TOP SEC­OND BA­NANA

First as Gra­ham Kennedy’s off­sider and then as the sup­posed No 2 to Don Lane, Bert New­ton be­came a gi­ant of Aus­tralian TV, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - FEATURE -

BERT New­ton joined Nine in 1959 as­sum­ing that he would soon work with Gra­ham Kennedy, a log­i­cal enough as­sump­tion given the fact Bert too had been at the cen­tre of a “tonight” show, The Late Show, but the first thing the in­tim­i­dat­ing pro­gram man­ager Norm Spencer said to him was that he and Kennedy would never ap­pear to­gether.

They wanted Bert to host his own show, a morn­ing ver­sion of In Mel­bourne Tonight, which was to be called “In Mel­bourne To­day”. But be­cause there was a lack of stu­dio time, he sat around do­ing noth­ing for two months un­til one night an an­nouncer on IMT be­came ill and Bert was asked to stand in for him. “All I had to do was a two-minute com­mer­cial but be­tween us Gra­ham and I went on for 12½ min­utes and that was when Nine scrapped my in­tended pro­gram and put me on with Gra­ham, a part­ner­ship that lasted 14 years.”

The com­mer­cial was for a new prod­uct called Raoul Mer­ton shoes and the per­for­mance that night was the first of hun­dreds in which Bert and Gra­ham mocked, pil­lo­ried, and gen­er­ally ridiculed the shoes, some­times throw­ing them at each other or even into the au­di­ence. Of­ten the shoes, usu­ally dis­played in their glam­orous-look­ing boxes, wrapped in tis­sue pa­per, were sim­ply ig­nored once the com­mer­cial started and the boys went off wher­ever the spot took them. The shoes were of a high qual­ity and their tag-line, “Of com­fort you’re cer­tain, when you wear Raoul Mer­ton”, fa­mously be­came “If they’re hurtin’, they’re Raoul Mer­ton”, or other com­i­cal vari­a­tions. The day after Gra­ham and Bert first pro­moted the shoes, shops in Mel­bourne were in­un­dated with cus­tomers want­ing to buy a pair.

But one night not long after start­ing at Nine, Bert, im­pec­ca­bly turned out as al­ways, wan­dered on to the In Mel­bourne Tonight set dur­ing the show; the space was open, with Gra­ham lurk­ing in the back­ground, away from his desk. Bert: “Good evening. I’m Bert New­ton.” Gra­ham (open palm to his mouth like a fair­ground spruiker) shout­ing: “Big deal.”

Mel­bourne had never seen live tele­vi­sion like it as the night un­folded, un­scripted, im­promptu and joy­ous. It was a pro­pi­tious be­gin­ning; although nights fol­lowed that were less aus­pi­cious, Bert and Gra­ham so quickly pulled to­gether in the com­mer­cial spots that an act was born that would last for years in dif­fer­ent in­car­na­tions.

Gra­ham and an­nouncer Ge­off Corke, bet­ter known as “Corkie” to his many fans, had been ca­sual and funny in their im­promptu chats on air in the early days of the show, but Gra­ham and Bert be­came the­atre as their dou­ble act de­vel­oped, Kennedy the dis­rup­tive clown de­liv­er­ing the first jest; the more dig­ni­fied New­ton with the next two up his sleeve. It was like a com­edy ver­sion of ten­nis, the eyes of agog view­ers mov­ing back and forth be­tween the pair as they fol­lowed the repar­tee. At times, though, the viewer never quite knew who to look at — there was so much hap­pen­ing as Gra­ham and Bert sparred, thriv­ing on a con­stant diet of ri­poste, slight and mock­ery. From an in­stinc­tive un­der­stand­ing born out of years of im­pro­vis­ing on ra­dio, they worked from an am­bigu­ous blend of an­tipa­thy and good fel­low­ship.

