Hearing Mark Trevorrow on ABC 702 Sydney a couple of weeks ago made me want to dig out this old interview with him. I’d interviewed him previously, during one of his many University of Sydney performances as a stalwart of student entertainment. He was always appearing at beginning or end of term celebrations, it seemed, and one time or other, while working for the University of Sydney Union, I got to interview him for the Union Recorder (as opposed to just producing advertorial – or ‘Dombo Journalism’, as I used to call it – as I did for most Union events back then).
This inteview was pretty special, however. It really came together well. I finally worked out, in my head, who ‘Bob Downe’ was, even though I was interviewing Mark Trevorrow again. I found, in fact, interviewing Mark Trevorrow several times subsequently, that my image of Bob Downe became clearer and clearer, as Mark Trevorrow became more and more distinct as a personality apart from Bob. Indeed, I suspect Trevorrow was finding Bob Downe a more defined character as he continued to define himself more boldly as a separate but no less public, performing entity.
For some reason I found it helpful to compare and contrast, to a certain degree, Trevorrow’s Bob Downe with Barry Humphries’s characters. Interestingly, Humphries was my first real interview, ever, for Honi Soit, the newspaper of the University of Sydney, produced by the Student Representative Council. It was a breakthrough for me. The Bob Downe interview below was my first interview for Revolver, a free entertainment rag. I vividly recall trying not to talk too loudly in my office – the Publications Department (ie my cluttered office) of Cranbrook School (for that was my ‘real’ job, Publications Co-ordinator at Cranbrook School) – as I conducted the interview sans recording equipment or speakerphone, furtively scrawling barely legible notes on a legal pad. As soon as the school newspaper, The Cranbrook Chronicle was being printed, I’d feverishly complete this interview, setting the standard: every week for the next five years (failing to meet the odd deadline here or there; that is to say, occasionally being so late that no piece ran; mostly being late but still in time for one to be published) I presented a different comedy-related interview. In addition to being a crash course in stand-up for me, I felt I was also educating an audience, and all the while, helping educate up-and-coming comics. If Sydney’s stand-up scene eventually got the jump on Melbourne, it was because, for a while there, there were people who had a clear idea what they were doing, why they were doing it, how it ought to be done, who for, and where it all fit in, in the greater scheme of things. Over five years, I pretty much found my voice and an ability to interview.
I have interviewed Trevorrow a number of times since this was written in 1998 (it was 1998, so forgive the dated political outlook; who was to know Kim Beazley’s best impression of a Statesman would be in conceding defeat in an election he should have had no trouble winning, and handing over leadership of his party, in 2001?). Trevorrow continues to be an interested and engaging interview subject – responsible for increasingly involved and ever-more-funny live shows. And for the record, I’ve watched him go from taking the piss out of the Tony Bartuccio Dancers, to working with Tony Bartuccio. I hope to eventually dig out later interviews where Trevorrow discusses all of this.
For more info on Bob Downe and Mark Trevorrow, in his own words, plus updates on tours and performances, and access to heaps and heaps of clips, check out his YouTube page. Meanwhile, here’s the interview.
Bob Downe for Revolver
“You’re talking to Mark Trevorrow rather than Bob Downe,” a jet-lagged voice announces. “Did my manager explain it to you? Bob Downe’s not a real person.”
“What?” I demand, worried. “I suppose you’re going to tell me Good Morning Murwillumbah, the breakfast show he hosts, isn’t a real television program either…?”
“Well,” the voice replies, “I don’t want to break your heart…”
My first conversation with Mark Trevorrow took place in 1995 when he was frequently dashing between England and Australia consolidating Bob Downe’s success. Having been effectively ‘on tour’ with Bob for seven years, 1995 was an important year; Bob Downe met the Queen at The Royal Variety Performance. ‘Yeh Yeh’, a cover of the old Georgie Fame number, had just been released as the lead single from Bob’s then-forthcoming album Jazzy. The album featured the track ‘Je T’Aime’, a duet with Julian Clary. If Jazzy failed to entice as wide an audience as it ought to have, it is only because it arrived too soon, the cocktail music revival failing to take hold for at least another six months. Not that Jazzy was a calculated attempt to exploit a trend; Bob Downe exists beyond genres. He always was and always will be and his kitsch appeal has no beginning or end.
Yet, speaking to Mark Trevorrow then, it was as though he didn’t know this. Bob would rarely speak for himself in interview, and apart from the broad facts as to when and how Bob was conceived, Mark didn’t have much to say about him. Not like — and I loathe the ‘critic’s way out’ that this comparison presents — Barry Humphries. The characters of Barry Humphries all seem to have lives of their own. Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson are frequently interviewed in character, and they make reference to the nebulous Humphries. And his creations have a thriving inner life that enables Humphries to talk at length about them. In performance, Bob Downe would tell us more about himself during between-song patter, but he only existed on that stage.
Within the few years that have passed, things have changed. All Bob Downe, Bob’s autobiography as written by Mark Trevorrow, has been published by Penguin. Bob’s universe has been fully fleshed out, so much so that the most recent Good Weekend’s ‘The two of us’ column featured Mark and Bob being interviewed about each other. Clearly then, when I rang Trevorrow out of the blue to request “an interview some time,” his response of “how about now” took me by surprise.
“Bob’s something I’ve been doing since I was a little kid to make everyone laugh,” says Mark Trevorrow of his alter ego. Influenced by the high-camp artifice that was day-to-day television programming in this country, as well as film and radio, young Mark had “a little fantasy show-biz empire” with his sister and the kids next door, putting shows on in the back yard. “I never dreamed that it would be something that I’d do professionally,” he says.
