John Clarke as Fred Dagg

Book of the Week: Roger Hall on the comic genius of John Clarke

Legendary playwright Roger Hall pays tribute to the great satirist John Clarke, whose posthumous book Tinkering has been a runaway best-seller this summer.

When my 1998 memoir Bums on Seats was due to published, I had the nerve to ask John Clarke if he would write an introduction. He did so, offering a lengthy, elaborate and generous tribute. There is a character in Jane Austen’s Persuasion who regularly looks up the Baronetage solely to read his own entry to derive satisfaction from doing so. I am a bit the same. When I feel a bit down or unworthy I read John’s piece and feel the better for it.

I wish I could claim I was a close friend of John’s but I wasn’t. The closest John and I were was when I produced a capping show in 1971 for Victoria University, featuring John in the cast. At the time he sported a moustache which made it all the funnier when he appeared on stage in a woman’s swimsuit as New Zealand’s entry for Miss World, sporting a sash that read as though she were sponsored by the Wool Board, “Ninety Percent Virgin”.

But it was two other characters that stood out: Trev, making a phone call to a mate describing a drunken party; and a farmer, dressed in black singlet, gumboots and carrying a blunderbuss. There, in front us, lay John’s future career.

Just before he slapped the Dagg character into life and released him upon an unsuspecting world, John went to London and endured a range of work experiences, from three days at Harrods to a bit-part in Barry Humphries’ film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. A lot of that time in London was what could be considered paying his dues, which almost every successful performer goes through but about which the public rarely has an inkling. (Benny Hill once walked right across London carrying a guitar to do his club appearance only to be told he wasn’t wanted that night and walked all the way home again.) Most of the time he was living hand to mouth. I kept meaning to send him some money, but never did and always wish I had. “PS: John, I would have enclosed a ten pound note but I’d already sealed the envelope.”

Around that time Joe Musaphia and I wrote what was claimed to be New Zealand’s first comedy sketch show for TV, In View of the Circumstances. It won several awards and was therefore dropped. Joe and I were then asked to write what was to be New Zealand’s first sitcom. Buck House was to star Paul Holmes (a fine comic actor) and Tony Barry (the lead in Goodbye Pork Pie). This was 1974. The next year the producers added John Clarke and John Banas to the cast, writers both. Which, from our point of view, was where the trouble began.

Joe and I submitted our scripts and at the read-throughs we realised that changes had been made. Without consultation. A certain amount of high dudgeon was displayed. The two Johns remained silent. The changes that were made reflected more closely the personalities of them both. One of the changes was that whenever the phone went John C said, “That’ll be the phone” – one of our country’s first catch-phrases. Clearly neither of the Johns was going to leave our scripts “unimproved” and equally clearly the producers thought it best to let them do so. Joe and I (a point of principle, you understand) asked for our names to be taken off the scripts. But it was all done in a civilised tone and John and I never spoke of it.

Later, when Daggmania was at its height and John could sell books and records by the squillion and fill town halls, he told me his relatives all wanted to know how much money he was earning. Whatever they guessed he agreed with them, and the guesses got higher and higher, reaching the stratosphere. Naturally he never told them. I doubt he told anyone anything he didn’t want people to know. He sensibly guarded his private life, believing, presumably, that it should be private, something of a breakthrough in show business.

The big thing about John was that he was always his own man. Producers could take his work or leave it and the sensible ones took it, not always by fair means. One of the highlights of his career was the series The Games, an intensely funny spoof of Sydney preparing for the Olympics in 2000. For the London 2012 Olympics, the BBC did a series so similar it was embarrassing. Embarrassing in that whilst imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the BBC chose to overlook any form of acknowledgment or payment.

We exchanged letters and emails after he moved to Melbourne. Our favourite topic was PG Wodehouse and golf, in particular PG Wodehouse on golf. We both agreed that the best of Plum’s stories was the one where a besotted male, in order to win his bride, promised that he would give up golf evermore for her. The last line read: “And he folded her in his arms using the interlocking grip.”

I visited once. Having established it was OK to come over I told him I was about to get a cab from the city. Halfway there a car pulled alongside us and there was John giving me the sort of smile he does on the cover of his poshthumous book. I got out of the cab and spent an enjoyable couple of hours at his home.

He was often asked why he wouldn’t fly — which precluded him ever coming back to New Zealand. He told me that once he’d spent five hours in a plane circling Delhi using up its fuel until it would risk a tricky landing, leading to an understandable fear of flying. So when Victoria University awarded him an honorary doctorate in literature in 2007, I wondered if he would relent and get on a plane. But no, Victoria sensibly held the ceremony in Melbourne, one of the rare examples of the Mountain going to Muhammad.

John was a supreme satirist. He turned his analytical eye on the lunacies exhibited all around us, mostly by bureaucrats or anyone with a sliver of power. His written satirical material in Tinkering include “Saint Paul’s Letters to the Electorates” and the answers (only) to quiz questions whereby you can work out what the question was and the point being made.

His Clarke and Dawe interview pieces are the supreme example of extracting maximum fun and point from a minimum of props and make-up (none of either). It makes you realise how badly we miss satire on our television. These days, satirists should be collapsing from overwork, but no, TV here still finds it frightening. Give Tom Sainsbury a weekly slot on something like Seven Sharp and watch the ratings soar.

Some of the pieces in Tinkering have seen the light of day elsewhere (and it’s strange than the title claims it to be the “complete” book), but it’ s a broad-ranging selection which reveals his range of interests and different sides.

John respected and admired people from widely varying fields. There are tributes to sporting champions (All Blacks, swimmers, runners and golfers) which underline that they were heroes to him for much more than their ability at sport, mostly for decency and a sense of proportion. When you add similar appreciations for Seamus Heaney, WH Auden, Jane Austen and other authors you have the sense of a well-rounded man.

John writes about his own parents after their deaths. Both of them were from that unlucky generation who had their lives first knocked sideways by the Great Depression and then distorted by taking active part in World War II. His father, Ted, with whom he didn’t get on, still gets dignified, meticulous and affectionate treatment. Robbed by the war of a university education, Ted loved language and poetry, was something of a fantasist about his own background, and also a pretty shrewd salesman. Once, landed with 10 kerosene heaters at his store that were considered unsellable, he turned one on at the front of the shop with the sign “Limit One Per Customer”.

John owes even more of his literary bent to his much-loved mother, Neva, who would play imaginative games with her children asking them to make up stories about people as they walked up the street.

Neva’s war-time experiences were tragic and extraordinary and she told of some of them in Gaylene Preston’s War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us. She was a very successful writer of short stories plus a novel. John writes, “During the 1960s, the sound we heard when we came in from school was the clackety clack of the typewriter.” How satisfying for him that the same sound (or the modern equivalent) was what his own children would have heard, and later his grandchildren through his daughter Lorin Clarke, also a writer.

Lorin introduces the book describing their working relationship. How she and John would email each other around 11pm to discuss each other’s work, exchanging their latest “tinkering” (hence the book’s title), and ending with the request “What thinkest?” It’s so perfect, so intimate, that it brings me to tears. I am willing to bet that it is at 11pm when Lorin misses John most.

Tinkering: the complete book of John Clarke by John Clarke (Text Publishing, $40) is available at Unity Books.

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