By PETER BLIGHT
(revised from the article which first appeared in LAUGH MAGAZINE #12, 1995)
Early in the 1960s, screenwriter and producer Ralph Peterson — a former child star of the legendary Australian radio comedy Yes, What — had an idea suggested to him. It was a TV show based around the fanciful yet oddly successful ventures of an old man. Peterson, then residing in England, thought the idea had great potential, did some research, and approached actor Leo McKern to play the main character. When McKern declined, the concept was put aside.
Several years later, Australian actress June Salter packed up and left London – where she had been living with her actor husband John Meillon – to star in ATN-7’s The Mavis Bramston Show. When Meillon, eager to follow her home, contacted ATN boss Rupert Henderson to enquire about any potential TV roles, Henderson made it quite clear he was keen to include the respected actor on the payroll, so Meillon approached Ralph Peterson — they had known each other since Meillon was a child — and asked if he had any ideas for a suitable television vehicle.
Recalling the “old man” idea, and having recently seen Gordon Chater’s success with a regular Mavis Bramston Show sketch in which he movingly portrayed an old man on a park bench, Peterson believed the concept would work with Chater in the central role. The network was in fact searching for a vehicle for Chater (he had left Bramston at the end of 1965) and this, combined with ATN executive Jim Oswin’s known receptiveness to pitches of original Australian material, gave Peterson his foot in the door. Oswin liked the first script and asked for another. By the time six scripts had been submitted Rupert Henderson gave the project the green light and a pilot was made — though by all accounts not a successful one, prompting much rehashing and rewriting.
Eventually the writer/producer’s vision of My Name’s McGooley — What’s Yours? fell into place. The title was intended by Peterson to portray the old man’s belligerence and defiance, as if he were curtly answering an authority figure. Its length was a deliberate move both to take up extra space in TV guides and to avoid titles which Peterson considered unnecessarily short or too direct and literal in their representation of a show’s premise, though Peterson was well aware it would be contracted to simply McGooley. The name ‘McGooley’ was Peterson’s own invention. When he looked it up in telephone books he discovered no McGooleys resident in Australia, thus obviating any possible legal action.
It is a little-known fact that the first actual airing of McGooley occurred some time before its scheduled commencement date. The head of the oil company Ampol, looking for a new show to sponsor, could not make it to ATN’s Epping studios for a preview, so two weeks before launch night the channel broadcast the first episode The Vacation purely for his viewing pleasure at around 7am one Sunday – a time when every station was ordinarily off the air, in those halcyon days before 24-hour television and home video!
When the series officially debuted amid a blaze of publicity, public acclaim registered loud and clear in the ratings. The first episode attained a rating of 58 in Sydney, and McGooley was hailed Australia’s first successful situation comedy, both in viewership and content.
The premise of McGooley initially centred around three main characters from the (then) working class Sydney suburb of Balmain: the elderly Dominic McGooley – a Catholic freemason – who lives with his daughter and son-in-law, Rita and Wally Stiller (Judi Farr and John Meillon). To Wally’s eternal chagrin the dishevelled McGooley, along with his equally scruffy public school-educated cohort Nancarrow (Stewart Ginn), become embroiled in a multitude of unlikely enterprises, from which McGooley inevitably emerges triumphant despite the hard-nosed, beer-guzzling Wally’s harsh and incessant badgering. (Later in the series after a near-fatal heart attack, Stewart Ginn was replaced by Frank Taylor as Vile.)
As both producer and writer (though strangely he was never contracted to ATN), Peterson was in the enviable position of being able to cast exactly the actors he wanted, including guest artists, and then custom-make the scripts for them. In the 1968 Rita and Wally episode The Family That Sprays Together Stays Together, for example, Spike Milligan Goonishly ad-libs his way through a cameo role as a pest exterminator armed with a stethoscope and baseball bat.
Peterson was also able to carefully control the look and timing of the show, so that it became what he termed “reaction”, rather than “action”, comedy. McGooley’s gentle humour often came about through situations rather than jokes and by a character’s reaction to a line rather than the line itself – by cleverly cutting to the recipient of a verbal barb immediately it is delivered, director Ron Way could elicit a laugh just through the character’s shocked or angered expression. This was an innovation never before seen on Australian television, and it was this technique which particularly revealed the perfect casting of Judi Farr, with her long face, deadpan expression and talent for pathos.