After completing his schooling at Murrumbeena High in 1976, Trevorrow pursued (or perhaps ‘fell into’) a career in journalism. Beginning his cadetship as a 17 year-old copy boy at Sun News Pictorial in January 1977, by its end in 1981 Mark had served as a daily pop columnist. However, broader interests were already drawing him in other directions. His years of avid television viewing may have prepared him for his production post on Channel 10’s Together Tonight (a magazine-style show than ran nightly for six months).
Irrespective, Mark was already developing a cabaret act within the comedy group Gloria and the Go Gos. Featuring Wendy de Waal in the role of Gloria, the act was largely “thrown together” as a party turn.
Renamed ‘The Globos’, the band had its first hit in 1982 with the song ‘Tintarella Di Luna’. Pre-empted back into existence by Joe Dolce’s pontificating ‘Shaddup You Face’, the sub-genre of wog novelty discs fell into (or perhaps ‘pursued’) its late-80s nadir courtesy of Con the Fruiterer’s ‘Cuppla Days’. The genre’s zenith was definitely ‘Tintarella…’, which made it into the top twenty charts. When you listen to the song (the high-camp artifice that is contemporary advertising has led to its recent use on a television commercial, but I can’t for the life of me remember what was being flogged) you will hear Wendy and the band give their all. As with Bob Downe’s Jazzy, there are times when you are not entirely convinced that The Globos know whether they’re taking the piss or not.
A second single, ‘The Beat Goes On’, made it into the Top 40 in 1983 and was followed by a national tour with the Total and Utter King of Rock and Roll, Cliff Richard (who, like Bob Downe, is a ‘committed bachelor’). When The Globos broke up in 1984, Trevorrow resumed his career in journalism. Joining Vogue Australia as a staff writer, Mark eventually rose to the position of freelance Arts Editor. However, it wasn’t long before he was once again writing and performing, this time in a double act with Cathy Armstrong. Consisting of sketch comedy, the duo devised a show, A Nice Young Couple, which they performed in 1985. They also went on to write and perform for ABC Radio’s comedy unit. It was from this work that Bob Downe was created, initially as a parody of Entertainment Tonight. Bob Downe went solo in 1987, launching his career at Sydney’s self-proclaimed nursery of comedy, the Harold Park Hotel. A brief internship at Melbourne’s Last Laugh — “it was sort of ‘Comedy Central’ in those days,” Mark explains — gave way to Bob’s foray into Britain in 1988.
I must admit that my first real introduction to Bob was via his work with the Doug Anthony Allstars, particularly in the series Daas Kapital. “I think I started working with the Dougs in ’87, at the Last Laugh” Mark recalls. “They showed me the festival ropes, how to go about doing the Edinburgh Festival. Then we did a lot of touring. I used to support them a lot whenever they were playing in London.” Bob, of course, remembers the proceedings so much more vividly than Mark. In an episode of Daas Kapital, a mermaid (played by Khym Lam, partner of Dougs’ guitarist Richard Fidler) sums the group up thus: “Paul [McDermott]’s the one you want to do it to, Tim [Ferguson]’s the one you think of while you’re doing it, but Richard’s the one you want to marry.” Bob takes us a step further in All Bob Downe: “Tim — like all the pretty ones — just lay there, vaguely sort of indicating. Richard? We just talked all night. And Paul… like a stinky little jackrabbit. In the end I let him hump my leg while I read TV Week.”
All Bob Downe marks a coming of age. Bob Downe has always exploited television. On stage, his Tony Bartuccio Dancer-moves (running directly at the camera and peeling off to the side at the last moment) are exactly how they were done on The Don Lane Show. His version of The Theme from ‘Fame’ bore the garbled lyrics as learnt from the crappy monaural television that you and I used to watch it on in the 70s. Daas Kapital contained the brilliant TV-advertised album commercial — “Jesus loves me, and you will too when you hear Bob Downe for Jesus”. All Bob Downe brings this acute level of parody to the print medium. Bearing the bold and flamboyant typefaces and colour scheme (beige and parrot shit green) of a 70s annual, the chapters of All Bob Downe open with fraudulent newspaper headlines taken from archival issues of the Murwillumbah Irrigator. It also contains all the name-dropping references and photos of Bob’s brilliant career thus far.
Mark Trevorrow recognises the position Bob is now in as the beginning of a new phase. “It’s gotten to the point where Bob is someone you can always depend on to get up and do a silly song. But after 15 years, Bob is ready to host a show, rather than just make spot appearances.” Indeed. Bob’s hosting of the Mardi Gras telecast is testament to his ability and suitability. But that is the very least we should expect from Bob Downe. I put it to Mark that perhaps Bob Downe ought to be the first President of the Australian Republic.
“Bob would leave that to the Ray Martins and the John Farnhams,” Trevorrow advises. “Bob’s civic duty is strictly limited to shopping centre appearances and cutting ribbons at the openings of fetes.” Fair enough. Bob is already acquainted with public office, what with his having been presented to the Queen. Which leads me back to that loathsome comparison again. Edna Everage had reached about the same point in her career as Bob is at now when Gough Whitlam bid her ‘Arise, Dame Edna’. Don’t be surprised if, at some point in the near future, Prime Minister Kim Beazley utters a similar dictum: “Arise, Bob Downe.” That’s if Kim heeds the advice of his physicians to ‘arise, bob down, arise, bob down, arise…”