Deadly Earnest

ADELAIDE - Hedley Cullen

Last revised: October 13, 2012.

Deadly Hedley & Yorick - sent in by Chris Keating


Thanks to Baden Smith for sending in this rare interview !

This interview with Hedley Cullen was recorded for an edition of `Stuff', a pop culture radio show broadcast on Adelaide public station 3D FM in 1990. Interviewers are Ian Bell and Baden Smith...


How many kids could forget tuning into Channel 10 on those Friday nights purely to tune in to good olí Deadly Ernest? We're speaking with him today, and combing the graveyard of his mind to reminisce about the good old days on Channel 10.

How did it all start?

First, you've made a mistake there about children tuning in because it was never designed for children. Never at any time did I mention children on the programme, just that children took it up - fortunately for me it followed `Number 96' which the parents watched and the children weren't allowed to watch, and then the children wanted to watch something, so they were allowed to watch Deadly Ernest. But a lot of the kids never even watched the films - they just saw me and then disappeared..

It started in July 1967 - an actor friend Barbara West was talking to (Programme Manager) John Trost, and they suggested that I should do it. They called me in, I said yes - I gave it about six weeks when it started.

All of a sudden, fan mail started coming in. I had no experience of this before, so I asked the station `What should I do with these letters?' They said `Tear them up and throw them away'. I said `Come off it, these people have gone to a lot of trouble to actually write in, you can't do that to people...I'll reply to them'.

Anyway, I finally got the idea of getting some fan cards printed. `Oh no' said the station, `We couldn't afford that.' They were paying me a magnificent $20 for the show, so I asked if they minded me printing them at my own expense, provided they paid the postage.

That put them in a bit of a bind, so they agreed to pay for the fan cards. As soon as they had the fan cards, every personality at the station wanted their own fan cards printed!

Unlike their's that had preprinted signatures, I'd always write some little thing on the back to show that I'd read the letter - something I learned from Gordon Chater...of course, thatís where it built up, it just went on and on. One time I remember the man and an old movie got a 23 rating, which isn't bad, you know.

Channel 10 management of today, take note!

When you were approached by Channel 10,
was it a case of them having the character already worked out...
or were you allowed leeway in developing?

Not at the start...their idea was that I should sit at a table with a dressing gown and a long cigarette holder - very sophisticated - but the voice was mine, and as it built up it just went from there.

Then they decided on the coffin which was a good idea,
but the eyes I thought up myself.

It was only after about the third show I asked a mate of mine who worked for Laubman and Pank `Have you got any old glass eyes?' . I put some in my hand and had a close-up of them at the end of the show. He said `Why don't you stick them on your eyes with some double-sided tape?'

All the effects that were designed in the show, like people disappearing, that was all my idea. Every time we used to go in and tape it (on Tuesdays) the technicians looked forward to it.

Back then, in 1967, Channel 10 had only been on for a couple of years...

They were independent then, had nowhere to go but up.

It was a marvellous feeling working at Channel 10 then, but once TVW 7 Perth took it over, was when it went into decline. They had no clue what was going on here.

I used to send the movies up silly - that was part of the show, that was what they (the audience) liked. Perth said I wasn't to do it, I was to promote the movies as though they were the best movies ever, like Bill Collins - I had to soft pedal on the movies a bit after that.

It came the time that they'd run out of movies, they told me it was going to be my last show. I said alright....six months later, when they wanted to go to colour, they called me up and wanted a live introduction to colour, as well as a cassette for (broadcast in) Perth, to open their station. That went for another six months, in colour.

When the Royal Adelaide Show was on, Channel 10 had a big thing with 20 TV sets, and I went down to make a personal appearance and show drawings that the kids had sent in.

The manager of the station, who'd come over from Perth, thought it was a good idea, because colour would be admirable for these drawings.

By then I'd gone up to $40, doing all the work, going through all the fan mail, reading them all, sending off the cards... I complained a bit about the money and the manager at the time said `Well if you don't want to do it, forget it.'

Doesn't sound like you had a high-powered business manager at the time...

We used to give away things, run competitions, and I was always told, `go and see somebody else'.

The last time when we came back, I was running three shows - there was `Deadly's Delirious Delights' which was aimed at the 5:00-6:00pm timeslot; this appealed to school children - by this time we'd gone to chromakey, so we could have tombstones in the background.

That took off, but they gave it no cross-promotion. Perth asked me to do a weekly show, by cassette. Most of those were old black and white movies...that went for six months. But they were so tight it was incredible. Any ideas for promotion just went down the drain.

When it came to the movies you showed,
did you watch them at all beforehand,
or had any idea what they were about?

I knew what they were about - I used to get the storyline a week ahead.

Incidentally, Yorick [a skull that DE used to flourish with great abandon] came from Miss Patricia Hackett, and was part of the props of an old theatre.


So Yorick had a long career in theatre before he appeared on television?

I don't ever remember Pat using it in a play, but the Young Elizabethans toured here about 12 months after the show started, and they were touring Hamlet. They couldn't work out when they got to the schools, when it came to the gravediggers scene `Alas poor Yorick...' the kids all burst out laughing.

Did you have any trouble getting any other [acting] parts,
knowing that you were recognisable as Deadly Ernest?

