Dr Anne Pender is Professor of English and Theatre Studies at the University of New England. Her most recent book, Seven Big Australians: Adventures with Comic Actors, is published by Monash University Publishing. In it, Pender talks to seven of Australia’s most successful comedians about their lives and how they work. It is Pender’s thesis that Australia has lost its best satirists and comedy acts and she wonders how Australian satire will rediscover that success. Anne Pender addressed The Sydney Institute on Wednesday 24 July 2019.

SEVEN BIG AUSTRALIANS: ADVENTURES WITH COMIC ACTORS

ANNE PENDER

Thank you very much Anne and Gerard for inviting me to the Sydney Institute. It’s a pleasure to be here.

I want to talk to you about some of the extraordinary things I learned through writing this book about seven Australian comic actors. I particularly want to talk about the making of satire in Australia by two of the subjects of the book, because satire seems to be almost a lost art in Australia at present.

I’ve dedicated the book to the memory of John Clarke. John was one of the first actors I interviewed some years ago. He was a tireless interviewee, giving up hours of his time to talk to me about his process of writing, his approach to performance, his difficult childhood and the many fault-lines of his career.

John and I became friends over the years, and we spoke to each other by phone every week for some years. We were in touch just a few days before he died in April 2017.

It was through talking to John, all those years ago, and through doing the research for my biography of Barry Humphries, that I realised how important the lives of so many actors have been in our cultural life.

It was through talking to John, all those years ago, and through doing the research for my biography of Barry Humphries, that I realised how important the lives of so many actors have been in our cultural life. 

Barry Humphries pioneered topical, referential satirical comedy in Australia in the 1950s. Carol Raye, Max Gillies, John Clarke, and others developed it and brought innovation to satire. So, there is a lineage explored in this book, with one satirist building on the work of the other.

And yet it seemed to me that actors’ lives, careers, views are rarely documented. Until recently they have not been regarded as serious subjects for study.

Seven Big Australians tells the story – in collective biography – of Australian comedy on stage and television over half a century, through the personal perspectives of seven key figures: Carol Raye, Barry Humphries, Noeline Brown, Max Gillies, John Clarke, Tony Sheldon and Denise Scott.

In Australia, Carol Raye is remembered for many achievements but particularly for producing and starring in the Mavis Bramston Show. Within weeks of arriving in Sydney in 1964, Carol had been appointed as “Live Program Consultant” at Channel 7 with a brief to produce a late-night show that would rival Graham Kennedy’s In Melbourne Tonight.

Carol had been appointed as “Live Program Consultant” at Channel 7 with a brief to produce a late-night show that would rival Graham Kennedy’s In Melbourne Tonight.

In her head, Carol told me that she envisaged a satirical sketch show something like That Was the Week that Was, which she had seen in London. She found her funny man in the English actor Gordon Chater, and her straight man in Barry Creyton.

Unable to find a woman for the show she ended up playing in the pilot herself, and producing the show.  It was difficult, however, to find writers for the show.

Mavis Bramston was an immediate success. The humour was sharp and satirical. No subject was off limits. The Vietnam War was satirised, there were jokes about the Pill, the foibles of Robert Menzies, the PM, came in for a pasting, censorship and social mores were frequent targets.

Even the death penalty in Victoria was a subject for a sketch, with Carol singing a song about Henry Bolte, questioning the barbaric practice in a lyrical lament “Dear Henry Bolte, does it have to be this way?”

Even the death penalty in Victoria was a subject for a sketch, with Carol singing a song about Henry Bolte, questioning the barbaric practice in a lyrical lament “Dear Henry Bolte, does it have to be this way?”

It was tame by today’s standards but upset various people. Questions were raised in parliament about the show. Gordon Chater was accused of being a “vulgar entertainer”, and Allen Hulme in the federal parliament attempted to explain that some license should be allowed for satire. Looking back on all of this, Carol laughed as she recalled the fuss. But then she told me: “Back then nobody had even said ‘bum’ on television”.

I followed each of the seven actors around for almost five years, talking to them at home, in restaurants, back stage, in hotels as they toured, and on the streets on long walks. One day in Melbourne, Max Gillies and I got caught up in a very noisy STOP ADANI demo in Collins Street, but it didn’t faze Max. He just kept talking and I kept listening.

