October 2020

The Nation Reviewed

Lost for words

By Anthony Ham

Bryan Dawe on life without John Clarke

When we lost John Clarke on April 9, 2017, Bryan Dawe also disappeared from our TV screens. For three decades he had been a fixture, part of the most enduring comic double act in modern Australian history.

In a year when reasons for laughter have been in pretty short supply, Clarke and Dawe’s mix of biting satire, impeccable timing and onscreen chemistry have been sorely missed. One can only imagine what they might have said about the prime minister’s trip to Hawaii while the country burned, and about politicians of all stripes posturing over the Ruby Princess, hotel quarantine and the aged-care system.

Dawe feels the absence, too. “It does feel as if we have stopped laughing because everything is so damned overwhelming. We’re all just bogged down in so much noise. We go back into our hole. We don’t have a lot of time to find the irony.”

Without Clarke and Dawe, it is easy to imagine that these bigger issues are too serious for comedy, that the role of the comedian is to offer escape instead of engagement. Dawe disagrees. “Comedy is easy to do now because it’s light – they let you off the hook. If you’re going to do satire, you’ve got to do your homework. And it’s got to hurt somewhere. It shouldn’t be personal. But it’s got to hurt. Some people do satire, but they’re attacking the victim, not the perpetrator.”

But Dawe doubts whether he and Clarke could even find a place in the current media environment – whether there is a space left for comedians to call politicians to account for their hubris. “The problem you’ve got now is that the ABC is offering up its own self-censorship in a brilliant way. People don’t have to be told they can’t touch that subject. They just know what’s going to happen if they do.”

Back when Clarke and Dawe were on our screens, which is not really so long ago, things were different. With a platform free from interference, the two old friends were, like Monty Python in its heyday, having great fun making serious comedy. And, over time, it became second nature. Which is why, of course, Clarke and Dawe worked.

“We did have a lot of fun. It got to the point where I could just pick up a script and I’d know where the beats were. [Clarke] would observe my tone as I picked it up and observe how I dealt with it. He didn’t direct me as to how he thought this thing should go. He just let me read it, and he’d trust me. There was never a discussion.”

At the heart of it all lay a very special friendship, to the extent that you can imagine Clarke and Dawe continuing even after the cameras were turned off. “If yakking had been an Olympic sport, John would have won gold for two countries,” Dawe says. “We both loved talking. He had the depth of understanding about history. John was interested in people because he wanted their view of the world. That’s why he was so damned good. That’s a rare thing. That’s what I miss. I’d bring stuff to the table he didn’t know about, and he’d do the same.”

For Dawe, Clarke’s death was intensely personal. “Apart from my parents dying, that was the most painful part of my life. I lost more than just John and the work. The work was easy. It was all the other stuff with John that was really, really important. I respected his opinion about the world more than anyone else … When my wife at the time and I talked about having a second child, I was so unsure. So I rang John one night – it was very early on, when we just started working together – and I put it to him. I maintain that if I recorded that conversation, his answer, and replayed it on radio, there would have been a baby boom that year. He made it sound like it was the most wonderful thing. Our son turned up out of that conversation. When you lose something like that, you lose —”

Unusually, Dawe finds himself lost for words.

There was also a professional grief, and Dawe knew immediately that there was no substitute for Clarke. “When you’ve worked with the best…” His voice trails off. “People have approached me. I just didn’t answer. There’s no way. We had nearly 30 years together. It’s there. It’s on the record. It’s a bit like when you do the remake of a movie – it doesn’t work. It never works.”

Many Australians felt the loss almost as personally: as Dawe mourned, so too did the nation. For a time after Clarke died, Dawe carried the burden of his own grief and of becoming the focal point of a profound national grief – one that took many commentators by surprise.

“I couldn’t go out of my house. There was not one day where I didn’t have someone talk about us. I had to stop working. I couldn’t cope.”

Dawe fled to Tangier, in Morocco. It was there, where no one knew Clarke, that Dawe was able to heal. “Tangier is about reinvention,” says Dawe. “I didn’t set out to do that, but it just gave me that breathing space. I hadn’t reflected on John’s death six months after he died, because I didn’t have time, didn’t have the space to do it. In Tangier I was able to switch off while I was there.” Dawe was born in Port Adelaide and is still drawn to the intrigue of port cities. “That’s why I love Tangier. And I love port towns because they’re so used to people coming and going. They’re far less judgemental. They ask no questions.”

While he was in Tangier, Dawe threw himself into local life, befriending barbers and shoe shiners, passing days in the Gran Cafe de Paris, the famed haunt of spies and intellectuals for more than a century. “Casablanca, the film, is really about Tangier,” says Dawe. He also immersed himself in creating the multimedia or digital artworks that are now his passion.

Dawe had always been something of a Renaissance man, a restless creative unbound by genres or artistic norms and a man of voracious appetites. In addition to comedy and politics, he has made important contributions to the world of music, public speaking, photography and, now, the visual arts. In Tangier, through his art, he also found healing and solace.

“The art gave me a release from having to think about losing John. That’s the big one. I’d already had an exhibition in Tangier a year and a half before. I just focused on the art and came back with three exhibitions.”

He knew that he had to return and face an Australia without Clarke, but time had brought if not a measure of healing then of space. “It was only when I got off the plane coming back, and I literally didn’t get out of the airport before I said, ‘Oh my God!’ And then I had to learn how to deal with that.”

Dawe now enjoys being out of the limelight, although he maintains the right to occasionally stick his head above the parapet. “Most of the time, I don’t bother commenting, because you just get the moronic brigade writing crap. I don’t engage. But every now and then something annoys me, and I just throw it out there and go away.”

Most recently he has maintained a busy schedule of digital art exhibitions, with plans for an online exhibition before the end of the year (at bryandawe.com). In the process of creating art, Dawe remains the same man who sat across from John Clarke for three decades, having a ball, trying not to laugh. “I love it. It’s a bit like writing – you hate it and you love it all at the same time. It’s the means of staying alive in the water. I can sit here in the dark, in the middle of winter, and just start playing.”

Raconteur. Provocateur. Commentator on the state of our nation. Bryan Dawe is not done yet.

Anthony Ham

Anthony Ham writes about wildlife, conservation and current affairs for magazines and newspapers around the world.

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