Friday 27 April 2018

Obituary: Reg Grundy

'Godfather of Australian TV' who went from quiz host to being the media mogul behind shows like 'Neighbours'

Reg Grundy on Wheel of Fortune in 1959. Photo: Rex Features
Reg Grundy on Wheel of Fortune in 1959. Photo: Rex Features
Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue in Neighbours. Photo: Rex Features newsdesk

Reg Grundy, the producer, presenter and media mogul, who has died aged 92, was known as the "godfather of Australian television"; at the height of his career he was running the largest independent production company in the world.

The "RG" symbol on a television programme's opening credits - designating a "Reg Grundy Production" - was a guarantee of frothy daytime viewing. As the man who brought Neighbours, Sons and Daughters and The Young Doctors to television screens, Grundy helped bring the suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney to a global audience.

His programmes were ubiquitous in his homeland - at one time, 20 hours of television across three networks each week - and he was even afforded the dubious honour of his name entering the Australian lexicon, with "Reg Grundies" becoming a slang term for underpants.

Yet although he developed numerous television quiz shows, including Wheel of Fortune, and produced ABBA: The Movie (1978), in Britain and Ireland Grundy is best known for Neighbours.

The soap opera, created by Reg Watson, was first screened in Australia in 1985, and went on to become one of the most watched programmes on the BBC during the late 1980s. The romantic dramas and familial spats experienced by the residents of Ramsay Street, a cul-de-sac in the fictional Melbourne suburb of Erinsborough, launched the careers of Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan. When their characters, Scott and Charlene, married in 1987, it was a television sensation.

The show became known for its returning characters. "We had a thing on Neighbours," Grundy recalled, "that if we lost a character, we didn't want to kill him in case we want to bring them back. They went to some fictional place in Queensland."

He was more than happy to keep out of the media gaze, he said, "because every show I made said at the end, 'Reg Grundy'." So there was no reason for Reg Grundy to be saying 'I'm Reg Grundy'."

Jovial looking, moustachioed and happily married, Grundy was also a shrewd and driven businessman and notoriously secretive. When he gave possibly his only television interview, in 2010 to Australia's Channel Nine, he was introduced as "an iconic Aussie who has shunned the spotlight for more than half a century".

He lived for many years in the tax haven of Bermuda, where his refusal to carry money fuelled rumours of eccentricity. "Why do I need to?" he asked. "Because I say, 'Buy me a Lamborghini', and somebody does."

His talent was for developing hugely addictive ­Australian variations on established formats and then exporting them back to the countries where they originated. It was, one Australian presenter observed, akin to "selling ice to the Eskimos then selling them fridges so they have to keep the ice supply going".

Reginald Roy Grundy was born on August 4, 1923 in Sydney to Roy Grundy and his wife Lillian (née Lees), who both worked for a chain of chocolate shops.

The family later moved to Adelaide where Reg attended Adelaide High School and St Peter's College. During World War II he served as a sergeant in the Australian army, stationed in Sydney. He subsequently worked as a buyer in the women's sportswear section of the Australian department store David Jones.

His broadcasting career began in the late 1940s as a sports commentator, covering boxing matches for the radio station 2SM. He also worked as a voiceover artist for cinema advertisements.

After moving to the ­station 2CH Sydney, he ­developed and hosted a game show for radio called Wheel of Fortune (a distinct version from the later show) then adapted it for television. The programme was first screened on Australia's Channel Nine in 1959 with Grundy - sharp-suited and Brylcreemed as "Mr Fortune"- asking the questions.

Although he admitted that he was "terrified" of being on screen, the crew told him that he was a natural. "I thought, maybe I can do something in this media. And I did," he recalled.

He founded the Reg Grundy Organisation the same year. During the 1960s his shows had varying success, but his mantra was: "Keep throwing punches, you got to hit something."

During 1970s and 1980s, Reg Grundy Productions developed successful game shows such as Blankety Blanks (broadcast on the BBC as Blankety Blank), Scrabble and Wheel of Fortune (Grundy bought the American version devised in the 1970s by Merv Griffin), which became the longest running game show on Australian television.

He was sometimes ­accused of stealing a show's ­format from abroad, although at the time the practice was in line with the conventions of the television industry (the American producer of Sale of the Century did not proceed with a legal action for copyright ­infringement). "I wanted to get shows on air," Grundy recalled. "I just kept steaming forward."

Gradually he moved into drama and soaps, such as The Young Doctors, which following the love lives of the staff at Albert Memorial Hospital, for international television. His company had at its height some 2,000 employees and produced programming for 70 countries.

In Australia, however, some of Grundy's soap operas, such as Possession, failed to find an audience. With Taurus Rising he attempted to replicate the glitzy formula of Dynasty and Dallas, with a saga centred on a pair of mega-rich feuding families in Sydney. The Dysdales and the Brents, however, proved to be pale imitations of the Ewings and the Carringtons and the show was axed after 21 episodes.

His other television shows include the cult soap Prisoner, set in a women's prison and called Prisoner: Cell Block H outside Australia, Glenview High and Shortland Street. In 1995 he sold the Reg Grundy Organisation to Pearson (later becoming FremantleMedia) for a reported €220m.

He received an honorary PhD from the University of Queensland. He was appointed OBE in 1983 and a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2008. He published his memoirs in 2010.

Away from his business interests, Grundy's passions were sailing - he owned the superyacht Boadicea - and nature photography. In 2005, he published The Wildlife of Reg Grundy and four years later the Masterworks ­Museum of Bermuda Art hosted an exhibition of his photographs of Bermuda Longtail fish.

"I started in radio, moved into pictures and sound and now it's just pictures again," he said.

Grundy's first marriage, to Patricia Powell, was dissolved. In 1971 he married, secondly, Joy Chambers, an actress who later appeared in several of her husband's shows, including Neighbours and The Young Doctors.

Stefan Dennis, who plays the shifty businessman Paul Robinson on Neighbours, described their marriage as "one of the true love stories in the entertainment industry".

Reg Grundy, who died on May 6, is survived by his wife and a daughter of his first marriage.

© Telegraph

Belfast Telegraph

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