Deadpan Walking

I managed to spin an interview with Steven Wright – conducted a few weeks before he got to Australia – out into a couple of mags. There’s a little bit of overlap, and I will get around to posting the entire transcript, give-or-take.

The FilmInk Article:

“I mainly do stand-up,” Steven Wright confesses in that laconic deadpan voice that seems to waste no word or effort in getting its message across. “I just do a film once in a while.”

Although film and television work has run parallel to his career as a stand-up comic, you may not have even realised that you’ve seen watching Steven Wright in action. But you’ve certainly heard him. His was the deadpan ‘K-Billy Supersounds of the 70s’ DJ’s monotone that introduced the songs of the Reservoir Dogs (1992) soundtrack, a gig that came to him courtesy of the film’s editor, Sally Menke. Menke, who has subsequently edited all of Quentin Tarantino’s films, suggested Wright to the director when they’d gotten close to the end of the film and still “didn’t have the guy on the radio yet”.

Since Reservoir Dogs was Tarantino’s debut feature, he didn’t have a track record. Steven Wright certainly did – he’d been a regular on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, and he had a seminal hit record to go with it: the 1986 live album I Have A Pony. Tarantino went for the idea of having Wright’s voice in his film, and Menke assured Steven that Tarantino was “a different film maker” who was going to make it with a “really very different” film, so he should go for it too.

“I knew her and I trusted her sensibilities,” Wright says, “so I went in and did it. She was correct. I was happy to be in that film. To be in a movie that was such a milestone in cinema… it’s fun to be part of that.”

What about a gig like voicing a character on The Simpsons? Surely it’s fun to be a part of that, too – a bunch of people around a microphone, cracking each other up. But the comic assures me that, like Babe: Pig in the City (1998) and The Swan Princess (1994), it’s still work – a matter of “getting the lines down”. And, he says, there was none of this ‘standing around the microphone making each other laugh’ business: “They do the voices separately. You’re not even talking to the other actors.”

Ah, the magic of cinema. In my head, actors voice an animation together around the microphone, in one session. Without missing a beat or (of course!) betraying any emotion, Wright does his best to humour me, at least regarding the Simpsons episode. “They didn’t do it that way when I was there. But I was only there that one time. Maybe it’s like that with the rest of the cast…”

“Look, it’s okay,” I assure him, “I shouldn’t be so naïve. I should have known there’d be a more cost- and time-efficient way of producing an animation…”

“No,” he continues to try to let me off the hook. “How would you know? Nobody knows.”

It is for Reservoir Dogs that Wright reserves a particular fondness, not least of all for “some mistakes” he made on some of the takes. “Tarantino used the take where I stumbled over the words, and he put that in the movie. That’s always amused me.”

Of course, directors often opt for the ‘stylised’ take: Charlie Martin Smith almost dropping the bottle of grog thrown to him by the punk robbing the liquor store is what George Lucas wanted us to see in American Graffiti (1973); much to the consternation of George C. Scott, Stanley Kubrick chose to use all of the takes of him going ‘over the top’ in Dr Strangelove (1964). When I reveal the latter fact to the comic, he exclaims – well, as much as his deadpan monotone can convey ‘exclamation’ – “I’d like to see that! Where did you see that? I love that movie!”

In both instances, these facts are revealed in bonus features accompanying the films on their respective DVD releases, which is why Wright wouldn’t be aware of either of them, for although he likes going to the movies and watches a lot of films on cable, he admits that he doesn’t really “buy or rent a lot of DVDs.”

The interesting thing about Steven Wright’s acting is that it remains unchanged. Opposite Roberto Benigni in Coffee and Cigarettes (the 1986 short film Jim Jarmusch succeeded in turning into a feature by 2003) or in his own vehicles such as the Oscar-winning The Appointments of Dennis Jennings (1988, in which Wright eventually kills his psychiatrist, played by Rowan Atkinson) and One Soldier (1999; Wright’s ‘Woody Allen’ film depicting a stark Bergmanesque black-and-white existential absurdity in which the Russia of Allen’s 1975 masterpiece Love & Death is replaced with post-Civil War Americana), or even voicing an animated character, Steven Wright appears as himself. Or at least, that ‘self’ that he always appears as on stage and in interviews. According to Wright, the fact that he always only ever plays himself doesn’t affect the acting.

“This is how I am,” he insists. “When I’m acting, I’m really acting like me saying some sentences someone else made up in their movie.” Steven acknowledges that this limits his opportunities as an actor, since he’s only going to be offered jobs where they want him or his voice to appear as they are. “They either want it or they don’t want it,” he says, and if they don’t want it, he isn’t disappointed; acting was never really his focus. “It’s not like, ‘oh, they should give me a chance, I could act like a high-powered lawyer in a court scene’. That was never my goal.”

The Last Article:

Steven Wright stands out as a stand-up comedian. Stand-up comedy is about coercing an audience to see the world from the comedian’s point of view, and so most stand-up comics use some sort of vocal inflection, some sort of physicality, referring to observations of the world that the majority of people share or creating a convincing enough argument to make them see it in a new way. Steven Wright flies in the face of all of that. He has the most emotionless deadpan voice, and his take on life is surreal.

“It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it,” he’ll observe.

“I like to fill my tub up with water and then turn the shower on act like I’m a submarine that’s been hit,” he’ll confess.

“The other night I played a game of poker with some Tarot cards; I got a full house and four people died,” he’ll report.

Surely delivering such a surreal take on the world in a monotonous deadpan must make the comic’s job a bit harder.

“That’s just how I talk,” Steven Wright insists, employing a voice slower and deader than ever, as if he’s a record playing at the wrong speed. “I don’t think the audience is thrown off by the style. They’re only concerned with whether it’s funny or not. If it’s funny, they’ll laugh.” Too true. They will and they do. But the gags – virtually no set-up, and a minimal punch line – are so short that Wright must just burn up material. How do you keep feeding the beast when you’ve been clocked delivering 275 jokes in an hour? “It’s difficult to come up with long, new chunks all of the time,” Wright confesses, “but that’s just how it’s been. I’ve never done it another way.”

Earlier in his career, Steven Wright slaved over his performance. He used to divide his material into three categories so that he could pace his show: if the audience started to flag, two funnier gags closer together kept them on side, and when they were on side, less funny gags could be used for longer periods of time. Wright could judge the quality of an audience – and therefore vary (as much as an utterly emotionless deadpan comic may vary) his material accordingly – by listening to them for a few minutes from backstage, before the show. However, Wright doesn’t move the material around like that anymore. “I pretty much know what I’m gonna do before I even go out there,” he says, likening the performance to a ‘play’ – “one long, flowing thing. The other way, I was wasting a lot of energy figuring out which joke was gonna be next. I thought I could perform the material better if I knew the order of it.”

The comic has likened his style to looking at the world with the innocence and naivety of a child and then describing it with the language of an adult. I can’t help wondering if that was easier when he was younger, when he was still experiencing new things all the time. According to Steven, the process hasn’t changed at all. “Writing material is just a specific way of thinking about something,” he explains. “Nobody ever stops thinking and nobody ever stops experiencing. From when you wake up to when you go to sleep your mind is bombarded with words and images and sounds and things on the television and movies and conversations with people.”

Speaking of ‘things on the television and movies’, Wright has an interesting acting career that runs parallel to his comedy. Many were first made aware of him via his monotone, employed as the “K-Billy super sounds of the 70s” DJ in the soundtrack to Reservoir Dogs. His most recent cinematic appearance is in Son of the Mask. Yet with every job, Steven Wright is hired to play himself. Which isn’t a problem since he’s “just saying some sentences someone else made up”. Sure it limits his opportunities, not being able to play a criminal lawyer, say, unless the criminal lawyer spoke in an emotionless deadpan. However, as he never set out to be an actor, Wright doesn’t really mind.

However, when I raise this issue, I do so by referring to Wright’s ‘persona’. That deadpan guy who does stand-up, who is the one that appears in films, “he’s the one that I’m talking to right now,” I say. At which point, the comic falls out of character for the briefest moment and starts to laugh, as though the concept of there being more to Steven Wright than the deadpan comic persona is utterly ridiculous. The irony being that there has to be more to Steven Wright than the deadpan comic persona in order for that part of him to find the concept ridiculous.

Another interview with a funny guy called ‘Graham’

The interview opportunity with Graham Norton came as a result of Hopscotch deciding to issue the latest incarnation of Norton’s chat show, The Graham Norton Effect, on DVD. I’ve got to say that although it’s entirely disposable as television, it is also really addictive. If there was no such thing as cable or DVD and we didn’t have access to this show, it’s the sort of thing some enterprising clever clogs would go to the US, see, and bring back to Australia without changing a thing except the title and the host. If you don’t believe me, cast your mind back to the turn of the 90s, when television comic Steve Vizard reinvented himself as a talk show host with a program called Tonight Live with Steve Vizard. It took the better part of a decade for those of us who’d never been to the US to find out that the entire show was leased holus bolus from David Letterman, right down to the forced banter between Vizard and orchestra leader Paul Grabowsky. Just as Vizard is no Letterman, Paul Grabowsky is no Paul Shaffer. But I now digress. Norton was an entertaining interviewer to interview and his show isn’t half bad. A narrative version of this interview will appear in an impending issue of FilmInk.

Demetrius Romeo: I understand that you were a Perrier Award nominee in the late 90s. So before you were doing television, you were doing live comedy. Can you tell me a bit about your comedy career?

GRAHAM NORTON: Well I was never very good. [Laughs] It was a way of making a living, really. It was one of those things: I was a failed actor but I still wanted to show off, so I ended up doing live comedy. But I was never a headlining act – I was more a ‘middling’ act. I’d compare, or I’d be in the middle of the bill. But I was never like a ‘closer’. Or at least, not a reliable closer. So drifting into television suited me very well. I seemed to be better at that than doing the stand-up.

Demetrius Romeo: If that’s the case, how did you make it into television?

GRAHAM NORTON: Well, I guess the main thing was, I just kept plugging away. I did bits of radio. We had a new network called Channel 5 and I guest-hosted for a man who had a chat show there. That went well and I won a prize for guest-hosting on his show and then Channel 4, one of the bigger networks, came up with the idea of me doing my own chat show which, thank God in Heaven, took off; it did well, and, you know, hooray.

Demetrius Romeo: Did you say you won a prize for being a guest host?

GRAHAM NORTON: I did. It was all a bit eggy, because the actual host was nominated as well. So we were both nominated for his show.

Demetrius Romeo: How did that pan out?

GRAHAM NORTON: Not so good. Not so well.

