An Australasian treasure, and my friend - Remembering John Clarke


There was something simultaneously cheeky and welcoming about his face. It was like he had something knowing and hilarious simmering just underneath and usually he did. One can't choose one's face but perhaps the lines reflect a lifetime of intentions.

I didn't know John Clarke in a can-you-give-me-a lift-to-the-airport way, but after working with him in Melbourne one weekend we struck up a friendship of sorts and kept in touch ever since. His occasional correspondences were hilarious and always received with bristling anticipation, so I'm going to miss his work, and him, a lot, like an ally, so here goes.

Most of us in New Zealand associate John Clarke with the Fred Dagg period in New Zealand in the '70s, but that was such a tiny piece of the genius he created. After his wise and quite brave move to Australia he was welcomed and flourished. He quickly absorbed the Aussie cultural quirks and histories to perfection to become one of their best-loved characters.

Those early years in Australia were lost to most of us in New Zealand, and what a loss he was to our satire and especially political commentary. Technologically the Tasman shrank and we saw, like an aunt greeting a nephew for the first time in years, "Oh my! Haven't you grown!"

The mockumentary The Games about the build-up to the Sydney Olympics was one of the finest of its genre, and that's a very strong field. His weekly satirical interviews for the ABC (with the under-rated Bryan Dawe) showed how he could, with precision and economy - and great empathy - get to the essence of the matter in under three minutes. That's class.

His documentary series are equally as sharp. He was knowledgeable, well read and passionate about environmental issues and had a great heart for the common person. He abhorred pomposity, authoritarianism and meanness. Good traits. 

One thing that occasionally came up in our occasional conversations was this on-going silliness of the Austro-Kiwi aversion. I'd spoken with somebody very recently who confidently asserted "Really, we hate Aussies, don't we" and with no question mark. I had to say, "Not me. Never have" to blanched silence. So our last e-mail exchange just last week was about how this hasn't died. We'd always sign off with an apt or amusing pseudonym, so for what would turn out to be the last time, he wrote "I'm with you... Des Connor". Des was a half-back who played for the Wallabies AND The All Blacks.

John was an Australasian treasure.

Graeme Hill hosts Weekend Variety Wireless on RadioLIVE