Film and television editors are a rare breed.
I got to know them well when I first went into television as the foreign editor of the Seven Network in Sydney in the early 1980s. I had been a journalist for The Australian newspaper for nearly ten years, and I didn’t know a grab from an outcue or a live voiceover from a news package.
I was thrown into the deep end in a little office in the Epping newsroom in northwest Sydney. How did I survive? The editors, of course. Every week I had a different editor, from Paul Steindl to Ken Moore to Richard Frecker to Ian Becker to Peta Dann to Merryn Cooper to Sonia Hillenberg to Sonia Lenarcic et al. They taught me everything I needed to know about what works on television, including natural sound and pieces to camera and how to cut a 2 minute story down to 49 seconds and still make sense out of it.
Thirty plus years later, I still love editors, including all those I worked with on Seven, the Nine Sunday Program, Sky News Australia, Ten’s Meet the Press, Shine Australia, and SBS’s The Observer Effect – too many to mention them all here. But they were the best, and without them, many television shows would have never made it to air.
Last weekend we farewelled one of the most colourful editors in the business: Stephen (Slam) McQueen, who died way too early at the age of 58. We had a memorial service in Hendo’s Lounge, that’s the room just next to the Bistro at Channel Nine in Sydney. And yes, the man whose name and photo adorn that lounge, Brian “Hendo” Henderson, was there to pay tribute to the bloke he worked with and who showed him the stories he was going to present on Nine News. He wasn’t the only one. There was Slam’s beloved Uncle Des McQueen, a former Victorian Policeman and head of the Vice Squad; Paul Fenn, former Nine News Director; Mike Fleming, former senior editor at Nine and Damian Ryan, veteran Nine News reporter. (The photo at the top shows l to r.: Jack Davidson, Geoff Maurice, Graham Thurston, Mary Davison O’Keefe, Damian Ryan, Paul Fenn, Brian Henderson, Ken Sutcliffe, Tony Ritchie at Hendo’s Lounge last week. The photo below shows l to r.: Slam with Brian Henderson, Ken Sutcliffe and Ray Martin.)
Packed into the smallish lounge and overflowing into the Bistro were about 100 people, family, friends and colleagues. As Damian Ryan put it, there were three families there: those family members who had come from Victoria, Queensland, Canberra and the Northern Territory, the Channel Nine contingent he worked with, and the Bridgeview mob who he drank with at the Nine pub a few blocks away. Hardly anybody from Nine drinks there now – there isn’t time, it seems. Looking around the room as I introduced each guest speaker and film clips cut by a great Nine editor, Paul Luxford, I could see Slam’s mates and colleagues: Hugh Riminton, now a Ten news presenter, Ken Sutcliffe, sports presenter; Simon Bouda, Nine News reporter; Megan Purcell, former Nine editor; Paul Steindl, former Executive Producer, Sunday Program and The Observer Effect; Mary Davison, Executive Producer, Nine News; and Sean Costello, Director, Big Day Media, to name just a few.
Sean used Slam as a freelance editor after he left Channel Nine in 2008. Slam was made redundant, which devastated him, but given a chance to come back by David Gyngell. Steve was too proud to accept, but he did get himself a good computer to edit on. Sean posted this on Facebook: “The planet lost another human yesterday. Australia lost a citizen. NSW lost a staunch Labor supporter. They don’t have many to lose. Willoughby lost a caring neighbor. A family lost a loving uncle, nephew, cousin and brother … People who knew him lost a complicated, loyal, gregarious friend. Me … I lost a great mate.”
Complicated, loyal, gregarious – Slam was all of that and he believed in friendship. All of the guest speakers mentioned this. In my introduction, I said this: “When my best mate, Cliff Neville, died three years ago, Slam sent me this message: ‘I do not understand what you are feeling at this time. To lose a mate that was so close to you. All I have is my love for the same man, the man that tested my beliefs, my attitude, my being. Someone that I could really talk with. He believed on some issues I did not. However, he understood. The well of honest writing is running dry. The well of truth is running dry. I think I know that at a time like this we sit back and reflect, but as long as we can, we must support and celebrate the life of our mate’.”
There was much celebration last Saturday at Hendo’s Lounge. His uncle Des McQueen, a solid country bloke with 25 years in the Victoria Police, including a stint as head of the Vice Squad, talked about Slam growing up in Greensborough, playing football and soccer. Slam loved his uncle’s property in Victoria, and asked for some of his ashes to go into the dam there. He also mentioned Slam’s support for Essendon when most of his family barracked for Collingwood. And he summed up his nephew in these honest, compassionate words: “Steve was a gentle soul, passionate about what he believed in, loyal to his friends, but at times somewhat too stubborn for his own good … he was another Frank Sinatra – he did it his way. But he was a top person. If he could not do you a good turn, he did nothing. His memory will always be in our hearts.”
Brian Henderson remembered Slam in his edit suite in Eng Alley: “He showed me the stories I needed to rehearse in his Eng suite. The word ‘suite’ is misleading there.” That attracted laughs from the Nine people who knew the small, smelly suites were not sweet at all. He, too, was frank about Slam and his very strong opinions: “He was rough, he was blunt and he liked to sound off about injustice.” But Hendo’s verdict about Steve was similar to others: “He lived and breathed his work at Channel Nine and left an indelible impression on those who knew him, including me. I’ll never forget him.”
