The show that left me speechless


Your TVTimes correspondent in 1964 is frankly baffled by ‘Don’t Say a Word’

I’M an Australian. I have been in this country a matter of weeks. During that time I have seen Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament. I’ve seen the Tower of London — from the outside — and been lost in the centre of Piccadilly.

From the TVTimes for 2-8 August 1964

I’ve been terrified by the Underground and confused by the traffic but NEVER have I been so bewildered as I was at Television House.

All because of Rediffusion’s Don’t Say A Word.

We have a lot of things in Australia. We have koalas and kangaroos, we have wallabies and wombats, big cities, man-eating sharks, first-class tennis players and cricket teams, and we have television.

But we have nothing quite like Don’t Say A Word.

When I arrived at the studio, the room was crammed with people — all talking. I couldn’t see one familiar face.

Thanks to the friendly, and helpful, publicity girl at my elbow most of the faces were given names. “That’s the director, Daphne Shadwell, and the tall man over there is the show’s host, Ronan O’Casey.

“The dark lass talking now is Libby Morris, she was in the stage play ‘Come Blow Your Horn.’ The girl who has just come in is Una Stubbs and the blonde lass over there on the couch is Jill Browne — she’s in Emergency—Ward 10. That’s Glen Mason sitting next to her.” As long as no one moved too quickly I was able to work out who was who.

Harry Fowler’s face was familiar because The Army Game was screened on Australian TV.

He did, however, look different. He was nursing an extra-large “SSSHH Gonk” (adult toys which do nothing and are the current craze). He explained that the Gonk was to be used on the programme and I believed him. I was willing to believe anything.

Sinking gratefully into a chair, I sat back to watch what I thought was a normal TV panel game. The kind where viewers send in questions and panel members answer them. You know how wrong I was, I didn’t… at the time.

When everyone had finished kissing everyone else and saying hullo to everyone else and yelling across the room at everyone else (it was pretty shattering) Daphne Shadwell said they would have a run-through “to refresh our memories.”


Harry Fowler with Gonk… which also doesn’t say a word!


In case you haven’t seen it, the game is a modern-day version of charades. It’s speeded up somewhat by a form of “shorthand,” which covers various categories, common words and hints.

Harry Fowler (minus Gonk) stood up first. He read a small piece of paper Ronan O’Casey (he’s the tall, slim man with steel-grey hair and a Canadian accent) held out to him, paused, scratched his head, frowned (none of which had anything to do with his mime), beamed, and broke into a wild dance which would have done justice to a tribal war dance in full swing.

The panel started yelling suggestions. Harry made a good imitation of a man being set upon by birds or insects by waving his hand madly above his head. The panel yelled some more. Harry staggered round the floor as if he’d lost his senses.

I decided he was portraying a bird which had had one too many.

Libby Morris yelled: “Helicopter, mad, mad, mad, mad whirl!”

“Helicopter, of course,” I thought, “how simple, how easy… how on earth did they guess it?”

When Una Stubbs’ turn came I was so fascinated watching her delicate hand movements and facial expressions I completely forgot even to think about the mime. Una’s movements were punctuated with high-pitched squeaks, but she moved beautifully (not surprising, I found out later she’s a dancer) and the panel had no difficulty in guessing her sentence.

I didn’t guess it… I was still wondering why Harry’s hands, waving above his head, hadn’t made me think of a helicopter.

By the time Glen Mason’s turn came to portray “they crossed a mouse with an elephant and got a huge rat that never forgot” I was thoroughly enjoying myself. But although I could almost work it out myself, the panel beat me to it every time.

“They are amazing,” the pretty, dark-haired assistant agreed later when I mentioned the panel’s speed, “so much so that people sometimes think the game’s rigged — but it’s not.”

I can vouch for that. Anyway, anyone who was going to “rig” a programme would import a real helicopter. Besides I was sitting not 3ft. from Ronan O’Casey and no one had a chance of seeing those cards. But the panel is so quick, I suspect a sixth sense lurking somewhere.

At the end of the afternoon I left feeling: “Well, it’s all right for them but it’s too hard for me, or anyone like me, ever to work out quickly.”

I went back the following day to see a guest panellist introduced to the game. He’d never played it before, and had seen it only once — it took him two mimes before he was yelling along with the others. Correctly, too.

I sat through Una Stubbs’s “if two witches were watching two watches which witch was watching which watch?” and Harry’s “the romantic ghost who was tall, dark and haunt-some,” then my moment of triumph arrived. I guessed “the sick duck who called for a quack doctor.” At which stage I left. No sense in pushing your luck.

I have only one thing to ask — if you’re going to send The Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers and Dusty Springfield to Australia… couldn’t you send Don’t Say A Word too?

No need to bother about the helicopter, though!

About the author

Margaret Ellershaw wrote for the TVTimes

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