GOING VIRAL – Been There, Done That! Feb ’10

Stefan’s documentary is run three times in a week in 1965. Fourty-four years later, “Numa Numa” on YouTube: 33,681,426 hits and counting.


Kevin, our electrician, is here.

“Hey, Stefan, what are you working on?”
“Nothing. It’s dead quiet.”
“Go and see Rolf. I share an office with him. He wants a video.”

Great. I’m there the next day. Rolf has invented a medical device — looks like a coffee mug. Sells them to laboratories. He does a demo.

“Rolf, it’s terrific. Here’s what I suggest: I film a demo, say, in a proper lab environment. Then we have some user testimonials. One from Genentech would be good.”

“No, no, too boring. I want to go viral on YouTube. Here’s some ideas: I’m a drunk, very drunk. I get out the product and drop it on the floor. Then I fall over. Here’s another: we get a contortionist. We make her small and she’s inside the canister.”

“Rolf, I’d love to make a viral video, but 30 million hits — it’s like winning the lottery.”

“Thirty million is super-viral like ‘Numa Numa’ or Susan Boyle. I’d be happy with plain old viral. You know, just a million or two.”

“Oh, plain old viral. No problem, been there, done that!”

LONDON, U.K. 1965
I finish my time at the BBC in London. Write to Bruce Gyngell in Sydney, Australia. He’s station manager of TCN Channel 9 and a good friend. A real letter with an airmail stamp.

“How would you like a one-hour documentary about famous Aussies in London? The ones who don’t want to come home?”

He writes back: “Go for it — the budget is £1,000.” (About $2,000, but, remember, this was 45 years ago.)

My first full-length doc. I’m excited and a tad scared. I shoot it using two Bolex H16 cameras (£74 & £110), a Uher tape recorder (£25), two photoflood lights (£12) and short-end 16mm film stock (£84).

I arrive back in Australia. Ooops, the film can’t enter the country until it has been censored! The guy at the immigration gate confiscates my exposed but, as of yet, unprocessed film. Not to worry, TCN9 knows the routine. They get it developed “in bond” and find a corner in their bonded warehouse for me to edit. Completed, the censors screen it and only then it’s let into the country. My unused off-cuts remain trapped in the custom’s bond. Unbelievable but true. I couldn’t make this stuff up.

The next hurdle is to get it passed and broadcast by TCN9. I’m called into the conference room. Bruce has asked the station owner’s son, Clyde Packer and comedian/housewife superstar Barry Humphries to view it with him. Barry and Clyde fall about laughing. Ouch — it wasn’t mean to be funny. Bruce is happy, as the boss’s son loves it.

Sunday, November 28, 1965, 10.00 p.m. — My doc, The Australian Londoners, is broadcast. At 11:00 the phone goes crazy with friends saying, “Congrats!”

Monday November 29 — Bruce Gyngell gets a call from the station owner, Sir Frank Packer:
“Bruce, Frank here. I came into to the office and everyone is talking about that program. You know, the one with Aussies in London slagging off their home country. Clyde told me it was a laugh. Put it on again. I’m home Wednesday night, say 9 o’clock. I want to see it.”

“I’ll have to bump Patty Duke.”

“Who gives a toss? Bump her. Wednesday at 9, right!”

Tuesday, November 30 — Sir Frank’s newspaper, The Telegraph, has a page three lead story: REPEATED BY POPULAR DEMAND Stefan Sargent’s controversial documentary…

Wednesday, November 31 — Wow! On again at 9. Sorry Patty.

Thursday, December 1 — “Damn it, Bruce. Some friends dropped in last night. I missed it. That bloody documentary. Run it again. 8 o’clock Friday night.”

“That’s the Bobby Limb Show. I can’t bump Bobby. It’s a live show.”

“Yeah, yeah. It’s my TV station and I want to see it. Friday at 8, right!”

Friday, December 2, 8:00 p.m.
— The primetime, live, Bobby Limb Show is off the air and my little documentary is run a third time! Bobby and the show’s production team freak out and blame me. They are coming to get me. I’ve gone viral but I’m in hiding.

No one knows whether Sir Frank ever saw the program. Rumor has it that he missed it again.

You can see a clip from The Australian Londoners right here.

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