Page 1: Biography
Toogood, Selwyn Featherston
This biography, written by Tim Shoebridge, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2019.
Selwyn Toogood was New Zealand’s best-known broadcaster from the 1950s to the 1970s, as quizmaster of the enormously popular It’s in the bag radio programme. Audiences revelled in the suspense as he invited contestants to choose between a guaranteed cash prize and a bag containing a mystery prize, such as a Fisher and Paykel washing machine, a Masport lawnmower – or possibly one of the host’s old socks. He successfully moved the format from radio to television in the 1970s, and his appearances in advertising and other television programmes made him one of the nation’s most recognisable faces.
Selwyn Featherston Toogood was born in Wellington on 4 April 1916, the second child of Ethel Lois Copus Butler and her husband, Henry Featherston Toogood. Henry was a successful civil engineer, and Selwyn and his three brothers were raised in an affluent and respectable household on The Terrace in Wellington. Though culturally Pākehā, Toogood discovered at 18 that he had Ngāi Tahu ancestry through his mother’s family; his grandmother had begged that her grandchildren not be told of it during her lifetime.
Toogood spent his early school years at Wellesley College on The Terrace, moving to Wellington College for his secondary education in 1928. Tall, short-sighted, and overweight, he was a poor sportsman and lacked the aptitude to succeed in academic studies; he was transferred from the academic to the commercial curriculum. He developed an interest in theatre, and enjoyed singing with the Glee Club and performing in a school play.
Amateur dramatics and war service
In 1932 Toogood left school for warehouse work with the Wellington merchant firm Van Staveren Brothers. His interest in theatre grew, and he joined the Thespians, an amateur dramatic society, in 1933. There he played a variety of theatrical roles and participated in set construction and painting. By 1936 he was well-known enough to be offered a one-line part in a radio play, and soon afterwards he resigned from Van Staverens to train as a theatre manager. He worked at the State Opera House and two other Wellington theatres.
In 1937 the government launched its commercial radio service, which created new opportunities for radio performers. That year the advertising agency Carlton Carruthers began producing the radio soap opera One man’s family, and Toogood was cast in a regular role for the show’s entire 18-month run.
Toogood enlisted for military service as soon as the Second World War broke out in 1939. He trained as an officer, and was posted to the New Zealand Army Service Corps as a Divisional Ammunition Officer with the Ammunition Company. He served in North Africa and Italy, including at El Alamein and Cassino, and reached the rank of major.
During his return journey to New Zealand in 1946, Toogood was appointed entertainments officer aboard the troopship Tamaroa, where he compered a shipboard quiz. He enjoyed compering, and looked for similar work in radio when he returned to Wellington. Broadcasting opportunities had expanded, and Toogood found he could make a living as a freelance actor, announcer, and compere, along with occasional narration work for the National Film Unit. In 1947 he was standing in for the 2ZB breakfast announcer when the liner Wanganella ran aground at the entrance to Wellington Harbour. His live reports from the scene attracted a lot of attention, and he devised various means of scooping his competitors to get the best stories. In his spare time he acted with the Wellington Repertory Theatre, mainly in comic roles.
From the late 1940s Toogood pursued the creation of a radio quiz show he could compere. In 1948 he developed the programme Posers, penalties and profits, a nine-week quiz show recorded in a series of live events in the main centres and broadcast on the ZB network. The show proved popular, with the public turning out in large numbers to watch contestants endure comic penalties such as wading into fountains or rubbing eggs into their hair to get prizes. Toogood, the host, was billed as ‘the Biggest Man in Radio’.1
By the early 1950s Toogood was looking for a more secure livelihood. He had married Cynthia Holden Webb in Wellington on 30 June 1948, and they were raising their two sons, Christopher (Kit, born 1949) and Philip (born 1952), at Heretaunga in Upper Hutt. Faced with familial responsibilities, Toogood set aside his acting to focus on full-time employment. In 1952 he joined the Lintas advertising agency as radio director, taking responsibility for the firm’s three shows. The Lever Brothers soap company was Lintas’s principal customer, and the main focus of their advertising was popular radio programmes such as soap operas and quiz shows which showcased their products by giving them away as prizes. Toogood took over as host of the quiz shows Lux money-go-round and Quiz kids, music programme Lifebuoy hit parade, and later the talent show On stage tonight.
It’s in the bag on radio
Looking for a new quiz show format, Toogood adapted the Australian Pick-a-box programme for a New Zealand audience as It’s in the bag. Contestants who answered trivia questions correctly would be invited to choose between a cash prize and the contents of a series of bags; these might contain either a major prize like a household appliance or a valueless booby prize. With the whiteware manufacturers Fisher and Paykel enlisted to provide the major prizes, the new programme was first broadcast on New Year’s Day 1954 with Toogood as host.