Demetrius Romeo: Because you won?

GRAHAM NORTON: Essentially, yes. That was the bit that didn’t go well. It was good because it kind of saved me from myself, because I’d never won anything in my entire life. If there hadn’t been any kind of emotional constraint on me, I would have just run around the room screaming. So it was quite good that there was a very, very, very, very grumpy man. We were sharing a table. We were at the same table at the awards show. Essentially, it couldn’t have gone worse.

Demetrius Romeo: And you scored your own chat show out of it, ultimately?

GRAHAM NORTON: Yes. That’s kind of how it happened.

Demetrius Romeo: How much of the live comedy experience do you draw on, being a chat show host? Clearly having a quick wit, being able to think on you feet in order to deal with any challenge you’re given, helps.

GRAHAM NORTON: The main thing that came out of the stand-up, I think, was working the audience. Because I had very little material when I was a stand-up. To try and drag it out to twenty minutes I would just talk to the audience a lot. I really enjoyed talking to them, and that was always the bit in my act that always went best. So when the show came along, that was something I really wanted to feature – I really wanted to work the audience. Also, the phone calls came out of that Perrier Award-nominated show I was doing called ‘Men’ [check] and the producer was very keen to incorporate those into the show. It was also his idea to incorporate the Internet, which I thought was mad. I thought it was going to be like 8-track cartridge or laser discs – ‘it’ll go away, why bother?’ He was right, I was wrong.

Demetrius Romeo: How did the phone calls element of your show come about? A few comics do the ‘prank phone call’ humour.

GRAHAM NORTON: I used to do this thing – it’s bizarre. In the back of gay magazines in Britain – and it’s probably because of me that they’ve stopped doing it now – but they used to put in – if you put in an ad saying really ‘out there’ things - they wanted anything to happen to them. They really did not care what happened to them. Then at the end of the ad, they’d put in their home phone number. Which seemed like an invitation to me. They wanted people to call them. So I would call them. And it was pretty ‘out there’. It was pretty filthy. But audiences seemed to like it. And that kind of developed into ringing all those kind of sex workers and freaks and weirdos that I do in the show.

Demetrius Romeo: You’ve had a series of chat shows, the latest of which is The Graham Norton Effect, which is the first one that we’ve gotten to seen here in Australia because it’s being released on DVD. How have the shows evolved? How is The Graham Norton Effect different to So Graham Norton or V Graham Norton?

GRAHAM NORTON: The big difference with The Graham Norton Effect is that it was made specifically for America, so it’s much faster than the other shows we’ve done. The other shows were more kind of organic – items grew out of other items, there was a flow. When we made the American shows, suddenly we had seven commercial breaks. Previously we had two, sometimes three. We were really worried about that, but seven commercial breaks suit the show, because the show is quite beefy. So we kind of enjoyed it. I don’t know what it’s going to be like for Australians watching it, because we have done so many shows previously, so we kind of know what we’re doing; we know what we’re about. But for that to be the first show you see, I don’t know how it will play. Well, I hope. I mean, there is funny stuff in there. Hopefully they’ll like it.

Demetrius Romeo: What sets you apart from your David Lettermans and your Conan O’Briens and your Jay Lenos is that you can talk dirty to your guests and they think it’s funny. You can actually go out on a limb and challenge your celebrity guests to do the sort of things they wouldn’t normally do.

GRAHAM NORTON: Basically, I’m a really bad interviewer. I love meeting celebrities, but then I get a bit bored. Once you meet them you thing, ‘really, what an ordinary person’. That’s why there’s a lot of stuff going on in the show, because I’ve nothing to ask them, really. In a way, that happened by accident, because I was rubbish. But the good thing to come out of that is the celebrities are quite revealed in a way. I’m not asking them questions they know how to answer. I’m letting them react to stuff. And actually, you get to know a celebrity in a different way because you’re seeing what makes them laugh, what shocks them, what doesn’t shock them, and they seem to relax into it because they realize that it’s not about them. It’s more like them, as if they’ve been invited to a party.

Demetrius Romeo: You still keep the internet content as part of your show. Is there every anything that takes you by surprise or that doesn’t quite work the way you expected it to?

GRAHAM NORTON: The Internet on the show is all previously downloaded so it’s quick. In the office, patently, there are things that just take your breath away. You know, you must have seen those things. You download something and you’re going ‘what the hell is that?! Why would anyone do it?’ Occasionally we’ve made the mistake of seeing those things in the office, thinking them hilarious, and then showing them to an audience in the studio and it’s a very different thing. The audience is looking at it thinking, ‘that’s disgusting! Why is Graham making us look at that?’ I’m glad to say we’ve only made that mistake a couple of times, but it is interesting, taking something that’s funny in the office and putting it on a stage totally alters it.

Demetrius Romeo: How about the reactions of the celebrities? Have there been times where they’ve wanted to go back and self-censor because you’ve caught them off their guard?

GRAHAM NORTON: Who was eggy? Twiggy was upset. Now why was Twiggy upset? I can’t remember what we showed her. It was women, they were naked, but I don’t know what the hell they were doing, but she didn’t like it. But what we did was edit around her, so she never appeared in the same shot as what was going on on the screens. It seems like a dangerous show, but actually we’re not in the business of upsetting guests. We want the guests to leave happy. They are my guests; I’ve invited them. To really goad them… I don’t think I could do it. It would be like inviting a vegetarian to your house and then making them eat meat. It’s just rude.

Demetrius Romeo: Does your show have the same sort of cache as being in a Woody Allen film or voicing a Simpsons character yet?

GRAHAM NORTON: Sadly, no. The only people who are desperate to go on the show are people we’re desperate not to have on the show. It’s that classic talk show thing. Talk to anyone who has a talk show and they’ll say the same thing: the only people who ring up and say ‘can I be on?’ are the people you don’t want. The only exception to that was George Michael. My mobile rang around lunchtime one day, and it was George Michael. He wanted to come in on Friday. We were like, ‘okay, if that’s what you want’. And he was a very good guest. That’s a real exception to the rule.

Demetrius Romeo: What about the people you ring up and invite? Do you have to try to coerce them?

GRAHAM NORTON: I think ‘coerce’ is a big word; we certainly have to pay them. Occasionally we get people on the ‘plugging’ circuit who come on to talk about their movie or their book or their record, but we do also get a lot of guests because we pay them: show up, here’s some cash. And they know they’re going to have a nice time – we do treat them very well with nice goody bags and all of that, but that is absolutely the hardest part of putting the show together: booking the celebrities. It’s very, very tough. The thing is, the people I want are very famous and very rich, and all I can offer them is a bit of exposure on TV and a bit of cash, so it’s a miracle we get any guests at all. But we have been very lucky.

Demetrius Romeo: What sort of stuff is in a ‘goody bag’?

GRAHAM NORTON: You know, I don’t know. Somebody else takes care of that. But people often come to me and say how nice our goody bag was! I think you just get beauty products and stuff. But nice stuff. It’s not just something you buy at the chemist!

Demetrius Romeo: One of the people you’ve had on is John Voigt – what’s he like? Did you get to see a side of him that was a little unexpected?

GRAHAM NORTON: Well, what you don’t see on the show – he’s the only guest that we’ve ever had who cried. But he cried in the middle of a story that went on for about twenty-five minutes, and because he’s John Voigt, I wasn’t going to stop him. So I just let him go, knowing that this very long, essentially dull story is going to be cut out. But he was a very nice man; slightly doo-lally, but a very nice man. And as I say, the only guest we’ve ever had who made himself cry telling a dull story.

Demetrius Romeo: But that’s what a DVD’s for: that should have been a special feature – the extended version of interviews.

GRAHAM NORTON: You’re quite right, I had nothing to do with it. You complain. Make a phone call. Write a letter. Sign it ‘Outraged of Sydney’.

Demetrius Romeo: What do you come away from this series feeling happy about, that sets it apart from your earlier series?

GRAHAM NORTON: There were a lot of nice moments with the audience that I really liked. There was a really nice bit where we dressed – actually, maybe this was the series before this. We dressed peoples’ parents as superheroes. The bits I always like about the show are the bits we don’t plan. What’s great about doing a talk show is that you can produce it and prepare it as much as you like, but in the end, half of the show is unpredictable. Half of the show is coming from a guest or an audience member, and you can’t script that. So it doesn’t matter how prepared I am, there’s a big hunk of the show that is just up for grabs. That’s the bit that excites me, and that’s the bit that keeps me interested.

Demetrius Romeo: That sounds a bit like Andrew Denton’s Enough Rope, when he interviews what he refers to as “the so-called ‘ordinary people’”, the audience members who have stories as interesting or perhaps more interesting than the celebrities, that you don’t always get to hear.

GRAHAM NORTON: Absolutely. That is the thing when you meet celebrities: the minute you meet them, you realize they are ordinary. Occasionally you meet an extraordinary celebrity, someone who has an aura around them like a Catherine Deneuve or a Sophia Loren; but by and large, actors, singers – that’s their job. If they’ve got a funny story to tell, it’s only as funny as someone in the audience, and probably someone in the audience has a funnier story to tell. It’s just a matter of finding a way to tap into those stories. It’s lovely meeting celebrities, don’t get me wrong; I do like meeting them. But once that’s happened, your interest does wane. Unless you’re a big fan of them; unless you want to ask them ‘ooh, in that scene in such-and-such a movie when you blah-blah-blah-blah-blah’. But I’m not a ‘fan’ kind of person; I’ve never collected autographs, I’ve never tracked down celebrities.

Demetrius Romeo: What happens now that you’re becoming a celebrity yourself. How do you draw the line? At some point you start throwing stones in the glass house.

GRAHAM NORTON: That’s always a danger and I try to keep on top of it. I don’t really go to all those showbiz parties and that sort of stuff because I don’t want to meet people I’ve done jokes about. Once you meet people, you realize, ‘oh, they’re sweet really’ and then it’s very hard to do jokes about them, so I avoid those sorts of parties. What was lucky for me was I found success very late in life. I was about thirty-three, thirty-four before I started making any money, so I’d made my friends, I knew the value of money. I had my life. You know what I mean? Hopefully I don’t lose track of that and it keeps me grounded.

Demetrius Romeo: How did you feel at thirty-two, not having made it yet?

GRAHAM NORTON: It was terrible. If I had been my friend, I would have told me to give up. ‘Just stop it, this is pathetic’. And I didn’t. I kept going, and then, lo and behold! a miracle occurred. What’s good and bad about that is I’m an example to people to keep plugging away, but sadly, I’m an example to people who are just never, ever going to get anywhere. They keep plugging away and you feel like saying to them, ‘no, no miracle will ever, ever happen. It just happened to me. Stop now. Go get a proper job.’

