MILESAGO - Profiles

GRAHAM KENNEDY (1934-2005)
Actor, entertainer, broadcaster and comedian

From the late 1950s to the 1970s, Graham Kennedy was the undisputed King of Australian television. His long-running variety show, In Melbourne Tonight (IMT) was one of the highest-rating programs in the history of the industry and was compulsory viewing for a generation of Australians. He has won more Gold Logies than anyone else, with seven awards to his name.

Kennedy became one of Australia's first big TV stars when he began hosting In Melbourne Tonight in 1957. Throughout the '60s he was a household name and was hailed as Australia's King of Comedy, bringing to the small screen a bawdy, freewheeling vaudeville style, honed by years on radio.

Much has been written about Kennedy's unique style -- his rapier wit, irreverent and subversive attitude, his flawless timing, his freewheeling ability to "wing it", his obsessive perfectionism. I will not presume to analyse it in any depth here, but there is probably no better summary of his philosophy than this quote from the man himself, who once told a viewer: "There are no limits, love, there are no limits."

Megan Gressor: "In the best tradition of comics, he didn't enjoy the job. Everything about him was ambiguous except his talent. He was working class boy from Balaclava, Melbourne, who turned his grandmother into part of his act but whose childhood was a no-go zone. He was presumed gay, particularly by his homophobic boss Frank Packer, who wanted him sacked for it, yet never seemed to have a relationship of any kind (his reported engagement to singer Lana Cantrell was a hoax)."

"Loved by millions, he always lived alone. A dandy who was colour-blind, who pinned notes on his clothes to ensure they matched. A perfectionist who obsessively rehearsed his gags then unleashed anarchy on the airwaves. Self-doubting enough to vomit before performances, to need an hour in front of a mirror to morph from mild-mannered introvert to complete showman. "I was terrified for 40 years" is how he summed up his career."

Like many great comedians, Kennedy's character is full of contradictions. He was evidently ambitious and driven to succeed, yet he seemed to have little interest in being famous for its own sake. His punctuality was legendary, good manners were crucially important to him and he wouldn't swear in mixed company, yet he built his comedy style around innuendo of the crudest kind. He made millions, but he spent almost everything penny he earned. He craved attention and approval, yet he was pathologically shy and intensely private, a tendency no doubt exacerbated by his homosexuality, which was kept secret during his career. He could be funny, generous, warm and sympathetic, but at other times he could be equally difficult, abusive, demanding and temperamental.

During his stint as a Melbourne morning radio star in the Sixties, his appearance fee was set at a whopping 250 -- several months' wages for the average worker in those days. The figure was not this high because Kennedy wanted the money -- in fact he explicitly used the exorbitant fee to minimise the number of public appearances he had to make.

Kennedy loathed the mass recognition that came with his TV fame, hated being recognised when eating out at restaurants, and dreaded going out in public, with good reason -- at the height of his popularity he could not leave the house without risking being mobbed and having his clothes torn by fans -- a real terror, as writer Peter Galvin noted, for man who loved a good suit. A measure of his fame can be found in a joke that circulated around Melbourne in late 1963, after the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. It relates how a Melbournian met a friend and said: "Did you hear Kennedy's been shot?" to which the friend replied "Well, maybe now Bert Newton will have a chance."

Megan Gressor: "His act had mongrel roots -- a hybrid of vaudeville, slapstick and endless suggestiveness, plus a subliminal subversiveness all his own. It seems almost pantomimic to modern eyes, but Kennedy was a product of simpler times. And more complex. His was an act predicated upon repression; naughtiness loses its point in a world without taboos, where anything goes. It wouldn't work today, when people don't just say "fuck" on television, they do it."

Kennedy was born in the working class Melbourne suburb of Balaclava on February 15, 1934. His parents divorced shortly after his birth and he was mainly raised by his grandmother, whom he adored. He completed his formal education at Melbourne High School, leaving at 15, as was customary in those days.

Drawing on his love for and familiarity with the work of the great vaudeville comics like Roy Rene, it was radio that enabled him to become a master broadcaster. Kennedy started his career in radio at 15, as a messenger for Radio Australia. He then went to work in the record library at 3UZ, eventually becoming the turntable operator for popular Melbourne radio personality 'Nicky' aka Clifford Nicholls.