I followed each of the seven actors around for almost five years

Each actor profiled in the book pioneered and developed something new, something innovative in Australian comedy at a critical point in our history:  Carol, Max and John in political and topical satire, Barry in the one man show and social satire, Noeline in the game show, Tony Sheldon in musical comedy and Denise Scott in stand up. 

I spent hours talking to the actors about their childhood, their parents, any training they had in the profession and about their whole careers.

One of the extraordinary things I learned was that in the early 1970s actors were instrumental in the “Make it Australian” campaign that brought about huge changes to rules around Australian content on television. Before that there was very little Australian content on television and audiences were deluged with American sit coms, soaps and other programs.

The issue of the potential for saturation of our culture by other dominant cultures is a live one in the current period with the ever-increasing opportunity for downloading of cultural content from the internet, much of it made overseas. At the time of the Make it Australian campaign, actors won an industrial victory. Before this, actors were not paid for rehearsal periods in stage productions, making it almost impossible for them to earn a living.

The issue of the potential for saturation of our culture by other dominant cultures is a live one in the current period

Now their work is much more valued and rewarded, although it has to be said that acting is still a precarious profession. The hardships of the industry came through in many a story told to me by the actors.

Acting is still a precarious profession

…………

I’d like to tell you a little about my adventures with John Clarke. The first time I interviewed John it was on the subject of Barry Humphries in 2008, because John had worked with Humphries in the first Barry McKenzie film.

The subject of performance was central to our discussions but also one of the most difficult topics for Clarke. His attitude towards drama and live performance, and what he regarded as its quaint traditions, was intriguing and at first quite perplexing to me. In fact, John’s  aversion to “serious” acting was both a mindset and a mask. At first this surprised me, and it took me a long time to unravel with him.

In his early years, Clarke refused to play in anything dramatic. Clarke had no training as an actor in the formal sense. He is one of many actors of his generation who did not undertake any formal actor training in an institution or a studio.

In his early years, Clarke refused to play in anything dramatic. Clarke had no training as an actor in the formal sense.

In fact, none of the actors profiled in this book had formal acting training. Max Gillies, Tony Sheldon, Carol Raye, Noeline Brown and Humphries himself are all in that category – they did not have training in performance in the strict sense of the term. Nor did John Clarke have any training in television. Rather, he learned “on the job”.

John first appeared on stage at Victoria University in Wellington at the Memorial Theatre in 1969. He was enrolled as a student in an Arts and Law course and gravitated to theatrical revue and initially worked back stage because, as he told me, there was free beer on offer.

He told me about his lack of direction as a young man. Forced to testify in court in his parents’ divorce case, he was wounded and aimless. His father’s barrister attempted to convince the court that the problems between Clarke’s parents were caused by John, whom he portrayed as extremely difficult.

Forced to testify in court in his parents’ divorce case, he was wounded and aimless.

John travelled to London and worked as a van driver for Harrods. He told me that he would park outside the British Museum with the van door open in the delivery bay for hours on end while he wandered around in the museum instead of doing his deliveries.

Throughout his career, Clarke disguised his acting by seeming to play himself; his nasal voice and laconic manner were part of almost every role. It was an ingenious mask. But how did he develop this approach, this mask?

Clarke disguised his acting by seeming to play himself; his nasal voice and laconic manner were part of almost every role.

John’s friend Ginette McDonald talked him into auditioning for Humphries and Beresford’s new film. He carefully explained to me that if he had not experienced that work with Humphries, he would not have created Fred Dagg, or had the confidence to create satirical television. 

Clarke noticed that Humphries performed for a world audience and, while he parodied the cultural cringe, he and Beresford asserted their equality with everything and anything British at every opportunity. Clarke felt that he could be himself with these men; better still, he could be himself in the film, appearing in the pub scenes singing and drinking with Bazza McKenzie.

Clarke felt that he could be himself with these men; better still, he could be himself in the film, appearing in the pub scenes singing and drinking with Bazza McKenzie.

Being permitted to play himself was the key to Clarke’s performance style and his future as a satirist: not only did it offer him a strangely comforting armour, but it later provided the perfect satirical weapon and a mode of directly addressing the audience.

