Marsha Hunt, Century Call for an American Progressive and a Global Humanitarian

Cinema, Performing arts, Politics

Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.

~ Søren Kierkegaard

On the 17th of this month US film actress with a social conscience Marsha Virginia Hunt turned 100, joining the illustrious company of Olivia de Havilland and Kirk Douglas, forming a trio of Hollywood film centenarians all still alive! (Libby and Kirk both reached their triple figure milestones during 2016).

Adulation for Marsha’s momentous achievement haven’t quite attracted the stratospheric fanfare or media attention and hype that Kirk Douglas’ 100th bash did last December, or in past years as other Hollywood household names like Bob Hope’s did. Of course it would not be expected, Marsha has never achieved the limelight that those other centenarian luminaries demanded in their Hollywood careers. She was a serious actress but never got the star ‘creds’ that others in the business did…but the elusiveness of stardom for Marsha wasn’t down to a shortfall in her acting ability – rather the explanation for this lay in the intervention of external factors which were to impact on her career.

Marsha does Jane Austen
Ms Hunt’s film career from its start in the Thirties looked promising, but in the super-charged, competitive stakes for the glamour female roles she came close without ever quite clasping the big prize…especially in 1939 when she tested impressively for the much sort-after part of Melanie in Gone With The Wind but narrowly lost out to (fellow centenarian) Olivia de Havilland. The following year Hunt did score a supporting role in the prestigious period movie Pride and Prejudice starring Laurence Olivier.

After World War II the grubby, gutter politics of McCarthyism dealt a savage blow to Marsha Hunt’s career…as it did to numerous other Hollywood liberals during that time when it was the fashion de jour in America to go full-throttle after citizens who were merely alleged or implied to be communists (truly a “Dark Age of guilty until proven innocent” witch-hunts!) For a fuller account of Hunt’s story see my earlier blog on this site (June 2014) Marsha Hunt, Lifelong Social Activist: Not your Average Hollywood Role Model .

With her reputation unfairly besmirched (tantamount to no more than implicit guilt by association!), Hunt was punished by being inexorably squeezed out of the Hollywood film mainstream. Potential parts in A-movies disappeared and the public saw her relegated to B-pictures and eventually to television and theatre (few good roles in theatrical movies came her way after 1947, the 1948 film noir Raw Deal and the much later Johnny Got His Gun (1971) were rare exceptions for the Chicago-born actress).

Marsha Hunt today
After being blacklisted by HUAC in 1950 after having made around 50 films since 1935, Hunt only featured in three films during the next eight years [‘Marsha Hunt (actress, born 1917)’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org]. By the Fifties and Sixties Hunt was finding work only easy to find in television – in a minor-note series Peck’s Bad Girl and in numerous guest roles on Zane Grey Theater, The Twilight Zone and so on ad infinitum.

Marsha Hunt: Life lived forwards…
After her semi-retirement in 1960 Hunt stepped up her active involvement in progressive causes including support for same-sex marriage, ending global poverty, raising awareness of climate change and promoting peace in Third World countries [Memos, Roger C. (October 17, 2014). “Honoring Actress – Activist Marsha Hunt on her 97th Birthday!”. Sherman Oaks, California: Patch.com. Archived from the original on August 10, 2017. Retrieved May 14, 2016]

In a series of interviews last week in honour of her 100th birthday Miss Hunt reflected on her career and on the missed stardom, which seemed to have touched her but only lightly. Hunt merely remarked of her Hollywood years that she was grateful for being allowed to be an actress and show her versatility on the screen✳…or as she put it in her characteristically humble, unassuming way, she is “a grateful girl of 100!” [J Kinser, ‘Marsha Hunt at 100: The Actress Recalls the Blacklist, Film Noir and Being Cast in Gone With a The Wind‘, Movie Maker, 13-Oct-2017, www.moviemaker.com].

JE Smith seems to have summed up the essence of Marsha Hunt and the paradoxes in her movie persona and career fairly well in the title of his interview with the centenarian, “American girl, Un-American woman, upstanding centenarian” [JE Smith, ‘Marsha Hunt: American girl, Un-American woman, upstanding centenarian’, Sight & Sound, 17-Oct-2017, www.bfi.org.uk].

