It’s not as though it hadn’t been on the cards for the last few years, or that we hadn’t long since given up any hope of seeing him on the box again – save for repeats of those key bits from throughout his career – but it’s no less sad knowing that Graham Kennedy, the King of Australian television, has passed away.
Kennedy was dubbed ‘King of Television’ because for a time, he seemed always to be on it, nobody else did it as well as him. Indeed, Kennedy virtually defined what it meant to be a television personality in Australia. He got his first big break working as Nicky Whitta’s sidekick on Radio 3UZ in Melbourne (now Radio Sport 927). However, not long after television started up in Australia in 1956, Kennedy made the move, hosting In Melbourne Tonight from 1957.
Most of the talent on Australian television came from the live vaudeville circuit, an ailing form of entertainment that television helped put out of its misery. These vaudeville greats were the people Kennedy was working with, and he learnt everything they had to teach him. Joff Ellen was a name he’d drop in later interviews; Ellen appeared in a lot of the early live sketches.
Essentially, Graham was taught all of the routines: the set-ups and punchlines that constituted a virtual library of material he could draw from as the need or opportunity arose. Kennedy was, of course, pretty quick with the patter already, a result of his earlier radio experience.
Part of Kennedy’s shtick on live television was making fun of the products he’d advertise for his show’s sponsors. The response was better when he appeared to rubbish the products. This kind of playfulness was something he’d developed on radio with Nick Whitta, but he took it to greater lengths with Bert Newton, a regular partner from his early days on television.
Kennedy lost his job fronting his variety show in the 70s, for making a ‘crow call’; it was a long, nasally ‘faaaaaaaaark’ sound, a way of saying ‘f*ck’ on live television. Although, it’s not as simple as that. During a certain live advertisement for Cedel hair spray, in which a lady is in the foreground, doing a piece to camera, Kennedy is at his desk, out of focus in the background or perhaps off-camera altogether, making various bush noises, one of which happens to be the sound of the crow.It was a regular feature of his show at the time, a kind of a running gag. It was turned into an issue because at about the same time, Graham Kennedy was using his position on television as a platform for political commentary, attacking Senator Douglas McClelland, Minister for the Media in Prime Minister Whitlam’s government. The crow calls and the political comments were used as grounds for forcing Kennedy to pre-record the show rather than performing it live-to-air, enabling it to be edited – or censored – as necessary. It was for this reason that Kennedyt and the Channel 9 Network parted company after nearly twenty years. Truth be told, (or, to be more accurate, ‘general assumption be made’), Kennedy and the network were both happy to see the back of each other by this stage.
My earliest memories of Graham Kennedy are of his hosting the game show Blankety Blanks in the late 1970s. He’d been employed to front the show on the Ten Network in 1977 and it was the first of his many ‘comebacks’ to television. Blankety Blanks involved a contestant having to provide the missing word from an incomplete, innuendo-laden sentence, hoping to match the word with whatever a panel of celebrity guests – television personalities, pop singers, thespians – had chosen to complete the sentence. It was all just an excuse for Kennedy to banter with showbiz mates on a panel that always included cigar-chomping Northern comic ‘Ugly’ Dave Gray and, more often than not, thelikes of Noelene Brown, veteran of satirical live review and television comedy; Stuart Wagstaff and Noel Ferrier, Australian thesps; Jon English and Mark Holden, Australian pop stars and a who’s who of stage and screen celebrities of the day.
To my mind, Kennedy made the crow call throughout Blankety Blanks, but that may just be how I choose to remember it. Watching the show was certainly discouraged if not actually forbidden by my parents during its initial broadcast despite my being too young to even realise that rude things were being implied (they were rarely actually said). The show was repeated a decade later, believe it or not. Why would you repeat a decade-old game show? Because it was still hilarious, not least of all because of the outdated clothing and hairstyles. But not panelists, it would seem. Because at the same time as Blankety Blanks was being repeated, all-new episodes were being broadcast on a rival network, this time hosted by Daryl Somers, surrounded by a fair whack of the same panelists, all now ten years older. But to be honest, Graham Kennedy’s Blankety Blanks was funnier than Daryl’s.
Kennedy made other ‘comebacks’ throughout the 80s: hosting a clip show in which he got to crack jokes between bits and bobs excerpted from various comedies from around the world. It was, in a way, a forerunner to Australia finally launching the local Funniest Home Video franchise – which, again, Kennedy initially hosted in 1990, making with the snappy patter between the clips of children coming off bikes and swings to crack their heads on concrete, and men getting belted in the crutch. Graham Kennedy also hosted a ‘news show’ – that is to say, a co-host got to occasionally read headlines out between Graham Kennedy’s banter. It doesn’t sound like much now, but it was always worth watching – which was essentially Graham Kennedy’s talent: being able to turn ‘not much’ into riveting viewing.
As an actor, Graham Kennedy didn’t make many films and yet he shines in all of them. So much so that they’re worth watching just to see him in action. His role as Harry, the seminal philosophical Aussie digger in The Odd Angry Shot (1979) – (Australia’s M*A*S*H or, since it’s about the Viet Nam war and not the Korean war, Australia’s Platoon – except without all the glorified Oliver Stone pontification) is brilliant. Similarly, he is essential as Mack in Don’s Party (1976) and Ted in The Club (1980). The latter two are adaptations of plays by David Williamson. As a younger, hungrier playwright, Williamson wrote important works that perfetly caught the Australian idiom and temperament, representing ‘real’ Australians on stage – as opposed to his more recent work, which seems to keep the chattering classes contented by telling them what they want to hear.
In a soundbite accompanying radio news reports of Kennedy’s passing, Williamson claimed that Graham Kennedy doubted his acting talents; he considered himself an impostor compared to ‘real’ actors, and as a result, didn’t pursue film work. However, Williamson insisted, Kennedy was often a better actor than any of the ones he looked up to as ‘real’. This is hardly surprising: Graham Kennedy was taught to act by Australia’s best vaudeville performers. And he honed these talents in front of television cameras. He was always going to be perfectly suited to cinema.
After a life on television, Kennedy chose to spend his latter years away from the limelight, enjoying a country property with his horses and dog, refusing to be wooed back to television – except for one occasion when, in exchange for a four-wheel drive vehicle, he allowed Australian television’s most sanitised and successful host-cum-interviewer, Ray Martin, to interview him for a ‘birthday special’, the occasion being Kennedy’s sixtieth. Graham claimed to have been ‘ambushed’ by some of the questions, and as a result, swore during a lot of the answers to render them unusable. What was edited for broadcast is still worth watching – not for Ray of course, but for Graham.
Actor Graeme Blundell wrote a biography, King – The Life and Comedy of Graham Kennedy. He was encouraged by television comedy writer Tony Sattler, one of the few friends Graham allowed to stay close to him in his final years. Sattler feared that Kennedy could pass away without his story being told. It’s as good a story as you can tell about someone whose entire life has been about perpetually providing a performance persona to the public. Graham Kennedy appeared to have virtually no inner life – and had he discovered or developed one in his last fifteen years, he enjoyed keeping it mostly to himself.
However, solitude was not the best option for Kennedy. He tended to smoke and drink too much and not eat properly, and when he suffered a fall in 2001 he broke a leg and fractured his skull, necessitating a move to a nursing home where he could receive better care. Yet he retained his sense of humour.
Blundell tells of writing his book: how he’d take each chapter to Kennedy and read it to him, for approval. Somewhere along the line, Graham told him he needn't return with further chapters:
“I know how the story ends.”