Brian Henderson will be remembered for the velvet voice and easy charm with which he delivered Channel Nine’s nightly news and hosted the music show Bandstand – a charm that defined him equally off screen as on. But there was also a quiet determination in his make-up. When Bandstand’s ratings halved from the 1960s into the ’70s, Henderson went to the network’s joint managing director, Clyde Packer, whom he said he “truly disliked” and who “returned the dislike”, and asked for a budget increase to help restore the show’s popularity. Questioned as to what he would know about such matters, Henderson gently reminded his boss that he had been involved since Bandstand’s inception. Packer told him to send someone more conversant with the show, and Henderson walked out thinking, “Go to hell.” With no further investment, the show folded in 1972.
No Australian anchored a TV news bulletin longer than Henderson, who clocked up over 40 years before retiring in November 2002. Famously ending each bulletin with a winning smile and, “That’s the way it is”, he brought an authority to the news that engendered trust and something close to reverence among viewers.
Before becoming Nine’s Sydney nightly newsreader, he was already the clean-cut host of Brian Henderson’s Bandstand. Indeed he once wondered if his boy-next-door persona may have contributed to his viewer appeal. He became famous without seeking celebrity, if anything shunning it – although he briefly lived a wild life on its proceeds. “My childhood left me completely ill-equipped to handle what I was to head into,” he recalled in 1975. “I emerged from New Zealand almost in a virginal state.”
Brian Weir Henderson was born in Dunedin on September 15, 1931, the son of a bus driver and a pastry cook. When his father left to serve in World War II, he was sent to board at Waitaki Boys’ High School, which he hated, despite excelling athletically. He was actually relieved to contract tuberculosis and be sent to a sanatorium, where he became resident announcer of the institution’s radio station.
At 16, he was hired by 4ZB Dunedin, first as a copywriter, then as New Zealand’s youngest DJ. Following promotion to the dizzy heights of Wellington’s 2ZB, he arrived in Sydney in 1953 with 18 months’ radio experience. He booked into the YMCA with £125 in his pocket, and was promptly hired by 2CH.
But that was small beer compared with what was to come: television.
Henderson was in the right place at the right time. Joining Nine four months after it began broadcasting in 1957, he was soon reading the weekend news, which Nine’s owner, Frank Packer, liked done in a dinner suit. Unable to afford one, Henderson donned a bowtie and let the monochrome cameras make his dark suit look black.
At 26 he fronted the youth-oriented Bandstand in 1958. With his double-breasted jacket, neat hair and trademark black-rimmed spectacles, Henderson looked decidedly square for the role. Indeed eight years later he released What Is a Square, a heavily orchestrated, spoken-word single about how these much-disparaged souls were really the salt of the earth. Unremarkably, it died without a trace, the charts then dominated by the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood and Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made for Walking.
Henderson’s own musical preferences ran more towards Vivaldi, Glenn Miller and Al Jolson than the pop he presented. Yet he helped to make rock’n’roll a little more respectable in the eyes of Australia’s parents, and massively boosted the careers of Col Joye, Little Patti, Johnny Farnham and the Bee Gees among many other local artists, as well as presenting countless major internationals. According to producer Ray Newell, no artist appeared on Bandstand without Henderson’s approval.
Meanwhile his after-hours lifestyle seemed more in keeping with the host of Bandstand’s chief competitor, Six O’Clock Rock: the Wild One, himself, Johnny O’Keefe. Henderson partied, gambled and tore through town in a Thunderbird in company of the likes of John Laws. This world of women, alcohol and gambling took its toll, however, leading to the collapse of his first marriage, gambling debts, and in 1964, a nervous breakdown. He set about reclaiming his life, and fully succeeded. “I guess I did it by not lusting so much and by appreciating more,” he said. In 1966 he married Marie-Louise (Mardi) Ozoux – which raised a few eyebrows due to their 15-year age difference, but resulted in a long, happy marriage.
Henderson’s success as Nine’s head newsreader was such that “Brian told me” became the station’s promotional tagline. Handily, Melbourne’s main newsreader was Brian Naylor, and the jingle covered both cities. Both men were old-school types: steeped in TV newsrooms, without having trained as journalists.
Henderson’s key competitor for many years was Channel 7’s Roger Climpson, whom he adjudged to show more emotion, “while I have a flatter style”. Over time he began to “wonder if Climpson was right and I was wrong. Thank God I didn’t change,” he said, “because there is room for two styles.”
When his producers chose not to run footage of IRA detainees smearing their cells with excrement in 1979, he argued against the decision. “I don’t think we’ve got the right to say what might put people off their dinner,” he said. “These people in Ireland felt bad enough to shit on the floor and wipe it on the walls.” Losing the fight, he read the safer bulletin with typical professionalism. He also resisted the fashion for news-anchors to throw to live journalists, saying in 1981: “I see no reason why we can’t bring reporters on from time to time, but I like to be in charge of my desk. Also, I’m not terribly keen on all that ‘back to you, so-and-so,’ and ‘thank you, so-and-so.’ I like to give the news straight to the people and cut out all the kafuffle.”
In October 2002, at 71, he announced his forthcoming retirement. “I have been reading the main bulletin for 40 years,” he said. “It seems like a long time when you say it like that, but being fortunate enough to work at something you love does make the years fly by.” His final bulletin was delivered a month later, on November 29: “This is Brian Henderson, a sad Brian Henderson, saying, not goodnight this time, but goodbye.”
Nine’s then owner, Kerry Packer, was sorry to see him go, saying, “He’s been there, night after night, a constant presence in a changing world. I know we all hoped that Hendo would go on forever. After all, he’s been with us for 46 years, so why couldn’t he score his half-century?”
In 1968 Henderson won the Gold Logie Award (most popular personality on Australian television), in 2009 he was named a Member of the Order Of Australia, in 2013 he was inducted into the Logies Hall of Fame, and in 2019 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Kennedy Awards. Nine news executive Darren Wick described Henderson at that time as “a perfectionist who values accuracy above all else and always put the needs of our viewers first. His warmth and honesty guided us during some of the most testing times.”
Henderson’s only media work since retiring came in 2012 when he narrated a documentary, The Train: The Granville Rail Disaster, for Foxtel. Having survived four different cancers previously, when he was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2020 that old quiet determination allowed him to opt to let nature take its course. He Died on August 5, and is survived by Mardi, a son and a daughter from his first marriage, and two daughters, Jodie and Nicole, from his second.
The way it is.