Bert usu­ally main­tained a straight face but Gra­ham would fre­quently col­lapse be­hind his back, over­come with snide laugh­ter. While ri­valry and an­tag­o­nism fu­elled their act, any dis­agree­ment be­tween them was su­per­fi­cial, fleet­ing, a pre­text for the next gag and noth­ing more. Or so it al­ways seemed.

As the show went on, how­ever, many at Nine had doubts. Their spar­ring wasn’t only ver­bal — it was, from the start, phys­i­cal as well. They piggy-backed each other, rode and jumped all over each other like mon­keys, pushed over the sets, up­ended the desk, punched, slapped and threw boxes of prod­ucts at one another, and chased each other into the au­di­ence. They bopped and jived like bobby sox­ers and cool cats. They threw pies at each other, worked sketches and of­ten sang to­gether.

“With­out you, I’m zero,” sang Gra­ham to Bert. “With­out you, I’m mi­nus,” replied Bert.

“Gra­ham had to be in con­trol of the show. He worked so well be­cause when he was be­hind that desk it was the only time in his life when he felt like him­self,” for­mer cam­era­man Don Ben­netts says.

An aura of sex­ual am­bi­gu­ity sur­rounded the pair. Some­times they danced to­gether like a hap­pily mar­ried cou­ple. There were the limp­wristed jokes, known as “vel­vet hu­mour”, tar­get­ing sex­ual per­sua­sions; and a great deal of camp­ness, some of it risky. But they did their ver­sion of pie night — clubby, blokey hu­mour — in a straight-faced way. “There was a com­mer­cial for the Gloweave shirt company that Bert did with Gra­ham as a reg­u­lar sketch, re­ally,” says Hugh Stuckey, one of Gra­ham’s first writ­ers. “The shirt was sup­posed to be in­de­struc­tible so they chal­lenged the sup­po­si­tion. They poured gal­lons of wa­ter over it, set fire to it, ripped it to shreds. The next days the sales went through the roof.”

Spencer was al­ways warn­ing against “blue” jokes. But the tongues of Gra­ham and Bert in­creas­ingly ran away with them. There was some­thing vis­ceral about the pair. When they were on the same set, per­form­ing live, it was as if each had swal­lowed a pow­er­ful mag­net that drew him to the other.

The jester’s cap and

bells be­came

in­ter- change­able be­tween them, and nei­ther was strictly des­ig­nated as comic or straight man. They could ef­fort­lessly shift the fo­cus, swap­ping the in­tel­li­gence of the sup­posed fool with the id­iocy in­vested in the self-im­por­tant straight man. Some­times, of course, they went too far; the au­di­ence — if not al­ways the man­age­ment — loved it. So did the crew.

Ev­ery ra­dio man in Mel­bourne un­der­stood the tech­niques. “Lis­ten to the line of a con­ver­sa­tion, go with it, and then un­ex­pect­edly twist it around in another di­rec­tion when an open­ing came,” is how Ernie Car­roll, then a GTV9 cam­era­man who would be­come one of Gra­ham’s writ­ers, de­scribes it.

Gra­ham seemed in­ca­pable of shar­ing a scene with Bert with­out cracking up. Whether he was do­ing his shuf­fling old man or one of his many other run­ning char­ac­ters with their lisps and wheezes and ar­cane ac­cents, if he and the al­ways ur­bane Bert made eye con­tact, the lit­tle host was down for the count. The taller Bert would gaze down at Gra­ham, fix­ing him with a blank stare, as Gra­ham tried in vain to get off his line, just to say some­thing, his face con­torted in comic agony, his rigid body rip­pling with in­sup­press­ible snick­er­ing. By then, the au­di­ence both in the stu­dio and at home was in tears, direc­tors hap­pily cut­ting away to peo­ple in the live au­di­ence some­times quite lit­er­ally rolling in the aisles.