McGooley was also one of the few Australian comedies to be recorded without an audience — a laugh track was dubbed in later — enabling more retakes, snappier editing and high production values. Again this was unchartered territory in Australian television, highlighting the producers’ determination to break with convention in as many areas as possible.
In early episodes of the show, Rita gives birth (Judi Farr was pregnant in real life when production began), and this caused some logistic problems for Peterson. The baby is rarely seen or referred to in the series because of child welfare regulations relating to the perceived dangers of television lights to young children (TV lights are in fact not very bright compared to stage lights.)
Later in the series’ run, Peterson was asked by Jim Oswin to write a regular part for Noeline Brown, another departing member of the Mavis Bramston cast. Peterson enthusiastically agreed, and conceived the character of Wally’s loud-mouthed sister Rosemary (nicknamed “Possum”). The blonde beehived Possum, who would typically sit on a kitchen stool smoking a cigarette, delivered many of the show’s best put-downs, at the same time introducing some much-needed balance to a situation hitherto dominated by “the man of the house”.
By 1968 the focus of the show had shifted away from the old man and towards the other characters, making the title something of a misnomer. Then midway through the year, Chater was rushed to hospital having apparently suffered a heart attack. In reality, as explained in his autobiography nearly thirty years later, intense depression had led to his taking an overdose of pills in a failed suicide attempt.
As a result, after 87 episodes, My Name’s McGooley — What’s Yours? was retitled Rita and Wally. The McGooley character departs the show when his former girlfriend, in America having married an oil baron, is widowed, and she pays for McGooley’s flight there with a fraction of the inheritance money. (Later in the year, Gordon Chater had recovered sufficiently to star in a self-titled variety show, to fulfil the remainder of his contract with the network.).
Meanwhile in the new series Rita, Wally and Possum move from Balmain to the more upmarket North Shore, and Wally enters politics. Both of these changes came about through suggestions by Rupert Henderson, and were developments which Peterson later regretted.
With the old man gone Wally became the central character of most episodes, and his constant railing against anything and everything to anyone who would listen became tiresome. Rita and Wally ceased production after 23 episodes by consensus — neither Peterson nor the cast wished to continue.
The final episode closes with a tearful reunion as McGooley, Nancarrow and Vile all return to the Stiller residence and McGooley, fresh from the oilfields, agrees to move the family back to Balmain (perhaps a thinly-veiled acknowledgment by Peterson that the move to Sydney’s richville was a mistake).
Sadly, the public’s memory of McGooley and Rita and Wally has faded over the years. Viewers who recall it speak of it with enormous fondness, yet in this digital age repeats are highly unlikely due solely to technical considerations. Thankfully all 110 episodes survive, transferred from the original two-inch monochrome videotape onto 16mm film. As was customary, these films, or “kines”, were syndicated around Australia’s country stations for many years and fell into disrepair as a result. Despite these flaws, all the charm, timelessness and humour of this culturally significant show is very much alive for any interested viewer who delves into the archives for a taste of a very Australian show, and our first successful sitcom.
My Name’s McGooley – What’s Yours? scored for its creators two TV Week Logie awards for Best Australian Comedy of 1966 and 1967.
*** the following episode guide is for Sydney screenings, which predate those of other centres (all of which seem to have their own running order).
MY NAME’S McGOOLEY – WHAT’S YOURS?
Series #1: ATN7 August 24 to December 14 1966 (17 episodes)
1. The Vacation
With nowhere to leave him, Rita and Wally are forced to take McGooley on holiday with them
2. The Girlfriend
McGooley meets an old flame and when Wally finds out she’s wealthy he tries to get the two to the altar
3. The Primitive
When McGooley joins an art class, he is recognized as a genius
4. A Place Of His Own
McGooley gets a job as a caretaker to make him independent of Wally
5. The Army Man
Rejected by the regular army, McGooley joins the Salvos instead
6. It Couldn’t Have Happened To A Nicer Couple
Rita announces that she is about to become a mother
7. Well, That’s Show Business For You
8. The New House
Thinking he’s about to get a pay rise, Wally decides to sell the old house and buy a new one
9. An Affair With A Bird
Rita prepares to walk out after seeing Wally with a strange woman
10. The Youth Leader
Juvenile delinquents run amok at the Corrigan Street senior citizen’s centre
11. Showdown At Corrigan Street
McGooley prepares to do battle with an old rival from his younger days
McGooley gets a job as the council dog-catcher
13. An Uncle’s Story
Wally tries to ingratiate himself with a rich uncle
14. Round And Round The Wheel Goes, Where It Will Stop Nobody Knows
Wally decides the baby should have godparents and McGooley thinks Nancarrow would be ideal
15. One Night Of The Year
It seems the baby will arrive the very night of Wally’s annual army reunion
16. There’s No Place Like It
While Rita is in hospital having the baby, Wally and McGooley are at loggerheads keeping the house running
17. Yes Sir, That ~ My Baby
McGooley throws out Wally’s misplaced letter from the office.
