come back. We’re going through this weird phase where the eighties are making a bit of a comeback now. References to old video games and TV shows and remakes of old eighties movies and things. They’re all coming back so I think puppets are starting to make a comeback too. There’s definitely a market out there. 

What about Troggg doing an adult TV show?

Yes, that’d be great too. I really enjoyed [working on] Avenue-Q. It was an adult parody of Sesame Street, which sold out. All the adults turned up. I guess people who were reminded of the Muppets and they could relate to the [more adult] subject matter as well as remembering their childhood as well, so they relate to the characters and the subject matter. So I can see an adult puppet series happening as well, either a theatre production that I do with Troggg or a TV series or a film would be nice.

You’ve worked as a puppet consultant. What’s the secret to making puppets come alive?

Eye focus is a big thing but lip-synch I find is the trick. Just making it second-nature that your hand moves exactly as your mouth moves. But also emphasis on certain words so the head moving forward when you emphasise a word. And making sure the puppet remains alive at all times. A lot of people flop the puppet to the side if it’s not talking but just to keep it up and nodding and alert and looking around. I just think that’s the basics. Keeping it alive and making sure the lips move exactly as yours do.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Bmag June 18th 2013 - Bill Oddie, How we watch TV now, No TV for some

Last weekend, I opened our copy of the Sun-Herald (yes, they still persist with a Queensland edition of the Sydney paper) and there was a half-page ad for the TV series Heartbeat on DVD. I was never a huge fan of this particular show, but box-set collecting has become something of a hobby – unlike media files, you can touch DVDs, admire them, lend them to friends – so the ad jumped out at me.

But seeing nine complete seasons of the classic Yorkshire police drama so prominently and lovingly advertised did rub salt in a long-standing wound in my DVD collection.

You see, there’s one series I would purchase in an instant and that’s The Goodies. Yes, I know there are best-of DVDs but never has the entire run been released. As Bill Oddie is in Brisbane this week (at the Tivoli on Thursday 20 June) I couldn’t help myself. I had to know why.

Oddie told me: “It’s been a mystery to us. I have to say the BBC has not been terribly co-operative and on the brink of childishness at one point.” He adopts a posh voice and quotes from a reply sent by the BBC to fans asking if a major Goodies anniversary would be marked: “'No, we have no plans. And I think we should remind you that the final season was actually done for ITV'. It was almost like they were saying we never forgive, we never forget!”

I express my personal enthusiasm for sitting down and watching every episode of The Goodies to which Bill Oddie replies: “There are a lot you know. There are nearly 100 programs!” I know and would still buy the complete box-set!

Whether it be box-sets, downloading all the episodes or setting the PVR to record a whole series, it seems we are increasingly choosing to watch every episode of our favourite TV shows. Ten or 20 years ago you would curse yourself for missing an episode but you wouldn’t go looking for it. Now you can, and so people do. But because we still have the same number of hours in the day, we each follow a smaller number of TV shows.

Realising this shift is American’s TOLN, The Online Network, the new home of former ABC soaps All My Children and One Life to Live. TOLN says viewers now choose one series or the other – and then watch every episode – instead of catching what they can of both.

In response to this, TOLN has reduced the number of episodes of each show to just two per week, saying in a statement: “We are making it far too challenging for viewers to keep up. “Most of us are just trying to find time to watch series of 13 to 22 episodes a season so asking viewers to assign time for over 100 episodes is a daunting task.” I wonder what this will mean for Australian TV in the future.

Last month (bmag, 21 May), I wrote about the analogue television switch-off in Brisbane. It turns out there was a contingency plan to switch analogue back on if there was a huge number of complaints. I’m told that happened in regional Victoria, one of the first areas to move from analogue to digital, but it wasn’t necessary here.

That’s not to say 100 per cent of us were digital-ready by the 28 May deadline. At 612 ABC we received the first “why doesn’t my TV work?” call at 9.12am, 12 minutes after the plug was pulled. bmag reader Susan Barnes wasn’t ready either. But, in a lovely email, she explains why it was “a kind of epiphany”.

“I have lived without TV before so I went out and bought a basic reading lamp instead. I have turned on the radio and am finding time to listen to my CDs and delve into the unopened novels on my bookshelves. I will also be investigating the local library’s DVD collection. And if the ABC comes up with something I feel I really must see I can watch it on my computer.

“So far it is wonderful – I am getting more done, eating better, getting to bed earlier, getting more exercise and feeling much happier. I can thoroughly recommend this course of action to anyone who is still struggling with the switch.”

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Bmag June 4th 2013 - Outback adventures and more on that LBD!

I could happily take a driving holiday in western Queensland every year. The clean air, the big skies, the open roads, the small towns, the big pubs with their iconic architecture. Even the limited phone reception. It all adds up to the ultimate escape from the drudgery of the big smoke. With the Australian dollar starting to drop, and overseas holidays getting just a little bit more expensive every day, now could be the perfect time for you to head west for your next trip. It’s easier than you might think.

In 2009, I took wife Nikki and then-nine-year-old Jack to Winton. We did the trip in just 10 days during the September school holidays. I’m going to show you how and point out some of the highlights along the way so that you might consider doing the same. The reward when you get to Winton is the Outback Festival with its famous dunny races! First stop for us (Monday night) was Toowoomba. Just a couple of hours from Brisbane, it broke the back of the holiday.

