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Banks, Norman Tyrell (1905–1985)

by John Lack

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Norman Tyrell Banks (1905-1985), radio broadcaster, was born on 12 October 1905 at Sandringham, Melbourne, fifth child of Victorian-born parents Charles Cecil Banks, a Hampton newsagent who had died six months earlier, and his wife Alice Mary, née Elliott. Alice went into business as a draper. After attending local state schools and Hampton Beach College, Norman studied for the Anglican priesthood in the mid-1920s. He did not complete his training but remained a regular communicant whose religiosity was to influence aspects of his broadcasting career.

While working for S. A. Cheney Motors (Victoria) Pty Ltd, Banks became a successful car salesman. The firm sent him to England and to the United States of America where, attracted to the booming radio industry, he gained some experience. Back in Victoria, and out of work at Colac, he dug onions for a farmer, Joseph Gilmore, whose daughter, Lorna May, he married with Anglican rites on 6 May 1930 at Christ Church, South Yarra. Desperate to find a job, Banks followed his mother’s advice to try radio. 3KZ had just started broadcasting from the Melbourne Trades Hall, and he pestered the management until he was offered an announcer’s position, starting on 4 July 1931.

Banks was an immediate success. His lucid and natural conversational speech and intimate on-air style challenged the practice by Australian commercial radio announcers of cultivating an artificial British Broadcasting Corporation accent. Known as `the man with the smile in his voice’, Banks became a celebrity. In 1932 he was paired with Naomi Melwit as `Norm and Joan’, and their `Love Letter Competition’ drew a flood of fan mail. Tall, good-looking and impeccably groomed, he was lionised by radio magazines. He quickly demonstrated his versatility, calling football matches, hosting beauty competitions, describing society weddings, covering the 1934-35 Melbourne and Victorian centenary celebrations, and recording voice-overs for Fox Movietone News, Val Morgan Pty Ltd cinema advertising and Commonwealth government films.

Soon Banks was Victoria’s favourite announcer, and after a world trip in 1935-36 to study industry developments, he expanded his repertoire with American ideas, including the `P[rofessional] and A[mateur] Parade’ and `The Voice of the Voyager’ (shipboard interviews with famous visitors to Melbourne). `The average housewife’, he told New Idea, `wants from radio what she gets from the talkies and novels—an escape from realities’. During 1938 Banks’s week began on Monday around 4 a.m., when he rose to take the customs launch to an incoming passenger liner to broadcast at 8.30 a.m. `The Voice of the Voyager’. Daily at teatime there was Norm and Kay’s `Kitchen Kapers’, followed by theatre news, and the evenings were occupied by comedy shows (`Husbands and Wives’, `Stumbles’) and music programs (`Masters of Melody’, `Crooners and Croonettes’, `Harmony Home’). Friday brought `Sports Highlights’, and Saturday was a veritable marathon with the `Match of the Day’ football broadcast (in summer, `Musical Matinee’ was substituted), then `Voice of the People’ (interviews with theatre-goers), before Banks compèred the `Makin’ Whoopee’ cabaret, and rounded off the evening with an hour of dance music. In all, over six days Banks broadcast for almost fourteen hours, and on Sunday `The Voice of the Voyager’, his only pre-recorded program, was re-broadcast. Several colleagues, notably Doug Elliot [q.v.], assisted him on air with the variety shows and sports coverage, but mostly Banks did the research, selected the music and wrote the scripts.

His charity work was considerable: he conducted an annual Christmas Day appeal for the Austin Hospital and sought jobs for the unemployed with `Help Thy Neighbour’. From 1938 he organised a festival of Christmas carols in the Alexandra Gardens; `Carols by Candlelight’ became a Melbourne institution and spread across Australia and abroad. That year his new long-term contract with 3KZ reputedly made him Victoria’s highest paid broadcaster.

Banks had critics who considered risqué his conversations in `Husbands and Wives’, his suggestive banter with theatre crowds drawn to `The Voice of the People’ and his doubles entendres during department store broadcasts of `The Voice of the Business Girl’. Such vulgarity, contrasting with the piety of his devotional programs, suggested hypocrisy. Banks’s 75- to 80-hour working week damaged his health and then his marriage. He and his wife were reconciled, but he soon resumed his punishing schedule and in 1943 collapsed under the pressure of announcing six nights, and producing twelve large features, a week. In 1945, though badly injured in a motorcar smash, he recovered to mark the end of World War II, broadcasting the victory celebrations and a thanksgiving `Carols by Candlelight’.

By the late 1940s Banks had rationalised his evening offerings to the top-rating program of popular classics `Myer Musicale’, two quizzes, and the devotional `Hymns of Prayer and Praise’ which in 1947 attracted one-quarter of Melbourne’s radio audience. But radio still curtailed his family life and disrupted his weekends. He had become a `workaholic’, addicted to success. The result was continuing marital disharmony from which he sought refuge in the occupation that in 1948 he branded `the greatest single destroyer of normal social happiness'.

