In memoriam, Jeremy Elwood 

A Pleasure to Be Here: The Best of Clarke and Dawe 1989-2017
John Clarke and Bryan Dawe
Text, $37.00,
ISBN 9781925603200

Tinkering: The Complete Book of John Clarke
John Clarke
Text, $42.00,
ISBN 9781925603194

When John Clarke passed away last April, aged 68, the announcement of his death sent shockwaves through both Australia and New Zealand. Tributes flowed from the writers, comedians, actors and filmmakers who had either worked with, or been influenced by, him, and even the politicians he so wickedly skewered in much of his writing chimed in, including the prime ministers of both nations. For those less familiar with those writings, or in need of a refresher course, two new collections should help explain why.

A Pleasure to Be Here: The Best of Clarke and Dawe 1989-2017 is precisely what it claims to be. Transcribed within are a well-chosen selection of the weekly mock interviews that Clarke and Bryan Dawe produced for Australian television, beginning on Channel Nine and eventually ending on the ABC. For the completely uninitiated, I encourage you to stop reading here and go find them online.

Ok, if you insist, here’s how they worked. Each week, Dawe would interview a politician, public figure or general member of the Australian public on a topical subject. Every interview subject was played by Clarke simply as himself; he never tried to mimic anyone’s voice or mannerisms or alter his appearance. It’s a beautifully simple, and effective, technique that they managed to maintain for nearly 30 years. As Bryan Dawe recalls in his introduction to the book:

We always tried to record more than one script, keeping the reserve tank topped up lest one of us tripped over the furniture or couldn’t play the next week. We never missed a segment of Clarke & Dawe during the entire journey.

His use of the phrase “play” is telling. As hard hitting as their satire was, it was always a hell of a lot of fun, as well.

A Pleasure to Be Here focuses heavily on the political, breaking the interviews into chapters defined by whichever prime minister was in power at the time. From Bob Hawke to Malcolm Turnbull, Clarke and Dawe’s coverage of the events, personalities, policies and pratfalls of the times spared no one, and acts as a reasonably comprehensive history of Australian politics and the media over three decades. For fans, many of the all-time classics are here, including (of course) The Front Fell Off, but there should also be plenty of hitherto unknown gems for all but the hardest core of collectors.

Clarke’s well-documented off-the-clock loves of sport and the environment come through in pieces covering the America’s Cup, Ashes cricket, bird-watching and more, but it is his assaults on politicians and the media which dominate this collection. For the reader, a basic understanding of the key figures and defining issues of the time is certainly helpful, and I did wish at times that the individual interviews had been dated, rather than just the chapters. Having said that, perhaps the most striking thing about these vignettes is how relevant they still are. One of the earliest entries, The System Works Fine, in which Dawe quizzes Hawke about the level of authoritarianism in his government, could easily be taken verbatim from a White House press announcement today, and interviews about climate change, the role of women in society, and the freedom of the press are startlingly, and depressingly, familiar. While some of the names and references may have faded with time, the issues surrounding them, far too often, have not.

The relentlessness with which Clarke maintained his focus over the course of this collection is a testament to the genuine passion with which he wrote. His anger ebbs and flows throughout the years, but there is no doubt as to when he is fixed on a topic close to his heart. Some of his most scathing attacks are on the Labour party, as he documents its shifting from left to centre and its continual failure to effectively counter even the most shambolic policies of, particularly, John Howard’s era. The revolving door chaos that followed Howard, with Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Turnbull trading places almost as regularly as these shows were being broadcast, show that his frustration never ebbed.

The other thing that remains constant is the humour. Parts of this collection are inevitably funnier than others, but I suspect that which bits are which will depend a lot on the individual reader. This anthology has been excellently curated in that way, working within the aforementioned consistency of Clarke’s interests to offer enough variation to keep the pages turning. It helps that, by their very nature, the interviews are bite-sized, and the range of topics is so wide, yet the chronological structure works against any inclination to cherry-pick. Although, if you were that way inclined, this could well be the intellectual, educational, hilarious bathroom reading you’ve been looking for.

There is a pitfall to committing television scripts to the page in that any visual or performance elements are lost. This is not the case here. As noted above, Clarke was only ever pretending to be himself, and whilst that was funny in itself, when you can picture the actual politicians themselves sitting in these interviews, and hear Clarke’s words in their voices, they become even funnier. His satire was so spot-on that even the more surreal conversations he imagined retain a level of believability. In fact, when compared to some of the things we’ve heard from politicians in recent times, they don’t seem far-fetched at all.

Overall, A Pleasure to Be Here works on a number of levels: as an introduction to Clarke’s wit and brilliance for new readers, but also as a compendium for long-standing fans; as a time capsule of a long period in Australian politics, but also as a warning of how little has changed; as a fine memorial to a fabulous creative mind, but also as a manual that should be pored over by anyone who wants to write satire, for television or anywhere else; as a historical record of an historic career, and just as a bloody funny read. It’s a book I’m sure I will be dropping by to revisit many times.