Once vilified by HUAC as “Un-American”, Hunt’s longevity and achievements are testimony to all that is good about American society – an authentic patriot but also a defender of freedoms for all citizens – whilst repudiating all that is bad about American society. At the same time we have Hunt’s unceasing activism as a humanitarian concerned for the world as a whole and its future well-being, a tireless advocate for peace and progress, and for a more fair distribution of resources and safeguards for the environment.

๑_____________________________________________________________๑
✳ the unstated inference is clear…rather than being factory-made into (an overhyped) star!

The All-American Adolescent according to Two Hollywood Studios: Hardy Vs Aldrich

Cinema, Performing arts, Popular Culture

When I was a kid growing up in the 1950s and 60s I was exposed, like everyone else, to saturation levels of US commercial television. Faced with the novelty of a new and revolutionary form of home entertainment, I clocked up the viewing hours (which turned into thousands of hours). Eventually through trial and error I picked out my favourite American programs, a few gems among the preponderance of TV dross and mediocrity.

Back then I was particularly fond of old black-and-white movies on TV (until 1975 all Australian television was in black-and-white!). Drilling down even deeper, 1940s and 50’s movie serials were highest on the totem of my juvenile television tastes. I lapped up countless viewings (and re-viewings) of the like of Ma and Pa Kettle, Blondie, Batman, Tarzan, Bowery Boys/Dead End Kids, to barely scratch the surface of my childhood obsession.

‘Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary’
As an Antipodean-based “honorary American boy”, a lot of my vicarious existence was channelled through Hollywood’s projection of the typical American teenage boy. MGM had Andy Hardy (played by that pint-sized bundle of energy, Mickey Rooney), whilst over at Paramount, the studio eventually tried to counter Andy’s popularity with Henry Aldrich (portrayed initially and briefly by the over-saccharine Jackie Cooper, but mostly by the perpetually perplexed-looking Jimmy Lydon).

Both screen personas had their measure of humorous escapades in each movie in the series…teenagers Andy and Henry got up much the same thing, they were both likeable, both “got into jams, had romantic vexations, and mischievously interfered in the lives of their older brothers and sisters”, with consequences all of which were at worse ephemeral[1].

Hardy and Aldrich each had his own distinctive and characteristic expressions, these verbal calling cards were often reiterated throughout each movie…Andy Hardy, when in ebullient mood, would chirpily respond to Polly Benedict or to another of his many, simultaneous love interests with “You said it, toots!” Henry Aldrich is universally remembered for the opening exchange with his mother who bellows: “Hen-reeeeeeeeeeeee! Hen-ree Al-drich!”, to which Henry from upstairs would haltingly and tremulously reply, “Com-ing, Mother!”

Once I latched on to Paramount’s counterpoint to the Hardys, the Aldriches, I quickly developed a preference for the new kid on the Hollywood block Henry Aldrich over Andy Hardy. The longer the Andy Hardy/Family sequence went, the more it seemed to wallow in “Gee mum'” sentimentality, with a touch of smug bourgeois self-satisfaction. Andy came from a distinctively middle class American family (his father was a court judge, as the good-intentioned Andy himself aspired to and eventually realised)…Henry seemed more to reside in the world of the working class family, not exactly down-at-heel, but hardly flush with affluence. The Henry movies were a bit more gritty, more down-to-earth and lacking the romanticised and soppy wholesomeness of the Hardy Family sagas.

The first Andy Hardy film was released in 1937, A Family Affair with 15 more following within the decade, plus a less successful ‘reunion’ film in 1958 focusing on Andy’s return to Carvel to take up his father’s old judicial post. The character of Henry Aldrich first surfaced in a Broadway play What a Life in 1938 (playwright: Clifford Goldsmith)…from there in span off into fourteen years of radio (1939-53), four years of television (1949-53), a series of ten movies, and an uncountable number of comic books, musical scores, pin-ups, games, and toys.

Stumbling, bumbling Henry!
The Aldrich movies never reached anywhere near the lofty heights of the Hardy films, neither in the returns from the box office or in the esteem of cinema critics✳. Henry Aldrich movies were either ignored by critics or dismissed as inferior B-movies, merely larks and juvenile fun…contrasting sharply with the symbolic status afforded the Hardy series by MGM, the cinematic embodiment of the “Stars and Stripes”, of “America”[2].

