Among the many thousands of words written in the days after Graham Kennedy died, one memory recurred like a refrain: Kennedy’s uncanny gift for TV. “Because it was a new medium,” said Stuart Wagstaff, “very few people knew how to handle it; for some inexplicable reason, Graham did.” John Mangos, the last person to work regularly on-camera with Kennedy, said: “You could put him in a studio blindfolded, spin him around, and when he stopped he’d be talking to the camera with the little red light on.”
Of the many things that made Kennedy a TV natural, the most obvious was his rare combination of a great gift for physical comedy and a lightning-fast wit. It’s a very good start if you want to entertain people who can both hear and see you, and it’s something Kennedy shared with Barry Humphries, his exact contemporary. The obituary run by The Times called it a “droll coincidence” that two of Australia’s greatest comedians should have been born only two days and a handful of suburbs apart. Whoever wrote it seems not to have considered the possibility that two brilliant blokes born in the same place at the same time might be expected, after all, to grow up along roughly the same lines.
There were, however, some dramatic differences. Humphries, the son of solidly married middle-class parents, grew up in a handsome house built by his father, went to Melbourne Grammar and thence to university, and was supplied at every point with sufficient parental funds to buy whatever books and records he wanted. By 1958 Humphries was on the boat to London, where his career in theatre flourished as it deserved. Kennedy spent his early childhood in a house with a dirt floor, watching his parents fight. “They belted each other,” he recalled in middle age. “I know we were too poor to buy a Dr Spock book, but isn’t it amazing that you instinctively wouldn’t know not to fight in front of your children?” Finally his father left for good, taking with him the money set aside for his only child’s education. His friend Tony Sattler recalled that in later life Kennedy had been known to retrieve the bay leaves from casseroles he’d made and sit them on the windowsill to dry out, so he could use them again. “That’s childhood poverty talking,” he would say.
Unwilling or unable to concentrate on any of his school subjects except those he loved – English expression and art – and desperate to get into whatever form of show business would have him, Kennedy left school at 15 and went to work, first for ABC radio and then at 3UZ. While Humphries spent his university years cutting classes to concentrate on his theatre work, Kennedy regretted his own lack of a university education all his adult life. Both these Melbourne sons of the Depression – gifted actors, hair-trigger humorists, passionate music-lovers, laser-witted ad-libbers and heavy hitters of the bottle – were merciless satirists of all things conventional, fake-genteel or naff. To both of them the prim, grey, stitched-up and unrelentingly materialistic Melbourne of the 1950s was a sitting duck, and both, during their formative years, lined it up in their comic sights.
But while Humphries was creating Edna Everage, the personification of 1950s Australian suburban philistinism who first appeared on a Melbourne stage in 1955, Kennedy was sitting at the 3UZ microphone playing straight-man to his mentor Clifford Nicholls ‘Nicky’ Whitta. Far from savagely satirising the housewives of Melbourne, Whitta loved and understood them. It was to them, listening to the wireless during their weekday labours over sink and stove, that he and his young offsider spoke. They called their listeners “Mum” and “Darl” and “Love” – is this where Phillip Adams’s “Gladdies” come from? – and treated them, says Graeme Blundell in his excellent biography of Kennedy, “as knowing equals, unlike the men their audience cooked and cleaned for”. By the time Whitta died in 1956, Kennedy had learned enough from him about audiences and advertising to carry this new radio experience across to TV.
Humphries sailed away and went on the London stage; Kennedy stayed home and went on Melbourne TV, making it all up as he went along, and in the process making his name almost synonymous with the medium. In the late 1950s and early 60s, as more and more households acquired a set, TV brought to Australian children of the era a fundamentally different way of thinking about the world and our own place in it. I was six when our TV set arrived – powered by the generator, since the farmhouse at the end of the dirt track didn’t yet have mains electricity – and through the small grey window in the corner of the lounge room we could watch The Flintstones, Gunsmoke, Leave it to Beaver (a title that Kennedy would have loved), I Love Lucy, In Melbourne Tonight or the Anzac Day parade, in which, if we were lucky, we could pick out our fathers’ faces as they marched past the cameras.