It’s in the bag was a major hit; it became one of the highest-rating shows in New Zealand’s radio history, commanding an estimated 75–90 per cent of the total audience. Listeners enjoyed the contestants’ money-versus-bag dilemma and Toogood’s magnetic performance as compere. He revelled in building suspense, and his loud and commanding voice rose in triumph as contestants answered questions correctly. He built excitement by jockeying the live audiences, and ‘By hokey!’ and ‘The money or the bag?’ were soon his catchphrases. Broadcaster Paul Holmes later described Toogood’s broadcasts as ‘joyous, unforgettable sound pictures’.2
Initially recorded before live audiences in the main centres, It’s in the bag soon moved out into provincial towns and rural districts. The show’s visits were gala days in small towns where live entertainment was rare, with venues crowded and scalpers on-selling tickets at a profit. Producer Ken Sudell described their visits as ‘like New Year’s Eve, Christmas and VJ day all rolled into one. It was a huge sort of fête day, and the show of course was Selwyn.’3 Door profits were donated to local charities, which initially provided entertainment for the first half of each evening’s programme; subsequently Toogood hosted a travel-oriented quiz show called Birdseye view of the world during the first half.
It’s in the bag and Birdseye kept Toogood very busy, travelling more than 22,000 kilometres and recording more than 100 shows every year. He tried to be home for family birthdays and school holidays, though his work kept him away much of the time; he was sometimes able to incorporate Cynthia and the boys into his travels as his sons got older. He researched and wrote many of the quiz questions himself, later estimating he had compiled 30,000 over the course of his career. His height (1.89 metres), weight (up to 140 kilograms), and glasses made him a distinctive figure, and he was soon one of the most recognisable and best-known public personalities of the time.
The popularity of It’s in the bag waned in the early 1960s, when the new medium of television began chipping away at the radio audience. It’s in the bag’s value as a vehicle for promoting sponsors’ products declined. Lintas cancelled it in 1964, and Toogood pursued a variety of freelance projects; he remained with Lintas until about 1968. He returned to advertising, endorsing only products he believed in to maintain his reputation for integrity. In 1966 he hosted a television game show called Family game, which was cancelled after a single series, and recorded a series of celebrity interviews while travelling overseas for broadcast at home. He interviewed the cast of Coronation Street in the late 1960s, and in 1971 he was contracted to a travel agency to lead an annual package tour which included meeting the stars of the show.
Toogood lobbied the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation to create a televised version of It’s in the bag throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, and was finally successful in 1973. The televised version once again toured the provinces to record weekly shows in front of live audiences. Initially given a twice-weekly afternoon slot in 1973, the programme was moved to prime time after its first season. The format had changed little from the radio era, though on television Toogood was assisted by a female ‘hostess’. The value of the grand prizes had increased considerably; they included cars, caravans, and even houses. While some critics dismissed it as ‘a blatant peddling of advertising in the guise of entertainment’, the show once again enjoyed great success.4 It never matched the radio programme’s audience share, but was still watched by 47 per cent of television viewers in 1979; Toogood estimated the audience at 1.5 million. He and the producers decided to cancel the show after a six-year run, comprising 132 episodes filmed in 45 towns, with around $1 million raised for local charities. The final episode screened in May 1979.
Toogood hosted the daytime advice show Beauty and the beast concurrently with It’s in the bag. Launched in 1976, this show was based on an Australian programme of the same name in which a panel of women (the ‘beauties’) and an abrasive male host (the ‘beast’) discussed life problems outlined in letters from viewers. Toogood rejected the ‘beast’ model, preferring to maintain the warm and avuncular persona familiar to Bag viewers. Pre-recorded at the Dunedin television studio at weekends, the show was broadcast five days a week, attracting around 250,000 daily viewers in 1979. Toogood hosted more than 2000 episodes over the show’s 10-year run.
In 1981 Toogood took over hosting the children’s quiz show W three, once again researching and writing all the questions. He resigned in 1986, the same year that Beauty and the beast was cancelled. At 70, he was going deaf and felt he was no longer equal to the demands of a live quiz show; when a fresh run of It’s in the bag was scheduled for 1986, he decided not to host it. He continued to write questions for the new show, which was hosted by John Hawkesby.
In 1985, on the eve of his 69th birthday, Television New Zealand celebrated Toogood’s life and career in an episode of the popular This is your life series. He remained involved with broadcasting, appearing in advertisements and occasionally hosting radio programmes. He hosted a nostalgia programme on Radio Pacific in 1991–92, and a television advice show for older people called 50 forward in 1995. In November 1999 he was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the TV Guide New Zealand Television Awards.
In 1984 journalist Graham Ford described Toogood as New Zealand’s ‘universal uncle’, ‘one of the most recognisable faces in the country. … He is so familiar to New Zealanders that he has become just another part of the landscape.’ His ‘values and persona are firmly rooted in the 50s’, making him ‘a symbol of that time.’5 Toogood felt it was inappropriate for entertainers to say and do things which might offend audiences, and placed great emphasis on professionalism and civility. Politically conservative, he was dismayed by what he viewed as the declining values of society and the standards of television programming in the 1980s. He insisted that his outgoing, larger-than-life television persona concealed a quiet and reserved person who was uncomfortable around strangers.
Selwyn Toogood died at the Caughey Preston Home in Auckland on 27 February 2001, aged 84. Cynthia Toogood died in 2005.