1947 - 1995 | Queensland
Andrew Olle was one of Australia’s most admired broadcasters. He was respected by colleagues, opponents and the public for his fairness, quiet scepticism, calmness, gentle humour and lack of hubris. Starting out as a radio news cadet in Brisbane, Olle presented most of the ABC’s flagship current affairs programs including Four Corners, The 7.30 Report, Nationwide and A Big Country. He also hosted election night coverage and the 2BL morning radio program in Sydney. His sudden death from a brain tumour at 47 caused an outpouring of public grief, including thousands of phone calls to the ABC, thousands more signing a condolence book and 6000 cards sent to the Olle family.
There are interviews and interviews. Much depends on where each wants to be when the music stops. Andrew Olle did not want a scalp. As a consummate radio and television presenter and interviewer he wanted light – a light shone on what the interviewee knew better than he. His ego was big enough to not care whether he “won” or not, he wanted his listeners and viewers to know more about the person and the subject they had just experienced. It was a unique softly, softly approach that won him so many hearts.
The late, great Mark Colvin, presenter of ABC Radio’s PM in his later years, called Olle “Australia’s best interviewer” in his 2012 Andrew Olle Lecture.
In my memory, the most enjoyable of these was Olle’s dance with his old mate, Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, back on 22 September 1986. For 17 minutes each parried the other, both with grins affixed. Bjelke-Petersen was live from Brisbane by satellite, Olle in the big Sydney studio. A state election was just five weeks away and Bjelke-Petersen had created seven new seats, so making seats in the bush yet again worth double the electoral value of those in the cities of Queensland.
Olle was like a dog with a bone about the inequities of state electoral boundaries. Bjelke-Petersen expressed faux surprise that Olle, a well-known Queensland boy, was asking such questions. He wondered aloud if the southerners had got to him. Even in the director’s room above the studio we were laughing. On and on this dance proceeded. To my mind, Andrew’s charm, good humour, sense of fairness and respect for his sparring partner brought him through the games being played. Back in the Green Room at Gore Hill, we laughed at Joh’s much-used clichés (“Don’t you worry about that”) being worked to capacity.
In truth, Andrew Olle, for all his confidence and bravado on stage, was a worrier. He was famous for his meticulous concern for getting scripts and vision right, for getting the facts right and for getting the “big picture” right.
Allan Hogan, who was an executive producer during Olle’s time at the Nine Network in the early 1980s, remembers him as “considered”, taking his time about ensuring his films were perfect in every way: “We’d often be working overnight in the edit rooms until 7 in the morning with only an hour or more to go before his film was to be on air!” Annette, his wife, recalls Olle saying he was “cursed with seeing both sides of any argument”. Again, of course, it was about getting balance and fairness exactly right as well. He was the last person to rush to judgement.
It was this thoughtfulness and ability to listen that made Olle not just an incisive interviewer but also a great radio presenter. His eight years with his morning ABC Radio audience, 1987 to 1995, built an unparalleled affection for him in Sydney. His sudden death shook the city to its core. For weeks I heard strangers lamenting the loss of Andrew, wanting to express their grief as though he was part of their family. It was an extraordinary outpouring of feeling, mirroring Olle’s feeling for his audience.
But it is also true that in today’s terms he was overwhelmingly about “content”. He was a news and current affairs addict. From the day in 1967 when he walked in the doors of ABC Brisbane as a trainee news cadet to the day in December 1995 when brain cancer ended his life, he was right across the issues of the day.
His four years at This Day Tonight won him a TV Week Logie for his report in August 1976 on the Queensland Police’s massive raid on a hippie commune at Cedar Bay north of Cairns. He was just 30.
In June 1978, he used his contacts in Brisbane to do a Four Corners report on Australia’s first Aboriginal member of Federal Parliament, the Liberals’ Neville Bonner. Interviews included Charles Perkins and Kath Walker, both Aboriginal leaders. In fact, reports on Aboriginal conditions around Australia – Wilcannia (NSW), Turkey Creek (WA), Hermannsburg Reserve (NT) – became a theme in Olle’s reports throughout his life.
By the time the ABC’s new daily current affairs program Nationwide hit the screens in 1980, Olle was already a polished filmmaker. He joined Mark Colvin, Jenny Brockie, Paul Murphy and I – almost all of us rookies in the documentary mode. He and I did a report on the corrupt Nugan Hand bank in August 1980 and I marvelled at the master’s ability to turn finance into pictures. The skill led Andrew to joining the ABC’s rural weekly Big Country where he enlarged his long-form film skills.
In late 1981 his work was noticed at Channel 9 and Allan Hogan stole him for Packer’s new quality program Sunday. Olle hit the ground running with an in-depth report on the prevalence of anorexia nervosa among young women. Next came a daring report on the findings of the Costigan Royal Commission in Melbourne (a taboo subject at the Packer station). Then a profile of rising New Zealand soprano Kiri Te Kanawa. And a trip to Indonesia’s rebel Irian Jaya province. He stayed four years as the program became a Sunday staple.
When Jonathan Holmes and I stole Andrew back to the ABC as the presenter of a new-look Four Corners in 1985 we knew we had a world-class professional. For the next 10 years Olle would be the face of the ABC’s flagship current affairs program.
Each year Andrew would do 10 or so studio specials. Here’s a sample…The new era kicked off with a two-part series on the AIDS crisis. A month later, apartheid South Africa. East Timor. Industrial laws in Australia. Threats to Kakadu. Women in the Anglican Church. The Liberal Party “wets” future. The Fitzgerald report in Queensland on police corruption. A profile of Ted Mack, the first Independent in Parliament for 20 years. Youth suicide rates. Malcolm Turnbull’s republic idea. How did Hewson lose the 1993 election? The meaning of “no” in relationships. All of these, and many more, tied to the news of the day with film reports and Olle studio interviews.
In all this, Olle was keeping a weekly program on its toes and a daily audience of loyal ABC Radio listeners amused and informed. After Olle’s Four Corners went to air, the next day we’d shout ourselves a long Italian lunch with those in town at the time. There was no happier participant than Andrew Olle. A sensitive soul in a tough industry.
Peter Manning worked with Andrew Olle on “This Day Tonight” and “Nationwide” daily current affairs programs and again as producer and then Executive Producer of the weekly “Four Corners” at the ABC.
Courtesy of Fairfax
Covering the 1990 elections. Courtesy of Fairfax
Andrew Olle: A Tribute, Annette Olle and Paul Lyneham, University of NSW Press, Sydney, 1996
On interviewing, Andrew Olle with Robert Pullan, ABC Enterprises, 1992