10 Apr 2017

How lucky we were to have John Clarke

3:49 pm on 10 April 2017

First Person - The death of John Clarke was shockingly unexpected - he seemed as indestructible as a rubber gumboot, that hideous item of clothing he spent most of his career trying to forget about. But, on a personal level, it leaves a gigantic hole in the lives of everyone who knew and - not that any of us would say it to his face - loved him.

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Cartoonist Toby Morris pays tribute in picture form for RNZ. Photo: RNZ / Toby Morris

I met him at university - the Victoria café where we spent an inordinate amount of time avoiding anything in the nature of study. Within the first three minutes of meeting, we laughed for about an afternoon. And, give or take, we've been laughing for the past 50 years.

For thousands of New Zealanders, John Clarke was, and will always be, the typical Kiwi, Fred Dagg.

John Clarke Photo: Supplied

John lucked into showbiz, at a time when there was no showbiz to speak of in this country. He returned from a jaunt overseas where he'd similarly lucked into a movie with Barry Humphries, and saw no reason not to do the same thing here. His first paying gig, I seem to remember, was playing piano at Downstage, despite only knowing two chords.

From there he was headhunted to be a fifth of a satirical sketch show called One in Five, then his head was further hunted to be the voice of rural New Zealand on TV. They gave him the name "Fred Dagg", and his career was formally launched.

John's gift was writing - the deadpan performance thing was an added extra - and he conquered the country, to his bemused astonishment.

At the end of the '70s he took his ill-gotten gains from various Fred Dagg tours off to Australia, the homeland of his wife Helen. And, to the surprise of Australia, though not to his near and dear, he became a smash hit.

His satirical double-act with interviewer Bryan Dawe became legendary - he impersonated politicians and celebrities without bothering to give an actual "impersonation". But that was just the tip of the iceberg. For a seemingly lazy man he seemed to get an awful lot done.

Much of his work tapped into the studies he refused to do at university - he co-wrote brilliantly funny plays based on everything from Royal Commissions to Greek comedy, and entire books parodying sport, politics and his first love, poetry.

But it was his presence - that deadpan delivery with a barely discernible twinkle - that we most remember. In the movie Death in Brunswick, with no formal training - or any training at all - he upstaged his rather more serious thespian friend, Sam Neill. In the brilliant TV mockumentary series The Games, he pretty much wrote the blueprint for everything Ricky Gervais did subsequently.

John Clarke as, left to right: Dave (Death in Brunswick), Phillip Lang (A Month of Sundays) and Fred Dagg

John Clarke as, left to right: Dave (Death in Brunswick), Phillip Lang (A Month of Sundays) and Fred Dagg Photo: Screenshot / Supplied

But it's as a friend that I miss him with a hurt that's red, rough and sore right now. I can't believe I'm never going to get another laconic email from Nobby, or be surprised by a phone call opening with that madly distinctive, bass-baritone "good evening".

There was so much more to John than his genius - but that was undeniable. Like his idols Peter Cook, Barry Humphries, Peter Sellers and John Lennon, he arrived fully-formed - a one-off, who also had the gift of deep and abiding friendship. My thoughts, and I'm sure those of all his many friends, go out to Helen and his two wonderful, talented daughters Lorin and Lucia.

I'm shattered, and all too aware that his passing leaves a vast gap in the life of so many New Zealanders and Australians that can never be filled.

Simon Morris is a producer and presenter for RNZ's Matinee Idle, Standing Room Only and At The Movies.