Grubsheet and much of the Sydney media is in mourning for one of its most popular figures – the television producer, Cliff Neville – who has died from cancer of the liver. Cliff was a highly accomplished journalist with a distinguished career in the print media before he switched to television in the early eighties, first at the Seven Network and then at the Nine Network current affairs flagship, 60 Minutes, where he was supervising producer for 18 years.
The Australian described him today as “legendary”, a term that tends to be bandied around rather loosely in journalistic circles, when the truth is that some people are merely legends in their own lunchtime rather than the genuine heroes the description implies. But Cliff was definitely special -very special – not least because he was always a calm voice of reason in a tough business where egos tend to dominate and emotions can easily spill over.
His former boss at 60 Minutes, Peter Meakin – now the news and current affairs supremo at Seven – spoke for many when he said that without Cliff, he “would have gone bananas”. “Cliff was a rock – solid, dependable, wise and loyal. A friend to all, but a servant to none. When the advice you least wanted to hear was most needed, he was the guy who gave it to you. He could defuse the most explosive situation with a wry comment”, Meakin eulogised. A collective amen to that.
Cliff was also special because he was an exceedingly generous mentor to a generation of young print and television journalists both at The Australian – where he was chief of staff in the late 70s and early 80s – and at the Seven Network, where he arrived as chief of staff towards the end of 1981. Grubsheet was one of his wayward charges – like Cliff, a television arriviste who had to learn quickly in the sink-or-swim competitiveness of the main evening news.
Seven was locked in a furious ratings battle against a hugely dominant Nine and had taken the brave – some might say reckless – gamble to recruit a whole bunch of journalists with no television experience at all and throw them into the front line. A wide-eyed Grubsheet was one of them, fresh from a desk job at the BBC but now kitted up in a smart suit and thrown into a helicopter as an on-air reporter in a commercial struggle to the death. TV’s high noon but at 6.30 PM.
The then news director – the late Vincent Smith – was the architect of this madness and hired Cliff Neville from The Australian to be his general. Cliff – with no television experience either – took on the task of weaving this motley crew into a fighting force. And more than anyone, he deserved the credit when just months later, Seven knocked Nine from the top of the news ratings for the first time in many years. His troops didn’t just regard him with fondness. We loved him.
In Grubsheet’s mind eye is the indelible image of Cliff prowling the newsroom floor, tugging at his beard and dispensing ideas, encouragement and advice. “Dear Boy, have you thought of…perhaps you should…?” It might be making a left-field call, taking another angle, persisting in the face of a brick wall. Whatever it was, it was all dispensed with an almost courtly courtesy that is also rare in television. Grubsheet never heard Cliff Neville shout. In extremis, there’d be muttering about a “bunch of c@#ts” somewhere and a weary shake of the head. But that was it.
Above all, Cliff could motivate and inspire. He made you look forward to coming to work, to feel proud to be part of a team, to be proud of your own work, to never cut corners, to respect the facts, to respect the ordinary people you dealt with, to respect the intelligence of your audience and to beat your competitors – to win. He also recognised the vital importance of teamwork in television – journalists, cameramen, sound recordists, editors – all working in tandem to achieve excellence. No-one was treated as more important than anyone else. He forged lasting friendships with even the most junior of his charges and took great pleasure in their subsequent success.
Cliff was extremely well read and wrote two books with the celebrated magistrate and child rights campaigner, Barbara Holborow, who he deeply admired. And he liked dogs and a long lunch. The caption over Fobwatch – his beloved Jack Russell terrier in the title of his Twitter and Facebook accounts – says it all. Cliff’s too was a beautiful life. Our heartfelt condolences to Jocelyn Dent, his ever loyal partner for more than thirty years.
A Memorial Service for Cliff will be held in Sydney on Friday (March 23, 2012) at 2.30 p.m., in the Camellia Chapel of Macquarie Park Crematorium, corner of Delhi and Plassey Roads, Macquarie Park.