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Sir Talbot Sydney Duckmanton (1921–1995)

by David Salter

This article was published online in 2023

Sir Talbot Sydney Duckmanton (1921–1995), broadcaster and broadcasting executive, was born on 26 October 1921 at South Yarra, Melbourne, elder child and only son of Victorian-born parents Sydney James Duckmanton, public service architect, and his wife Rita Margaret, née Hutchings. When Talbot was six his church-going Anglican family moved to Sydney. This background of public service and middle-class conservatism would shape his interpretation of the role of the nation’s public broadcaster within Australian society. A gifted student, he attended Fort Street Boys’ High School for a year before accepting a scholarship to Newington College, Stanmore (1934–38), at that time Sydney’s premier private Methodist school. He was a prefect and dux, an accomplished debater, New South Wales State champion in schoolboy athletics, and stroked the school’s first rowing eight. Still in school uniform, he was interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s (ABC’s) general manager, (Sir) Charles Moses, a friend of Newington headmaster, Philip Le Couteur, and began work on 3 January 1939. In the dispatch department at first, his pleasant if somewhat light voice, combined with an easy confidence behind the microphone, saw him soon graduate to sports broadcasting, news reading, and general commentary duties. His involvement in sport proved invaluable during his early years in radio.

Volunteering for service in World War II, Duckmanton enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 24 November 1941. He served in Papua with the 2/17th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery from February to August 1942 when, as an acting sergeant, he was evacuated to Brisbane for medical reasons. In Sydney on 29 January 1943 he was discharged from the AIF to resume announcing with the ABC. On 17 June, however, he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force. He trained as a pilot in Australia and Canada, was commissioned (1944) and promoted to flying officer in February 1945 but was not required for operational service and was transferred to the RAAF Reserve in Sydney on 14 August. On Victory over Japan Day, 15 August 1945, he broadcast ‘live’ descriptions for the ABC of the joyous celebrations in Martin Place, Sydney. From September to December he was in the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia) reporting on the work of the Australian occupying forces.

On 3 March 1947 Duckmanton married Sydney-born Florence Simmonds at Holy Trinity Church of England, Kew. He had resumed full-time duties as an ABC newsreader, as well as commentating on major public events. His work was particularly valued in sports broadcasting. In 1948, as ‘Tal, he contributed regularly to the popular daily children’s radio program, the Argonauts’ Club, talking about sport. In 1949 he was appointed the ABC’s New South Wales sporting supervisor, and in 1950 covered the Empire Games in Auckland, New Zealand. He was one of three Commonwealth broadcasters who joined the British Broadcasting Corporation's commentary team for the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, in London.

By 1950 Moses had recognised Duckmanton as his likely successor, and ensured that the young broadcaster was promoted through the commission’s managerial ranks. Duckmanton was appointed assistant manager in Queensland in 1951, which he accepted rather than complete studies in economics at the University of Sydney. In 1953 he was promoted to manager in Tasmania, then controller of administration back at the Sydney head office in 1957, and in 1959 to the influential position of assistant general manager (administration). He was, by then, fully equipped with a knowledge of the ABC’s policies, procedures, and its sometimes byzantine administrative machinery.

While Duckmanton rose through the senior ranks, in 1955 the ABC board also appointed him to the newly created position of co-ordinator of television. The television service began broadcasting as ABN Channel 2 from Sydney on 5 November 1956, and from Melbourne two weeks later. In his new role, he had to recruit staff with skills and work practices that did not always conform to the traditions of ABC radio. His success during that challenging period confirmed his credentials for further promotion.

Appointed deputy general manager early in 1964, Duckmanton was effectively in the top job after Moses took leave later that year and was formally appointed as general manager on 26 February 1965. The contrast in managerial styles was immediately apparent. Where Moses had been collegial, outgoing, and even flamboyant, Duckmanton was ‘a reserved, private man, the archetypal pipe-smoking administrator’ (Bowden 2006, 95). Tending to avoid personal engagement with production staff, instead he managed by deft delegation through the ABC’s extensive layers of senior executive officers. He rarely lunched, preferring instead to take his exercise with a daily swim at the Tattersalls Club, a short walk from his office in Broadcast House on Elizabeth Street.

When the situation demanded, Duckmanton did not hesitate to enlist the ABC’s sheer weight of resources and public standing to protect its interests. In 1966 he prevailed in an extended dispute with the New South Wales government during the construction of the Sydney Opera House. The main 2,600-seat auditorium had been intended as a theatre for grand opera, but he argued that the ABC concert department would be the dominant hirer of the venue, and therefore deserved precedence. After sustained pressure, the architect Peter Hall recast the Jørn Utzon-designed space as a concert hall, and home for the ABC’s Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Duckmanton’s tenure as general manager coincided with a period of exceptional development and innovation at the national broadcaster. He oversaw almost two decades of sustained growth that enjoyed wide public support. By mid-1975 staff numbers exceeded 7,200. While the symphony orchestra performances in every State continued to affirm the ABC’s commitment to concert music, the commission’s energies and budgets from the 1970s put increasing emphasis on television production. By then operating as a genuine national network, ABC-TV pioneered nightly current affairs with This Day Tonight (1967–78), and created a range of popular features series ranging from The Inventors (1970–81) and Torque (1974–80) to In the Wild with Harry Butler (1976–81). During this period the ABC showed an unprecedented commitment to local television drama. In radio, the AM and PM programs became the benchmarks for reporting and analysing public affairs.

