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Once an argonaut, always an argonaut

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Between 1941 and 1972 The Argonauts Club was one of ABC Radio’s most successful children’s programs. In 1956 it was attracting 10,000 new members a year. Many went on to have illustrious careers, like broadcaster Margaret Throsby, satirist Barry Humphries, broadcaster and writer Robert Dessaix, journalist and writer Anne Summers and composer Peter Sculthorpe, to name just a few. Open to any child between the ages of 7 and 17 years, The Argonauts Club inspired creativity and inquiry for a generation of young listeners. Wendy Borchers was one of them.

Once an Argonaut, Always an Argonaut

By Wendy Borchers/ 22 February 2022

In 1949, when we moved from Harbord in Sydney to Warkworth, outside Singleton in the NSW Hunter Valley, our village boasted a one-teacher school, first opened in 1859. There was the Temperance Society Hall, circa 1889, and St Philip’s Anglican Church, a beautifully-crafted stone structure built in 1856. And then there was a butcher shop, owned by Jack Smith. Sadly, the butcher shop did not survive after the big flood of 1949, which coincided with the year we arrived. About half a dozen houses were dotted around the tiny town, and Jack Smith and his family also ran the post office. 

No one had ever heard of Warkworth, maybe Warkworth in England, or Warkworth in New Zealand, but certainly not Warkworth in the heart of the Hunter Valley, 20 kilometres from Singleton.

When I was five years old, I enrolled in the white-washed one-teacher school. I’d get there by climbing under the fence from home and walking through a pine grove. There were 29 of us in one big room, and most of my companions were children of orchardists and dairy farmers, many of whom were descendants of pioneers who’d come to the region a century earlier.

I loved school. I loved my friends and the games we used to play, like Marbles, Ring-a-Ring-a-Rosie, Hopscotch and Rounders.

Somewhere along the line I discovered the ABC Children’s Hour1, of which The Argonauts Club was a part, and I instantly became an ardent fan: 

And it’s hello from Mac (Atholl Fleming) and Gina (Gina Curtis) and Jimmy (John Ewart) and John (John Appleton) and Barbara (Barbara Frawley) and Sue (Sue Newton).

This theme song was the signal every afternoon at five o’clock for me to run to the Bakelite wireless in our lounge-room and fling myself on the floor to listen intently to the Children’s Hour, which was broadcast for nearly an hour until five minutes to six.

Listen here to Children’s Session/Children’s Hour theme music

It seemed magical to me that those voices emanating in far-away Sydney could actually find their way into our lounge-room at Warkworth, which was, let’s face it, no more than a miniscule dot on the map.

The program featured singalongs, serials like Ruth Park’s The Muddle-headed Wombat and fabulous science fiction stories written by G.K. Saunders. There were serious discussions on a variety of subjects every day, but the great attraction for me was the stimulating world of The Argonauts Club2, introduced by a song which began:

ARGONAUT ‘LYNCEUS 50’

It’s hard to describe The Argonauts Club for the uninitiated, but its name emanated from the ancient Greek myth of ‘Jason and the Golden Fleece’. Jason, the son of the deposed king of Iolcus, wanted to reclaim his rightful throne which had been usurped by his half-uncle Pelias. The only way to do this was to recover the legendary Golden Fleece, so he assembled a crew of hero sailor-warriors called the Argonauts, after their ship the Argo, and embarked on a series of adventures to achieve his mission.

On joining The Argonauts Club, each new member received a ‘Ship name and number’. 

I was ‘Lynceus 50’. Thanks to my mother’s leather-bound book The Myths of Greece and Rome, which once belonged to my grandfather, I knew that Lynceus was a prince as well as one of Jason’s Argonauts. His name meant ‘lynx-eyed’ and, with his keen sight, he was a lookout on the Argo

We also received a metal membership badge with the Argo set in green enamel, and a certificate with a pledge of allegiance that you had to sign: 

As members of the club, we were encouraged to submit stories, poems, music and art which, if they were good enough, would be read out or featured on air. 

I was constantly contributing articles under my pseudonym, Lynceus 50, hoping this would happen. The day it actually did, I was beside myself with excitement. I am still the proud owner of a moth-eaten Blue Certificate ‘for special mention’, worth one point. Some super industrious Argonauts strived for The Order of the Dragon’s Tooth, which earned 150 points, or The Order of the Golden Fleece, worth 400 points!

Experts in various fields offered us the benefits of their wisdom, a different expert for each day of the week3. On Mondays it was nature and wildlife with ‘Tom the Naturalist’, Tuesdays art and painting with ‘Phidias’, Wednesdays writing and literature with ‘Argus’, Thursdays were devoted to music performance and composition led by ‘Mr Melody Man’, and Fridays featured ‘The Argosy’ where Argonauts’ contributions were selected according to a particular theme. Saturdays were ‘Argonaut Charades’.