Demetrius Romeo: What were you thinking? What were you waiting for, before it all happened? Were you hanging out for a radio or television gig?

GRAHAM NORTON: I absolutely didn’t care. I just wanted to make money doing something other than waiting tables. That was my ambition. My ambition wasn’t to do anything. My ambition was to stop waiting tables. That was how I measured success: finally, I was able to stop waiting tables, and I was able to pay the rent, and that was by being a stand-up comic. Not a very good stand-up comic, but good enough to make a living.

Demetrius Romeo: How do you earn a Perrier Award nomination at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival by being a not very good stand-up comic?

GRAHAM NORTON: I was lucky that the hour-long show suited me, in a way, more than doing those comedy clubs. Comedy clubs I find really tough, but doing an hour-long show gives you the freedom to chat on. I would do things like read from my childhood diaries, I would make the phone calls – quite theatrical things. And I think that’s why I got a Perrier nomination, because my show wasn’t just an hour of stand-up. There was stuff in it. It was kind of an event. Which is great in Edinburgh, but a fat lot of good it does you when you’re trying to amuse people in a smoky, drunken comedy club.

Demetrius Romeo: Fair enough. Now I feel we should round this off with one fairly decisive question. But I don’t have one. Is there anything I’ve missed? Anything I should know? I know – How did you end up on American television?

GRAHAM NORTON: D’you know, again, it’s a slight mystery to me! In that kind of desperate thing they have in America where they’re desperate for success on television because television is such a big business, they’re trying to look for guarantees; they’re trying to look for certainties. So they come to Britain, they see what shows are doing well and they wonder, ‘ooh, could we transplant that to America?’ What was lucky about my show is that it wasn’t a sitcom or anything. It wasn’t a question of recasting it or re-writing it. It was just our show in America.

My Chat with Graeme Garden, Full Blown

I’ve been threatening to publish my conversation with Graeme Garden in full for some time now, and with The Goodies about to appear in Australia any day now for the Big Laugh Comedy Festival (and with variations of the interview about to hit the stands in issues of FilmInk and Men’s Style Australia) I thought it was high time I made good with my promise.

In addition, here are a few MP3 files of permutations of the interview that have been broadcast. I’m afraid that at the time of editing, I didn’t have recourse to Goodies soundbites, so I used a lot from I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again . Unfortunately, John Cleese’s voice is instantly recogniseable, with Graeme Garden’s, none too obvious.

Demetrius Romeo: Graeme, tell me. What brought The Goodies back together?

GRAEME GARDEN: Well, the Big Laugh Festival, I guess. This gentleman John Pinder got in touch with us and said he’d been asking around for people, asking people who they would like to resurrect from the old days, I think, was perhaps how he put it, I don’t know. Our name came up on his list and he got in touch with us and said, “would you three guys like to come over to Australia and have some fun?” and I guess we said “yes!”

Demetrius Romeo: Fanstastic! Now, Graeme, is this the first reunion proper for The Goodies in a while?

GRAEME GARDEN: In a long time, yes. We’ve been together and done a couple of shows – one at the National Film Theatre here, and one in the West End Cinema – where we’ve had an audience and shown clips and chatted about the show and making it and things, and answered a few questions. The last time we did that was to launch the first DVD which sold very well in Australia, I know. And so it would be taking that kind of a show together one step further. I don’t think we can offer an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza, and certainly nothing as physical as we used to do on the screen. My hip needs replacing, for one thing! But what we would hope to do is to offer some ideas of where we started out together, how we started out, what we were doing – shows before The Goodies we collaborated on – and maybe illustrate that with some of the material we used to do on radio and things like that. We’re researching that at the moment to try and find suitable stuff that we used to have fun doing, and will be fun to do again.

Demetrius Romeo: In the commentary of the DVD you released there is some talk of some of the things in some of the episodes that were with you from your earliest days…

GRAEME GARDEN: There were, yes. I think the bit you’re talking about was a bit called ‘Pet’s Corner’ which I used to do as a student. In fact, it was about the first thing I did in the Cambridge Footlights, which was to be a kind of animal expert on TV, presenting all these animals that he was a bit afraid of, which he kept accidentally killing. That sort of leaked into one or two of The Goodies’ episodes. There were sort of vampire bats and little furry things that used to crawl all over me. So there was some of that sort of stuff that certainly stood the test of time, or we plundered later on.

Demetrius Romeo: The three of you all met at the Cambridge Footlights. What are your first memories of Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor at Cambridge?

GRAEME GARDEN: My memories were that they were very funny and quite professional about the shows and things that they were doing. Far too much so for me, so I didn’t join the Footlights to begin with. I joined another organisation called the Cambridge University Light Entertainment Society, known as ‘CULES’ – which was fat better than joining the Cambridge University National Trust Society, which a lot of people did. CULES used to go around doing the sort of material that the Footlights did, but not quite so clever, and do concert parties at hospitals, things like that. But quite a few members of the Footlights were in CULES, so I met them and they said, “come along to the Footlights and join in”. Tim was the President of the Footlights when I joined, so I had to audition in front of him.

Demetrius Romeo: What was your audition piece for the Footlights?

GRAEME GARDEN: My audition was a bit like Pet’s Corner. I think I was drawing pictures or sketching silly things because they were all very clever at singing and doing word play and all that clever stuff, so I thought, “well, I’ll do something that nobody else is doing and they won’t know how to judge it. They’ll think, ‘oh well, it must be all right because we’re not doing it, and we can’t do that’.” So I drew pictures and did little odd things like that and they allowed me in. So I was quite in awe of them.

Demetrius Romeo: Working with the bigger group, how did the three of you come to break off and form a trio?

GRAEME GARDEN: We’d all been doing radio together with John Cleese and we didn’t break off in a group together, in a sense. We worked together in various other shows. Bill and I did a show together. Tim did one with John and with Marty [Feldman and Graham Chapman], At Last the 1948 Show. Eric Idle did one with [Terry] Jones and [Michael] Palin [and Terry Gilliam] which was called Do Not Adjust Your Set. And then, out of that lot, it ended up with the Pythons in one group and Tim and Bill and I in the other, not because we all sort of sought each other out particularly, it just sort of fell that way.

Demetrius Romeo: I’ve read that the proposal for The Goodies, ‘three guys who do anything, anywhere, any time’, when that proposal was put forward, the fellow in charge of light entertainment at the BBC said, “we receive that sort of proposal all the time, but we believe in what you gentlemen can do; go ahead with it.” Is that the case?

GRAEME GARDEN: Yeah, that actually happened. It was a guy called Michael Mills who was the Head of Comedy. We had done a series called Broaden Your Mind which was a sort of spoof – an ‘encyclopedia of the air’, if you like – and they wanted another series of that. We said, “well, we don’t want to do sketches” – which is what that was – “because Python are doing that, lots of people like The Two Ronnies are doing that, we want to do it a bit different. We want to do it as a half-hour story line, and the idea is The Goodies,” As you say, the guy said, “that’s an idea I get on my desk every week but I think you might be able to do it.” And we got the contracts through for a show he called Narrow Your Mind! But yes, it’s quite true. That was the good old days when the people at the top wouldn’t rely on focus groups and management training and stuff like that, they’d go with their own gut instincts. I’m happy to say that he did and we ended up with a series.

Demetrius Romeo: You included some clips from Broaden Your Mind as extras on that first DVD, and it really is sketch based stuff, whereas The Goodies seems to draw from a tradition where you’re actually playing showbiz versions of yourselves, in a way.

GRAEME GARDEN: That’s a fair comment. I mean, it’s not really a very accurate picture of ourselves; Tim would be horrified if you thought he was really like the character he played. Bill is just like that in real life, of course, and I am science-based, but not quite as loony as it looks.

Demetrius Romeo: You undertook a medical degree at university.


Demetrius Romeo: Was that your first choice?

GRAEME GARDEN: It was, really. I came from a medical family, so most of the adults I had met were either teachers at school or were doctors, and I thought I’d rather be a doctor, really. And then when I got to university I discovered there lots of other things you could do as well, so by the time I actually qualified as a doctor, I got some offers to do some television work, so I thought, “I can’t really turn that down; I’ll give it a try.”

Demetrius Romeo: Have you ever had to fall back on your medical training and actually practice as a doctor?

GRAEME GARDEN: No, I’ve not practiced as a doctor. I’ve made quite a few medical-based videos and things like that. In fact I did a series of – I think we made about fifty – videos with John Cleese, funnily enough, explaining various illnesses to patients who might have been newly diagnosed, to help them take in what they’d heard from the doctor but probably hadn’t quite been able to remember because it came as a bit of a shock.

Demetrius Romeo: And you also worked on the early Doctor series.

GRAEME GARDEN: Yeah, indeed. The old Doctor in the House series. Bill and I wrote loads of those, looking back.

Demetrius Romeo: You mentioned that the fact that the three of you ended up in The Goodies and your contemporaries ended up in Monty Python, but there was no real plan; it was just how it happened. There seems to be a playful rivalry between the two camps. For example at the end of the episode The Goodies and the Beanstalk, John Cleese is the genie who appears at the end, declares his surroundings a ‘kid’s programm’ and disappears again.


Demetrius Romeo: Was there ever frustration that The Goodies was perceived as a more ‘kids-oriented’ show?

GRAEME GARDEN: I think there might have been. I’m just trying to remember what the dates were ’round about then. It was possibly when the BBC weren’t quite sure where to place us, and had started putting us out rather early in the evening and sort of treating us like a kids show, which had not been the way it had originally been devised. I think there might have been a little bit of rankling as far as we were concerned, that people were looking on it as a kids’ show because of the time it was going out. Eventually we settled on – or they settled on – putting it out at nine o’clock at night which was about right for us. It was opposite the BBC News on BBC 1. We were on BBC 2. Nobody had done it before, but now it’s become a sort of ‘traditional’ comedy slot, the nine o’clock slot, just late enough to be an adult program but early enough for kids to be allowed to stay up if they really want to see it.

Demetrius Romeo: Whereas, in Australia, you did go out at six o’clock for a long time, and I believe that there are some episodes that only exist in their censored-for-six-pm Australian version. Were you aware of that?

GRAEME GARDEN: The cut versions? Yeah, I’ve got a list of the cuts that were made which recently came my way. Very interesting to see what Australians were not allowed to see.

Demetrius Romeo: What were some of the things that we were forbidden from seeing in a real Goodies episode?