One of the legends of Melbourne radio, Nicky, (whose real name was Clifford Whitta) started at 3AW in 1932 on the breakfast shift alongside Fred Tupper. Nicky and his wife Kathleen Lindgren (stage name Nancy Lee) led the popular 'Chum's Club' of radio listeners. Nicky left 3AW in 1946, returning briefly to his old job of making jewellery, having a brief stint on 3KZ from 1949; then 3UZ from 1950.

Nicholls schooled Kennedy and was probably the biggest single influence on Kennedy's style. "His typically Australian voice and manner of panning advertisements made him the idol of housewives," reported The Argus in the 1950s. "In a recent survey, 3UZ found 73 per cent of morning radio listeners tuned in to Nicky."

After Nicky's sudden and unexpected death in September 1956, aged just 51, Kennedy said: "Nick told me all I know about radio and we were just as good mates off the air as on. We clicked right from the start, mainly because we both had the same sense of the ridiculous, and the same dislike of orthodox radio presentation methods."

Kennedy was just 23, and reportedly had not even seen TV, when he was asked to join the fledgling medium of television, when GTV-9 launched In Melbourne Tonight. It was based on the American 'Tonight Show' format, with the host presiding over sketches, introducing star turns and reading advertisements live, although it differed from the American model in that Kennedy did not conduct celebrity interviews, which are the stock-in-trade of the U.S. format. Draing on his radio experience with Nicky, Kennedy transformed the live reads into a comedic art form, slagging off the sponsor's products and extending the ads to the point of absurdity -- in one famous 'live read', his first with Bert Newton, a scheduled 30-second spot ran for 22 minutes. Foretelling the future of TV, the commercials were more entertaining than the show itself.

Graeme Blundell: "He created a particular kind of urban comedy, much as Roy Rene ["Mo"] had done in the '30s and '40s. It was quite post-modern in a way. There was no reality that he appeared to believe in when he performed; he'd ridicule everything. We take it for granted now because everyone does what he did. 'They've all stolen my act,' he used to say in the '90s.

"He understood that it was the telling that was funny. There was no punch line as such, he would digress, he didn't know where he was going, but it was just hysterical. It has to do with notions of reality and identity: who you are when you tell jokes, who are you telling them to, where does it come from, how do you summon it up? Comedians always think about those things, which is why the language of comedy is the language of death; they say things like 'I died out there', 'We slayed them in the aisles'. Anyone who's been funny for a living, and I have, can tell you that. It's a terrible strain."

For thirteen gruelling years Kennedy ruled supreme as host of IMT and Australia's most popular TV personality. He beacme universally known by his nickname 'Gra-Gra" (pronounced 'gray-gray'), although he reportedly hated it. On IMT he worked with a talented on-camera team that included Joff Ellen, Buster Fiddess, Rosie Sturgess and Bert Newtown. Behind the scenes a stable of writers including Mike McColl Jones and Ernie Carroll (the arm and voice behind Ozzie Ostrich) laboured for Kennedy, who with his cast and crew, made the long hours of preparation and rehearsal look effortless and spontaneous. Over a twelve year-period Kennedy created a unique style of Australian comedy that had no equal in its day.

His schedule was punishing -- IMT aired five nights a week and concurrently, for several years in the early Sixties, he and Bert Newton also hosted the morning shift on Melbourne station 3AK, which had recently been purchased by GTV-9.

Kennedy finally quit IMT, exhausted, in 1969 and retired from TV for two years; he later looked back this period as "years of misery". In 1972 he returned with The Graham Kennedy Show, but this was abruptly cancelled in early 1975 not long after the now legendary "crow call" incident.

On the show of 5 March 1975 Kennedy imitated a crow ("faaaaaark") during a live read of a Cedel Hairspray advert by Rosemary Margan. Apparently it wasn't the first time Kennedy had used the joke, but for some reason it stood out this time and Nine supposedly received hundreds of complaints, followed by a rash of predictably scandalised newspaper headlines the next day. The incident was reported to the Broadcasting Control Board and as a result Graham was banned from performing live on TV for an indefinite period and was forced to pre-record the show on videotape.

