Classic Ellis: Andrew Olle, December 1995

The astonishing news that the admired and famous broadcaster Andrew Olle was in a coma and, with two inoperable tumours of the brain, unlikely to live, affected Australia with a sense of loss which to a somewhat lesser degree resembled that of the first Kennedy murder: a young, handsome, urbane and highly intelligent man of boundless promise cut down in his prime with the best years of his life ahead of him unenjoyed. The switchboards rang all night and colleagues waited in vigil at Royal North Shore Hospital where Olle, forty-seven, lay sedated in, it was said, ‘a sweet sleep’. And the nation grieved.

Like Michael Charlton, his famed predecessor at Four Corners – the esteemed Panorama–style television programme now in its thirty-fifth year – Olle mixed in his personality an almost British dignity and a kind of telepathy with his audience. His lopsided, full-lipped smile of irregular teeth communicated volumes of ideological unease, and beneath his easy, light baritone voice lurked an always rational, humanist capacity for doubt that his audience came to share. No blustering politician ever got through his radar, or wholly survived his tactful tenacity (he was both impeccable and implacable) in seeking the truth. His own politics were a mystery to even his closest acquaintance and all sides felt the scorch of his probing gentleness. His off-screen personality, one of wary, smiling sadness, was such that he made few enemies, and politicians on all sides wept at the news of his collapse.

His own annus horribilis preceded his sudden passing. Removed from his beloved Four Corners to front the faltering 7.30 Report, he worked long nights and rose at 5 a.m. for his morning radio programme, whose climactic political dialogue with Canberra correspondent Paul Lyneham, famed for its rambunctiousness, became a national institution. Overworked and ragged of mind and irritable with technicians, he began suffering memory lapses on air whose cause no-one suspected. He was brutally removed from the still failing 7.30 Report only two weeks ago and his morning radio programme shifted to late afternoon and his friend Lyneham, also summarily sidelined, left the ABC in fury. Olle’s death, though medically unconnected with these events, was an awful climax to this period of organisational change.

His mannerly personality belied his turbulent origins. The child of a fractured marriage and a bitter custody dispute that was won, unusually, by his father, an army major, he spent miserable early years in primitive boarding schools, from several of which he was expelled, and appeared at age eleven before a Children’s Court on a charge of public vandalism. He left school in a scarred state at fifteen to work in a department store but was persuaded back to school by his probation officer, a man to whom, he later confessed, he owed a lot. His last expulsion occurred a month before his final exams, when he was found smoking tobacco at age eighteen by the nineteen-year-old housemaster of a school with high Christian standards. He joined the Australian Broadcasting Commission, the organisation that was to become his family substitute, as a news cadet in 1967, and briefly attempted Arts/Law part-time at the University of Queensland.

Provincial broadcast work followed in northern Queensland; a cadet stint on the trail-blazing nightly political programme This Day Tonight and the rural show Big Country, and three years on the commercial television programme Sunday, whose high quality he helped pioneer. Such was his polite devotion to truth that the dictatorial Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen refused to be interviewed by him. Returning to the ABC to front Four Corners, he clashed with the Prime Minister Bob Hawke and New South Wales Prisons Minister Michael Yabsley in incidents now legendary. Equally effective on both radio and television, he had a passionate devotion to factual accuracy that sometimes wearied his producers. The exhaustless professionalism of his chairmanship on long election nights was both admirable and disarming. ‘However it goes,’ he would say, ‘you can still rest assured that the sun will rise in the morning.’

He married young, raised three happy children, avidly followed football, gambled on horses, read many books, threw roisterous parties, kept early friends lifelong and somehow added his urbane personality to Australia’s tribal memory. Like many buffeted children he had low self-esteem, and would be of all people most astonished at the grief now engulfing his nation.

  1. Thank you Bob. The word tragedy is somewhat overworked, but it is entirely appropriate when applied to the loss of Andrew Olle.

    There are too few of his calibre.

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