Re­silient man be­hind the sunny Moon­face

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Louis Nowra

Bert: The Story of Aus­tralia’s Favourite TV Star By Graeme Blun­dell Ha­chette, 376pp, $45 (HB) FOR decades he was a be­nign spec­tral pres­ence in the cor­ner of Aus­tralian liv­ing rooms, so even though go­ing on his day­time tele­vi­sion show would not sell a copy of a book my wife Mandy Sayer and I had edited, we de­cided to ap­pear. Bert New­ton’s au­di­ence was mums, grannies and the un­em­ployed, not ex­actly the tar­get mar­ket for a book about Kings Cross. But I was cu­ri­ous to see up close a man who had been a TV star since I was a kid, while Mandy went on be­cause it was her mother’s favourite pro­gram.

I knew his nick­name was Moon­face and when I greeted Bert on the set I could see why. His thick make-up gave him the ap­pear­ance of an orange moon and his head was a grid of hair plugs that re­sem­bled a minia­ture tree plan­ta­tion with no un­der­growth.

The in­ter­view cruised along smoothly. When the ad break came I ex­pected him to turn his at­ten­tion else­where but he leaned for­ward, his cheery dis­po­si­tion gone, to be re­placed by melan­choly. ‘‘You know, Louis, when I was at a dark point in my life, I wan­dered into a cin­ema where your film Cosi was show­ing. It made me laugh and saved me from despair.’’ Then the break was over and Bert re­turned to his sunny self.

It was a dis­con­cert­ing mo­ment but the in­ter­view only con­firmed for me the at­trac­tivess of his ef­fort­less charm and his mel­liflu­ous voice. As far as Mandy’s mother was con­cerned her daugh­ter’s ap­pear­ance on Bert’s show meant she had made it; there was no higher ac­co­lade.

Graeme Blun­dell wrote a won­der­ful biog­ra­phy of Gra­ham Kennedy and it’s only nat­u­ral that he has now writ­ten one about Bert, who with Kennedy made up the great­est dou­ble act in Aus­tralian TV his­tory.

Bert was the prod­uct of a typ­i­cal work­ing­class up­bring­ing in Mel­bourne, de­vel­op­ing at an early age an am­bi­tion to be on ra­dio. By his early 20s he, like Kennedy, was a ra­dio star. The in­tro­duc­tion of TV into Aus­tralia in 1956 changed the face of en­ter­tain­ment. Kennedy be­came fa­mous com­per­ing the TV va­ri­ety show In Mel­bourne Tonight, but it was when he was paired with Bert that the show re­ally took off.

They were an odd cou­ple. Kennedy was thin with goo­gly-eyes, con­flicted about his sex­u­al­ity and mis­an­thropic. Hand­some Bert was het­ero­sex­ual and gre­gar­i­ous. He played the straight man with amaz­ing as­sur­ance. Au­di­ences liked or loathed Kennedy, but ev­ery­one loved Bert — es­pe­cially women, who found him un­threat­en­ing. Their hu­mour was based on ri­poste, gen­tle mock­ery and a fond­ness for camp.

Bert’s schtick was a kind of baf­fled inno- cence. Kennedy was a dan­ger­ous co­me­dian of men­ace and un­pre­dictabil­ity. This bal­ance of op­po­sites, like the great comic dou­ble acts, worked be­cause Bert was as good a comic as Kennedy and his tim­ing was im­pec­ca­ble.

Even just read­ing about the work­load the two men bore dur­ing the late 1950s and early 60s is ex­haust­ing: five TV shows a week, plus week­day morn­ing ra­dio shows. It’s no won­der Bert had the oblig­a­tory ner­vous break­down.

Blun­dell is ex­cel­lent in de­scrib­ing Bert’s slow re­cov­ery and re­turn to the de­mands of live TV. His part­ner­ship with Kennedy broke up and Bert’s solo shows proved fail­ures. When it seemed to ev­ery­one that he had lost his mojo, two things hap­pened. He be­came a host of TV spe­cials like the Lo­gies, where his abil­ity to han­dle drunken guests and amuse cyn­i­cal au­di­ences was leg­endary. Then, in the late 70s, he teamed up with an en­ter­tainer from Las Ve­gas called Don Lane. Bert used Lane as a straight man, the very op­po­site of his work­ing relation-

Mel­bourne Tonight

In ship with Kennedy. Lane could work only from a tight script. Bert could ad-lib with a tim­ing Jack Benny would have en­vied and he de­vel­oped a de­li­cious sense of irony about him­self.

This was Bert’s golden age. He had mar­ried Patti, a fel­low per­former, and found home life to be a nec­es­sary haven from the crazi­ness of show­biz. After his time with Lane, he gained a new au­di­ence on day­time TV. His drink­ing would oc­ca­sion­ally get out of hand and it seems the ‘‘dark’’ days he re­ferred to in my in­ter­view was in 1993 when he was near bank­ruptcy and owed nearly $1 mil­lion after gambling away a for­tune on the gee-gees.

What amazes the reader is just how re­silient Bert has been. His TV dis­as­ters, heart prob­lems and gambling ad­dic­tion would have de­feated many a man, but he is the great sur­vivor of tele­vi­sion, be­com­ing a per­ma­nent pres­ence in that most im­per­ma­nent of medi­ums.

Bert and Patti be­came, as Blun­dell writes, ‘‘a cheesy brand of celebrity roy­alty’’, but even that fa­cade cracked when their son, Matthew, a tal­ented ac­tor, was found to have a his­tory of vi­o­lence to­wards women. Bert and Patti’s ap­pear­ance on TV where they tried to ex­plain their son’s ac­tions was ex­cru­ci­at­ing. They seemed de­mented with guilt and con­fu­sion.

Bert is now 76 and per­forms in mu­si­cals play­ing small but sig­nif­i­cant roles, bring­ing in an au­di­ence that has come es­pe­cially to see him. He still likes to be en­joyed and there is a sense that he would sooner die than not per­form. But, as Blun­dell as­tutely ob­serves, one of the rea­sons Bert con­tin­ues to per­form is that he has a gen­uine fascination with what causes peo­ple to laugh, ‘‘as if he still can’t stop ex­am­in­ing the mir­a­cle of per­for­mance it­self’’.

At times you sus­pect that Blun­dell knows more than he lets on, but then Bert is alive and some lawyers en­joy books be­ing pulped. De­spite this, the biog­ra­phy is de­light­ful and in­fused with a gen­uine warmth. But it’s Blun­dell’s ded­i­ca­tion “To all the old TV comics” that points to one of the best fea­tures of the book. His anal­y­sis of TV com­edy and how it works is fas­ci­nat­ing, and his own back­ground as a per­former gives his views a unique authenticity.

Blun­dell’s bi­ogra­phies of Kennedy and Bert com­prise a bril­liant ex­am­i­na­tion of the im­por­tance of th­ese men in our popular cul­ture and give us a rare in­sight into the na­ture of com­edy. To­gether they are an im­pres­sive achieve­ment.

Clock­wise from left, Bert New­ton (right) with Gra­ham Kennedy on

in 1964; with wife Patti; and with Don Lane

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.