Jeffrey Dennis notes how the respective imaginary ‘worlds’ Andy and Henry inhabit sit poles apart. Carvel, the Hardy home town in small town Idaho, is comfortably ensconced in Middle American suburbia, a peaceful and harmonious realm in which the war (WWII) does not enter. Carvel and the Hardys represent an idyllic family lifestyle, with the films’ message a somewhat preachy reinforcement of solid and wholesome American values[3]. Against the stark realities of the Depression and the drift into global war, fictional Carvel offered the American public a chance to indulge in “feel-good” escapist diversions.

Henry’s home town Centerville, by contrast (located in an unidentified state) is a much more grim, dark and foreboding entity. Reminders of the war constantly swirl around the world of Henry and the Aldrich family and that of he and his best pal Dizzy (in the form of war bonds, war relief funds, rationing, air-raid drills)[4].

‘Henry Aldrich, Boy Scout’
Both boys regularly get themselves embroiled in injudicious teenage troubles but Henry Aldrich’s conundrums have the more serious consequences…whilst Andy at his incautious worse may be “fined for driving without a licence, but Henry is threatened with prison, juvenile hall, and a mental asylum”[5]. And Hardy’s often foolish escapades, unlike Aldrich’s, never amount to life-threatening situations.

Critics have also drawn attention to differences in how each screen teenager viewed the perennial adolescent boy issue of “girl trouble”. Whilst the easily love-struck Andy Hardy was unequivocally a dedicated girl-chaser most of the time, Henry Aldrich expressed a more ambivalent attitude towards the fairer sex: “Wimmen – they bore me!”, Henry exclaims in Henry Aldrich Gets Glamour[6]. Teenage Henry is reticence or seemingly indifferent to girls, preferring to spend time messing about with best mate Dizzy. Rather than being a manifestation of latent homosexuality, Henry with his simplified approach to life, most of the time just finds girls too complicated, not worth all the fuss and bother.

American youth in the Andy Hardy and Henry Aldrich films were depicted humorously, often with affectionate nostalgia and occasionally condescendingly. At the same time, both series revolving round the comical misadventures of American teenage boys were a window on the beginnings of a distinct adolescent sub-culture[7], which would take further shape in the years following WWII with the “Rebel Without a Cause” youth generation.

________________________________________________________________
✳ in 1939 Mickey Rooney was the number one box office star in American films, a position he retained for the following three years, Source: ‘Top Box Office Stars: 1932-1939 (Part 1)’, (Classic Film Guru), https://classicfilmguru.wordpress.com/2013/08/08/the-box-office-stars-1932-to-1939-part-1/

[1] RJ Bresler, Us Vs Them: American Political and Cultural Conflict from WWII to Watergate (2000)
[2] JP Dennis, We Boys Together: Teenagers in Love Before Girl-craziness (2007)
[3] in 1943 the film series was awarded a special Oscar for “achievement in portraying the American way of life”, Timothy Shary, Teen Movies: American Youth on Screen” (2005)
[4] Dennis, op.cit.
[5] ibid.
[6] RB Armstrong & MW Armstrong, Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series (2009)
[7] PC Rollins, The Columbia Companion to American History on Film: How the Movies Have Portrayed the American Past (2004)

Gainsborough Studios, Islington’s Melodramas, Costumers and Comedies: Mergers, Takeovers, Closure

Cinema, Performing arts, Popular Culture

Where the Gainsborough Pictures/Islington Studios once stood (in Hoxton, North London), today sits blocks of luxury flats built in 2004. As a token gesture the name ‘Gainsborough’ remains on the units’ facade but the only other indicator that it is the site of a former film studio is a 6.5m high courtyard sculpture of Alfred Hitchcock whose first exposure to the movie industry was at Islington … the work of art enigmatically depicting ‘Hitch’ as a gigantic head❈.

In the course of the twentieth century, the site, when it wasn’t a centre of feature film production, had something of a checkered existence. The original building started off as an electrical power station for the East London rail line, circa 1900. When Gainsborough Pictures’ film production ended there around 1949, the premises had a broad range of commercial and community incarnations for the rest of the century, including being a whiskey store, a carpet warehouse and an avant-garde theatre[1]. By the time it was chosen as a site for the apartments that occupy it today, the surviving buildings had taken on a very derelict appearance.