Following his predecessor’s lead, Duckmanton gave much attention to Australia’s role in international public broadcasting. Between 1961 and 1963 he advised governments in several countries on the introduction of television. He was a trustee of the international television news consortium Visnews, president of the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (1973–77) and of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association (1975–82). The ABC’s commitment to internationalism and independence was tested in 1980 when it chose to not support the Federal government’s boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games—Australia’s protest at the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Duckmanton often travelled overseas on official business, prompting the Broadcast House wits to joke that their general manager might have become addicted to smallpox injections. He often took part in international broadcasting conferences on those trips, but also visited the many outposts of the ABC’s empire. Foreign correspondents noted that he seemed to adopt an entirely different personality—relaxed and conversational—away from Australia and the immediate pressures of his role. He formed close associations with favoured, overseas-based ABC staff, who tended to be appointed to more senior positions on their return to Australia.

Away from his managerial role, Duckmanton—as a distinguished old boy—served on the Newington College council (1964–72), including as chairman (1968–72). In June 1970 the Sydney Morning Herald published a letter from the headmaster, Rev. Douglas Trathen, written as a private citizen, encouraging twenty-year-olds to resist compulsory military service and thereby defy the National Service Act. The college council promptly dismissed Trathen, but the decision was overturned by the New South Wales Methodist Conference, which had ultimate jurisdiction over the matter. Duckmanton and his supporters on the council then starved the school of funds, eventually forcing Trathen to resign. A former colleague at the ABC later observed that ‘the incident revealed in Sir Talbot a streak of ruthlessness not previously much evident’ (Ashbolt 1982).

The general manager, in Duckmanton’s opinion, was not the broadcaster’s public face. The few speeches he gave during his career were more concerned with broader managerial issues and dealt only marginally with matters specific to the ABC. By 1977 though, he was more open about the potential for conflict between managers and creative specialists within an organisation such as the ABC—an oblique reference to the increasing number of industrial disputes involving the ABC Staff Association that occurred during the latter years of his term. A new generation of program staff had become openly critical of management practices and editorial decisions. Rather than seeking direct confrontation, the general manager recognised the changing times and attitudes that were expressed through initiatives such as the 2JJ (‘Double J’) radio station, The Science Show, and the feminist The Coming Out Show.

The closing years of Duckmanton’s tenure were not happy. During a turbulent period, the conduct and policies of the ABC were subjected to heightened public scrutiny. After the largesse of the Whitlam years (1972–75), the general manager was faced with an aggressive Fraser government determined to reduce the ABC’s funding and curb its treasured independence. Following successive external assessments—the Report on the Structure of the Australian Broadcasting System and Associated Matters (the ‘Green Report’), 1976; and The ABC in Review: National Broadcasting in the 1980s (the ‘Dix Review’), 1981—and the confrontational but short chairmanship of Sir Henry Bland, Duckmanton took early retirement on 1 July 1982.

During this period, Duckmanton was increasingly affected by poor health. His wife Florence had died on 22 February 1979, and on 17 November he married Janet Strickland, the Commonwealth film censor, at All Saints’ Anglican Church, Woollahra. After the marriage ended, on 13 February 1984 he married English-born Carolyn Olga Rose Wright at St Ives, Sydney. That union too ended in divorce, and on 6 December 1993 he remarried Strickland, by then a media consultant, at Sutton Forest. Appointed CBE in 1971, and knighted in 1979, he was the only leader of the ABC to be groomed for the position and to spend his entire working life in its employ. His forty-three years at the national public broadcaster encompassed its development from a high-culture radio service that emphasised news, music, and talks, into a more outward-looking and adventurous network that introduced many of the most dynamic and influential programs of his era. After suffering a succession of heart attacks, followed by a bypass operation, he died on 12 June 1995 at Palm Meadows, Queensland. He was cremated after a service at the Northern Suburbs Crematorium, Sydney, survived by Janet, and the four children from his first marriage; Christine, Susan, Craig, and Kim.

Research edited by Peter Woodley

Select Bibliography

  • Ashbolt, Allan. ‘Groomed to Rule the Airwaves.’ Age (Melbourne), 5 June 1982, 5
  • Bowden, Tim, with Wendy Borchers. 50 Years: Aunty’s Jubilee!: Celebrating 50 Years of ABC-TV. Sydney: ABC Books for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2006
  • Duckmanton, Sir Talbot. Interviewed by Terry Colhoun, 1990. National Film and Sound Archive of Australia
  • Inglis, K. S. This Is the ABC: The Australian Broadcasting Commission 1932–1983. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1983
  • Rendell, Anthony. ‘Duckmanton, Sir Talbot Sydney (1921–95).’ In A Companion to the Australian Media, edited by Bridget Griffen-Foley, 143. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2014
  • Simper, Errol. ‘“ABC Chief of the Old School.” Sir Talbot Duckmanton.’ Australian, 15 June 1995, 12
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘“ABC Chief Guided Crucial Changes to Broadcasting,” Obituary, Talbot Duckmanton 1921–1995.’ 14 June 1995, 10

Additional Resources

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Citation details

David Salter, 'Duckmanton, Sir Talbot Sydney (1921–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/duckmanton-sir-talbot-sydney-32558/text40412, published online 2023, accessed online 9 December 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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