JC At 8.30: Seven’s two-week wonder

Barbara Rogers, Vicki Raymond, John Collins, Issa Arnal

In 1973 the most popular show in Australia was the 0-10 Network‘s Number 96. Screening five nights a week at 8.30pm, it acted as a disruptor against established viewing trends that favoured the older Seven and Nine networks.

Heading into 1974, Seven’s plan to tackle the popular soap was a tonight show, JC At 8.30. Being a half-hour format, stripped Monday to Friday, it was a unique take on the traditional tonight show timeslot but still planned to have conventional elements such as variety acts, comedy sketches and celebrity interviews. Hosting the show was John Collins, the chief of Willard King Productions. As a producer, Collins worked on tonight and variety shows for the likes of Jimmy Hannan, Bernard King, Irish comedian Dave Allen and claimed to have introduced American nightclub performer Don Lane to Australian television in the 1960s.

Willard King’s other credits included quiz shows It’s Academic, Pay Cards and Jeopardy. But as a host, Collins’ CV was less illustrious. His only prior on-screen role was in 1969, hosting a short-lived late-night show on Ten in Sydney called The Late Late Show. Collins’ unfiltered commentaries and verbal assaults on various channels including Ten, rival media identities and even sponsors attracted a cult-like following. The show was described by one viewer as “better than a horror movie because it’s real. It’s like looking at a spectacular made up of all the accidents and mistakes ever dropped on television — bloody marvellous.”

In forming JC At 8.30, little expense was spared. The show was planned to alternate production between Sydney and Melbourne, but instead of using conventional TV studios, the show was to be hosted from intimate theatrette settings — such as the AMP Theatre in Melbourne and Eisteddfod Theatre in Sydney — requiring the use of expensive outside broadcast equipment. Being produced across two cities also meant duplicating writing and researching teams in both cities.

Adding to the show’s expense was the mode of transport to take Collins and his co-hosts between cities — hiring a luxury carriage from NSW Railways, including four bedrooms, two living rooms, a dining room, kitchen and steward on-board, to make the interstate commute.

Barbara Rogers, Keith Smith, Vicki Raymond

Joining Collins as regulars on the show were Barbara Rogers (The Great Temptation), Vicki Raymond (formerly of Number 96), American actress Issa Arnal, former Miss Australia Michelle Downes and children’s show host Trudy Jaworski.

Former Pied Piper host Keith Smith was recruited to present a “nutty stunts” segment, and Jeopardy host Andrew Harwood was Collins’ straight man sidekick.

JC At 8.30 debuted on 7 January 1974, giving the show at least a full month to build an audience before the formal ratings season commenced for the year. Prior to the show launching, Collins said: “I’m a very straight-forward, down-to-earth individual. I can’t sing, I can’t dance. I don’t tell jokes, but I’m a very, very good talker”.

Andrew Harwood, Issa Arnal, John Collins

He also had no worries about taking on the most popular show on television. “I’m not worried about Number 96. With Number 96 you can watch it on Monday and not watch it again until Tuesday week. But I guarantee that once you turn on my show — you’ll keep watching.”

Guests and performers during the show’s first week, presented from Melbourne, included Liv Maessen, Billy Thorpe, Robin Jolley, The Daly-Wilson Big Band, Dawn Dixon, Ross D Wyllie, Yvonne Barrett and rock group Kush.

Reviewing the show after its first week, Sydney Sun-Herald TV columnist Allen Glover said the show had its faults but was confident that Seven was working to fix them. Glover’s bigger concern, however, was the well-worn gripe around Sydney-Melbourne rivalry. “I’ve never been keen on the way Melbourne TV presents variety type shows,” he said. “They certainly haven’t the knack of mounting a variety show the way Sydney stations can.”

TV Times columnist FC Kennedy was also not overly impressed: “Like your average sucker, I was sufficiently impressed by high-flown promises to tune in to the premiere of JC At 8.30. Within minutes I knew I was watching another Tonight show — no better or worse than countless similar shows which have come and gone on Australian TV.”

The show’s second week, presented from Sydney, would seem to not be of any improvement, with Seven taking the show off the air after its tenth episode on 18 January, following pleas from Collins himself. The host blamed nerves for his poor performance: “I was terrible. When I returned to Sydney after the first five productions I told Channel Seven the show wasn’t living up to expectations and asked them to take it off.

“I asked them again at the network meeting on the Thursday. HSV7 (Melbourne) agreed and although ATN7 (Sydney) wanted it go on they couldn’t carry it by themselves.

“I thought the program didn’t suit an 8.30pm timeslot; it would have been better to have introduced it at 10.00pm or 10.30pm and then have moved it to 8.30pm if it took off.”

Collins admitted that he lost money on the venture — which was said to cost $60,000 (in 1974 dollars) for two weeks of production — but “the biggest cost was the blow to my pride. I’m an egotist and I wanted to be a TV star. It didn’t quite work out that way.”

In Sydney, ATN7 replaced JC At 8.30 with the launch of a mid-evening news bulletin, read by Earle Bailey, while HSV7 in Melbourne bumped its 9.00pm late edition news with Brian Naylor to 8.30pm to fill the gap.

Two months later, Seven took its next gamble against Number 96 by shifting its popular quiz show The Great Temptation from 7.00pm to 8.30pm to accommodate a new soap, Class Of ’74, at 7.00pm. It was a move that proved fatal for The Great Temptation, which was axed by the end of the year, and Number 96 went on to top the ratings for the second year in a row.

Source: The Bulletin, 11 October 1969. The Age, 27 December 1973. TV Times, 5 January 1974, 19 January 1974, 26 January 1974. The Sun-Herald, 16 December 1973, 6 January 1974, 13 January 1974, 20 January 1974.

Permanent link to this article: https://televisionau.com/2024/01/jc-at-8-30-sevens-two-week-wonder.html

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