Gainsborough Studios, Hoxton, N1 (Photo: Patrick George Callaghan)
The film company’s story at Hoxton/Islington began just after the Great War when the American movie giant Famous Players-Lasky acquired it in 1919 for its British production arm. Lasky refurbed the run-down power plant, turning it into state-of-the-art film studios. Islington, with the most technical advanced studios in the UK, was also Britain’s most iconic film studios. Features included a scene dock, a large tank for filming underwater scenes and an anti-fog heating system (indispensable for notoriously foggy London). Such super-de luxe facilities earned Islington Studios nicknames like “Hollywood by the Canal” and “Los Islington” [2].

Cutts and Hitchcock: Islington Silents
Islington Studios commenced making films in 1920 … the creative figure most associated with the studio’s early silent productions was Graham Cutts, who directed a string of 1920s Gainsborough films – of these the most acclaimed were Women to Women (1923) and The Rat (1925). Cutts was mentor to the young Alfred Hitchcock … ‘Hitch’ got his start at Islington as a writer of signs for movies before rising to become the older director’s assistant in several Cutts films. Fellow director AV Bramble went so far to say of Cutts’ directorial contribution, that Gainsborough Pictures “had been built on the back of his work”[3]. The success of The Rat owed much to its star, Ivor Novello, who was a fan magnet (intentionally cast) in the Rudolf Valentino mould. As 1920s Britain’s most popular matinée idol Novello helped lift the profile (and profit sheet) of Gainsborough Studios.

The Balcon years
The American Lasky company didn’t persist with the London venture, selling the studios to ‘kingpin’ British producer Michael Balcon’s Gainsborough Pictures◙ in 1924. Balcon continued the Hollywood former owner’s practice of importing US stars (such as Mae Marsh and Dorothy Gish) to bolster Gainsborough’s productions, but he also pursued a strategy aimed at competing with the burgeoning American influence in the British industry after the war. Balcon made deals with US and German film companies to allow Islington to distribute and finance its own films. Balcon nurtured Hitchcock’s development as a film-maker, despatching him to Germany to work as an assistant on a UFA film in Berlin. Hitchcock’s German influence was evident in Gainsborough’s The Lodger (1927), the best example of British expressionism in silent films[4].

In 1927 Balcon’s company merged Gainsborough with the larger Gaumont-British film co which operated from its Lime Grove Studios in Shepherd’s Bush (West London). Many Gainsborough Pictures productions were made at Lime Grove (in addition to those made at Islington). Lime Grove Studios produced the ‘quality’ films, whereas the Gainsborough Studio produced mainly ‘B’ movies (especially low-budget crime) and melodramas[5]. The core of Hitchcock’s classic 1930s espionage/mysteries (such as The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage and The 39 Steps) were made by Gaumont at Lime Grove.

Edward Black and the costume melodramas
After Gaumont went into bankruptcy Balcon left Gaumont in 1936 for MGM-British (and later Ealing Studios). Gaumont-British ceased production for several years but Gainsborough was saved by a rescue package put together by CM Woolf and J Arthur Rank (partners of General Film Distributors)[6]. From the late thirties producer Edward Black came to Gaumont/Gainsborough and the subsequent type of productions the studios made reflected Black’s “unerring sense of British popular taste”. One of his earliest successes was with Bank Holiday (1938), directed by Carol Reed and Margaret Lockwood, soon to become Britain’s leading screen actress回. Black used ex-Music Hall performers like Will Hays and Arthur Askey for Islington’s light comedies. Gainsborough Pictures also afforded opportunities to the versatile Launder and Gilliat writer-director team to showcase their collaborative skills.

In the war years following, Black combined with screenwriter RJ Minney to produce a series of costume melodramas at Gainsborough, which have been described as being “visually extravagant and morally ambivalent”. Minney and Black also produced comedies and modern-dress melodramas for Gainsborough … the first and most famous of the Studio’s period costume melodramas was The Man in Grey (1943), a box-office winner with an overtly escapist formula to distract people from the tribulations of the world war[7].

