In 1977, Prince Charles appeared on Australian music TV show ‘Countdown’, and the host fell completely apart.
Launched in 1974, ‘Countdown’ remains Australia’s best known music TV show. Screening on the ABC, it was part of the national broadcaster’s push to connect to younger people.
The host was Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum.
Born in Orbost, in regional Victoria, in 1943, Meldrum’s childhood was nomadic. His father ran a hardware store in Quambatook, shortly after his birth his mother was hospitalised with mental health issues. He was then passed around by other members of his extended family, living in Orbost, Shepparton and Kyabram.
From an early age, he showed a love of music.
After high school, in the early 1960s, Meldrum moved to Melbourne, determined to find a footing in the local music industry. He briefly studied radio broadcasting, intending to become a DJ, then worked as a roadie for rock act ‘The Groop’.
The 1960s were a time of great cultural change, and a number of new rock and pop acts created a lively scene in Melbourne. Meldrum immersed himself in this world, attending gigs and becoming friends with aspiring musicians, including singer Ronnie Burns (whose family he ended up living with).
In 1964, Burns and Meldrum were at the airport to see the Beatles arrive, and were later ejected from one of their Festival Hall shows, for being too enthusiastic.
In 1966, 20 year old entrepreneur Phillip Frazer founded a magazine to document the booming Melbourne music scene. This was ‘Go-Set’, based in St Kilda.
Frazer came into the office one day, to find an unknown young man:
‘As I recall it, Ian was sweeping the floor… I said ‘Who’s this guy? Where’d he come from?’ and someone said, ‘I dunno, he just came in and wanted to do something.’
– Phillip Frazer, interview in ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’
But Meldrum’s enthusiasm for music was endearing, and he had enough contacts in the industry to make him an effective journalist. His first story for ‘Go-Set’, in July 1966, was a profile of his friend Ronnie Burns.
Meldrum profiled other acts, and wrote a weekly gossip column with behind-the-scenes stories that became popular.
His style was loose, gossipy, playful, and his stories often followed the ‘New Journalism’ precept of including himself. His nickname, Molly, came from another Go-Set writer, Stan Rofe, who called his male colleagues by traditionally female names.
‘Go-Set’ was the local music magazine, and Meldrum quickly became one of Australia’s best known music journalists.
‘Go-Set’ ran for 8 years, until 1974, Meldrum contributing throughout.
His career also expanded in other directions. In 1967 he joined the TV show ‘Kommotion’, which aired Top 40 hits, and in 1970 reported music news on the Channel 7 show, ‘Happening 70’.
Meldrum also worked more directly in the industry, producing records for Burns and Australian singer Russell Morris. Morris’ song ‘The Real Thing’, produced by Meldrum, became a number one hit in 1969, and remains a classic song from the era.
‘Countdown’ was the brainchild of producers Michael Shrimpton and Robbie Weekes, who had worked on ‘Kommotion’ and ‘Happening 70’, respectively.
The new show would combine a number of aspects from both: recorded songs from the Top 20, live performances, interviews, and music news. The pair successfully pitched the concept to the ABC, who were looking to broaden their audience.
Meldrum was known to both producers from his earlier TV work. The legend is that they ran into him in a South Melbourne pub, and offered him a job on ‘Countdown’ on the spot.
The show began airing on November 8, 1974, with Meldrum presenting the music news in a spot called ‘Humdrum’.
The following year, the producers decided to change the format, and installed Meldrum as host. His off-the-cuff comments, laid back style, and personal relationships with musicians made him the perfect MC for a show aimed at a younger audience.
‘Countdown’ quickly became a hit.
Airing on Sunday nights, the centrepiece of each week’s episode was a live performance by a local or international act, followed by an interview with Meldrum. Leading artists of the 70s who appeared early on included AC/DC, Skyhooks, The Ramones and Blondie.
An appearance on Countdown became an important part of touring Australia, and a key steppingstone for younger acts trying to make their name. The show was so popular, each episode was screened twice.