Tinkering: The Complete Book of John Clarke is a somewhat different beast. His daughter Lorin introduces this collection of work, by way of explanation: “Some people’s dads spend hours tinkering in the shed. Our dad, John Clarke, borrowed the word but required only a desk and ‘gallons of tea’ for the kind of tinkering he did.”

Clarke’s “tinkering” went far beyond his work with Dawe. He was a prolific essayist, reviewer and screenwriter, and that’s all before even mentioning his most enduring creation, at least to New Zealanders. Don’t worry, we’re getting to Fred soon.

Tinkering collects material from throughout Clarke’s life, going as far back as a letter he wrote to All Black Terry Lineen when he was 10 years old (Clarke, that is, not Lineen) and as recently as an essay on the death of his mother in 2015 (again, Clarke’s, not Lineen’s). These, alongside other essays on the passing of his father, other family members and friends including Paul Holmes, are amongst the highlights of this collection. Ironically, given what Clarke is (correctly) best remembered for, it is the less humorous additions that really stand out here. I was completely prepared to be underwhelmed by his writing on “The New Zealand Sense of Humour” (working in the field, I remained unconvinced that there is one), but it turns out to be an erudite reflection on the impact New Zealand satirists have had on the wider world, and the origins of Clarke’s own comedic stylings. If there is a New Zealand sense of humour after all, Clarke had a lot to do with establishing it.

It is in this essay, and the one about his father, that Clarke reveals his early love of The Goon Show, and Spike Milligan in particular. Nowhere in either book is this more obvious than in his lauded histories of the sport of farnarkeling. Replete with Milligan-esque wordplay and nonsensical ideas, it takes up a fair proportion of this collection, and whether that’s a good thing or not will totally depend on your personal comedic sensibilities. Regardless, it reinforces the impact which a 1972 meeting with Milligan, and their eventual mutual friend Harry Edgington, left on Clarke. Which, of course, is the subject of another wonderful essay.

Another cornerstone (and yes, we’re finally coming to it) is a collection of 21 Fred Dagg monologues.

Unlike the Clarke and Dawe inter-views, I’m not going to even try to explain how these worked. If you don’t already know, go watch them somewhere. I’ll wait.

Now. The reason I’ve waited this long to discuss the Fred Dagg segment of this book is that I’m about to risk losing my New Zealand passport.

I didn’t grow up with Fred. I discovered him after I moved here, which was after Clarke had moved to Australia, which itself is the subject of possibly my favourite chapter in this book, “Swimming the Ditch”.  It begins with “New Zealand, a User’s Guide”, which strikes a perfect balance between an homage to his country of birth and the kind of vicious satirical dissection that permeated the Clarke and Dawe interviews. It’s simply brilliant and, as it is again undated but refers to John Key becoming prime minister, it proves yet again that his fire burned all the way to the end of his life. Clarke’s, not Key’s.

But I digress. As I was saying, I came late to Fred Dagg, but his cultural significance was never in doubt, especially as I began to take my own first steps into the worlds of comedy and television. Fred Dagg is a part of the New Zealand identity in the same way Sir Edmund Hillary is. He is truly iconic.

Which is a big part of why, unlike the Clarke and Dawe scripts, taking him from the screen to the page is decidedly problematic. The beauty of Dagg was the words of wisdom coming from the everyman character. Take away the gumboots, the singlet and the floppy hat, and the stand-alone scripts are very clever, but very dry. They’re almost too clever in black and white print; they miss the contradiction or counterpoint of the ordinary bloke saying extraordinary things, and compiled back-to-back as they are here, they become a bit of a slog. Perhaps if they’d been spread throughout the book, in short sharp bursts, as they were on television, it would have helped.

Which brings me to the essential problem with Tinkerings. This is a wide-ranging collection of well-known pieces, lesser-known essays and unpublished notes and, as with so many posthumous publications, you do leave with a sense that some of the latter remained unpublished during the author’s lifetime for good reason.

I’m unsure who curated this anthology. The book is credited only to John Clarke, with his daughter’s introduction, so perhaps it was left as a finished product, but I doubt it. The leaps across time and subject are so abrupt, and the passage between short, sharp chapters such as “Swimming the Ditch” and long, drawn out subjects like the Fred Dagg marathon so random, that it’s hard to get a grasp on what this book is supposed to represent.

If it’s a peek inside the random workings of Clarke’s “shed”, then it achieves its aim. It certainly outlines the depth of his interests, and range of his writing styles, albeit in a scattergun manner. Given the amount of Clarke’s output that is available, I would say this is one for the completists.

The quality of his writing is never in doubt, though, and I admire that this shows his serious side. His reviews of authors he admired (Seamus Heaney, W H Auden) and tributes to lost friends (Holmes, and the beautifully enigmatic “Suzie”) were the pieces that resonated most in this collection, perhaps because, to Aotearoa, those are the most enduring ideas of who John Clarke himself was.

Jeremy Elwood is a comedian and writer for television and newspapers.

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