The Swinging Arm Of A Nation: An Incomplete History Of Mark Holden’s ‘Touchdowns’
It was the exclamation that exploded out of our TVs, and into our hearts.
You don’t need to be an NFL aficionado to have fond memories of a touchdown.
In 2003, the premiere of Channel Ten’s Australian Idol signalled a new chapter in reality television — one that hinged on ordinary Australians performing uncomfortable, albeit heartwarming, renditions of Robbie Williams singles.
A syndication of the already successful American Idol, Australia’s formulaic counterpart had a distinct point of difference. The chemistry between the three judges, Ian ‘Dicko’ Dickson, Marcia Hines, and Mark Holden captured the beloved and idiosyncratic atmosphere of Australian talent shows.
“The formula for Idol was the record company man, which on our show was Dicko, the Paula Abdul character was Marcia, and the record producer kinda guy was me,” Holden told The Touchdown Podcast.
As the show transitioned from open call auditions to the nitty gritty stages of the top 12, the show grew increasingly tense. With the country entranced by each week’s performances and eliminations — and viewers applauded (or jeered at) the judges’ accompanying critiques. But it wasn’t until Holden — an earnest and giddy presence on the show — decided to bestow his own highest form of praise, that Australian Idol truly came together.
And it all began on Season 1’s ‘Australian Made’ night. Following front-runner Cosima De Vito’s soaring two-minute rendition of Cold Chisel’s ‘When the War Is Over’ all three judges stood in ovation. But when Marcia and Dicko sat down, Holden remained standing, his face plastered with a goofy smile. Without warning, he punched the air and exclaimed: “Touchdown!”
“That remains one of my happiest memories,” Holden told Vice. He later admitted to E! News: “It was the Rugby World Cup in 2003 in Sydney at the time of the first Idol and, having spent so much time in the US, I mashed up the terms [of the American football phrase with the other hand gestures] and pulled it out of the air. It became a symbol of quality. Something to strive for.”
From there on in the “touchdown” became Idol currency. There were winners, there were losers, and there were “touchdown” record holders.
“People loved it,” he remembered. “People were determining how well they did by whether they got a touchdown, and if they did — how many.”
With this new benchmark, audiences began each episode anticipating Holden’s signature seal of approval, and eventually, it wormed its way into our lexicon. Even Holden himself started using it in his daily life. “My daughter bought two “touchdown” T-shirts, and we each wore one for her graduation,” he admits. “I gave her a massive “touchdown” for graduating with honours.”
“It became a symbol of quality. Something to strive for.”
Soon after inspiring the first “touchdown”, De Vito scored her second with a cover of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect.’ This time though, Holden looked to the crowd and counted them in. Everyone screamed in unison as Dicko sardonically mimed shooting himself in the head. The “touchdown” became a prize for a job well done, delivered by the daggy and oft-goofy judge — who bordered on irritating — who was so obviously just pleased to be included.
“I love musicians and singers and songwriters,” he told Vice. “There are people who devote their life to that, and I love those people. I love music. I love anything to do with music, and people who put their lives on the line for music, I love that. So in that sense it was beautiful.”
The first season of the show closed out Fijian-born songstress, Paulini Curuenavuli and winner Guy Sebastian tieing with one “touchdown” a piece, but the next Season came with a new set of bells and whistles.
A “touchdown” graphic accompanied every occasion, including the show’s first and only “grand royale touchdown” given to Season 2 runner-up, Anthony Callea, for his performance of Andrea Bocelli’s ‘The Prayer’. Season 2 winner Casey Donovan and Season 3 champion Damien Leith hold the record for the highest number of “touchdowns” with four apiece. Leith remains the only contestant to ever receive two “touchdowns” in one night, for his performances of ‘Crying’ by Roy Orbison and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah.’
Despite becoming an indispensable part of the show, in 2007 Holden was fired from Idol after tension between himself and Dicko came to a head.
“When I was fired, it was such a shock and I didn’t see it coming,” Holden told Sydney’s 101.7 WS FM in 2008. “I was so humiliated, publicly humiliated. It was an enormous kick in the guts. And I realised I’d been outplayed by Dicko. Dicko had completely put me in his pocket and then moved me around like a chess piece. He played me like a violin.”
If you don’t remember the juicy inter-channel drama, Dicko left Australian Idol after Season 2 and headed over to Channel Seven. After hosting My Restaurant Rules, competing in Dancing with the Stars, and a few stints on radio, the British contrarian returned to Idol for Season 5. He joined Marcia, Holden, and new judge shock-jock Kyle Sandilands, and seemed glad to be back.
“David Mott … who ran Channel 10 at the time, told me that I had the veto over whether Dicko came back or not,” Holden continued to WS FM. “I thought we could be Hamish and Andy senior and so I said, ‘Yeah, let’s get him back on.’”
“I’m thrilled to be not having his stupid orange face butting in all the time,” Dicko told The Courier Mail after Holden was kicked off the show in 2007. “And I don’t have to worry about this mad encore sitting on my right saying ‘touchdown!’ every five minutes. In fact, I might even steal “touchdown!’ off him. I don’t give a shit what he thinks. He’s off the show now. What’s he going to do, sue me?”
Dicko later apologised for his comments, confessing he was drunk at the time of the interview.
“I’m thrilled to be not having his stupid orange face butting in all the time. And I don’t have to worry about this mad encore sitting on my right saying ‘touchdown!’ every five minutes.” – Dicko
But the show continued without Holden, the remaining judges used his phrase and even invented a less memorable one. Chrislyn Hamilton received touchdowns from Sandilands and guest host, Guy Sebastian; Thanh Bui copped one from Marcia Hines and Mark Spano was bequeathed one by Dicko, who true to his word, stole the catchphrase from his former co-judge.
As ratings declined, it was clear the charm of Idol disappeared with the departure of Holden. Eventually, the show attempted to relive the magic with an awkward alternative “Big Ticko From Dicko”, which was used sparingly, and to little effect.
In 2009, Holden announced he was selling the “touchdown” to charity, by putting a $10,000 price tag on the use of the phrase. Beginning with David Hasselhoff, who delivered Holden’s tag line during a judging panel on America’s Got Talent, the Baywatch star happily paid $10,000 to charity.
After Hines delivered her own “touchdown” that same year, Holden asked her to donate to Kids Lifeline in honour of the late Season 1 contestant Levi Kereama who passed away in 2008. He hoped the value of the phrase would keep it from being overused: “It helps them define when they choose to use it.”
It’s now been ten years since the final season of Australian Idol. As with any reality television show, there’s been drama, surprise success stories, and lots and lots of memes, but anyone who watched the series will attest to its heartwarming moments and the imprint it’s left on our pop culture history. It truly deserves it’s own “touchdown!”
Kish Lal is a writer and critic based in New York City. She is on Twitter.
All this week, Music Junkee is stepping back in time to explore the wild ride that was Australian Idol. Find more Aus Idol content right over here.