Postwar: Rank and the Boxes
In 1946 the powerful Rank Organisation acquired full control of Gainsborough Pictures, leading to an exodus of its main creative figures, including Black and Minney, and its pre-Rank takeover head of production Maurice Ostrer. J Arthur Rank choose one-time self defined “hack journalist” Sydney Box to head up the Studios’ productions. Box’s collaborators, his wife, writer and director, Muriel and his sister, producer Betty, also came on board[8]. Sydney Box in his time at Gainsborough churned out films at a very steady rate of knots – 36※ all up over three years of managing Gainsborough productions. Under Sydney Box the Studio tackled a mix of genres with a focus on melodramas, thrillers and light comedies[9].

‘The Huggetts Abroad’, last entry in the Huggetts series
Gainsborough Pictures in the austere economic climate after the war exhibited an interest in ‘social’ films with a topical appeal. Employing the skills he honed as a documentarist, Sydney also commissioned films which explored a range of issues – no doubt with Muriel’s guiding influence. These included child adoption, juvenile delinquency, displaced persons, leisure pursuits. The light comedies, usually with Betty E Box as producer, remained among the most popular of Gainborough’s offerings, eg, Miranda (1948) (a romantic diversion about a mermaid out of her environment), Holiday Camp (1947) (which spawned a light-hearted series of sequels about the Huggett family – the amusing adventures and misadventures of a typical working class London family in the late 1940s (the workman-like cast included 1960s English pop star Petula Clark)[10].

Gainsborough – closing act
J Arthur Rank permanently shut down production at both Hoxton (Gainsborough) and Shepherd’s Bush (Lime Grove) in 1949, apparently because he was unhappy with the performance of both London studios. All films made by Rank Organisation after 1949 were concentrated at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire[11]. The last feature released under the Gainsborough banner was Trio (1950), an anthology film co-directed by the Islington regular Ken Annakin.

PostScript 1: the Gainsborough logo
All Gainsborough films open with the shot of an elegant, feather-hatted woman in Georgian period costume, enclosed within an ornate oval frame. The woman (portrayed by actress Glennis Lorimer) slowly turns and smiles at the camera, an opening feature as visually distinctive as Rank’s iconic strongman banging the gong. The shot of Lorimer was based on the famous 1785 portrait of Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough.

PostScript 2: the studio fire traps of the early ‘talkies’
By the advent of sound pictures Gainsborough’s Islington Studios were certainly among the most technologically advanced in Britain … able to adapt scenes into everything from a mad professor’s lab to a railway station to an 18th century manor house to a mermaid’s lair. But the studios at that time were inherently dangerous places – celluloid was highly inflammable, as was carbon arc lights. Sound-proofing studios usually required covering the entire building with thick blankets, which was virtually tantamount to inviting a fire! The Gainsborough Studios burnt to the ground in 1930, and the same fate befell the studios at Twickenham and Elstree. Such was the sense of threat that some studios maintained their own in-house fire brigades[12].

‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿‿
❈ there is also a plaque on one of the unit complexes commemorating the film studios
◙ the names ‘Islington’ and ‘Gainsborough’ have tended to be used interchangeably in describing the Poole Street studios
through the vertical integration of the film biz in the UK and elsewhere, Hollywood was maintaining an economic and cultural dominance of the industry
回 other leading 1940s British stars of Gainsborough pictures included Patricia Roc, Phyllis Calvert, James Mason and Stewart Granger
※ this in fact was the target J Arthur Rank had set (12 feature films a year) as a condition of Sydney Box’s appointment

[1] Steve Rose, ‘Where the lady vanished’, The Guardian, (16-Jan-2001), www.theguardian.com
[2] Gary Chapman, London’s Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio’s Silent Years, (2014); LN Ede, ‘Designing the Silent British Film’, in IQ Hunter, L Porter & J Smith (Eds), Routledge Companion to British Cinema History, (2017)
[3] Rachel Low, The History of British Film: Vol 1V, 1918-1929, (1997)
[4] Geoffrey Macnab, Searching for Stars: Stardom and Screen Acting in British Cinema, (2000)
[5] ‘Gaumont British Picture Corporation Limited’, (The Alfred Hitchcock Wiki), http://the.hitchcock.zone. Often described in the trade as “quota-quickies” (Michael Powell’s term)
[6] Ede, op.cit.
[7] B McFarlane (Ed), The Encyclopedia of British Cinema – Fourth Edition, (2016)
[8] The Boxes started their careers in cinema with Verity Films, making war-time propaganda films and documentaries. Behind-the-camera roles in the industry in those days was very much a “man’s world”, and no easy path to tread for women … especially Muriel (when directing films), Rachel Cooke, ‘Power women of the 1950s: Muriel and Betty Box’, The Guardian, 3-October 2013, www.theguardian.com
[9] A Spicer, Sydney Box, (2006)
[10] ibid.
[11] ‘Gainsborough pictures’, Wikipedia, http://wikipedia.org.
[12] Rose, loc.cit.; Geoffrey Macnab, ‘The death-trap London studio that time forgot: Gainsborough Studios’, The Independent, 24-Jun-1999, www.independent.co.uk