When differences with 3KZ management led to Banks’s resignation in July 1952, he was quickly snapped up by the Macquarie Broadcasting Service Pty Ltd. On 3AW he duplicated most of his successes, including the quiz `Party Line’, the musical miscellany `Your Music and Mine’, the comedy show `Rate Your Mate’, and football, now uninterrupted by horse-racing. He also moved into public affairs, regularly travelling overseas to gather material for `The World in My Diary’. Between 1952 and 1978 he made thirty-eight overseas trips. `Views and Interviews’ probed Melbourne issues; `Children Make You Think’ posed philosophical problems for clergy; and `People I Meet’ featured interviews with visiting notables. Listeners’ views polarised: admirers lauded him as informed, erudite and polished, and praised his ease with eminent people; critics found him opinionated, overbearing and unctuous, and objected to his pedantry and name-dropping. Some divined a shift in his sympathies from the underdogs to the silvertails.

Certainly Banks’s politics had changed. A Labor voter when he joined 3KZ, he grew cynical about trade union and machine politics and by 1949 supported the Liberals. The war had made him a pronounced Anglophile. He was inaugural president in 1944 of the Commercial Announcers’ Club, which encouraged Empire loyalty. In 1946-47 he encouraged the revival of Empire Day by broadcasting Royal Empire Society addresses and hosting programs on the day. For services to broadcasting, including his radio appeals for charity, he was appointed MBE in 1953.

Banks covered the proceedings of the royal commission on espionage in 1954-55, complementing his daytime broadcasts with trenchant evening commentaries (later as `Melbourne Diary’). In 1956 he became editor-in-chief of 3AW’s world news coverage, with authority over the entire news division, including newsreaders and the sports department. Although the Macquarie Network contemplated broadcasting his programs nationally, he remained essentially a Melbourne figure, a towering and increasingly controversial one.

As an Imperial patriot Banks was dismayed by decolonisation. During an extensive tour of South Africa in 1957, he detected the spectre of communism behind African nationalism. By 1962 he supported the migration to Australia of white refugees from Kenya. In 1964 he investigated race relations in South Africa, England and the USA, spending three weeks in South Africa as a guest of the Verwoerd government. On radio and television, he became an outspoken supporter of white supremacy and apartheid. `The Norman Banks Program’, seen on GTV-9 from 1963, brought him accusations of racism and anti-Semitism after he interviewed Eric Butler, director of the Australian League of Rights. Banks’s retort, `Some of my best friends are Jewish’, and his continuing defence of the regimes in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia generated outrage and raised issues of media accountability. GTV-9 cancelled the program at the end of 1965. Embittered by the episode, Banks hardened in his defence of White Australia and apartheid. His opposition to miscegenation extended to declining an invitation to a mixed-race marriage.

Banks commanded a large audience that shared his obsessions and prejudices. In 1965 3AW, vaunting the `Norman Conquest’, attracted one-quarter of Melbourne’s morning and early afternoon radio audience. In 1970 more than three hundred thousand listeners tuned to Banks for at least two hours each week. Unrivalled and unchallengeable, he was described by Listener In-TV in 1969 as `almost a deity at the Macquarie Network’. The key to his supremacy was the talkback show `Openline’, which began with his ringing `The top of the morning to you, ladies and gentlemen’. Talkback radio came just when his sight began to deteriorate as a result of two work accidents in the 1960s. Banks fudged football broadcasts for several years until 1971 and kept abreast of the news by relying on radio rather than print. He maintained his ratings with controversy, notably on-air brawling with the feminist Claudia Wright and the liberal-minded Ormsby Wilkins, who once labelled Banks `a sanctimonious old hypocrite’. Railing against a hedonistic and permissive society, he denounced abortion, feminism and homosexuality, and extolled capital punishment. When ill health finally forced his retirement on 3 July 1978, there was standing-room only at the Windsor Hotel for his last broadcast. He signed off with thanks to `the humble people, the little people … for your trust, loyalty and support’. Mrs Jennifer McCallum, former president of People Against Communism, wept.

In 1978 Banks’s 47-year career in broadcasting was said to be the world’s longest, but he had been more than a great survivor. He transformed the voice of radio in the 1930s, pioneered team broadcasting, became a master of talkback, and was for decades an influential spokesman for conservatism, bolstering the Liberal Party’s long ascendancy in Victoria. Radio was the passion that consumed him. While extolling publicly the virtues of marriage, home and family, privately he was deeply unhappy. Although he claimed that any publicity was good publicity, he was dogged for years by the Melbourne `scandal sheet’ Truth’s coverage of his marital discord, and by popular innuendo about his alleged womanising. He feared for his and his family’s privacy. On weekends he withdrew to a holiday house, and become dependent on male friendships. Even in the more sophisticated and questioning world of the 1970s, his audience remained substantial and loyal. His broadcasting style survived among those who revered his memory and emulated his delivery. His name and the causes he espoused continued to arouse passion among his admirers and detractors.

Near blindness and failing health made Banks’s last years difficult. Survived by his wife and their two sons and two daughters, he died on 15 September 1985 at Malvern and was cremated two days later. Only then did the family announce his death.

Select Bibliography

  • R. R. Walker, The Magic Spark (1973)
  • R. R. Walker, Dial 1179: The 3KZ Story (1984)
  • L. Johnson, The Unseen Voice (1988)
  • N. Banks papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • family information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

John Lack, 'Banks, Norman Tyrell (1905–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/banks-norman-tyrell-12170/text21809, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 21 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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