GRAEME GARDEN: I’m ashamed to say that most of them appear to be bosom jokes, but I don’t know why Australia was particularly sensitive about that aspect. I think some things were cut for time, but there were certainly… it’s only because the Australians were so hot on the censorship that a lot of the programs have survived because the only copies we could track down were in the Censor’s office in Australia when it came to finding the old archive material.

Demetrius Romeo: Has that influenced what you have been able to release on DVD? I notice that the first one was a ‘best of’, rather than a complete season beginning with the first series.

GRAEME GARDEN: Yeah, I think it would be difficult to start with the first series because a lot of those shows are not available in colour anymore; they’re sort of strange pirate copies in black and white, and not great quality to work on. But we thought, there were eighty-odd shows, yes, it would be interesting to release them series by series, but probably the best shows were going out around series four or five. Five, probably. So w thought it best to make an impact with a nice representative clutch of good programs rather than what might be interesting to historians, but not necessarily to the general public. We’ve got another DVD coming out with another ‘best’ eight, or whatever it is, on them. If they’re a huge success then, yes, we might go back and do it series by series. But considering there’s been none available for about twenty years, we thought we might kick of with the good ones.

Demetrius Romeo: Fair enough; ‘the Goodies of The Goodies’, I guess.

GRAEME GARDEN: Yes, ‘The Besties!’

Demetrius Romeo: How did you come to chose the ones that made the grade for the first and second DVDS?

GRAEME GARDEN: That’s interesting, because we hadn’t seen them, as you can imagine, for a very long time, so we wrote down the ones we remembered. There were some that were obvious ones that were obvious choices, the ‘The Kitten’ [Kitten Kong] that everyone always talks about, The Goodies and the Beanstalk, that was a special that we did. And then some of the classic ones. We didn’t want to put all our favourites, or all possibly the best ones on the first DVD because we wanted to bring out two, and we thought, “better not short change people if they buy the second one.” And also, we have a huge fanbase in Australia, funnily enough. The fanclub is run from there. And they were helpful too, because we took on their suggestions, the ones that they rate. There’s a guy called Brett Allender who’s done a breakdown of all the programs and given them all ratings. So there was a lot of input from the one community in the world who remembers them in any detail, and that’s the Australian public.

Demetrius Romeo: I wasn’t aware that we were ‘up there’ amongst the fans.

GRAEME GARDEN: You’re not ‘up there among the fans’, you are the fans! You and a few London cab drivers who ask me when it’s coming back.

Demetrius Romeo: Surely you’d get a lot of people recognizing you in the streets still!

GRAEME GARDEN: Well, I look a bit different than I did twenty years ago, but still we do, yeah, we get a few people who come up and ask us for things. We’re all still working and appear on TV in various guises. Tim and I did a quiz program last year that was good fun. Tim and I do a lot of radio together. We’ve been doing a show together for thirty years.

Demetrius Romeo: Is that I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue?

GRAEME GARDEN: It certainly is.

Demetrius Romeo: Coming back to the DVDs, when you were digging out archival stuff to include with it, was providing a commentary a fun trip down memory lane, or was there stuff that surprised you or shocked you, or that you wish you didn’t have to reveal?

GRAEME GARDEN: On the first one, we did a commentary on the Lighthouse Keeping show [Lighthouse Keeping Loonies], which, literally, we had not seen for twenty years. So it was full of surprises. Quite a bit of it, we waffled on, but for some of it we just sat there because we just couldn’t remember anything about it. You know, it was like, “good heavens, did we do that?” So there were a few surprises. Some things are a bit disappoinging; they’re not as good as you think they are. Other things, you’d forgotten how funny they were or they appear to us, anyway. We suddenly found we were making each other laugh on screen, which of course we would never have owned up to in real life. And just the other day we did some commentaries for the next DVD, and one of those is a show South Africa that we did about apartheid, that was quite hard-hitting, and that the BBC tried to stop us broadcasting. It’s quite shocking stuff, to be quite honest. Certainly, it’s very dodgy as far as ‘PC’ is concerned in this day and age. But it was made at a time when the BBC’s most popular show was The Black & White Minstrel Show on a Saturday night, which had white men in black face minstrel make-up, singing to white girls, and nobody at the time thought that that was a bizarre thing to be doing, so we pointed that out in the show as well. That was quite hard-hitting, and, as I say, is still quite shocking. Partly, it has a go at the ‘catch-all’ attitudes that people had to race at the time, which were probably less shocking then than they are now. But it was interesting, yes. It always is to go back and have a look at these things.

The other thing about the DVDs is that they have been digitally enhanced and they look better now than when they were first broadcast. They’ve never looked as good as they do now, even when they went out originally. And so we were quite impressed with that, apart from anything else.

Demetrius Romeo: There was a nice little feature on the DVD that showed the ‘before’ an ‘after’.

GRAEME GARDEN: That’s right. But the ‘before’ shot is actually how it looked when it was broadcast. It hasn’t deteriorated over the years. It always looked that ropey.

Demetrius Romeo: One thing I do notice about the original Goodies shows is that part of the humour you created couldn’t be created in that way anymore because part of it comes from the fact that you had to use props and models, whereas today, so much of it would be CGI.


Demetrius Romeo: Do you think that people coming through with the same sort of ideas could ever get a show with that sort of charm and humour working?

GRAEME GARDEN: I don’t know that they could. You’re quite right, because some of the fun was that you could see that if somebody fell off a cliff, it was just a dummy, and when they hit the ground, it was replaced by somebody else, and you laughed if it looked reasonably good because you thought, ‘well, they got away with that, that’s very funny!’ Now, as you say, it would be incredibly elaborate with flying cameras and god-knows-what, and CGI stuff. I don’t know if it would be more expensive, but I think you’re right about the charm of it, that you would lose that home-made feel that it had.

There are people who still do that sort of comedy – people like Harry Hill, who has fun with very sill props. If you wanted to fool the audience you could do it much better with CGI, but he chooses not to. And that’s still quite amusing.

The other thing, I think, that would stop it being made today is the insurance, because every show that you do now, you have to fill out elaborate forms about health and safety and you have a risk assessment for every single shot. If you have a shot of somebody walking down the street, somebody has to fill in a sheet with the risks involved: “may step off curb and twist ankle; may be hit by passing car,” and all that sort of stuff. Every single shot of The Goodies would have had a risk assessment that would have made it impossible to do. I’ve just been doing the voice-over for an animated series where I just provide the voice for a character and we were solemnly handed a sheet of risk assessments for that: “may trip over cable”.

Demetrius Romeo: That’s incredible.

GRAEME GARDEN: It is bizarre. I just think the bureaucracy would stifle it. I don’t know how they get away with doing stuff anymore.

Demetrius Romeo: You brought up animation; there is one product I would love to see on DVD. Will we ever see Banana Man on DVD?

GRAEME GARDEN: Yes. It’s just been released. Probably not in Australia yet, but in the UK it was released – or rather, is released – about now.

Demetrius Romeo: Do the three of you provide commentary for that?

GRAEME GARDEN: No, no. We were nothing to do with that. No, we were just hired for the voices, and it was what’s called a ‘buy out’, so we have no participation in the DVD or anything like that, financially or any other way, just because animations of that sort of thing at that ime, were just horrendously difficult to work out how to pay people apart from just paying them a flat fee for just for doing it. So I don’t know anything about it except that it has just been released on DVD, so it should be coming your way. If we can smuggle a couple of discs down with us, we will do so.

Demetrius Romeo: Do it! Sell it at a profit. Make some money out of it.

GRAEME GARDEN: You may think that, I couldn’t possibly comment!

Demetrius Romeo: And I won’t broadcast that, so your secret’s safe with me.

Now, as time has passed, do you have any regrets? Do you have any dirt you want to dish up after ten years of eight seasons of the show?

GRAEME GARDEN: We covered, essentially, the 70s, really. It was the social commentary of the 70s. Regrets? Not really. I’m sorry that we didn’t do a movie of it ever. That would have been fun. We did try, and we got a couple of projects sort of almost going, but for one reason or another, they never came to anything. But I think a movie of it might have been a good thing to do. But then again, it might not.

Demetrius Romeo: Yes, well, not many British sitcoms or comedies made the grade as films; if you look at the track record…

GRAEME GARDEN: Absolutely true. That’s quite right. Although I suppose our ‘influences’, if you like, were somewhere between Buster Keaton and Tom & Jerry, which are cinematic, at least, historically. We might have had a little more going for it, in that we weren’t a sitcom where you had to open it out from three people sitting no a sofa; we were already thinking in terms of big locations and stunts and things like that for television. But as you say, it’s that switch from thirteen minutes to ninety that finds a lot of them out, doesn’t it.

Demetrius Romeo: Although, a lot of what you did, particularly with the bits that begin as flights of fancy that are realised for the screen, were fantastic send-ups, take-offs or homage to cinema and cartoons, vintage and otherwise. You had it all in there.

GRAEME GARDEN: Yeah, well on the second DVD we’ve got the show where we did our own movie in one of the episodes which conjures up all sorts of recreations of old slapstick routines. We actually have Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton and people appearing on screen. So that was our homage to the cinema then. We did a commentary for that the other day, and that stands up pretty well, and even the effects, even though you can tell that they’re not CGI, they’re intriguingly impressive enough to make you wonder how we did them.

Demetrius Romeo: I always go back to the dog singing – in The Goodies & the Beanstalk and Kitten Kong – I know that it’s chewing toffee and that the film’s been edited, but today you wouldn’t go to so much trouble. You’d do it with a computer, rather than someone working really hard to capture that effect.

GRAEME GARDEN: That was Jim Franklin who directed and produced the series who did the singing dogs. He was a film editor who’d done a lot of work for David Frost and people like that. When we did the first series of The Goodies, knowing that we were going to be using a lot of film and film trickery, we persuaded the BBC to let us have Jim Franklin for the series. He later went on to direct the whole thing. But he was brilliant, and as you say, like a good film editor, he was dogged and would sit down – ‘dogged’ is a good word for it – and would sit down and go through that stuff frame by frame and created the singing dog, like Aardman Animation or something like that. Somebody who’s got the patience and the vision to see what he wants and how to get it, and to spend the time doing it.

Demetrius Romeo: Another beautiful moment is in The Goodies and the Beanstalk, when the three of you do your Marx Brothers impressions – the three of you as an ensemble just having fun, doing comedy about comedy.

GRAEME GARDEN: That was just a bit of self-indulgence, really. But it was good fun to do and it just looks so silly, doesn’t it.