Maybe not so much in theatre, but in films, yes. My voice is fairly recognisable - once I laugh Iím gone. I was only working last week on `The River Kings' and the work got around - all the extras knew I was Deadly Ernest. I try to dodge it because I don't make any money out of it now, and I couldn't care less about it.

Is it the part you're best known for?

Yes, unfortunately. Stuff that Iíve done in theatre which I think was magnificent from an actor's point of view - they don't know about it. Someone asked me what thing did I enjoy most; it was `Servant Of Two Masters.'

You were using snakes at one stage.
Was that your own idea?
How did you get along with them?

Channel 10 used to have a Saturday morning programme - personalities came on, and would all sit around a table and talk. I'd seen this girl on the ABC...she had a case full of snakes. She happened to be on this show, and I was sitting right alongside her.

All of a sudden she opened up this case, and snakes came out. They were tree snakes, pythons. This tree snake curled around my neck, and I thought `This is a great idea'.

I borrowed one from a local pet shop for the weekend, and would return it after I'd recorded. I eventually got one for my own, a Francis Island python. It was so docile that, if I went on a personal appearance, I could put it in the pocket of my dressing gown and he'd sit with his head out. On camera they used to crawl all over my glasses and around my neck.

You didn't have any emergencies while taping,
with snakes getting away in the studio?

No, but what used to amuse me was the personal appearances, because it was a cult thing in those days, right throughout Australia.

Personal appearances were better paid than actually recording at the station because the person I was doing the plugging for paid, so the station didn't worry about their tight little pennies I used to get $50 every time I went out, which was peanuts these days.

But you'd go to a drive-in, and they'd announce `Deadly Ernest will be signing autographs (I'd bring my cards) in the interval' and people would miss the main feature, or a good twenty minutes of it, because they were all queued...a queue as long as you could see.

They'd sometimes bring a coffin, and I signed that....crazy stuff!

We went down to West Lakes once, on the back of a trailer with a rock band, and as soon as I came on everybody surged forward - the people at the front got really mangled up.

I went up to Elizabeth once, a station thing, I said `If anybody would like a signed card, come up after the show'...well, all the kids surged forward, must have been about five hundred of them, and a woman came up and abused me! `You stupid bugger, don't you realise what youíve done, youíve created a panic and the kids could get killed'.

What was the biggest crowd you got at a personal appearance?

Never counted 'em...probably the biggest was when I was on television *chuckles*

Were you popular enough to warrant getting offers from other stations trying to lure you away, or did the management at every station look at you in the same light as the Channel 10 management?

I don't think they could've done it anyway, probably Ten owned the character...then again, I protected it for myself, I asked the station if they minded me promoting other products on my own. I actually registered 'Deadly Ernest And Yorick Enterprises'.

So there was no actual paraphernalia Deadly Ernest-wise,
except for the cards?

No, the cards were the only thing that I had.

Has there ever been a Deadly Ernest revival mooted?

I've met plenty of people in the street who ask me why they don't do it again, I said they were a different generation...the generation now aren't very interested.

Did you actually enjoy the movies that you were showing,
or was it more just a job?

I used to watch them on the night,
just to see it.

In those days, I can recall on Friday nights being terrified by the Mummy or whatever, and having it not being graphic seems to be full of clinical fine you think that's a bit of a sad turn of events?

I think so, because the imagination is far better than seeing the actual thing.

People's horror threshold has gone up a few notches too.

We see so much on television these days, we get blase about it.

People wouldn't even stop if they saw someone knocked to pieces in a road accident - we get hardened to all this stuff because everything that's happening in the world today almost happens instantly...when something's happened, you can bet there'll be a camera man there in two seconds flat. So you see it, and it's part of the program.

When the end came for Deadly Ernest, were you given much warning?

I got one week's warning, and three week's pay.

Did you give any kind of build-up, or any hint...?

Well, I had to do it twice, because we went off for six months and there wasn't anything in the offering, but each time they came back to me and said `We're going to start it up again,' and then Perth decided to drop it as well.

So the programming was pretty much at the whim of the management?

Yes, of course, then again the funny part of it was that we only got the storyline a week ahead; half the time I used to get it out of TV Times, because they'd give the storyline more in full than what I'd get. Sometimes the wrong film arrived - they'd play the same promotion complained.

I'm sure your youthful audience would have forgiven you
- they would have all stayed up
so they could see their drawings on the television.

Was there much response in that?
You said you got a fair bit of fan mail
- was it a case of having to select the best?

They came in droves. I'd pick the most suitable ones.

Some of those weren't over the top excessive gore, were they?

Some of the things the kids sent me were absolutely ghoulish, you know. A box came along one time that was full of little bones...the kid wrote :-

`this used to be my little dog, I dug it up and cleaned all the bones'.

Another one sent me a lot of peelings of sunburnt skin, so I wrote back saying

`Thank you for the sample of your skin, the product seems to be suitable is there any chance of viewing the factory?'

I used to spend a whole evening sorting the stuff out and doing all the letters...

Did you get many complaining letters from parents telling you not to be so scary?

Only two or three. But I had a couple, I used to get stuck into the occult, and they'd tell me I was playing in dangerous ground and that it could come back and fly in your face...

You weren't advocating using ouija boards, were you?

Oh, I used to send them up silly!

Thanks to Chris Keating for the vidcap !


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