In 1977, it was announced that Prince Charles would be touring Australia, as part of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations.
Charles already had significant experience in Australia. In 1966 he had spent two terms as a student at Geelong Grammar, and always spoke warmly of his time there (you can read more about this here).
His 1977 trip was to be a whirlwind: arriving in Canberra on November 1, he was to depart from Perth 10 days later, having visited every state and territory.
Among Charles’ official duties, he was the patron of the ‘Queen’s Silver Jubilee Appeal for Young Australians’, designed to raise money for disadvantaged Australian youth. One of the fund raising activities was a limited edition charity record, to which several well-known local acts contributed a song.
To promote the album, Charles agreed to an interview on Countdown.
Charles’ appearance on the show was scheduled for Sunday, 6 November 1977.
While it was a coup for the program to have such a high profile guest – everyone was trying to get time with Charles during his brief stay – he also presented an unusual challenge for Meldrum, who only had experience interviewing musicians. And the pressure the host felt, would tell.
Normally attired casually, in a jacket, t-shirt and jeans, Meldrum wore a suit and tie for the occasion. Charles sat adjacent to him, a copy of the charity album on the table between them.
Meldrum was clearly nervous; he fidgeted in his seat, and was unable to settle. When taping of the pre-recorded interview began, Meldrum blew take after take. He flubbed his lines, or forgot them completely, groaning in exasperation and then swearing as the mistakes piled up.
Some outtakes can be seen below:
After a few failed attempts, Meldrum paused proceedings and asked for a glass of water, then confessed he was ‘sweating like a pig.’
Charles maintained his composure, and asked if perhaps a teleprompter would help? Meldrum – sorrowfully – advised one was not available. The show’s director, Ted Emery, was less gentle: between takes he walked over and gave Meldrum a slap on the shoulder, and told him to get it together.
‘Look around you: you’re in familiar surroundings!’
With many more takes, the interview continued slowly, painfully, to its conclusion. After Charles left, Meldrum tried to re-record some of his lines, and continued to botch them.
While editing removed some of the gaffes, the finished interview was still awkward. But public reaction was mixed; while many proclaimed it a ‘disaster’, others could sympathise with Meldrum’s nervousness, and even found the unpolished tone ‘charming’.
Meldrum would simply say later that he ‘blew it’.
Countdown, with Meldrum as host, continued for another decade. More famous acts from the 1980s would appear – including Kylie Minogue, INXS, Crowded House and numerous international acts – but the Prince Charles interview always remained one of its most famous segments.
It is regularly cited as the one of the most iconic moments, in Australian television history.
The show aired for the last time on New Year’s Eve, 1987. Afterwards, Meldrum continued presenting music news and interviews on ‘Hey Hey It’s Saturday’, and remained a significant figure in the Australian music scene until his retirement.
In 2014, the ABC commissioned a commemorative documentary series, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of ‘Countdown’s first episode. Former guests and musical acts were interviewed about their appearances on the show.
The Australian High Commissioner in England, Mike Wran, contacted the Royal Family to see if Charles might be interested in appearing. To everyone’s surprise, he not only agreed to participate, but filmed a lengthy message, spoofing the 1977 interview.
‘Was it really 40 years ago? It seems like yesterday. I wish it was tomorrow, I’d cancel it.’
– Prince Charles
Among digs at Molly’s bumbling efforts and colourful language, Charles also arranged for a producer to interrupt his comments and tell him to get himself together, just as had occurred 40 years beforehand.
Later it was revealed that the Countdown interview was a favourite funny story that Charles liked to recount, and it was well known among his inner circle. You can watch the full clip of his comments, here.
The Countdown anniversary documentary was well received on release. It was also revealed that the full episode of the original Prince Charles interview had been lost: the ABC had erased all the episodes between 1974 and 1978 shortly after they aired.
The video tapes had been re-used for other programs, as a cost cutting measure.