Some have claimed that Kennedy deliberately engineered the crow-call incident so that the show would have to be pre-recorded, allowing him to get home earlier. (For several years in the Sixties, Kennedy and Bert Newton broadcast on 3AK from a specially constructed studio in Kennedy's Frankston house.)

Others suggest that he did it so that Nine would sack him. In 2002 in The Age Jonathan Green reported that the crow-call segment was in fact pre-taped, not live, and that in fact the bad language controversy was probably just a pretext for other issues. Rival Nine personality Ernie Sigley even claimed the real reason Kennedy was axed was that his ratings were so poor compared to Sigley, who presented his own variety show on different nights to Kennedy.

It certainly seems unlikely that the 'f-word' itself would have been sufficient cause of itself. According to Age reporter Suzanne Carbone, the first known use on Australian TV was back in the Sixties, when Nine's Adelaide evening news presenter Kevin Crease said "fucking hell" during a mishap in a live advertisement on variety show Adelaide Tonight. Crease told The Age he was amazed no complaints were received. "The audience fell off their chairs laughing," he said. He feared he would be sacked, but nothing happened.

According to biographer Graeme Blundell, it was actually another and much more political incident which led to Kennedy's final departure from Nine. A few weeks later he quit (or was sacked, depending on who you believe) after the network took advantage of the pre-recording to censor Kennedy's scathing attack on the then Media Minister Doug McClelland for his failure to support local content regulations for TV.

Australian content was a highly sensitive issue. In the wake of the McLean report, the Whitlam government was taking radical steps to open up the radio spectrum with the introduction of community broadcasting and the ABC's new rock station, Double Jay. But it had done nothing to address the oligopolistic control of TV by the big media proprietors like Packer and Fairfax; fearful of a backlash, the government steered well clear of any serious re-examination of the current structure and it did almost nothing to enforce higher levels of Australian content on TV, a proposal that was bitterly opposed by the networks, who relied on being able to buy large blocks of American programming at a fraction of what it would have cost to produce similar shows locally. The problem was further complicated by the Whitlam government's far-reaching 1973 decision to reduce tariffs across the board by 25% -- the first move towards today's controversial so-caled "free trade" policies. The immediate result of the tariff reduction was that overseas programming became even cheaper.

It was at at just this time that the networks were being targeted by the "TV - Make It Australian" campaign, which aimed to redress the scandalously low levels of local content on TV. In one of its most disastrous skirmishes, the networks successively cancelled all three major Crawford Productions police shows within months of each other during 1975 -- a clear act of revenge for Crawford's (totally understandable) support for the campaign and the active participation of leading Crawford players such as Gerard Kennedy and Bud Tingwell.


Kennedy on Blankety Blanks with Barry Creyton and Noelene Brown

In 1977 a million-dollar contract lured him to the Ten Network to host the (pretaped) comedy panel game show Blankety Blanks. The game itself -- a 'fill-in-the blanks' quiz in which contestants chose from a range of answers supplied by the panel of stars celebrities -- was of little importance. Kennedy's style and instincts wee the key to the show's success, allowing him and his guests free range for hilarious ad-libbing, and the show regularly descended into mayhem. Predictably it was a ratings hit and became one of the most popular shows on Australian TV in the late Seventies.

Megan Gressor: "It can be hard to take him seriously because the art he opted for was so low, but that's to overlook the sheer hard graft underlying his act. Kennedy's great talent was to appear to be ad-libbing. Most of the time he wasn't. His act was scripted within an inch of its life and, in the early days at least, he learned the lot by heart - opening patter, sketches, ads and all."

In the 1980s Graham finally returned to Nine and turned his hand to news and co-presented the late-night news  show Newshour (later renamed Coast To Coast), working forst with Ken Sutcliffe and then with journalist John Mangos. The mixture of mainstream news and ad-lib comedy was an unlikely success and it ran for several years, but it was a sometimes uncomfortable mix and as Megan Gressor notes, Kennedy seemed much more at ease when joking with Mangos and the crew than he did when reading the news.

In 1989 he sacked his long-time manager Harry M. Miller, who then sued him for 20 per cent commission on Kennedy's earnings for the preceding year. Miller lost the case and was ordered to pay Kennedy $75,699, ending a friendship and business relationship that had begun in the mid-Sixties.

