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Remembering John Clarke

Read Friday, 14 Apr 2017

Australia’s finest satirist and one of its most admired writers, John Clarke, died last week. Kaz Cooke pays tribute.

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Photo of John Clarke and Kaz Cooke
John Clarke and Kaz Cooke

That’s John Clarke in the photo, obviously. I’m the other one, interviewing him about his new TV show The Fast Lane in 1985. He told me to look distracted while he pretended to be a celebrity wanker, drinking Champagne and boring me to my eternal rest on a salmon couch.

I said there was nothing convincing about that scenario. But I did it anyway, because it made me laugh. And because John Clarke told me to.

John emanated ready mischief. He had an industrial-strength twinkle in his eye and served his funny up with a garnish of clever. As a writer, he worked until whatever he was creating was note perfect – whether it was a rhythmic homage to a famous poet, his flensing ‘interviews’ with politicians, or something in fluent Runyonese. Show me an editor who says they could get the point of a scalpel into a John Clarke sentence, or rearrange a word of his that improved matters, and I’ll show you somebody whose trousers will shortly set the curtains alight.

As a writer, he worked until whatever he was creating was note perfect.

When we met, I was a gormless, 20-year-old cadet reporter assigned to the Age finance pages. I was tasked to collect investment tips from bankers and celebrities. I bribed somebody to get John Clarke’s number. ‘Yeah, righto. I’ll work something up and call you back.’ He did, with a word-perfect riff. I didn’t know the shorthand for ‘compassionate futures market’.

He dropped by my desk a few weeks later and made me laugh, and told me about his family. Within six months, I was exchanging faxed letters and drawings with his daughters Lucia, then six, and Lorin, who was ten. An interview with him published around that time misnamed his wife Helen. I’d write ‘Love to Marigold’, or ‘How is Susan (or Beryl)?’ Detailed answers would ensue: ‘Lurlene is well as can be expected …’

‘If you have the floor, you should have something to say,’ John said, quietly, after watching somebody who had only sorted the floor part.

Liked a chat. Loved to write. Read like a mofo. But none of your ‘words were the love of his life’ business, thanks. The love of John’s life was Helen. ‘How did you meet?’ I once asked. ‘At a party in London. I was with a whole bunch of yobbos and she thought I was a compleeete idiot.’ ‘Is that true, Helen?’ ‘Yes. He was a complete idiot. Still is, a lot of the time.’ John was looking at her, grinning. 

He confirmed for me that being funny was just as important as being serious. ‘If you have the floor, you should have something to say,’ John said, quietly, after watching somebody who had only sorted the floor part. He relished finding different styles in which to say things: poetry, TV series scripts, sports reports, a teacher addressing a class, a tennis tournament of cultural celebrities, stage monologues, documentaries, an office memo, a feature film.

At one point, we both had weekend columns in the Age. Above each column was a ‘dinkus’, the same dull headshot every week. I started using a different file photo each week – of Alwyn Kurts, Rita Hayworth, Yuri Gagarin. John’s dinkus then started to change too: one week a close-up of the top of his head and a bit of eyebrow, the next, just his left ear. We never discussed it. 

He enjoyed so many things. That joke about the guy who gets the box put over his head when he goes to the optometrist. The thing Tallulah Bankhead said to Chico Marx. The time the Clarkes went house hunting and a prep-aged Lucia said loudly, ‘I think the people who live here are R.I.T.C.H.’ When an even tinier Lorin asked, ‘Dad, would it be funny if I said … this?’, wanting to learn how to make him laugh. 

Can you imagine how many banks and beer companies he refused to advertise? Who else will say what politicians are really doing, to their faces?

John’s moral compass was glued true North. Can you imagine how many banks and beer companies he refused to advertise? Who else will say what politicians are really doing, to their faces? His political ‘interviews’, in which his accomplice Bryan Dawe questioned him in the invisible guise of a politician or public figure, were once on Channel 9. Legend says that soon after Kerry Packer repurchased the network, John strolled in to record his weekly bit. Several screens in control rooms and offices showed it being recorded as it was sent live to Sydney. Executives and producers started running down corridors screaming at technicians to turn off the images of John Clarke, being Kerry Packer, with a stocking over his head.

