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Wilson Irving, Reginald Stephen (1912–1994)

by Patrick Buckridge

This article was published online in 2018

Wilson Irving, and Diane Cilento, 1961

Wilson Irving, and Diane Cilento, 1961

State Library of Queensland, 191075

Reginald Stephen Wilson Irving (known as Wilson Irving) (1912–1994), actor, radio broadcaster, television executive, and philanthropist, was born on 2 May 1912 at Kurrajong, New South Wales, eldest son of locally born parents Stephen Wilson, labourer, and his wife Ina Selina, née Howard. Wilson’s mother had been a member of a touring children’s light opera company, ‘Pollard’s Lilliputians,’ and she and her father Willie, a violinist with the company, surrounded the boy with music and theatre from his infancy. In about 1916 his father moved the family to Turramurra, Sydney, where Wilson attended Warrawee Public School, leaving at fifteen, and abandoning his dream of studying medicine. By 1930 he had changed his family name to Wilson Irving.

After working in a grocery, then briefly as a jackeroo, Irving had used his mother’s contacts (together with some training in tap-dancing, singing, and pratfalls), to find entertainment work in and around Sydney. Starting in pantomimes, he progressed to small vaudeville parts on the Harry Clay circuit, acting and stage-managing with Fullers’ Theatres Ltd and J. C. Williamson Ltd, and on to an apprenticeship in scene-painting, construction, and design with Scott Alexander and his New Sydney Repertory Society (from 1934 the Kursaal Theatre) in Kent Street.

In 1933 Irving travelled to London, where his singing, dancing, good looks, and comedic talents earned him minor stage roles, and also a ‘dressing down’ by Dame Sybil Thorndike for ‘impersonating’ an English accent (Irving 1991). By late 1935 he was back in Sydney producing, designing, and acting in plays by Shakespeare and Ibsen for the Kursaal, and by 1938 he had formed his own ensemble, the Wilson Irving Players, presenting light comedies, the proceeds of which were channelled through Rotary to the Society for Crippled Children. He moved to Brisbane in October 1938 to join radio station 4BH as a specialty announcer, responsible for conducting the popular community singing programs from the Theatre Royal in Elizabeth Street. He used his programs to raise thousands of pounds for the victims of the Black Friday bushfires in Victoria. The following year, after the outbreak of World War II, he conceived and compered a Sunday variety show, Smokes for Sick Soldiers.

Having gained a clearance from his reserved occupation, on 12 August 1942 Irving enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces, and later in the Australian Imperial Force. On 22 August in the Lutheran Church, Toowoomba, he married Melva Stevenson, a receptionist. He was deployed to the Queensland Lines of Communication Area Concert Party, which brought musical and theatrical entertainment to servicemen and women, mainly in hospitals and far-out camps. In early 1945 he helped to establish and run the new Army Amenities Service broadcasting station 5DR in Darwin, which went to air in February. He was discharged in November with the rank of warrant officer, first class.

Resuming his radio career, Irving went to work for 4BK in Brisbane, specialising in cheerful breakfast programs and compering large community singing events around the city. He continued to produce and perform in plays—memorably Tons of Money at the Theatre Royal in 1946—and in vaudeville at the old Cremorne Theatre. A year later the Irvings moved to Sydney where Wilson joined the Macquarie Network’s 2GB, conceiving and compering Teen Time, a daily program for teenagers. A few years later, finding himself ‘tremendously popular with the younger generation’ (Jennifer 1952, 8), he opened a teenage nightclub, the ‘Bar-B-Q,’ in Annandale, Sydney.

In the mid-1950s, as Irving moved into production and program development, he was closely associated with Quiz Kids; comic talents such as Jack Davey, Roy Rene, Hal Lashwood, and George Wallace Senior; and singers like Peter Dawson and Gladys Moncrieff. He produced Moncrieff’s popular radio show for several years; she became godmother to his only child.

Television came next. In 1956 Irving joined ATN Channel 7 Sydney as senior station supervisor in charge of production, and in 1959 he was recruited by BTQ Channel 7 in Brisbane as program and production manager. Having produced the channel’s opening extravaganza in Festival Hall, he went on to build a distinctive programming profile, featuring more live shows ‘than any other station in Australia’ (Lehmann 1994, 9), including variety, music, comedy, quiz, children’s, and public affairs. Dubbed the ‘talent-spotter’ (TV Times 1965, 21), he recruited such regulars of the 1960s television scene as George Wallace Junior and Brian Tait. He also introduced and organised Seven’s Christmas Telethon appeals, raising funds for people with cerebral palsy (1960–69), and he led an all-Queensland concert party to entertain soldiers in South Vietnam.

Irving retired from television in 1974 and returned to Brisbane radio to run an interview program, The Stirrers, for three years on 4KQ. In 1980 he staved off retirement yet again, directing the spectacular opening and closing ceremonies at the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games. At the Rialto Theatre, West End, he wrote, produced, and starred in a Christmas pantomime in 1983, and organised and directed a successful vaudeville show, Roll Back the Years, featuring old troupers in short annual seasons from 1984 to the early 1990s. The bulk of the proceeds went to the Children’s Hospital Appeal. He was awarded an OAM in 1984.  

Tall and suave, with a shock of sandy hair and a clipped moustache, Irving had a dazzling smile and a booming voice. He was remembered as ‘a handsome, beautifully groomed performer, who had the gift of the gab’ (Lehmann 1994, 9), generous, popular, and prodigiously talented. Survived by his wife, daughter, and grandson, he died at Auchenflower, Brisbane, on 9 June 1994 and was cremated.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Irving, Wilson. Interview by Beryl Davis and Laurel Garlick, 17 April 1991. Transcript. State Library of Queensland
  • Jennifer [pseud.]. ‘Bits and Pieces from Here and There.’ Worker (Brisbane), 21 April 1952, 8
  • Lehmann, John. ‘Final Curtain Falls.’ Courier Mail (Brisbane), 10 June 1994, 9
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, QX54983
  • Roe, Vanessa. Personal communication
  • TV Times. ‘Tips from the Talent-Spotter.’ 7 July 1965, 21

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Patrick Buckridge, 'Wilson Irving, Reginald Stephen (1912–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilson-irving-reginald-stephen-20636/text31470, published online 2018, accessed online 16 November 2019.

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