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Pick a Box – Episode 170 (1963)


This episode of the classic quiz show Pick a Box, hosted by Bob Dyer with assistance from his wife Dolly Dyer, has two main segments. In the first, Dyer asks two contestants the same questions – sound-proof headphones prevent them from hearing each other’s answers. The winner then gets to 'pick a box’ to win a random prize, which could be anything from elastic bands to a new car. Bob takes the chosen box, looks at the prize written inside then, without revealing it to the contestant, offers a sum of money in place of the prize, sometimes raising the amount to build suspense. After ‘the money or the box’, the contestant must decide whether to keep the prize and leave, or play a new opponent for the chance to add to their prize haul but also risk losing it.

The second segment continues an Australia versus New Zealand 'World Championship’ quiz that has been going for several episodes. Star contestant Barry Jones represents Australia. In between, a short promotional segment for the show’s major sponsor BP takes the viewer on a documentary-style tour of the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor.

Curator’s notes

One of Australia’s first TV quiz shows, Pick a Box debuted on the small screen in 1957, the year after television was introduced here. It had already existed since 1948 as a popular radio series, also hosted by Bob Dyer. The TV version was broadcast simultaneously on radio for the first five or so years it was on air. In this respect it is a unique case in Australian television history.

This episode was made for both TV and radio. Dyer, in his genial Tennessee drawl, keeps up a constant stream of description and discussion for the benefit of radio listeners, making frequent mention of the show’s sponsor (the show is also known as BP Pick a Box).

Like most quiz shows, Pick a Box depends heavily on the personality of its host. In what has become something of a quiz-master template, Dyer mixes showmanship with an aura of authority befitting the weighty task of testing knowledge. This proved a winning formula: Dyer won the Gold Logie Award for most popular television personality in 1961 and a special Gold Logie with Dolly in 1971 recognising their contribution to Australian television. Originally from Nashville, Dyer travelled to Australia a number of times as part of a hillbilly music act before settling in the country and marrying Dolly, a showgirl he met when both were performing at Sydney’s Tivoli Theatre.

The series found a more unexpected star in repeat contestant Barry Jones. Jones’s extraordinary general knowledge saw him clock up over 200 appearances between 1960 and 1968, seldom getting an answer wrong and accumulating a small fortune in prizes. Jones went on to become a member of the Victorian parliament, a federal MP for more than 20 years, the longest-serving federal Science minister and president of the Australian Labor Party. By this episode, Jones is already a celebrity in his own right and Dyer makes use of the audience’s familiarity with his quirks (see clip three).

In the middle of the program, a segment on the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor ends up as a promotion for Pick a Box sponsor BP. Watching now, it seems an unusual fit with a quiz show and also strikes a slightly odd tone for a promotional segment. A tour of the facility explores nuclear power as the power source ‘of the future’ but at the same time has slightly sinister undertones, dark music playing as it shows anti-radiation procedures and remotely-operated robots. In the meantime, the segment claims the Lucas Heights workers use BP petrol in their cars. It’s a fascinating glimpse of a particular moment in public and commercial attitudes towards nuclear power.

Pick a Box was initially broadcast in Melbourne (on GTV9) and Sydney (on HSV7) only but went national from 1959 (on HSV7). Starting out in a Saturday night timeslot, it moved to Monday nights in 1960. Its shift was thought to be somehow related to an agreement with the show’s new sponsor, BP, with The Sydney Morning Herald reporting that Dyer had entered into an exclusive contract with the petroleum giant 'at a figure reported to be the highest paid in Australian television’. The series was enduringly popular with audiences, finishing its run of approximately 900 episodes when Bob Dyer retired in 1971.

Pick a Box has become an icon of Australian culture and was selected for the NFSA Sounds of Australia registry in 2010.