John Clarke, A Satirist for All (Australian) Seasons: To Daggdom and Beyond

Biographical, Cinema, Media & Communications, Performing arts, Popular Culture, Society & Culture, Sport

John Clarke: Trail-blazing Parodist, Lodestar, Daggstar

John Morrison Clarke died, most unexpectedly, in the Victorian wilderness a day-and-a-half ago. An ordinary looking man with an ordinary (unremarkable and yet distinctive) voice, but an ‘Everyman’ with a towering gift for communicating parody and travesty!

John Clarke, born and raised in Palmerston North, New Zealand, but domicile in Melbourne, Australia, for the last 40 years, was a uniquely talented satirist, TV comedian, comic writer and actor. The word ‘genius’ gets carelessly tossed around way too much these days, but in appraising the oeuvre of Mr John Clarke it finds a true home.

Whilst in New Zealand Clarke developed and refined the character of Fred Dagg, a stereotypical, blunt-speaking farmer from the North Island, with long straggly hair and perpetually clad in a black singlet and gumboots. Fred Dagg got Clark’s idiosyncratic brand of humour into the spotlight of New Zealand television. By 1977 Clark had outgrown both NZ and (so it seemed) Fred Dagg and moved to the bigger canvas of Australia❈. Clarke wasn’t quite done with Fred Dagg – in Australia Fred resurfaced as a real estate ‘expert’ with his guide for would-be home buyers providing the “good oil” on avoiding the pitfalls inherent in the spiel of property agents – as the following “bullshit-busting” sampler of his trenchant wit testifies:

A “cottage” is a caravan with the wheels taken off.

“Genuine reason for selling” means the house is for sale.

“Rarely can we offer” means the house is for sale.

“Superbly presented delightful charmer” doesn’t mean anything really, but it’s probably still for sale.

“Privacy, taste, charm, space, freedom, quiet, away from it all location in much sought-after cul-de-sac situation” means that it’s not only built down a hole, it’s built at the very far end of the hole.

“A panoramic, breathtaking, or magnificent view” is an indication that the house has windows, and if the view is “unique”, there’s probably only one window.

Fred Dagg AKA John Clarke was no admirer of the realty and property game and the proclivity of estate agents to be “fast and loose with the truth”, and he gave us the following memorable job description of what they really do:

“The function of the agent basically is to add to the price of the article without actually producing anything”.

(and how to recognise a real estate agent)
“If you’ve got gold teeth and laugh-lines around your pockets, you’re through to the semis without dropping a set”.

There was so much to the creative output of Clarke comma J, and so much variety too … screenplays, film acting, radio, stage work, television, songs, books. Clarke’s art didn’t fit into any one particular mould, he was, to use Martin Luther’s expression, an “irregular planet”, always inventing, moving on and reinventing, exploring something new that had piqued his interest.

My personal favourite John Clarke nugget of gold is the Complete Book of Australian Verse⌖. These are a series of recordings in which Clarke audaciously and imaginatively reinvented the “Canon of Great British Poets”, relocating it to regional and outback Australia. Clarke ‘discovered’ the existence of an Aussie poet “laureate-hood” comprising “dinky-di” Australian poetry ‘greats’ with names like ‘Shagger’ Tennyson, ‘Stumpy’ Byron V.C, ‘Gavin’ Milton and “Fifteen Bobsworth” Longfellow⊛.