All of this was homogenised by TV, reduced to the same hypnotic monochrome rectangle that put our lives into a hitherto undreamed-of international context. Kennedy was an important link in the chain. He was not a cartoon character (although he frequently looked and behaved like one); he was not an actor in funny clothes, pretending to be somebody else; he was not American or English, and he did not aspire to be either. He was a real person operating in real time, in a place that was less than a day’s drive away, and his accent was the same as ours.
His relationship with the TV audience was grounded in a kind of confidentiality. He gave the impression that he was somehow conspiring with the viewer to the exclusion of everyone else: the sponsors, the writers, the station owners, the other performers, the world in general. His grimaces, grins, raised eyebrows and rolled eyes to camera were all part of it, and what they said to the viewer was: “You and I know better, don’t we?” As he had learned to do from Nicky Whitta, he treated his audience as “knowing equals”, and the fact that they could now see as well as hear him made it easier. Some thought he could see them too; such was his gift for televisual intimacy that the Channel Nine director Colin Bednall’s elderly mother, who had a TV set in her bedroom, used to pull the blankets up to her eyes whenever Kennedy appeared on the screen, convinced that he could see her.
When he began his career on it, TV was so new that it had no established conventions, and it was in this chaotic space that Kennedy shone. He brought with him techniques he had acquired in radio. He learned voraciously from the old vaudeville and Tivoli-circuit pros – especially Joff Ellen – with whom he worked. But he understood that these techniques needed to be adapted and transformed for TV. Throughout his 35 years on screen, boundaries were there to be pushed; there were crow calls to be made, sponsors to be given apoplexy, unspeakably blue innuendoes to be let loose into the public air. As he said one night to a viewer: “There are no limits, love, no limits.” At the end of his career, on Graham Kennedy’s News Show and then on Coast to Coast, he created a new kind of televisual hybrid: the serious, authoritative, slightly hushed tone of the news broadcast was constantly undercut by jokes, gags, ad libs and slapstick. Very strangely, for a professional and perfectionist who insisted on rehearsing everything, he thrived on disorder and disaster. “That’s what I love. Panic is like peaches and cream to me.”
One of the reasons for Kennedy’s immediate success on TV was that he never made the mistake of treating it as if it were something else. He never looked for a moment, as so many other early TV presenters did, like an uncomfortably displaced performer from radio or the stage. He quickly mastered the workings of a TV studio and was impatient with technicians who knew less than he did about their jobs. Perhaps because he understood so well how it was created, he loved subverting the surface of TV, closing the gap between illusion and reality, exposing its inner workings. He was forever dragging some hapless writer in front of the camera, or talking to off-camera technicians, or marching over to the autocue and incorporating it into a sketch or a live ad. On his late-night news show Coast to Coast he would destroy the illusion, and send up the convention, of the impeccably dressed current-affairs presenter by occasionally standing up behind his desk to reveal himself clad only in jocks below the waist. Right from the beginning, he habituated his audience to the medium by showing us how it worked. He was a one-man course in media studies, decades before the phrase had been coined.
This disruption of illusion became central to everything he did. In his classic Henry VIII sketch, the one in which he repeatedly throws a piece of chicken onto the carpet and then orders his faithful counsellor – Bert Newton, in one of those floppy Elizabethan hats that look like a big shower cap – to pick it up, he has a wonderful monologue at the end of the sketch as the King lies dying: “The dark angel of Death awaits to gather me to his bosom. Go away, dark angel of Death, and take your bosom with you.” Subsiding melodramatically onto the four-poster bed, he emits a series of heart-rending groans, then suddenly sits bolt upright and grins proudly at the camera. “You don’t see good acting like this anymore. I mean, this is first-class stuff, this is.”