It is a gen­er­ous act by a comic ac­tor to let the au­di­ence see him break character: it means he is com­fort­able enough in his skin to let the other ac­tor have his mo­ment. Gra­ham and Bert knew that some­times the best way to get some­one else to laugh is sim­ply to let them see you do­ing it. But Bert rarely broke character, though the ef­fort he took in hold­ing it could also re­duce Kennedy to help­less laugh­ter. Some­times Gra­ham pointed at his part­ner, tears in his eyes, try­ing to make him lose his dead­pan ex­pres­sion, mostly to no avail. This was the joy­ful value of Bert New­ton to Gra­ham Kennedy.

Bert was a money-in-the-bank “sec­ond ba­nana”, equally in his el­e­ment with tricky ver­bal or some­times quite dan­ger­ous phys­i­cal com­edy; give him a com­bi­na­tion of both and he was rolled gold to Nine. For all the ev­i­dent en­joy­ment Gra­ham took in their dou­ble act, there was an edge to the re­la­tion­ship at times. Some­one as com­pli­cated as Kennedy wasn’t go­ing to let Bert for­get who was on top of their hi­er­ar­chy. Some­times you could follow Bert’s eyes as he tried to cor­ner Gra­ham who would be im­i­tat­ing him slightly off cam­era, or par­o­dy­ing his phys­i­cal de­meanour from be­hind. He knew some­thing was up, that he was be­ing used as a patsy, but had to keep rolling all the same. OUT of the blue, in 1975, Bert re­ceived a phone call at home from di­rec­tor and pro­ducer Peter Faiman ask­ing if he would like to work on a na­tional Tonight show for the Nine Net­work with the Amer­i­can Don Lane. Bert was dumb­founded and asked Faiman to wait a mo­ment while he turned off an imag­i­nary ket­tle.

He told wife Patti about the call, and that he didn’t want to work with Lane. After his long­stand­ing part­ner­ship with Kennedy, Bert was wor­ried that he would find it next to im­pos­si­ble to work with any­one else in the same almost tele­pathic way. He later ex­plained his re­luc­tance in relation to Lane him­self: “I was so close to say­ing, ‘No, I’m not go­ing to work with him.’ I thought Don Lane was brash, a loud­mouth.” Bert’s new wife asked him to con­sider his sit­u­a­tion: he was con­tracted to a net­work but now had no show. What did he have to lose? After con­sid­er­a­tion, he chose to work with Lane. Lane had a great sense of hu­mour and he gave Bert the fa­mous nick­name “Moon­face”. “What a won­der­ful coun­try it is when a lanky New York Jew can come here and team up with a tubby Mel­bourne Catholic and form a duo that is more per­son­able, more en­ter­tain­ing than even Mike and Mal Ley­land,” joked Paul Ho­gan, one of Lane’s friends. His ironic quip ref­er­enced the knock­about Ley­land Brothers, whose TV se­ries Ask the Ley­land Brothers first aired in 1976. They trav­elled Aus­tralia and New Zealand, vis­it­ing un­likely places in re­sponse to view­ers’ ques­tions. Lane also re­flected on the force of their dou­ble act. “We were magic from the time [Bert] walked out from the cur­tain,” Lane said. “You don’t try to ex­plain those things. You just take them and you use them and you en­joy them, and most of all you ap­pre­ci­ate them be­cause they don’t hap­pen of­ten, they hap­pen once in a rare while.”

For his part, Bert cred­ited Lane with rein­vent­ing the va­ri­ety show, say­ing that with­out him the genre may not have sur­vived. “I think va­ri­ety would have died early in the piece,” he said. “Don was cer­tainly the most gen­er­ous per­former that I worked with; he didn’t mind where the laughs were com­ing from and who was get­ting the laughs.”

With Lane, Bert was even more re­laxed as a per­former, now in close con­trol of the medium,

Novem­ber 1-2, 2014

Bert New­ton, right, with Gra­ham Kennedy on

and with Don Lane on

be­low

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