Series #2: ATN7 January 25 to December 27 1967 (49 episodes)
1. The Homecoming
Wally decides to give up booze and take up health drinks
2. McGooley‘s Little Holiday
Wally can’t get any sleep so he plans to get McGooley out of the house so his room can be turned into a nursery
3. Confessions Of A Sporting Man
Wally gets work as a copyboy at a racing paper
4. One Long, Wet Sunday Afternoon
Kept indoors by the rain, the Stiller household plays Monopoly
5. Friends, Romans, Etc.
McGooley offers to help Wally write his big R.S.L. speech
6. Food For Thought
Everyone has agreed to go on a diet, but McGooley keeps a watchful eye in case Wally gets on the booze
7. They Do It In India
The Stiller household is in the midst of an economy drive
8. What You Can Catch With Five Cents Worth Of Raw Prawns
McGooley uses Wally’s new phone to set up his new boat-hiring service
9. An Apple A Day
When McGooley is poorly, Wally takes it upon himself to find a cure
10. The New Image
To emphasise his maturity, Wally grows a moustache and tries to ingratiate himself with the boss by inviting him home for dinner
11. Striking A Happy Medium
Taking part in a seance so impresses the Stillers that they decide to hold an evening of spiritualism at their home
12. Rosemary‘s For Remembrance
Wally isn’t keen on a divorcee moving in … even if it is his sister
13. Now Is The Time For All Good Men
To celebrate his birthday, Rita takes Wally out for an expensive meal
14. And Zen … Or Lend Me Your Body For Seven Days
Spurred on by Wally’s remarks, McGooley takes up bodybuilding
15. Love’s Lost Labours
Wally and McGooley decide to help Possum find a man
16. The End Of The Line
McGooley thinks Wally is neglecting Rita and sets out to stir things up by inviting an old boyfriend over
17. The Man With The Power
McGooley uses the electricity money to buy a greyhound
18. The Answer’s In The Negative
19. The Importance Of Being Ernest Plunkett
20. That’s The Story Of My Life
21. A Little Bit Of What You Fancy
Wally thinks he can improve his image by becoming a Mason but Rita spoils things by attending a hen’s party
22. The Plot’s The Thing
McGooley is intent on reserving a grave for his departure but Wally wants the money for a night school course
23. Tot Spelled Backwards Is Tot
McGooley sets up a childminding centre while Wally is at the football
24. Of, By And For The People
25. The Bounty That Follows The Wake
Wally accompanies McGooley to Melbourne where he must claim an inheritance
26. Will Success Spoil Wally Stiller
A promotion at work has gone to Wally’s head and he starts acting like a high-powered executive