Demetrius Romeo: Yes, but it looks as though you’re having fun, and if you’re making each other laugh, you’re pretty much assured of making us laugh.

GRAEME GARDEN: Well, we usually made Bill laugh, on screen and on camera. But it’s the principal that we use on the radio as well. We’ve been doing I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue for some thirty years now, and our audience always amazed us because they’re all age groups and from all walks of life, and all we’re doing is trying to make each other laugh because it’s an allegedly ad lib’d kind of a show. We make sure we don’t know what everybody else is going to be doing – we might have an idea of what we’re going to be doing ourselves, but we try and surprise each other and make each other laugh. That’s a pretty good principal to work off, really.

Demetrius Romeo: Well, I hope it’s the same principle that pervades your Australian tour.

GRAEME GARDEN: I hope so. We’re looking forward to it, and we’re looking for bits and pieces that will hopefully tell the audience what sort of stuff we used to do, which we used to enjoy doing, and which we still do. We’re looking forward to having a good time, and I hope the audience makes us laugh a lot.

Demetrius Romeo: Fanstastic! Graeme Garden, thank you for your time.

GRAEME GARDEN: It’s been a pleasure.

David Bowie: A Reality Tour

Appearing in this month’s FilmInk is the following article. Handed a pre-release video of the new David Bowie concert DVD and a copy of the press release that I could re-write as I saw fit – with the understanding that I include some quotes from the Sydney press conference of Bowie’s recent world tour – I decided to re-write a decade-old (more-or-less) piece celebrating the great album that was Outside. Writing from the position of arrogant self-righteousness is remarkably easy, particularly when you believe it to be justified. However, in ‘reality’ (so to speak) I like Bowie’s ‘Tin Machine’ output a lot more, and Heathen slightly less than I make out below. However, if you don’t care enough to own a lot of David Bowie music (more the fool you, I say!) the essential releases of the last decade or so are the soundtrack to the BBC miniseries Buddha of Suburbia (not covered in the article), Outside, Earthling and the new David Bowie: A Reality Tour DVD. Oh, and of course, if you live anywhere else than Australia, where the DVD has already been available for at least a fortnight, you’re probably already over it. That’s just the nature of DVD consumption in the modern age.

In 1995 David Bowie served notice with the single ‘The Heart’s Filthy Lesson’, the opening salvo of his greatest return-to-form album in just about forever. The album was 1. Outside: The Nathan Adler Diaries, the first in a proposed series of concept albums set in the future and featuring detective Nathan Adler. On Outside, Adler was in pursuit of a serial killer who perpetrated ‘art murder’ – the ritualistic re-arrangement of the victim’s body parts in a pretty pattern. Whatever you think of the concept, any Bowie fan will tell you Outside was a brilliant album – bringing together some of Bowie’s best collaborators.

Bowie’s next album Earthling was not part two of the Nathan Adler diaries but was still a fantastic album, even if some people want to dismiss it as merely ‘Bowie’s drum ’n’ bass album’. (Ask them to define ‘drum ’n’ bass’ and see if you get a decent answer. Then ask them if the Beatles are now ‘drum ’n’ bass’ since they’re down to just the rhythm section: Paul and Ringo. And then tell them to piss off; Earthling is a fantastic album.)

By the new millennium, David Bowie had inked a deal to form an all-new label (ISO) with a new distributor (Sony), the first release tipped to be Contamination – part two of the Nathan Adler diaries. The deal went ahead, but the album never eventuated. Instead Bowie released Heathen, reuniting him with Tony Visconti, a producer he seems to return to whenever it’s time to regroup. ‘Heathen’ was universally dubbed a fantastic album (true!), a ‘return to form’ (true!) and Bowie’s best album in the last decade (Ba-bow! Thanks for playing. That prize goes to ‘Outside’). Heathen was followed by Reality, and David Bowie did something he hadn’t done since Earthling: he’d produced two fantastic albums in a row. Then the announcement came: David Bowie was embarking on his ‘Reality Tour’, his most extensive trip around the world in about a decade, and his first tour to Australia since the 80s.

At the press conference the most important question, “You used to record concept albums about the ritual art-murder of children – before you had one of your own in the house. Will Contamination ever see the light of day?” wasn’t asked. But “How has being married and becoming a father changed and influenced you this time around?” was. Bowie had married supermodel Iman at the front end of the 90s, his 1993 album Black Tie, White Noise, opening with the celebratory instrumental ‘The Wedding’. It was a new beginning: his 1990 ‘Sound + Vision’ world tour had put all of his previous stage personae – and (thank God!) his erstwhile ‘heavy metal’ band Tin Machine – to bed. But, David pointed out, he hadn’t changed because he got married and became a dad again, he got married and became a dad again because he’d changed.

“I seemed to have come to a place where I felt grounded and I understood a lot more about myself and my immediate environment and how I react to things,” he said, “and my writing has taken a turn for the positive.” Readily admitting a tendency to vacillate between good and bad moods, the decade’s domesticity had enabled David Bowie to avoid a “pessimistic, negative, even nihilistic frame of mind”. Clearly then, there would be no Contamination or any other continuation of the Nathan Adler diaries. David Bowie may have begun his career as an outsider, a space oddity loving the alien, but the man had finally fallen to earth. Reality was an attempt to ensure that he remained grounded.

“It’s been pretty depressing in New York over the last two or three years,” he said, “and I really wanted to put something out that had some strong positive point to it and that was just a joy to play on stage.” The result was an exciting live show that concentrated on the music. According to Bowie, his performances had “never been so clean and so unencumbered.” Considering, particularly, that our last view of Bowie in Australia was with his ‘Glass Spider’ tour, this was an amazing proposition. “I’m up with there with a really, really, great, strong band,” he insisted, “just interpreting my songs that I’ve done over the last thirty-five years.” From a rotating set list of sixty songs, some of which haven’t been performed live in the last couple of decades, the ‘Reality Tour’ offered over two hours of hits, significant album cuts, and the best bits of his last two albums played by an excellent band that featured some of the best musicians he’d worked with throughout his career. They even taped a gig – in Dublin, two months into the tour.

Unfortunately, before the tour ended, David Bowie was taught his own heart’s filthy lesson: he stopped mid-show due to pain from a ‘pinched nerve’ in his shoulder. Then the final eleven dates of the ‘Reality Tour’ were cancelled as Bowie underwent emergency heart surgery to clear a blocked artery. Who knows how long it will be before he prepares a band and a tour like that again? You’ve just got to be grateful that you got to see it – if you did get to see it. And if you didn’t, you’re about to get a second chance: David Bowie: A Reality Tour is being released on DVD, mixed in 5.1 surround sound by Tony Visconti. Think about it: David Bowie, live in concert with one of his best bands, on his best tour, at one of his best gigs. The release of Contamination notwithstanding, it couldn’t really get much better than this.

Got it covered!


My buddy Nick O’Sullivan perpetrated this excellent caricature for the cover of FilmInk, which I snapped as a lead sheet on display outside of a newsagent’s in Newtown.

Nick has certainly nailed the Michael Moore caricature as well as that of George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden. However, turning George Dubya and Osama into a composite by making them kiss is excellent. It reminds me of something a friend of mine once said over too many glasses of wine (and as there were too many glasses of wine, I will never remember the series of tangential leaps that could make a reminiscence such as the one that is to follow fit into a conversational context). She said that when she was a little girl, she used to insist on making her cat and dog ‘kiss’ by forcibly bringing their muzzles together. Her pets didn’t particularly like this, but she’d make ’em do it anyway. When she told me about it, she even followed through with a ‘didn’t you used to do that with your pets?’

No. Never.

But I like the fact that Moore seems to be forcing the same indignity upon a fairly deserving pair of performing monkeys.

I was reminded of this caricature over the weekend when I awoke to the news report that some terrorist blogger had named Australian soil as an imminent venue for his or her next religious hoedown.

Could this be an agent provocateur giving our Minister for Foreign Affairs and (Free) Trade, the Right Hon. Alexander Downer, an opportunity to actually publicly intercept a terrorist warning and act upon it openly, so that he can actually look as though he is doing his job before an election?

Or has Paul McCartney foolishly booked himself into another Australian tour that he’s going to want to pull out of because of lack of ticket sales, and then realised that, unless Ringo seriously gets back onto the sauce, there will be no memorial to a former colleague that he will have to use valuable Australian tour schedule time to rehearse in?

Neither, most likely.

I think it’s a reaction to Nick’s great artwork.

I’m just not sure if it’s Bush taking offence, Bin Laden taking offence, or Moore taking the opportunity to create some material for his next flick, given that he’s such a heavy-handed ‘documenter’ of events.


The Micallef Program Pogram Programme

The extended version of an interview conducted with Shaun Micallef for FilmInk in honour of the DVD release of The Micallef Programme (the second season; the first season was entitled The Micallef Program and the third, The Micallef Pogram ). Can’t wait to own that one – and the other two when they are released. The interview was for theIn Da House column, which involves discussion of DVD consumption, as well as a new release DVD for which the interview subject is either responsible or involved with. If you like Shaun Micallef’s work and want to know more about him, you’d be hardpressed to find a more comprehensive source of information than the unofficial but highly informed Online World Around Him.

Demetrius Romeo: Are you an avid DVD consumer?

SHAUN MICALLEF: I have purchased for myself three DVDs. They are: Some Like It Hot, Citizen Cane and the other isn’t really one DVD, it’s The Pink Panther Collection less one. They brought the Pink Panther films out and they seem to have left out The Return of the Pink Panther. It’s quite strange: you end up watching Shot in the Dark which was made in about 1965 or something, and suddenly you leap ahead to 1977. Very strange. I was talking to Tony Martin – he’s got about a billion DVDs – and he was telling me that he thought there might be some problem with MGM not owning the rights to the comeback film.

Demetrius Romeo: Are you a fan of DVD bonuses and extra features?

SHAUN MICALLEF: I haven’t really got into them, I must say. I’m a great reader of film books and over the years I’ve amassed quite a number of those sorts of books, so I sort of know all the stories. Also, I’ve got three young children, so whenever I hire a DVD, I don’t really have time to sit through it again listening to the commentary tracks.

Demetrius Romeo: So most of the DVDs you watch are kids flicks that you watch with your children?

SHAUN MICALLEF: Yeah. But they’re movies I enjoy too, like Shrek and Toy Story. I’ve actually bought the Christopher Reeve Superman series for the kids, as well.

Demetrius Romeo: Do you get much time to watch DVDs that you like?

