Book corner: All This in 60 Minutes

The coverline quotes Liz Hayes who says: “Who knew the best storyteller was going to be the cameraman!” and she’s right. Nicholas Lee has perfectly captured an era. For decades 60 Minutes has been Channel 9’s high-rating Sunday night view of the world brought to you by presenters such as Ray Martin, George Negus, Ian Leslie, Richard Carleton, Mike Munro, Jennifer Byrne, Liz Hayes and Tara Brown.

On the other side of the camera for many of the best-remembered pieces was Nick Lee who was a 60 Minutes cameraman for 30 years until he retired in 2009. While his camera captured it all, first on film and then as pixels, Nick observed it all and stored it all to recount with considerable humour and insight. Over 390 pages he reveals a lot about people and events that were mere news headlines for the rest of us.

A disclaimer is required here. Nick was born in Wellington in the Central West of NSW and was sent to boarding school in Sydney for his six years of high school. I was one of his classmates and we even battled it out for the title of school billiards champion. There was a three-way play off and both of us lost. When he told me he was writing this book I hoped that his dry wit would make it stand out from the innumerable others of the genre. He has and it does.

While the opening description of the horrors of Idi Amin’s torture cells in Uganda is graphic in its brutality it is soon followed by a hilarious description the 60 Minutes’ crew’s taste for the best hotels of Paris. The Hotel de Crillon was their preference but they also sometimes settled for the George V, the Bristol, the Plaza Athenee and Le Meurice (my now-upmarket friend’s personal favourite). Somehow Gerald Stone and subsequent Executive Producers sheltered them from the network’s accountants.

Arriving everywhere with 24 bags of equipment ensures that Nick’s views are coloured by how establishments treat their over-packed guests.

His description of a Parisian hotel concierge reveals much of Lee’s writing style:

“Then there was Donald. A super-charming gay Irishman who was the favourite of lonely, frustrated, cashed-up wives of philandering millionaires. He had them wrapped around his little finger and inside those little fingers were placed wads of cash as Donald could and would procure anything they wanted. And, boy, did they want. From the Texan housewife who asked him to find two well-endowed black men, to the young couple who requested he rollerskate naked with them around their luxury suite (Donald politely declined), the ever-discreet concierge had heard and seen it all.”

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Nick's birthday cake cooking in an old ammo box by Masai warriors in Kenya

But for every trip to film the wilderbeest migration in the Masai Mara, to record a meal at Paris’ exclusive La Tour d’Argent, or to journey on the Orient Express there are many excursions to war zones – or being escorted off flights at gunpoint.

Overall, we get to know the people in front of the lens: how George and Ray never shut up, how Richard Carleton finally became less prickly and how the female presenters are constantly held to a higher level of appearance and presentation than the men. The description of Ray Martin yelling at Micky Breen, Nick’s long-term collaborative sound man, for stopping recording because the sound of bombing was too loud is both funny and revealing of the dangers they often faced.

The book is almost chronological and there was a time when reading it that I thought there were too many consecutive early tales of drugs and booze. But those are intermingled with accounts of wars, dictators and strange characters many of whom you’ll remember from your television screen. Towards the end of the book you realise Nick has put a whole lot of the events of our lives into a narrative – and that’s no mean feat. 

The 60 Minutes period covered is from its formation in 1979 to 2009. Anwar Sadat, Bobby Sands, Bob Hawke (as a 60 Minutes presenter), Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Richard Leakey, Ferdinand Marcos, the Little Pebble and David Copperfield are all revealed within the pages of the book. Some come out of it well, others not so much.

Finally we reach the chapter on celebrities. While several are revealed to be bizarrely strange others prove to be heart-warmingly nice, even normal. If you want to know what Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Clint Eastwood, Shirley Temple, Rod Stewart, Micky Rooney and Katherine Hepburn are like when the cameras stop rolling you'll have to buy the book. 

All This in 60 Minutes is a fun read. I picked it up hoping the events would be as entertaining on paper as some of them were when recited over lunch. In one way a strength of the book is that it’s told just as it would be at the pub, without obscuring the flaws, errors and emotions of life on the road and away from home. On the other hand, many of the scenes are harrowing and the author is open and honest in his views on religion, war, hunting, and hotel concierges. Overall, there’s a depth to the descriptions that truly does give you great insight into the chaos and creativity of news-making on the road. 

What are you favourite memories of 60 Minutes. Let us know in the comments section below.