Sunday, April 9, 2017

John Clarke - a rare talent lost

Talk about knock me over with a feather, Trev!

John Clarke's death at the far too young age of 68 has robbed us of one of the great New Zealanders.

True, he hadn't lived in New Zealand since the late-1970s, but his presence was with us all the time, and courtesy of his work, he was available to all through his marvellous sketches on the ABC with Bryan Dawe. 'The front fell off' the most typical of his comedic style but only one of many brilliant examples of his abilities.

Forever revered in New Zealand for his character Fred Dagg, he was the rarest of beasts, a genuine Kiwi comedian. He was so good a major New Zealand food sales company still employs a very poor imitation of his style to try and drum up business.

But there will only ever be one John Clarke.

His New Zealand persona was transferred easily to the Australian market where his efforts in two series of comedies before the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 titled The Games were David Brent and the Office well before Brent, and Ricky Gervais, had even been heard of.

Multi-talented, he provided the voice for Wal Footrot in the film of Footrot Flats, the originator of whom, Murray Ball, died two weeks ago, but he also starred in and wrote many film scripts.

His documentary series Sporting Nation was a three-part study of Australian sporting history and psyche, and was magnificent in its breadth of achievement in bringing out some outstanding stories of sportspeople under pressure. The separate interviews, or extras as they call them in DVD compilations, are a treat in themselves.

The credits for such an impressive career in satire will long be John Clarke's legacy. Australia will remember him in one way, but in New Zealand it will always be for the ability he demonstrated in bringing a bumbling rural bumpkin into the mainstream in a way that several of his catch phrases remain part of the vernacular.

"That'll be the phone", being probably the first of his many great lines. Others being, "Geddinbehind", "Kick 'er in the guts, Trev" and the immortal "Over she goes" describing a 'borrowed' car going over the edge of the Wainuiomata Hill after a night on the turps.

His songs were automatic hits, "Gumboots" and "We Don't Know How Lucky We Are" can still raise a smile. He was a product before his time but who latched onto the funny bone of a country that had been too serious about itself for far too long.

There are other memories. A personal one related to time spent as the 'Entertainment' reporter of The Southland Times. This was a pretty good gig, you got to review all the records that were sent in, you went to all the shows that came through town of which there were many in those days, and sometimes you got to interview the participants.

John Clarke was one such interview. He invited me into his room at the Don Lodge, then one of the inner city hostelries run by the Invercargill Licensing Trust. Being a Sunday and having travelled from somewhere to the bottom of the world, he was relaxed during the interview – he was, in fact, flat out lying on his bed.

Pulling up a chair, it was a case of just chatting away and noting down the answers. Not many questions asked stick in the memory, although there was a recall of asking where he drew his inspiration for his ever-changing material.

"The front page of the newspapers, that's the key. There's a wealth of comedy material there," he said.

Anyway, interview done, it was back to the office to write it up and it had to be said it was one of the more enjoyable assignments.

The next day while going about the usual sort of Monday morning reporting duties, the Racing Editor, the always gentlemanly Norman Pierce, came through the Reporters' Room door heading toward his office while informing me that there was 'someone' outside to see me.

Going out into the entrance way there was John Clarke. The immediate thought was "What have I stuffed up in my interview?"

So saying, "Gidday John, what brings you around here?"

He replied: "Gidday Lynn, I've got nothing to do for the morning so I thought I'd come around for a chat!"

Well this was serious, time to find a place for a yarn. So it was down to the Southland Times cafeteria. It had just been vacated by the hordes, that's what used to be employed in provincial newspapers in those days, hordes of people, so we had the room to ourselves with the coffee pot still bubbling away.

What followed was the most entertaining and interesting hour it had been possible to enjoy to that stage of my career.

Clarke was full and frank. He told me that if Rob Muldoon got elected in the forthcoming 1975 General Election he would leave the country that was for certain. He told me the pittance that the NZBC (New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation) used to pay him for his ground-breaking skits and we talked about all manner of other things.

You could tell word had got round that John Clarke was in the building because it felt like every one of those afore-mentioned hordes trooped by the cafeteria by going out of their usual way to have a look at this character of the moment.

Journalism is a game that provides many highlights beyond the norm and being able to share of John Clarke's time in that fashion was certainly one of them.

His loss at a time when the world could do with his type of humour and satire will be all the more obvious as time goes by.

Farnarkeling will never be the same again. John 'Fred Dagg' Clarke, RIP.

1 comment:

Roger Robinson said...

A great loss, and a fine tribute to him - thanks, Lynn. I'm proud to say, I included an entry on John Clarke/Fred Dagg in "The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature" (1998) ( one of several unorthodox entries that I fought for), an excellent short essay by Harry Ricketts. Harry traces Clarke's early "Dagg" work, in conjunction with Roger Hall, Dave Smith and others, and quotes Clarke on the "collaborative" aspect of his humour: "Fred Dagg was a collaboration I was very fortunate to have with the New Zealand public. He's not only mine, he belongs to the audience as well." We also quoted one of Fred's most inspired lines, when he was lamenting the folly of daylight saving:"You can't play about with nature like this and expect to get away with it... One of the Trevs got a bit mixed up about the whole thing and went out in the middle of the night and artificially inseminated the tractor."