SHAUN MICALLEF: No I don’t. I still haven’t watched Citizen Kane, even though I’ve had it for about a month. I don’t really get the time, unfortunately, to really watch them and enjoy them. When Tony Martin gave me a copy of the Bad Eggs DVD, which had like a billion hours of extras on it, it took me a good two weeks to get around to watching everything on it. But that’s probably an exception. That’s probably a very unusual example of cramming as much as you can onto a DVD. But I did like the effort he went to.

Demetrius Romeo: Of course, there will be a time when your kids are able to sit down with you and appreciate the films that you like.

SHAUN MICALLEF: I’ve been introducing them to my videos, anyway. They’re watching Laurel & Hardy and Laurel & Hardy and Chaplin, so I think that’s a good start.

Demetrius Romeo: Do you have an extensive video collection?

SHAUN MICALLEF: Yeah, massive. I started collecting that when I was able to – when they started coming out when I was sixteen or something. There’s about seven boxes of old, classic comedies which, in time, I guess I’ll replace with DVDs.

Demetrius Romeo: Which of them stand out for you?

SHAUN MICALLEF: The Marx Brothers’ A Night At The Opera, I think, is a perfect comedy film, and the Chaplin stuff. And Buster Keaton’s The General. I love The General. The kids haven’t quite gotten into the features, but I’m just introducing them to the shorts. It’s a very mercurial process that we’re going through.

Demetrius Romeo: I hope the fact that you don’t often get to enjoy DVD extras won’t preclude you from including them on your own DVD that’s about to be released.

SHAUN MICALLEF: Oh, no, no, I’m quite happy to give the DVD bonuses. There’ll be a commentary track and extras and things like that. Far too much time will be wasted experiencing the DVD that we’re releasing. Maybe just watching the episodes will be enough of a waste of time, perhaps. A pleasant kind of waste of time, I hope.

Demetrius Romeo: What sort of extras will you have? Are there many outtakes?

SHAUN MICALLEF: Look, I’ve got a thing about bloopers, I don’t really like them all that much. What we’ve included instead is about an hour’s worth complete sketches that we really liked. Gary [McCaffrie, co-writer and co-producer] and I went back and watched all the stuff we didn’t use for the second series, some of which we ended up putting in the third series, but there was still an hour’s worth of material that we left out because we’re pretty black in our sense of humour, and there were lots of sketches about death, and we felt that we couldn’t use them all in every episode because it would just be a little bit unrelenting. We don’t have that worry if we just use them as extras – they’re there to be seen. In their raw state, unmixed, some of the stuff’s in front of an audience, some of it is beautifully recorded. For example, we did a sketch that was set in the trenches of World War I which was beautifully shot. We dug out some turf, went down there, got covered in mud. We recorded three quickie sketches down there, but we only used one in the series because we thought that it had more value if we didn’t have too many of them. But we thought they were still pretty funny, so we’ve added them on as extras.

In terms of bloopers and things, if I work with people, I’d rather that they feel free to experiment rather than have in the back of their minds, ‘oh, whatever I’m doing now might end up on a blooper reel’. They used to do that on Full Frontal: they used to run a blooper reel over the closing credits and it just gave me the heebee geebies.

Demetrius Romeo: Why are you releasing the second season of your comedy show first?

SHAUN MICALLEF: The reason we picked that one is because we’re a bit more sure-footed in that second season than we were in the first season, and it’s probably a bit more accessible than the third season, which was getting a bit strange by that stage.

Demetrius Romeo: With most comedy shows it’s the case that the second season is more consistently funny; by the third season it will be funnier, but will go places that the broader audience may not necessarily be able to follow. This is true of shows like D-Generation and Monty Python.

SHAUN MICALLEF: I think that’s right. You’ve got a better chance of enjoying the first series of ours, if you have already seen the second series. I think it would have been an error to release the first series. When they released the Python videos, they completely ignored the first season until the very end; they released the second and third series, and then they released the first and fourth series. I think they were in turn-around in the first series: I think they were still making at least the studio component of the first series while it was going to air; it has a certain rushed quality to it, but the second series was packaged and sewn-up before it went to air, which is actually true of our series as well – not that I’m comparing us to Python. In the first season we were in turn-around, so it was a bit hectic but we had the second series in the can for a couple of months before it went to air.

Demetrius Romeo: Let me make the comparison to Python: what you share, as do and the D-Gen, with Python – and it shows in your television work – is the training ground of university revue.

SHAUN MICALLEF: I would agree. There is a collegiate atmosphere in the manner in which the troupe plays together.

Demetrius Romeo: Was doing a law degree just an excuse to get to do university comedy?

SHAUN MICALLEF: It certainly was for Gary McCaffrie who is the co-writer and co-producer of the series. I actually went in foolishly assuming I’d earn a living as a lawyer and I treated the degree with a bit more seriousness than he did. But we did the bare minimum and got through it and pretty much did two or three shows a year. So you’re probably right, we probably got more out of it in terms of it being a varsity experience than a scholastic experience.

Demetrius Romeo: When you were actually practicing law, were you able to put the comedy out of your mind and give your full attention to the law, or was it a struggle because part of you knew that you should have been doing something else?

SHAUN MICALLEF: Even when I was practicing, I was still doing cabaret shows with Francis Greenslade, I was writing for radio – for SAFM in Adelaide, which was part of the Austereo set-up – and I also started writing for Glynn Nicholas on The Big Gig. So I hadn’t really gotten out of it completely; it was only after nine years that I thought that I wanted to see if I could do this comedy thing full time – but as as a writer; I never intended to perform again. That was pretty much over and done with. At thirty-one, I thought, ‘I can’t play the juvenile lead anymore, I’d just better stick to being a writer’. So it was sort of an accident, really, that within a couple of years I ended up doing stuff in that dreadful show Full Frontal.

Demetrius Romeo: You say ‘dreadful’, but, at the time, there was nothing else.

SHAUN MICALLEF: Yeah, I don’t think that anywhere else can you go on and make some mistakes and have them forgiven before the next commercial break.

Demetrius Romeo: But in addition to that – your stuff stands out. You clearly knew what you were doing.

SHAUN MICALLEF: Well… thank you… after a few years we got to the stage where I could do my own material. That DVD that was released – there was a whole lot of stuff we left out – it was really an exercise in ‘damage control’, my involvement with that DVD. I certainly had no control in them releasing it because they were going to do it anyway, I just pointed them gently in the right direction – I hope – picking material that wouldn’t sully me too much.

Demetrius Romeo: From a comedy nerd’s point of view, it’s so important that that earlier material is released…

SHAUN MICALLEF: I’m of two minds. I don’t think I’ve really decided what my attitude is to it, because when we were making it, we were making these things every week, sometimes for twenty-six weeks in a row each year. It was very disposable, and I was under the impression that no-one would ever see it again – maybe a repeat halfway through the next year and that would be pretty much it. Given that we did this in 1994/95, not really knowing that it would have a life – it seems that everything is getting released on DVD, certainly with the Kaleidoscope – I think I come down on the side of I’d rather it not have been released simply because it’s not being seen the way it was originally intended, which is in a disposable one-hour format. It’s a bit hard to sit there and watch the whole thing, in other words – it’s not really a show, it is a ‘dip into’ DVD.

Demetrius Romeo: That’s fair enough, but I’m still of the opinion that I’m glad I was able to hear the Beatles’ Hamburg tapes, even though they preferred that no-one ever heard them.

SHAUN MICALLEF: I know what you mean. And there are a number of people who still today come up to me and say, ‘oh, you know, Milo Kerrigan, when are you gonna bring him back’, and the fact is, I won’t, but it’s sort of nice for them, if they enjoyed it, to have a version of that if they want to. It’s probably better served if people just remember it, but if people want to watch it, I guess it’s interesting.

Demetrius Romeo: On your forthcoming DVD there’s a sketch in which you take the mickey out of SeaChange by having Dracula move to the sleepy little seaside village. And then in the subsequent season of SeaChange, you start appearing as a different sort of blood-sucking vampire, a lawyer!

SHAUN MICALLEF: Well, you could draw a very close parallel, suppose. That’s weird, because we did that in 1999, and by 2000, I was in the series, so it was quite strange for Kevin Harrington, who guested as his SeaChange character, Kevin Findlay, on our show, when he ended up playing a scene with me for real. It was a case of art imitating art, maybe.

Demetrius Romeo: In the third season there was something that was actually censored by the ABC – is that correct?

SHAUN MICALLEF: That was a sketch about a documentary about Weary Dunlop being a transsexual. It wasn’t really a documentary about Weary Dunlop being a transsexual, it was just about the idea of it – what happens is I introduce this doco, we see about ten seconds of the opening title segment, and then we cut to the ABC switchboard lighting up with people complaining. I was asked during the publicity for the show, whether there was anything controversial in it, and jokingly, I suggested that sketch. It ended up with that sketch being pulled, which is funny, because that’s what the sketch was about – that sort of overreaction is exactly what happened. So if you watch that third series, we put in a new sketch, but there’s actually a gap of about two seconds where there’s just colour bars with sketch number – it says ‘sketch 0365 removed’ – just so people know where it was going to be.

Demetrius Romeo: There was something I read about the first season, in which an item from the first season was replaced between its initial broadcast and subsequent repeat. It was an interview between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish political leader Gerry Adams, in which you play both characters.

SHAUN MICALLEF: We cut that out when it got repeated just because we felt it had dated. It was about eight months later. We just removed it and stuck in another sketch. If the sales of this DVD is sufficient that Kaleidoscope want to release the other stuff, we will include all that material that was cut out. There were a few topical sketches that were cut out of the first series, and we didn’t include the Weary Dunlop sketch in the third series. There are always alternate versions of these things.

Lasting Impressions:
Jon Culshaw on Dead Ringers

Can’t tell you how much I love doing comedy interviews where I get to excerpt a bit of the material to illustrate the points, and how much more I love it when it’s satirical comedy that involves ‘funny voice’ characterisation. A version went to air June 26 2004 (and again, edited, on June 27) on ABC NewsRadio. The transcript that follows is from the longer broadcast version.

You can hear the interview by subscribing to Radio Ha Ha (paste this link in your podcatcher: It appears in Episode 8.