This mask is also the way in which Clarke resolved the problem of drama as an actor, reconciling who he is through playing in a particular way. Every actor must do this and for John a string of comic roles often coated with black humour provided that meeting of the actor and the acting.

Without the distraction of mimicry in Clarke and Dawe, the audience could focus on the words and the interaction of the two performers.

Without the distraction of mimicry in Clarke and Dawe, the audience could focus on the words and the interaction of the two performers.

Clarke’s writing and his approach to acting transformed sketch comedy on Australian television. His sketches are a highly structured and nuanced; they are also a compelling element of the larger democratic project in which satire plays a vital part.

This episode of Clarke and Dawe from 2014 is one of my favourites. It still has currency today: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LOZkNPiGF0s

This episode is one of the finest of the 20 years of Clarke and Dawe. It is still pertinent. The target or spin – in relation to Christian values – is as potent today as it was when it was first broadcast. Clarke was prescient.

We have lost a genius and it seems that there is no one producing such witty satire.

We have lost a genius and it seems that there is no one producing such witty satire.

……

I’ll turn now to my adventures with Max Gillies.

Max, like John Clarke, experienced a difficult childhood in the shadow of World War II. And, like John, his early life was affected by his father’s damaged state after he returned from war service.

Max started out in Melbourne at the Pram Factory theatre with a group of performers called the Australian Performing Group who favoured the performer as chief creator of the theatrical work – rather than the writer or director. You may remember his impersonations of politicians in his shows of the 1980s, particularly The Gillies Report. The show revived the tradition of performing in front of a live audience, just like Mavis Bramston.

The writing in this series was politically astute and perfectly attuned to the theatre of politics in Australia. It was broadcast weekly and centred around Gillies, who played all the politicians of the day: Fraser, Hawke, Peacock, Whitlam, Gorbachev, Thatcher and even Ronald Reagan. Gillies’ laconic opening lines in the first episode set the mood of the show: “Hello, I’m Max Gillies and most of the people you’ll be seeing tonight aren’t.”

The writing in this series was politically astute and perfectly attuned to the theatre of politics in Australia. It was broadcast weekly and centred around Gillies

Max’s stories of how he prepared to embody Bob Hawke are captivating. Max told me that when Hawke was elected, in 1983, he panicked: he suddenly had a problem. For the first time in years, Australians had elected a moderate and, what’s more, someone Max liked.

He couldn’t imagine how to mock this charismatic man of the people. The inspiration came via Don Watson, Max’s writing partner. Watson was a history teacher at the time. One of Don’s students had pointed out a similarity between Bob Hawke and an American televangelist.

One of Don’s students had pointed out a similarity between Bob Hawke and an American televangelist.

Gillies and Watson spent a couple of Sunday mornings entranced by The Hour of Power, with its slick, fast talking star preaching in a glass cathedral. Suddenly it all made sense. Hawke’s father had been a minister after all, and his son revelled in the showmanship of politics. The theatricality of the man would be vital to any parody, Max realised. He was sure it could drive the impersonation.

And, so it did. Max wasted no time ordering a shiny, silver suit, sharply cut shirts with long cuffs and sparkling, over-sized cuff links, in addition to an expensive wavy-haired wig.

He watched The Hour of Power over and over again, followed by footage of Hawke addressing Press Club lunches in Canberra, observing Hawke’s mannerisms and gestures, listening intently to his intonation and syntax, and watching his facial expressions, in order to play the short, bumptious union man come national hero.

Max played Hawke with such flair that many mistook him for the Prime Minister. Gillies even appeared as Hawke in Hawke’s presence, addressing the North Melbourne Football Club grand final breakfast in character as the PM.

Max played Hawke with such flair that many mistook him for the Prime Minister.

It is unusual for performers to appear in the presence of those they impersonate, and it was the first and only time in Australian history that a Prime Minister has allowed it.

Yet Hawke’s ambivalence was clear to observers and to Gillies that day. Shaking hands with everyone at the high table, Gillies, dressed in his silver suit, ran the gauntlet of the Club President, the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, finally greeting the man himself, Robert James Lee Hawke.

Max told me that the leering Prime Minister grabbed Gillies’s hand so vigorously his wrist throbbed and before he knew it Hawke had pulled him into a tight, face-to-face, with cameras flashing all around them.