TV advertising in the early days took up even more time than it does now; Kennedy’s signature schtick was to subvert it, as he had learned to do with Nicky Whitta on the radio. He explained to Ray Martin, in a prickly 1994 interview, that the trick was to trash the product in such a way that people would not actually be discouraged from buying it. Considering some of the unspeakable things he did with food in particular, this now seems hard to believe, but sponsors soon cottoned on to the fact that if Kennedy had been hurling their product abusively around the set the night before, punters would be queuing up next morning to buy it. Again, the unpalatable truth would erupt through the smooth surface of the advertising copy, with Kennedy making vomit noises as he extolled with patent insincerity the virtues of blueberry yoghurt, or of vanilla slices made with Sao biscuits (“Sounds like dysentery, doesn’t it?”).
Watching some of that footage now, it’s hard not to see Kennedy as some kind of subversive pre-feminist, an antipodean Betty Friedan in his exposure of the way capitalism was keeping women in a state of domestic incarceration, stupefied into submission by never-ending supplies of biscuits, tinned puddings and unfortunately-named cat food (“Pussy in a can – what will they think of next?”). In his treatment of live ads, Kennedy proceeded from the basic assumption that the consumers at whom these ads were aimed – mostly women – knew perfectly well when the sponsors were taking them for idiots.
Not all women liked him, especially in the “blue period” of Blankety Blanks or the late-night news shows on which, by this time well into his fifties, he had begun to reveal his darker side. There was a certain kind of decent, modest Australian mum who was made uncomfortable by the smut. And nothing would be easier than to write a brisk, dismissive feminist analysis of the interminable “Big Dick, Clever Dick” routines with Ugly Dave Gray on Blankety Blanks. But for the most part women viewers realised, subconsciously or otherwise, that Kennedy’s sexuality didn’t involve them, and in some way that put him on their side. Moreover, as a member of a marginalised group, he was instinctively recognised by women of the era as a fellow victim of cultural oppression.
When Kennedy’s former co-worker and beloved friend John Mangos published a moving tribute in The Bulletin in early June, it obliquely refuted broadcaster Derryn Hinch’s claim that Kennedy had died of AIDS. This so-called “news”, which was a disgraceful but mercifully brief coda to the sad week of Kennedy’s death, and for which Hinch has now apologised, was a non-event. The claim that Kennedy’s sexuality was in any way news is challenged by footage, across three decades of his career, which shows him repeatedly signalling his own sexual orientation. In one sketch, Ossie Ostrich faints and Kennedy gives him mouth-to-beak. When Ossie comes to he says: “I bet you do that to all the birds.” To which Kennedy replies: “Well, I’ve got a hot flash for you, Ossie.”
In claiming he’d died of AIDS, Hinch forced Kennedy’s friends into a position where their indignant denial made them involuntarily collusive in reinforcing the notion that to die of AIDS is a matter for shame, disgrace and scandal. Few if any commentators pointed this out, much less objected to it, so public awareness took a backward step. And people all over the country who have lost family, friends or lovers to AIDS had a much more upsetting week than they might otherwise have done.
Mangos’s article makes it clear that in his final decades Kennedy saw himself as being in unstoppable decline. He courted thoughts of death. In his rural retirement he was devastated by the deaths of his beloved animals, and went downhill faster after each one. Even on this topic, though, he could be funny. When, in a Leunigesque moment, the distressed housekeeper came in to tell him that Henry the golden retriever was digging up the body of Dave the recently-deceased Clydesdale, Kennedy’s instant comeback was: “Oh good, I’d like to see him again.”
In that 1994 interview with Ray Martin, Kennedy said that now he was retired, he wished and hoped people would forget him. He also said that at the age of 60 he was more preoccupied with death than with life. So it’s ironic that he should live on so vividly in the plentiful footage of his live TV work, and in his vulnerable, finely tuned performances in movies like The Odd Angry Shot and Travelling North. Dead he may be, but he can be resurrected on screen at the touch of a DVD button, and he lives on in the memories of millions. Go away, dark angel of Death, and take your bosom with you.
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