27. Last Night I Stole A Hedge
Wally has to organise the firm’s staff ball
28. A Fur Fur Better Thing
Wally is annoyed at Rita and Possum’s punting
29. Eleven Angry Men And Wally
Wally turns out to be a less than ideal candidate for jury duty
30. And Who Will Ever Forget Miss What’s Her Name?
31. It’s Not The Principal Of The Thing, It’s The Interest
Wally and McGooley have a bitter argument and the Stillers look like moving out
32. Back To One
Wally has singleminded views on Possum’s remarriage and the defence of Australia
33. Son Of Barnleigh Returns Again
McGooley has to take charge when the household falls victim to illness
34. As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap
Wally starts a campaign to help the community’s needy
35. McGooley And The Thing
McGooley helps Wally to evade some income tax
36. One Out, All Out
While Wally is on strike, the rest of the household have to start earning some money
37. I Love You Still
The Stillers help Molly Rogers with her stall at the Church fete
38. Policy Of Good Neighbourness
The Stillers invite a U.S. serviceman to dinner
39. A Boy‘s Best Friend
The arrival of Wally’s mother from Brisbane creates turmoil
40. Be Prepared Or One Good Turn And You Could Fall Over
Everyone is roped in for bob-a-job week by the scoutmaster living next door
41. From Aardvark To Zymurgy
Wally and his sparring mate Dick Rogers get involved in another battle of tactics
42. Birds Of A Feather … All Flocking Together
Wally accuses the new next door neighbours of stealing his prize chicken
43. A Little Knowledge
Wally wants to plan early for Allison’s higher education
44. One Gentleman From Verona
Wally decides to learn Italian to help further his career
45. At Cross Purposes
Allison’s christening is causing trouble for the Stillers
46. Something To Do With Turning Over A New Leaf
Wally isn’t too sure about Possum’s marriage plans
47. A Matter Of Trust
48. How To Stop Bombing And -Learn To Love
49. A High Yuletide
Series #3: ATN7 March 6 to July 10 1968 (21 episodes)
1. Slightly Out Of Focus
2. A Wake My Love
Wally isn’t pleased when a newcomer is being pushed towards
a management job
3. The Price Of Liberty
Wally sets up his own version of the home guard to help defend Australia against communism
4. King Of Sports
Nancarrow’s uncle has left him a strange collection of items
in his will
5. Confessions Of A Public Eye
Wally is being investigated by Nancarrow’s brother, the private detective
6. The One About The Little Boy Crying Down The Lane
Wally hears the property is about to be turned into home units
7. The Balmain Family Stiller
Hoping to win a world trip, Wally enters a newspaper competition wanting to find the average Australian family
8. Would You Believe A Gypsy? Well, Would You?
The Stillers have their futures predicted by a teacup reader
9. A Very Nasty Case Of… Er
Nancarrow and his brother decide to help McGooley in his pursuit of love
10. Go For Broke Or Instant Zot
Wally appears as a contestant on a TV quiz show
11. A Restoration Piece
McGooley offers to help Wally with his receding hairline
12. For Queen And Company
Wally has to choose which of his workmates will be Queen Of The Company but the idea doesn’t please Rita one bit
13. A Hitch In Line Saves Time
Wally isn’t happy with his pay rise and works to rules
14. Almost Down The Primrose Path
Possum is thinking of becoming engaged to an upmarket doct()r from Melbourne
15. The Mystery Of Karang Road
McGooley disappears after a heated argument with Wally
16. Rumours Are Flying, Or The Bomb In The Boarding House
17. This Old Man, He Had Fun, He Played Knick Knack
18. Change Of Gear
19. A Charming Day For The Ants
20. You’ll Come A Waltzing Matilda With Me – Mate
21. Not Since The Last Decade
McGooley moves to Queensland with his new wife and the Stillers move to a new home
RITA AND WALLY
ATN7 July 17 to December 19 1968 (23 episodes)
1. Wally ‘s Little Half Acre – Or A Man Of Limited Property
Wally has become fanatical about cleanliness in the new house
2. Sale Ahoy
3. That Woman Next Door
4. I Can‘t Get Over That Girl Of Mine, So She’ll Have To Get Out And Turn Off The Electric Blanket
Wally isn’t impressed by Rita’s new electric blanket
5. High Society
6. Wherefore Art Thou?
7. A Man Of The People, Or That Grey Face In The Crowd
8. That Grey Face In The Crowd Strikes Again
9. From Log Cabin To … ?
10. And Who Pays For The Daily Piper?
11. Ill Met By Lamplight
Rita tries matchmaking Possum with a young man she met at the shipping department
12. The Green War
Wally tries to impress an American client with his golfing prowess
13. The Silvered Tongue
Rita and neighbour Margaret are captivated by an Irish poet
14. I Love You Darling And What’s Your Second Name Again?
Wally has forgotten it’s their twentieth wedding anniversary
15. The Family That Sprays Together Stays Together
Rita hires a pest exterminator to rid the house of white ants
16. Another Name For It Is … Plastered
17. Share And Share Alike
Rita invests in Wally’s company just when his pay is cut
18. Birth Of A Salesman
19. The Father The Better
Wally hopes the arrival of his parents will demonstrate to Possum how happy a marriage can be
20. And A Little Child Shall Lead Them
21. The Saveloy Faire
22. Regina Versus Wally
23. Wally Stiller’s Little Revolt – Or The End Of An Era
Wally misses out on preselection and loses his job but a newly divorced and wealthy McGooley returns to save the situation.
neither series has apparently generated any merchandising (videos, DVDs or books)