Next day, after viewing the winning Carnival of Flowers display, we drove the four hours to Mitchell to experience the wonderfullyrelaxing Great Artesian Spa. Floating in the naturally-heated spa is where we met a number of fellow travellers who we would keep bumping into over the next week or so. Just a two-hour drive on the Wednesday saw us in Charleville, where the must-see attractions are the Bilby Experience by day, the Skydome by night and a steak at the Charleville RSL in-between! Charleville to Longreach on the Thursday was one of our longest drives (515km) but stops include the famous Tambo Teddies and the Black Stump at Blackall.

Friday morning we reached Winton (180km from Longreach) and then totally immersed ourselves in the town and its Outback Festival! Exhausted after two full days in and around Winton (Waltzing Matilda Centre, Royal Open Air Theatre, Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum) and with dust in our teeth and nostrils, we headed back to Longreach (Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Qantas Museum, where you can tour every nook and cranny of a 747).

On the Monday, it was time to think about heading home. We stayed a couple of nights at a beach resort in Yeppoon – what a contrast after a week in the west – and arrived back in Brisbane on the Thursday. And that’s when you pinch yourself. It’s hard to believe the distance you’ve travelled and landscapes you’ve seen in just 10 days!

You might think it a challenge to take children but, remember, you don’t drive long distances every day. And for the days you do, a portable DVD player or movies on a computer will easily kill a couple of hours. That said, you don’t want them staring at a screen all day. Space out the movies and allow time for the children to get out and touch the dirt. Encourage them to take their own photos to show teachers and friends. I think children are far more patient and interested in the world around them than we give them credit for.

As for the adults getting bored, there’s always the pleasure of calculating distances and estimating the time of arrival at the next town (or is that just me? Another obscure Spencer hobby perhaps?!) In a few weeks, I’ll be giving away a trip to the 2013 Winton Outback Festival so stay tuned to my breakfast radio show for details.

I’m still receiving mail about that little black dress I bought Nikki for her birthday. Men and women alike will enjoy this email from Jackie Jones: “We are in our 50s and 60s and still go through the same scenario every time he passes a mannequin wearing little shorts, skirts and dresses. Even shirts he thinks would look great as a dress.

“I’ve found the best compromise (especially when I don’t know what to buy him for his birthday) is to buy one of these little numbers, do a dinner date at home and wear it for him. “So the next time your wife doesn’t know what to buy you just tell her to whiz by that shop and pick up that little black dress!”

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Bmag - May 21st 2013 - What to do with your analogue TV

You probably know that analogue TV services will switch off on 28 May. Unless you have a set-top box, pay TV, video recorder with digital tuner or a digital television, you won’t be able to watch television after that date. But what you might not realise is that you don’t have to throw out your analogue TV next time there’s a kerbside collection. Here are three ways to avoid your beloved old TV contributing to landfill.

First of all, just keep it. On its own, an analogue television won’t pick up TV signals after 28 May but you can still use it as long as you have one of the devices I mentioned above, such as a set-top box (STB). High-definition STBs – which will give you all free-to-air channels – now cost as little as $30. At our place, we’ve saved a perfectly fine 32-inch flat-screen analogue TV by adding a DVD player and putting it in the guestroom.

But if you’ve decided you definitely don’t want or need your old TV, you can still avoid throwing it out on the footpath. The Mission to Seafarers at the Port of Brisbane is collecting analogue TVs and shipping them to Papua New Guinea and Fiji.

Centre manager Adrian Willes explains: “We have a lot of Papua New Guineans and Fijians that come into the Port of Brisbane. A lot of people have been throwing their TVs out. We have been supplying those to the Fijian and Papua New Guineans free of charge. They simply put their name down. When we can get hold of something that they are after, we give it to them. They just take it on the ship. So one community has had one TV for the entire village – now, slowly but surely, the TVs are rolling out more in those villages.”

Willes assures me there are no technical issues using Australian TVs in PNG and Fiji. “It’s a simple pick-up and install it in the islands and it will work. If you want to give a TV away, visit the centre and we can let you know if we can collect it or if we can take it then and there.” If it’s easier, you can call them (10am to 10pm, seven days) on 3895 1181.

Another bloke who’s keen to get his hands on your old TV is artist Forbes McKail. If you’ve been to the Collectorama exhibition at the Queensland Museum, you’ll know Forbes’ wall of old televisions, each filled with a back-lit photograph of one of Forbes’ friends. He is already sitting on another 50-odd TVs for future art projects and his father is looking after another 100 for him – what a dad! – but Forbes realises he must seize the moment. “There’s beauty in these things and when they’re thrown away then they’re gone. Such a waste.”

Specifically, Forbes is looking for older TVs with retro or kitsch appeal. “The small ones, the old ones from the ’50s when they were black and white. Once we got into the ’80s they had that standard black plastic look and that’s not really that attractive. Think Jetsons. Plasticy, domey, Rice Bubbly ones.” The best way to offer your old TV to Forbes is to email him at

Hopefully no-one is caught out by the analogue switch-off. Perhaps make a note to telephone elderly or less tech-savvy members of the family on 28 May to make sure their TV still works.

In response to my last column about buying my wife Nikki a little black dress that she took straight back to the shop, Julie Thornton wrote: “You think of her still as the girl you first met, so the dress was entirely appropriate for that person.”

Exactly! Nikki hasn’t aged a day in all the 20 years we’ve been together. No, really. She hasn’t! And Sean Tiernan reassured me: “Shows you are a good husband, Spencer”. Aww, thank you Sean. And thank you to Sam Eeles for sending me a photograph of another very short, very sexy little number. Only this one isn’t black. It’s blue. A little blue dress that resembles the TARDIS (police box) from Doctor Who . Needless to say, it is sensational but I’m not going there again!