Soundbite: From Season One of Dead Ringers

PHIL CORNWELL as a Presidential Aide: Great news, Mr President!
JON CULSHAW as President George Bush: I get to play Dumbledore in the next Larry Potter movie?
Presidential Aide: Ah, no, Sir, no, not from Warner Brothers; we still haven’t heard back from them yet, Sir, no. It’s from the U.N. Our weapons inspectors are going in.
President George Bush: And why should I be interestificated in that?
Presidential Aide: Because we need a report, Sir, before we invade Iraq.
President George Bush: No we don’t! Besides, we’re not invading Iraq. We’re invading Tiraq. Take a look at the survalence pictures.
Presidential Aide: Sir… Sir, that’s not ‘Tiraq’, that’s ‘Tie Rack’; it’s a store in Britain that sells ties.
President George Bush: That’s just what they want you to think. You see, they’re called ‘Tie Rack’, but they also sell cufflinks and underpants. And are we meant to acceptify that it’s mere coincidenecification that they lurk in every airport and rail station.
Presidential Aide: Sir, if we invade Tie Rack, you’re going to be a laughing stock.
President George Bush: You mean I have a choice?

© Tom Jamieson and Nev Fountain

Demetrius Romeo: Jon, like many great English comedies, Dead Ringers began on the radio. How did you originally get involved with it?

JON CULSHAW: There’s a guy called Bill Dare, who used to produce Spitting Image, the satirical puppet show, in the late 80s and through the 90s. After a while, he just thought that on BBC Radio 4 – you know, that station of the shipping forecasts and such things – he thought that that was ripe territory for doing an impression show, where you could parody all the programs and announcers and newsreaders on Radio 4, and Radio 4, being quite a very serious and very British station, hadn’t really quite had anything like that before and it just became this huge thing. People really took to it and it all seemed to work and that sort of evolved into the TV show, really, over a couple of years. But we still do do the radio show, because it started there, and we’re very fond of doing the radio version of the show.

Demetrius Romeo: Do you approach it differently when you have to do it for sound rather than for sound and pictures?

JON CULSHAW: Yes, I think we absolutely do. There’s a slight change in the writing. We can do lots of visual gags that don’t require any words – you can just achieve things with a look or in more of a subtle way on the telly. You can feature all of Tony Blair’s mannerisms or Ozzy Osbourne’s doddering around. You can have fun with that on TV.

Soundbite: From Season One of Dead Ringers

JON CULSHAW as Prime Minister Tony Blair: People of Great Britain, we are now entering the third phase of New Labour – relaxed forehead, open hand gesture, caring bald patch. The first phase was making this party electible. The second phase, laying down the foundations for growth. The third phase begins when my people receive the signal and travel the millions of miles to this planet. And after enslavement, we, the Cyberons, will rule the earth for a thousand, million years.

© Tom Jamieson and Nev Fountain

Demetrius Romeo: The approach of the writers and the approach of the actors changes when you’re doing for radio rather than for television. Does the approach of the audience change?

JON CULSHAW: I think the radio version of this show, Radio 4 being the sort of station that it is, people like to listen in the kitchen in that very intimate listener-and-radio station sort of way, and people think almost that they’ve discovered the show on their own. You don’t get that on BBC 2. The two versions of the show are quite different, but the style of the humour is the same. It’s quite mischievous. It was once described as ‘part , part Beano Annual’, and that’s quite nice. It’s just got its own sense of humour and voice.

Soundbite: From Season One of Dead Ringers

JON CULSHAW as newsreader Michael Buerk: Liza Minelli has just defended the Picasso-faced pop freak, Michael Jackson, saying the singer did nothing wrong by dangling his son out of a sixth storey hotel window. But there is the suggestion that she may have been influenced into making the statement by the fact that that Jackson was hanging her out of a sixth storey hotel window at the time.

© Tom Jamieson and Nev Fountain

Demetrius Romeo: When you’re setting about trying to master an impression of someone, how do you go about it?

JON CULSHAW: You just have to get yourself a reference. Russell Crowe’s an interesting character because, with every movie that he’s done, he plays a completely different personality, and his voices changes with that, but you just have to watch and… it’s a bit like learning a language, I suppose. You know, you watch, listen and repeat, and just see what strikes you, see what makes the essence of that person. What will make that person, that character, recogniseable?

Soundbite: From Season One of Dead Ringers

JON CULSHAW as Russell Crowe: People misunderstand me. They think the only thing Russell Crowe’s about is stealing other men’s wives and brawling at awards ceremonies. Which is nonsense. Because I’m quite happy stealing other men’s fiancés and brawling in the street as well.

© Tom Jamieson and Nev Fountain

Demetrius Romeo: Is there a rivalry between impressionists? Do you ever find that you’re competing with someone else to sort of ‘nail’ the impression of someone who hasn’t been done yet?

JON CULSHAW: Rivalry? I always think that there’s plenty of room to manouvre. Plenty of shows, plenty of characters. Lots of different ways of interpreting one character. Different impressionists observe different aspects about Tony Blair, for example. At the end of the day, when you’re only doing funny voices, you can’t be overly precious about it, I think. What you want to try and do is your interpretation of character – make it the one that everyone recognises as ‘that’s the one’.

Soundbite: From Season One of Dead Ringers

JON CULSHAW as Michael Parkinson: It’s a very typical bus stop, I know, but what was it about this particular bus stop that drew you to-to want to take a seat here and wait for a bus today I this way? Don’t know? Don’t know. Just had a certain ‘bus stop’-type charm, I suppose, didn’t it? It attracts a lot of people here. I mean, have you ever taken a seat at a bus stop that you felt wasn’t quite right for you, and that you had to move on from quite quickly after that? Did that happen with the great Muhammad Ali, Spike Milligan, or the late Gene Kelly? No, I did on many, many occasions, and fine fellows they were, too.

© Jon Culshaw

Demetrius Romeo: Who’s your favourite impression that you do, and why?

JON CULSHAW: They change. They change quite often. I love Ozzy Osbourne, because I just love the world he seems to be in, it seems to be a sort of ‘happy land’.

Soundbite: From Season One of Dead Ringers

JON CULSHAW as Ozzy Osbourne: Yeah, it’s true, Kirsty, y’know we faked a lot of stuff over the years, y’know. That picture of, like, Big Foot in the woods, that was me still pissed trying to find me ’otel at ’alf passed six in the mornin’. The loch ness monster, that was just Kelly havin’ a swim, I think. The next thing we know it’s 1969 and we’ve got Robert Kennedy on the phone, talkin’ about the Russians winnin’ the space race, so we agreed to fake the moon landin’s for ’im, y’know.

© Tom Jamieson and Nev Fountain

JON CULSHAW: I like Russell Crow, because of the grit that he’s got. And I do admire him as an actor, I think he’s a superb actor. You know, you walk a little taller when you playing Russell Crowe.

Soundbite: From Season One of Dead Ringers

JON CULSHAW as Russell Crowe: Was I a violent kid? No, I don’t think so. Um… Back home, the school playground was a rough and ready kind of place, and I remember one time, I was no more than twelve or maybe thirteen, and at that age, nobody likes to get a funny look and so what followed was a particularly nasty scrap which must have gone on for about thirty minutes or more, and I emerged from that beaten and bloodied but victorious. And I tell you somethin’ that koala thought twice about ever lookin’ at me funny again.

© Tom Jamieson and Nev Fountain

JON CULSHAW: The first character I ever did was Patrick Moore, the astronomer. I think he’s in his 80s now, and he’s certainly not the healthiest he’s ever been, but he’s still going. But he’s just one of those wonderful, rich characters, one of those old fashioned eccentric English [as Patrick Moore] “experts who knows all about the movement of the planets”. [As himself] He was the first character that I noticed as a school kid.

Soundbite: From Season One of Dead Ringers

JON CULSHAW as Patrick Moore: People often ask me, “Patrick”, they say, “why have you been so very, very fascinated by the night sky for the last sixty years,” and the answer to the question is, I’m not! No, not in the slightest. You see, fifty years ago, the local constables came a-knocking after numerous complaints from my neighbours, wishing to know what the dickens I was doing with fifty telescopes in my loft. Well, thinking on my feet, I of course told them I was an astronomer. And they bought it, as did the BBC. But the simple truth of the matter is, I’m actually peeping tom.

© Tom Jamieson and Nev Fountain

Demetrius Romeo: Amongst the characters you do that we recognise, like Tony Blair and George Bush and Russell Crowe, you do this fellow called Michael Buerk that has no meaning to us in this country, because he’s newsreader in England, and yet he’s still hilarious. How do you account for that?

JON CULSHAW: That is very interesting indeed. Since the show has been shown in Australia and on BBC America as well, there are characters who, as you say, you might not know who they are, but there’s just [as Michael Buerk] “something inherently funny about them”. [As himself] A newsreader who switches from his mafia part time job, I suppose it must be that the people that we take off have enough character and enough about them which allows you create a comic angle on them which just becomes a funny character whether you know them or not. I’m glad he becomes funny, even though you don’t know exactly who he is.

Soundbite: From Season One of Dead Ringers

JON CULSHAW as newsreader Michael Buerk: … And you better gimme back that two hundred quid and fast. Bad time to get on the wrong side of me, sunshine. I’m Michael Buerk. Churchill was named yesterday as the winner of BBC 2’s Great Britains Poll. But after a number of legal challenges and a last minute recount of votes, a surprise new winner has been announced.
JON CULSHAW as President George Bush: This is such an honouratitude to have been named the Greatest Britain. I would like to thank everyone who voted for me, and my brother Jeb who helped count the votes until he got the right result. To have beaten candidates as talented and varicose as Princess Diana, one of the finest naked mud wrestlers the world has ever seen, Winston Churchill, the man who revolutionorated stair-lift design, and Isambard Kingdom Brunell, inventor of the microwave can opener, is nothing short of astonisherating. But this will not change me. I’ll just keep on doing what I always have done, putting all the votes for Wilbur Shakespeare throught the big shredder on my table.

© Tom Jamieson and Nev Fountain

Demetrius Romeo: Thank you very much.

Jon Culshaw: All right, all the best, Dom. Thanks again.

And, of course, the soon-to-be-published FilmInk version.

Start ticking off the characters you like most on Dead Ringers and – Phil Cornwell’s Michael Caine and Jan Ravens’s Germaine Greer aside – it’s a dead cert that almost all of them will be the work of Jon Culshaw: quintessential impressions of George Bush, Tony Blair, Rolf Harris, Russell Crowe, Dr Who, Michael Parkinson and Ozzy Osbourne, to name but several. Part of the reason Culshaw is so good is because he has been doing impressions of people all his life. Indeed, astronomer Sir Patrick Moore, whom Jon describes as “one of those wonderful, rich, old fashioned, eccentric English experts”, was the first character he ever ‘did’ as a school kid, and he still ‘does’ him to this day.

Culshaw’s break-through impression was that of Conservative Party Leader William Hague. Adopting Hague’s “flat Yorkshire monotone”, Jon decided to phone British Prime Minister Tony Blair while on air. Fooling Downing Street staff, he amused even the Prime Minister by telling him, as Hague, that he’d “managed to get that Cher exercise video that Cherie wanted” and that he’d “drop it off at Question Time.”