Clarke’s sublime riff on these fictional masters of Australian poetry is incisively, deeply humorous, and both wise and pretentious-sounding at the same time! Absurdly funny stuff, especially when uttered in John’s wonderful flat, disinterested, monotone voice (“he was sentenced to three years jail for insulting a lobster in a Sydney restaurant”) … Clarke’s clinical dissection of Leader of the Opposition John Howard, to paraphrase playwright Simon Gray, “made me laugh so much that I was prepared to overlook its cruelty” – the poem entreating the future PM to change his vocation:

‘To a Howard’ by Rabbi Burns
Wee, sleekit, cowerin, tim’rous beastie,
I know tha’s probably doing thy bestie,
…………………….
Thou’ll try wi’ th’ gunnery up at the range,
Thou’ll no have much truible, thou’ve dun it afore,
Thou’s an expert for a’ that; look, ‘Wanted: Small Bore’.

With ‘A Child’s Christmas in Warrnambool’ Clarke produces a poetic tour de force by turning Dylan Thomas’ classic winter-scene ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ on it’s head, transforming it into a children’s nostalgic celebration of Australian summers past:

“The smell of insect repellant and eucalyptus and the distant constant bang of the flywire door”/”the fridge of imperishable memory”/”the wide brown bee-humming trout-fit sheep-rich two-horse country”/”some middle-order nephew skipping down the vowel-flattening pitch and putting the ball into the tent-flaps on the first bounce of puberty”.

The Complete Verse‘s eclectic compilation includes a coruscating if excruciating piece by “Sylvia Blath” which is both riotously funny and disturbingly harrowing at the same time. Clarke weaves into the poem Sylvia’s harangue of her dead father who “danced upon my cradle, as I Annexed the Sedatenland” and ends with an unexpected and wicked twist (a crossed-line channelling of Germaine Greer!!!): “Daddy Daddy I’m through, Hello? Germaine … I can hardly hear you, This is a very bad line.”

Since the 1990s Clarke had been an on-screen constant feature with his famous series of mock political interviews (“two-handers” with Bryan Dawe as the straight-man ‘innocently’ asking questions which were fodder for Clarke’s witty retorts) … the one-liners just rolling off Clarke’s golden and acerbic tongue, skewing high-profile politicians left, right and centre:

(pricking at the bluster of an overbearing state premier)
“I’m not interested in doing the most intelligent thing … I’m JEFF KENNETT!

Prime Minister Hawke’s robust and over-enthusiastic response to the question of how fit he was after a recent op:
(so fit that)
“I’m a danger to shipping!”

Clarke was a wordsmith that other satirists and comic writers in Australasia must have looked at with a mixture of admiration and envy … he simply had such a razor-sharp, punchy, economical and hilarious way with words.

And there was much more to John Clarke’s stellar CV – such as his ‘invention’ of the ‘sport’ of farnarkeling for The Gillies Report, and not to forget the manifold brilliant riffs on finance, business, the economy, the public service and the environment (“the front fell off (and) we towed the ship outside the environment”). Clarke was a trail-blazer in television comedy … his “on the money” take on the crazy, shambolic world of Olympics bureaucracy The Games was a template for other later projects which explored the thorny terrain of corporations and officialdom (such as Utopia) and it informed the BBC’s contribution to the 2012 London Olympics campaign.

John Clarke’s sudden, most untimely death leaves a Sydney Opera House-sized hole in Australian and New Zealand satire – and I shall never forget that voice – as with Billy Bragg’s, so distinctive, and as with Joe (Dragnet) Friday’s, so deadpan matter-of-fact … or his trademark mischievous grin and the sparkle in the eyes.

⚜⚜⚜
Vale John Clarke … thank you for entertaining and delighting us for so long and enriching the lives of so many people all the way from Palmerston North to Perth. John’s song lyrics were wrong in one respect … there are countless people in the two Trans-Tasman countries that he lived and worked in who do know “how lucky” they were to have him, albeit for too short a time✥.

╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼╾╼
❈ his unusual accent didn’t really fit the clipped English speech pattern of “Nu Zillunders” anyway
⌖ the success of which was followed up by the Even More Complete Book of Australian Verse
⊛ other Oz poet-luminaries include b.b.hummings, TS (Tabby Serious) Eliot, Ewen Coleridge, Ted Lear and many more
✥ one of the incomparable Fred Dagg’s best-known songs was entitled ‘We don’t know how lucky we are’