December 01, 1990

The Confidential Clarke

Filed under: Archive,Comedy


Great Interviews of the Twentieth Century

John Clarke

Susan Haynes/Allen and Unwin.

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

It is rumoured that while ratings for Channel Nine’s A Current Affair sit steadily in the high thirties, for the last five minutes on a Friday they clear forty. The reason is John Clarke, who, with henchperson Bryan Dawe, has perfected the political interview to such an extent that not even politicians need to be present. Speaking for the PM, Premiers, Cabinet Ministers, Bank Czars and other assorted Party Machinists, Clarke understands what it is like to suffer their pain. He knows what drives them, he has a prescient knowledge of their darkest hopes and highest fears. They would be the first say that it is as though he somehow gets under their skin.

If hell is other people then John Clarke has been a hell of a comedian for some time. He started doing these interviews for the ABC three or four years ago- Maggie Thatcher, Meryl Streep, Prince Charles, all answering freely and frankly, all absolutely identifiable, and yet communicating in the cleanly enunciated baritone of a New Zealander who’s had his ickscent mercifully strined. Amongst the facsimiles created by Max Gillies, Gerry Connolly and the other spitting imagists, Clarke’s approach is unique. None of your wigs, vocal mimicry, ear pulling, don’t-you-worry-about-thats. He is interested in what Aristotle used to call hamartia- the old fatal flaw.

Except that even that gets a satiric tweaking – if a PM, for example, happens to be as vain as a chook with six wattles, he will make him a paragon of modesty. If a Treasurer is in the habit of suavely ignoring economic indicators that would worry even the Weimar Republic, Clarke has him confessing that’s it is all out of control and he hasn’t been feeling well for weeks.

While much Australian comedy is suffering from conceptual elephantiasis at present, John Clarke has been creating perfect miniatures. He has always worked  well within strict guidelines. When he began writing his Fred Dagg editorials for ABC radio, he created a form something akin to the  prose sonnet. He wrote one

a day for three years and, preserved in the Dagg documents, they read as freshly as they sounded at the time. The ABC must feel very proud that for a time they dispensed with his services when individuals in the Fraser ministry got windy.

Great Interviews of the Twentieth Century gathers Clarke’s work for Channel Nine over the past two years and interestingly, despite the political conservatism of A Current Affair, Clarke and Dawe seem to have had  a free hand to sink their teeth into. The conventions of the television interview are scrupulously observed- elaborate courtesy (“Thank you for joining us”) combined with belligerent disbelief, lost-in-space studio decor, ethereal lighting and serious clipboards.

The subjects these days are Important Men, usually elected beyond explanation and often, beyond comprehension as well. Paul Keating has forgotten what the J curve is about, John Dawkins explains why tertiary students pay for their education twice, John Button negotiates to cancel the Friday movie to give him time to explain his fix for Australian industry. John Howard talks about party unity, Andrew Peacock meets a large white rabbit with a fob watch and Sir Robert Sparkes talks about the future. State premiers, Alan Bond and John Cain comment about finance and someone called Nobby Clark talks about interest rates.

Bob Hawke gives straight answers. Will interest rates go to seventeen percent ? Answer- “I was unfaithful to my wife, Yes … It wasn’t just my own wife, either. I was unfaithful to a lot of other people’s wives too.” And his fitness after his little prostate op ? “I’m a danger to shipping.”

International visitors also get a look in . Dan Quayle universally presented by the media as a walking blooper of no consequence describes his contribution on behalf of the American trade policy makers. When Bob Hawke indicated the impact on Australian wheat sales – he told him to go to buggery. And the New Zealanders on ANZUS ? Quayle explains that they won’t come to the table, they have a place at the table but they won’t come. And if they did ? “I’d tell them to go to buggery.”

You have to get up quite early in the morning to write as well as Clarke does. There are plenty of jokes here but each interview has a larger point to it, attempting something a bit more fundamental than a caricature of silver hair or a five o’clock shadow. Public figures are probably secretly grateful for their big noses and thick eyebrows because then the cartoonists and comedians can have field day. It’s when people like John Clarke and Bryan Dawe come along and start looking into their black little hearts and their devious little minds that things begin to change.

“The Confidential Clarke” The Adelaide Review, No.83, December, 1990, p.34.

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