I sent short stories to ‘Argus’ (Leslie Luscombe), paintings to ‘Phidias’ (Jeffrey Smart) and stories of my natural history observations around our little farm to ‘Tom the Naturalist’ (played by Sydney University lecturer Alan Colefax).

My favourite personality on the show was Jimmy, played by John Ewart, the youngest member of the team, who became an acclaimed film and television actor later in his career. 

Their influence was enduring.

Standing in front of the Parthenon on the Acropolis one windy morning in Athens a lifetime later, I learned that this magic, ancient building was designed by none other than Phidias, Greek sculptor, painter and architect. His statue of the god Zeus at Olympia is considered to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. I felt I knew him. I also felt I knew why Jeffrey Smart, by this time an internationally famous painter, had chosen the name Phidias all those years ago. Actually, as I found out later, Jeffrey admired another sculptor Praxiteles more, but Phidias was easier to pronounce!

JIMMY WAS MY FAVOURITE

One night, having strayed from 2NC – the ABC’s Newcastle station, which serviced Warkworth – I listened to an episode of Police Files on a commercial radio station and encountered the unmistakable voice of John Ewart in the cast. I must have been about 10. At the end of the episode he was pronounced to be ‘a habitual criminal’ and was sentenced to life in prison. Oh no, what a terrible state of affairs. I wrote to ‘Jimmy’ to commiserate and was thrilled to receive a hand-written letter in reply, assuring me that it was alright, he was only acting in a play.

In 1956, while visiting my brother in Adelaide, I was in seventh heaven to come face-to-face with my heroes at the Royal Agricultural Show. There they were, all assembled – Gina, Jimmy, John, Mac, Barbara and Sue – and I joined a milling throng to stare at them through the goldfish bowl of the glass studio, created especially for them at the showground. 

What a shame I was far too overwhelmed to ask for autographs.

SLIP SLIDING AWAY ...

It was not the arrival of television that killed The Argonauts Club for me, as it did for others, but instead I was seduced away by the music of rock and roll kings Bill Haley and Elvis Presley. After 1957 the ABC no longer dominated the air waves in our house, much to the chagrin of my Mum and Dad. I had switched allegiance to 2KO, a commercial radio station in Newcastle, where I could listen to John Laws playing ‘Top 40’ hits to my heart’s content.

How callously I had abandoned my first great love. The rocking-horse days of my childhood were obviously slipping and sliding away, a new era in my life was beginning – for 1957 was also the year I started high school in Singleton. I was almost a teenager, but I don’t think the word had been invented then.

Of course, those heady teenage years would not last forever ...

Exactly one decade later, when I landed a job at the ABC in Radio Talks at 171 William Street, Kings Cross in Sydney, I found that if I scratched the surface of many of my colleagues I’d find an ex-Argonaut. The ABC held a magnetic attraction for all of us, thanks to our individual and collective childhood membership of the brilliant Argonauts Club.

In fact, for many of us, it’s true that ‘once an Argonaut, always an Argonaut’. And even now, so many decades later, I still have my treasured metal badge of the good ship Argo. ‘Lynceus 50’ lives on!

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Footnotes:

1The ABC Children’s Hour was broadcast nationally through ABC’s network of stations. It reached Warkworth via Radio 2NC, Newcastle.

2The Argonauts Club was devised in the early 1930s by writer and journalist Nina Murdoch, a former teacher who ran ABC’s Children’s Corner, broadcast by Radio 3LO in Melbourne. It initially ran from 1933-1934, but was revived in 1941 as part of the ABC Radio’s national Children’s Session, later called the Children’s Hour. During this period, it became one of the ABC’s most popular and influential programs, running until 1972.

3The Argonauts Club featured many presenters who went on to have illustrious careers. Regulars included Atholl Fleming (‘Jason’, and also ‘Mac’ was the central figure of the Children’s Session/Children’s Hour), actors John Ewart (‘Jimmy’) and Leonard Teale (‘Chris’), Sydney University lecturer Alan Colefax (‘Tom the Naturalist’), artist Jeffrey Smart (‘Phidias’), writer Leslie Luscombe (‘Argus’), composer/pianist/teacher Lindley Evans (‘Mr Melody Man’). Prominent guest presenters over the years included actress and later film producer Patricia Lovell (who went on to host Mr Squiggle), poets Dame Mary Gilmore and A.D. Hope, photographer and adventurer Frank Hurley, actor Peter Finch, singer Joan Hammond, pianist Geoffrey Parsons, French horn virtuoso Barry Tuckwell, actress Barbara Frawley, and many more.


Wendy Borchers joined the ABC in 1967, working in Radio Talks. She went on to work in several roles in TV, and from 1972 to 2010 was a renowned current affairs and documentary archives producer. In 2015 Wendy was awarded an AM for ‘significant service to the film and television industry as a researcher, producer and archivist and to the preservation of Indigenous heritage’.


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