Way back in 2014, I wrote a piece I’m still proud of for Gizmodo Australia, explaining why Canberra should be considered the Star Wars Holiday Special capital of Australia. The reason? The legendary bomb from 1978 – which featured all the key original Star Wars cast alongside 1970s variety TV stalwarts such as Bea Arthur and Diahnn Carroll – was broadcast in Canberra in 1984, years after it had “disappeared” from most official Star Wars history.
I have better access to archives these days, so we can document in much more detail how often this
legendary execrable TV moment was inflicted on Australian free-to-air audiences. Here’s a summary of what we know.
Australian broadcasts of the Star Wars Holiday Special
|Fri 16 Mar 1979 1930-2130||Sydney||TEN-10|
|Fri 16 Mar 1979 1930-2130||Melbourne||ATV-10|
|Fri 24 Aug 1979 1935-2135||Adelaide||TEN-10|
|Sat 29 Dec 1979 1830-2000||Canberra||CTC-7|
|Sat 5 Mar 1980 1930-2130||Sydney||TEN-10|
|Sat 12 July 1980 1600-1800||Adelaide||TEN-10|
|Sun 6 Mar 1983 1505-1600||Newcastle||NBN-3|
|Fri 10 Jun 1983 1930-2100||Wollongong||WIN-4|
|Sun 27 May 1984 1230-1435||Wagga Wagga||RVN-2|
It’s worth remembering that in the US – the market it was produced for – the Star Wars Holiday Special was shown just once, on 17 November 1978. Initially, no-one seemed to realise just how dodgy/weird it would be. Here’s how the Associated Press described it in coverage ahead of broadcast:
The show loosely centres on the family of Chewbacca, Han Solo’s 7-foot-2 Wookie co-pilot, on the planet of Kazzook. At home are his wife, Mall; his father, Itchy, and his son, Lumpy.
The Wookies are visited by many of the stars of the movie and are entertained by Beatrice Arthur, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, Diahnn Carroll and the Jefferson Starship.
Enthusiasm dropped quickly once it was actually shown. And with sequel The Empire Strikes Back already in the works, George Lucas ultimately didn’t want any more of that nonsense, and hence no further broadcasts happened Stateside.
Why did Australia repeat the Star Wars Holiday Special so many times?
By that time though the deals for overseas had been signed, and those clearly included the right to repeat transmission, in Australia at least. And that’s how we ended up with multiple broadcasts of the special over a 5-year period.
To be clear, I don’t think the table here lists absolutely every Australian transmission of the special, just the ones I can find documentation for. Australian TV broadcasts in this period were not nationally synchronised as they are now, so there are probably other dates to be unearthed, especially on regional TV.
I don’t have good access to newspaper archives for Brisbane or Perth, but I’d expect that there would have at least been a 1979 or 1980 showing in those cities. Conversely, while Sydney and Melbourne had parallel broadcasts in 1979, there’s no listing in The Age for any 1980 repeat.
Most regional areas had just one channel, and their content deals were negotiated separately to the capital city 10 deal, hence the later appearance in those markets. Regional stations also had a wider reach than their locations indicate: Wagga TV could be viewed in Canberra, Newcastle channels could be seen in some northerly parts of Sydney, and Adelaide broadcasts reached Victor Harbor. (For research purposes, that turned out to be handy.)
How was the Star Wars Holiday Special promoted in Australia?
The original broadcast did get some media coverage. The Age ran a brief photo piece talking up its debut.
Like the early US coverage, this paid as much attention to the Bea Arthurs as to the R2-D2s:
It’s a monster week. Not only are the Muppets returning (see Kathy Kazilos report on page 3), but we have Wookiee Chewbacca and his family, pictured above, celebrating Life Day on their planet in The Star Wars Holiday Special, a variety programme with a difference from ATV-0. at 7.30 pm Friday, March 16. Tapping the rich vein of continuing public fascination with science-fiction, 20th Century-Fox here have put together a special that incorporates some new, interstellar sequences with entertainment from earthlings Beatrice Arthur. Art Carney. The Jefferson Starship and Harvey Korman.
On the day of broadcast, TV critic Brian Courtis also talked about the special, highlighting a familiar refrain: in an era when you watched it live or missed out altogether, how were you meant to choose?
The Canberra broadcast in 1979 is the only one in Australia that actually aligned with the holiday season, but no-one seems to have bothered promoting that fact.
How well did the Star Wars Holiday Special do in Australia?
It’s tough to give a full answer here. Daily TV ratings reports were not a feature of the media landscape at the time.
We do know Star Wars did well on TV. 10’s 1982 broadcast of the original film was the fifth-highest rating Australian TV broadcast of the entire 1980s.
Getting a sense of what the special competed with does give us some clues though (and a better sense of what TV was like at the time). Here’s what it was up against for its original Sydney and Melbourne broadcasts:
- On Channel 7 in Sydney, we had The Muppet Show, featuring Liberace, followed by a movie. In Victoria, The Muppet Show also appeared, but with two episodes, Loretta Lynn and Kris Kristofferson/Rita Coolidge, followed by an AFL match. All the Muppet episodes were from Season 3, which had debuted in the US late in 1978.
- On the ABC in both cities, there was a new series of The Two Ronnies. This would have been Series 7, which had just wrapped in the UK.
- On Channel 9 in Sydney, there was Donnie & Marie, with special guest Andy Gibb. Victorian 9 viewers scored an episode of Fantasy Island, underlining again that even the same station wasn’t always showing the same thing in every city.
So no matter which channel you went to, you were getting an imported show, not brand new, but relatively recent.
However, this was undoubtedy a night Channel 9 always expected to win. The reason? At 2030, when the Star Wars Holiday Special was only half-done, it had a live broadcast of the Logies, Australia’s annual TV awards. That would have been the big TV event of the night.
Was the Star Wars Holiday Special edited for some of its later repeats?
It certainly looks that way. The original special ran for 2 hours, with ads. But the March 1983 repeat on NBN-3 was scheduled for just 60 minutes, and the WIN-4 repeat in August that year only ran for 90 minutes.
It’s tempting to assume that some of the weirder cabaret content was sliced. But we shouldn’t assume that became the “default” version, because the full-length special aired on RVN-2 in 1984.
Have additional info on this special’s history in Australia? Let me know in the comments.
- Sydney Morning Herald Sun 11 Mar 1979, page 75
- The Age Thu 15 Mar 1979, page 34, page 48
- The Age Fri 16 Mar 1979, page 2
- Victor Harbor Times Wed 15 Aug 1979, page 15
- Canberra Times Fri 28 Dec 1979, page 16
- Sydney Morning Herald Sun Mar 30 1980, page 84
- Victor Harbor Times Wed 9 Jul 1980, page 19
- Sydney Morning Herald Sat 5 Mar 1983, page 284
- Sydney Morning Herald Fri 10 Jun 1983, page 11
- Canberra Times Sun 27 May 1984, page 14