The next segment started with a clip of a practical joke Slam and former chief of staff, Dave Allender, played on news director Paul Fenn. They put a wheel lock on his car, and he had to call up to get Slam down to unlock it so he could drive home. Fenny was not happy, although he did laugh as he drove off. He started his tribute: “Steve’s career came to a grinding halt that day – early morning shifts, the mongrel.” A great speaker, Paul Fenn told some very funny stories about Slam. The best was how Slam mispronounced the word “Essendon” as “Essedon.” Paul said: “If you’re going to mention Essendon, get it right.” Slam said: “It is right.” Fenny finally called him into his office and got out a piece and paper and wrote it down, and said: “E, double s, en, Essendon.” And Slam said: “Yes, Essedon.’ Paul continued: “And with that he stormed out and about half an hour later he came back and said: ‘Look at this.’ He threw a piece of paper on the desk. I picked it up and read it, and it said: ‘Get fucked.’ I said: ‘What’s the point?’ And he said: ‘Have a good look at that, there are no ‘n’s’ in that.’ That story had the service in stitches. Fenny said Slam wasn’t the best editor, but “there was no more loyal editor than Steve McQueen.”
After a two-minute clip of the ABC Frontline series focusing on an editor named Hugh Tabbagh, who smoked a lot and coughed a lot and was king of the edit suite, allegedly based on Steve, former Nine senior editor Mike Fleming, who had come from Tasmania for the service, explained how he got the nickname “Slam.” Another Nine editor Owen Smith, who Flemo said, should have been a stand-up comedian (I agree), was trying to get a nickname for Steve, like Bullitt, Darwin Stubbie (he’d worked in Darwin for six years), Crocodile McQueen, but nothing worked. Until one night when Steve went with colleagues to a 21st birthday party, got stuck into it and ended up slam dancing. Flemo demonstrated with his arms flapping, describing it thus: “That’s this and if anyone doesn’t know, the whole object is to knock everyone over, which Slam didn’t have any trouble with. He dropped his guard, the planets aligned and legend was born. Steve McQueen left home that day, and under Owen’s gong, became Slam. His fate was ultimately sealed when two days later Brian Henderson walked down the hall, looking for the editor who had cut the Overseas wrap. ‘Slam,’ Brian said, ‘I need to look at this.’ Slam was locked in. The King of News had dubbed him Slam.”
Finally, the veteran reporter Damian Ryan talked about their days together in the London bureau, and how they got quite close. They would chew the fat, order a pizza and wait for the foreign editor, David McCombe, to call the story from Sydney. One of the biggest stories they worked on was the Interlaken canyoning disaster in Switzerland where 21 people, including 14 Australians, lost their lives. Damian was part of the team that won a Walkley award for their coverage, but he said: “Slam should have won an award for that. He was incredible.” Damo said things had changed in television now. It had become a sausage factory, but “Slam was old school, he was meticulous. He was packing his packages with all the best shots and natural sound to produce something the viewers would watch and leave them pondering long after the news.” He became a bit emotional talking about his former editor: “He could be gruff, he could be obnoxious, but he was a very soft, very sensitive guy. I have one major regret. I did lose touch. But I rejoice in the fact that I spent a lot of bloody good times with him.” It was a poignant moment when we all realised how much we missed Slam. We had all lost touch.
Here we were at Channel Nine, which he loved, and where he was much loved, and he wasn’t here to see it. But all three of his families were here, and we saluted him as he gave us the finger in the last shot in the closing montage, with music by Supertramp: Give a Little Bit. Yes, there were tears, too.
We retired to the Bridgey where more war stories were told about the remarkable Slam McQueen.
Hugh Riminton summed it up on Facebook: Slam was a “gentle soul and for years the heart of the news editing department at Channel Nine in Sydney. Many memories of a loyal and passionate colleague and friend. RIP, big fella.”
Russell Bishop, who also worked with Slam, lives in Western Australia and couldn’t make the service. He asked me if I could find room for his tribute, so here it is: “For reasons I still don’t understand, Slam used to like cutting with me. But, when the pressure was on – ten to six and a first break story – we weren’t good for one another. He’d be streaming sweat and rubbing his face with his free hand while snuffling at the same time while I was nervously on the lookout for the Smiling Assassin (Ian Cook) coming to get us. But he always got it done and, afterwards, we always had a laugh. I hadn’t seen Slam since 1994 because I live interstate but we hooked up about a year ago on Facebook. It was only then that I discovered his gentle side … he was certainly interested in causes and felt very deeply about the awful things going on at home and abroad. In March just gone, Slam commented on a post I put up and – for the very first time – albeit couched with ‘I hate to say this’ — he said something very nice about me. It was wonderful then and it’s even more precious to me now. See you mate.”
Slam once inscribed a book on friendship for my birthday: “In a life full of uncertainty, there is one constant: Mates. Thanks for being one.”
I was proud to be one, Slam. Thanks for the memories.
Film and television editors are a rare breed.