Gillies blinked as Hawke suddenly let go of his hand and brought his fist to Max’s nose, punching him in a stinging bop, as he turned to approach the podium to give his performance of the man who had just hit him. It was a playful but not painless pre-emptive “alpha male” warning to the actor. It’s difficult to imagine such a scenario today but who knows, with “ScoMo” and “Albo” at the helm.

blinked as Hawke suddenly let go of his hand and brought his fist to Max’s nose, punching him in a stinging bop

I would like to show you a little bit of one of my favourite of these sketches that lampoons and comments on the constitutional crisis of 1975. You’ll see John Clarke introducing the piece. If ever there was a cogent argument for a republic – it’s here in this hilarious “performance essay”, to use a term we use in our teaching.

Here is Max Gillies playing Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, John Kerr and the Queen:

……….

We need satire. It is central to the democratic process and it’s no surprise that John Clarke, who wrote all of the scripts for Clarke and Dawe, saw himself as one of the audience, not as an actor mouthing lines written by someone else, but as a participant in the democracy trying to make sense of the main issues and main players. This was his satirist’s moral ground: he attempts to say what we can’t, until the next election.

This was his satirist’s moral ground: he attempts to say what we can’t, until the next election.

Clarke wrote the apology to the indigenous people of Australia that was delivered by John Howard the actor in an episode of The Games in 2000. The apology took aim at the fact that the real Prime Minister at the time, John Howard, steadfastly refused to make an apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in spite of enormous public pressure to do so. The apology offered its television audience a touchstone for the Howard era, a comic intervention of wish fulfilling whimsy, a careful portrait of political character and a razor sharp critique of hubris. Gillies mounted a show just a few years ago called Once Were Leaders. The title said it all.

Why has satire all but disappeared?  There is no one like Clarke, and no one like Max Gillies. Yes, there are the young blades. The Chaser, Sammy J, Mark Humphries and Charlie Pickering. The ABC still gives us Micallef.

Satire of the calibre of Clarke, and of Gillies seems hard to find these days. Although if you saw Sammy J’s musical sketch after the election in which he croons a country tune called “Queensland We’re breaking Up with You”, you might share my hope for the future of satire. It’s great to see the musical sketch making a big return.

Satire of the calibre of Clarke, and of Gillies seems hard to find these days.

Lest you think that all the action is on Pay TV, or in the online digital space, it isn’t.  The energy is evident in a vibrant social satire that follows the tradition of Carol Raye, Barry Humphries and Noeline Brown as well building on it, and takes the form of stand up. Stand up reassuringly brings us back to a simpler theatrical interaction that is direct, social, live and uncomplicated. Of course, it can be packaged up for Youtube easily as well.

Denise Scott has developed stand up and combines comic acting, clowning and stand up in her own one woman shows. She has also broken a number of taboos in her work.

Denise Scott has developed stand up and combines comic acting, clowning and stand up in her own one woman shows. She has also broken a number of taboos in her work.

She has helped bridge the divide between two distinct forms. Her obsession with ordinariness and her genuine understanding of women’s lives in her humour, gives her material authenticity, richness, potency and magic. Getting to know Denise for this book forced me to re-think some of my preconceptions about stand-up.

In her most recent show, Disappointments, she appeared with Judith Lucy in a two women extravaganza. At the beginning, when the lights went down, a series of gleaming Facebook images appeared on a massive screen, showing photographic portraits of the two performers – Denise and Judith looking perfect, smiling, with their own voice overs about their lives in a glittering parody of the false way in which people present their own lives on social media.

After a few minutes the screen disappeared and the two actors appeared lolling in two large single beds, on either side of the upstage area. They wore flannel nightgowns, and each of them was firmly tucked in to a thick green flowering doona. Beside each of them was an oversized glass of red wine. Judith began with a monologue about how her life is nothing like the Facebook images the audience has just watched. She explained how she just can’t stand being “mindful” all the time, confessing that she is so glad to have worked out how to lie down in bed and drink at the same time:

She explained how she just can’t stand being “mindful” all the time, confessing that she is so glad to have worked out how to lie down in bed and drink at the same time:

There is hope for satire. But it’s in unexpected places. The great thing is that it’s alive and well on the stage, and on TV, often in short form.

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