Along with the fearlessness and the enthusiasms and the perfect sharp asides, he was constantly kind. When I mispronounced the word segue as ‘seeg’ in a phone conversation, he waited a couple of minutes and casually dropped it back in, pronounced correctly.

John noticed women’s work. He championed Wendy Harmer’s airtime at The Gillies Report; loved the Big Girl’s Blouse TV series and snaffled Gina Riley for The Games. He understood Marg Downey’s subversive gravitas in comedy and adored the surreal duo Miss Itchy. I heard about the writer Lindy West from him. He had a theory about why Mrs Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was often misunderstood.

He knew ‘the woman on reception’ was often the manager, or ‘the brains of the outfit’, hence the brilliant character played by Debra Lawrance in The Fast Lane. In his adaptation of Shane Maloney’s Stiff, John played a Dad wearing a non-masculine apron, striding around a chaotic house dealing with kids and dinner and visitors. Not as joke-drag; as a sliver of real family life.

Photo of John Clarke as Fred Dagg
Clarke as Fred Dagg

John wasn’t perfect: he liked golf. But he was a backroom schemer or collaborative front man for many wildlife fundraisers and the campaign to save the Fitzroy Pool, and he found a publisher for Burma Railway survivor Ray Parkin’s extraordinary book about Captain Cook’s ship.

Somebody who wrote an appreciation of John’s work this week said he never wore a wig, unaware of the progressively more baroque coiffs he sported in an old newsreader sketch. But that’s okay. Everyone has their own John – from a different era, an earlier book, another show, or all those times that, as a man in demand, he said no while somehow leaving the inquirer with a sense of a happy connection.

Remember that T-shirt he designed and used to wear saying ‘ABC Programme Prevention Officer’, followed by a stratospheric salary range in brackets? How about his buoyant spirit on the set of The Games while writing, directing, producing and doing other jobs, always asking other people about themselves? ‘If you’re going to be reincarnated, you’d want to come back as Annie Maver’s dog,’ he said, about the First Assistant Director.

An unfeasibly large number of people will miss him in different ways; across Australia and New Zealand and elsewhere, from TV viewers and radio listeners to everyone who ever worked with him; from irregular chat cronies and close friends to family, including the grandchildren he cherished, and his sister Anna, reliably also regarded as a corker.

I haven’t kept nearly enough of our ridiculous correspondence. Faxes have faded to powdery blank pages, emails wiped. What survives is suddenly more precious.

We sent hundreds of short exchanges to each other over the years, writing as advance scouts for a Baz Luhrmann film, dealing with instructions such as ‘move the river’; we wrote as a series of neighbours on farms trying to work out who’d borrowed what (secateurs, a tractor, Tupperware) and how it could be picked up, touching on a Humber Vogue, sideburns, a zip-down toiletries bag, owls, and grapefruit marmalade not setting. That started with a link to Lord Tweedsmuir’s obituary.  

John would sign his emails Avery Warmnight, Trousers O’Hearn or Fern Malley, and I’d call myself something like Peridot Cunard. Perhaps our shortest exchange was when I wrote, ‘Skirl?’ He replied: ‘Och’. I’m sure a great many other people shared an equally silly and treasured correspondence with him.

Like many people, I last saw John at the launch of Lorin’s picture book. I saw him watch the way his grown-up daughters briefly consulted each other about what to do with the watermelon. He loved how close they were. As usual, he looked like a bookie in 1949 who’d been winning all day – in a checked hat and a tweedy jacket, with the camera round his neck.

We stood at the back of the bookshop and talked about Dorothy Parker while we shepherded toddlers away from the door to the road. We arranged to have a proper catch-up. When little Henry, the son of the director of the Wheeler Centre, went briefly head-first onto a bookshelf, John said: ‘Typical. Michael Williams’s child has suffered a book-related injury.’

When I left, John was a way up the street, laughing with some people I didn’t know. We caught each other’s eye. He raised his chin, and waved, and shouted ‘See you in June!’ Light of heart, I shouted back, ‘See you in June!’

More than 30 years is a long time to be pals. But not long enough.

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