Resilient man behind the sunny Moonface
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-
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