As the name suggests, ‘Dead Ringers’ is this generation’s Spitting Image. The grotesque puppets have been replaced by the comics themselves, dressed as the people they’re sending up, but the satire hits is mark as surely as ever. Described as “part Private Eye, part Beano Annual”, Dead Ringers was the brainchild of producer Bill Dare who, like Culshaw, had worked on Spitting Image. However, the show began on radio, where it continues to this day while appearing concurrently on television. “There hadn’t been anything that took the piss quite so severely as Ringers did on the radio,” Jon reports. “It became this huge thing; people really took to it. That evolved into the television
show over a couple of years.”

On radio, the spoof phone calls proved popular. They continue on television as ‘candid camera’-type stings that see Culshaw as Dr Who, harassing shop assistants, or, as Michael Parkinson, asking innocent by-standers at bus stops if they’ve ever waited for a bus with “the great Muhammad Ali, Spike Milligan, or the late Gene Kelly.”

Interestingly, even personalities unknown to Australian audiences come across as funny. Newsreader Michael Buerk, for example, despite being the award-winning journalist who broke the mid-80s Ethiopian famine story that led to Live Aid, really is meaningless in this country. Yet Culshaw’s portrayal of him – delivering a mafia threat before delivering the news – is a cack. Jon agrees that there are characters who “have something inherently funny about them which allows you create a comic angle; they become funny whether you know them or not.”

Jon Culshaw claims that he has no one ‘favourite’ impression – the favourites keep changing. However, he’s particularly fond of Ozzie Osbourne at the moment because of the “happy land” Osborn seems to perpetually inhabit, that makes people react “so warmly” to him. He also likes the “grit” of our Rusty: “he’s a superb actor, and you walk a little taller when you play Russell Crowe”.

Series One of Dead Ringers featuring the Christmas special and pilot episode is available now on DVD from Village/Roadshow.

Kath & Kim

Addendum, 2010:
Worlds Funniest Island II takes place soon (Oct 16-17). Tickets are being offered at a special price until October 4. Kath & Kim are hosting the Foxy Gala. Go on, you know you want to: buy some tickets. Now.


While attempting to Google™ ‘Gina Riley’ for a suitable biography and ‘Kath & Kim’ for a suitable synopsis to link to from the introduction to my Julie Dawn Cole interview, I realised that virtually no examples of the former really exist online (although this bio is at least a good starting point for Riley, while Andrew Denton’s Enough Rope interview with Riley and Jane Turner provides quite a full picture), and few of the examples of the latter that do exist (again, apart from Denton’s work, of course) satisfy me as much as my own attempt of the same. So, despite its short-comings (no info whatsoever of Peter Rowsthorn’s contribution to the show; no mention of Marg Downey’s saucey cameo; certainly, no biographical details of the writer/stars) I include here my interview with Jane Turner and Gina Riley. It originally appeared in FilmInk to coincide with the 2002 DVD release of the first season of Kath & Kim .

A recent criticism from a regular visitor to this blog is that I have been ‘slipping’ – updates being posted a week apart. Thus, any excuse to raid the comedy archive is a good one, particularly when it gives repeat visitors something else to read.

In addition to more information on Riley and Turner as performers, and any information whatsoever on the likes of Rowsthorn and Downey, the other thing I’d want to add to this piece is the way in which the opening sequence of Kath & Kim seems to tip its hat to those first seasons of Absolutely Fabulous: the distinct typeface of the title and the white background are so stylised that it would seem deliberate. Was someone cleverly trying to coerce the same comedy audience who loved that particular mother/daughter comedy to give this one a go? Or is there another dimension of humour at work, perhaps a class-based one, whereby the newley ‘effluent’ Aussie middle class is, as ever, taking the mickey out of the upper-middle class English mickey-takers? If so, that’d be really noiyce and un-yews-ual – as far as sitcoms go, particularly as Kath & Kim is now being enjoyed in other territories around the world.

Jane Turner and Gina Riley on Kath & Kim

The first hint came during the highly stylised opening credits, when Jane Turner bent over to look back at us from between the legs of her ridiculously billowy harem pants, while Gina Riley belted out an aptly defiant rendition of the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse-penned comedy song ‘The Joker’. The exact moment followed soon after, in the very first scene of that very first episode. When Kath (Turner) turned to daughter Kim (Riley) to utter for the first time the words, “Look at moiye, Kim; look at moiye, look at moiye, look at mooooiiiiye!“ and a new catch phrase entered everyday speech, it was abundantly clear that, in addition to being a comedy lover’s wet dream, Kath & Kim would also prove to be that most elusive beast of Australian culture: the funny sitcom. Jane and Gina, creators, writers and stars of Kath & Kim, have much to be proud of.

“That’s good to hear,” Jane acknowledges appreciatively. In the process of getting the show up, she says, “a lot of crap went down”. Criticisms included the apparent lack of “emotional arc”, ensuring characters “don’t learn” and “don’t change”. Gina concurs: “nobody thought that the show was going to work.” After eighteen months writing the series, it took a further two years to convince the ABC to start shooting it. But Jane and Gina stuck to their guns, concentrating on “what we think is funny and what we think is right.” With their keen eye for detail they got it absolutely right: the misadventures of the would-be “empty nester” and her “hornbag” daughter is a cack.

However, if the characters fail to show sufficient development throughout the course of Kath & Kim’s eight episodes, it is because their characterisations come to the show fully formed. Gina agrees that, in many ways, Kath & Kim is an extension of Dumb Street, the piss-take of Aussie soaps that she and Jane used to do on Fast Forward. Furthermore, Jane has a history of ditzy comedic blonde characters under her belt – or rather, in her handbag – since, Jane admits, virtually every one of her characters has had as a prop “the same sort of white, quilted handbag with gold chain.” The handbag has been passed onto Kath, the latest in a long line of “daggy housewives” Jane has been playing since her Fast Forward days. And Glenn Robbins, who plays Kim’s “hunk of spunk” boyfriend Kel Knight, often portrayed a similarly daggy bloke opposite her. “We’ve had each other’s numbers for a while as those characters,” Jane says. Indeed, it was on a sketch-comedy show that appeared in 1995, entitled Big Girl’s Blouse, that Kath and Kim were born – in a hen’s night scene, as it happens. “Jane naturally fell into the Kath character,” Gina reports, “and I naturally fell into the Kim character, and that was it; we were off and running.”

Initially, the mockumentary voice-overs and the housing estate setting of Kath & Kim – harking back to Sylvania Waters – clearly marked middle Australia as the butt of the joke. Hence a mixed response from the critics – ‘elitist’ Sydney Morning Herald gave it the thumbs up but ‘populist’ Daily Telegraph had to withhold approval until the realisation sunk in that it’s own readership also had a sense of humour. According to Gina, “the response was the opposite in Melbourne.” However, while journalists largely misinterpreted where exactly she and Jane were coming from, the audience “cottoned on” pretty quickly that they “were taking the mickey out of ourselves as much as anyone else”. Jane adds that, having no pride, she and Gina were shameless. “We pulled out our warts and our carbuncles and our monobrows and our love handles; we dredged up our own lives.”

Although the DVD release of Kath & Kim fails to include commentary or a ‘making of’, it does provide an additional hour of material. Takes in which the actors crack each other up (Jane mostly blames Magda Szubanski, who plays Kim’s “second-best friend” Sharon: “it was very hard to maintain order with naughty girls like her around”), more mockumentary sequences and ‘wine time’ ruminations and even Sharon’s handy cam footage of Kim’s own “connubials”, initially deemed superfluous to the finished product, were far too funny to lose outright. The real question, now that Jane and Gina have raised the bar so high, is “where to next?” Not giving anything away, Jane says, “because the relationships are set, we can take them anywhere and do anything with them. We just want to keep it as real as possible.”


David Bowie On Film

David Bowie On Film

(Rather similar to the other Bowie piece that I put together for ABC NewsRadio, seeing as how it is based on one major quote from it, and a similar premise. Unless you’ve a bent for comparative studies or some such, there’s no need to read both; if you've already read the NewsRadio version, skip to ‘Off The Record’.)


Having brought so many characters to life in his music, it’s no surprise that David Bowie has been acting for almost as long as he has been singing. However, Bowie's current role is as a family man. Married to model Iman for a decade, he recently became a dad, and his mindset lies more towards being himself on stage and in his music. Likewise, David Bowie seems to have virtually turned his back on acting.

“I’d love to be a movie star and have my name on posters and photographs forty foot high and all that,” he said at his Sydney press conference. “But you’ve got to work so hard at it – the acting, and all that you gotta do. It really takes up time and I don’t think I’ve got a commitment to it, really. I don’t think I’m serious enough about it, and quite rightly, that’s why I’m not offered a huge amount of stuff to do because it’s not my profession.”

Bowie’s first significant film role was as an alien stranded on earth in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). By this point, having established himself as an international star, Bowie had ‘retired’ from the concert stage and was in need of other creative diversions. Roeg advised Bowie to “just play yourself” and Bowie did just that – his alien was another of the other-worldly characters he’d been playing on stage and on record. Thus, although the plot of The Man Who Fell To Earth was flimsy, Bowie’s acting was quite robust. No such luck with his next attempt, unfortunately, portraying Prussian soldier Paul van Przygodsky in Just a Jigolo (1979). “You were disappointed and you weren’t even in it,” Bowie has said of the film. “Imagine how I felt. It was my thirty-two Elvis movies rolled into one.”

David Bowie is most proud of his performance in the prison camp drama of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983). It certainly stands up better than his Dorien Gray-like vampire in The Hunger the same year, or his cameos in the ill-conceived Yellowbeard (also 1983) and John Landis’s Into the Night (1985). Bowie’s pantomime turn as Jareth the Goblin King in The Labyrinth (1986) was fun, as was his role in Julian Temple’s wretched adaptation of mockneyphile Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners. However, David Bowie’s born-to-play role was clearly that of Andy Warhol in Basquiat (1996).

Nowadays, Bowie is happy just to accept cameos. “It’s just wonderful if someone like a Scorsese says, ‘do you want to wander on and do Pontius Pilate for five minutes?’ ‘Yes, smashing, what a crack that’ll be just to do that!’ I still choose anything I do on the strength of the director. If it’s somebody that I really admire, or it’s a new guy and I think, ‘he looks like he’d be interesting to work with’, I generally go on that. But Russell Crowe can sleep safely…”