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
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
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