Graham's last TV venture, in the early '90s, was hosting of the popular Graham Kennedy's Funniest Home Video Show but this came to an abrupt end when the show was unexpectedly pulled at the order of Nine Network boss Kerry Packer after the screening of a supposedly offensive item.

There's a sad irony in the fact that the bulk of Kennedy's best work was on live TV and that the vast majority of this was either not recorded, or that these recordings no longer exists. His reputation, therefore, rests substantially on the recollections of those who saw him perform. Another irony was that although live TV was his forte, his work as a serious film actor demonstrated both tremendous innate skill and great promise. Although his film roles were few, he featured in several important films of the 'Australian renaissance' of the '70s and '80s.

Oddly enough his first film appearance was a bit part in the American-made On The Beach in 1959. His first serious feature role was a part in the award-winning ABC miniseries adaptation of Frank Hardy's Power Without Glory in 1976. This was followed by impressive performances in featured roles in Don's Party (1976), The Odd Angry Shot (1979) and The Club (1980), a cameo as the Prime Minister in Phillipe Mora's superhero musical spoof The Return of Captain Invincible (1983),  The Killing Fields, Stanley, Les Patterson Saves The World and his final role as Freddie in Williamson's Travelling North, starring opposite the late great Leo McKern.

Megan Gressor: "He attained a different dimension entirely with his film acting, bringing poignancy and an intuitive intelligence to his roles ... It's fascinating to speculate what he might have achieved if he'd focused on drama instead of comedy."

Graham Kennedy's final TV appearance was in a Ray Martin interview; he later said he felt ambushed after Martin strayed into personal areas. He retired from television in 1991 and moved to the Southern Highlands of NSW, where he delighted in not being bothered by the locals. In failing health due to his diabetes and the damage done by years of heavy smoking and drinking, Kennedy completely withdrew from public life, keeping in touch with friends and colleagues by fax.

Although he was one of Australia's most popular and highest-paid personalities for over thirty years, he spent most of the money he made during his career and now lives in a hospice, cared for and supported by his close friends, actress Noelene Brown and her husband, comedy writer Tony Sattler. Shamefully, despite Kennedy having made millions for the Nine Network over the years, Kerry Packer reportedly refused to help him financially when he was approached by Brown and Sattler. An anonymous benefactor -- later revealed to have been erstwhile Nine network boss Sam Chisholm -- reportedly contributed a large sum to pay for his ongoing care.

In 1998 he was inducted into the Logie Hall Of Fame; his award was accepted on his behalf by his old friend and colleague Bert Newton. Kennedy is the subject of an unauthorised biography published in 2003 and written by actor and author Graeme Blundell, who wrote the definitive biography of Brett Whiteley. Kennedy approved of the project although he declined to participate. According to Blundell, Kennedy read proofs of the early chapters of the book and liked it, but decided he didn't want to read any more because, he said, "I know how it ends."

Graham Kennedy died of pneumonia in hospital at Mittagong on 25 May 2005, aged 71. He retained his humour to the last. Shortly before his death, his doctor told him he didn't have long to live and asked Kennedy if there was anything he wanted to ask him. According to Noelene Brown, Kennedy shot back "Yes, why do you doctors charge so much?"

After his death, as tributes flowed, so-called "human headline" Derryn Hinch appalled almost everyone by "outing" Kennedy on his radio show -- despite the fact that Kennedy's homosexuality had long been known -- and added insult to injury by falsely asserting that Kennedy had died of AIDS. The claim forced Noelene Brown to come forward and refute it, revealing that all the patients of the hospital including Kennedy had been tested for HIV (due to a needle-stick injury) and that Graham categorically was not infected.

Graham Kennedy's funeral service was held at the Mittagong Playhouse and Memorial Hall, attended by hundreds of friends and colleagues including Stuart Wagstaff, David Williamson, Daryl Somers, Toni Lamond, Chisholm, Geoff Harvey, John Mangos, Ken Sutcliffe, Don Burke, Ray Martin, Tony Barber, Maggie Tabberer and Peter Harvey. Williamson paid glowing tribute to Kennedy's acting ability and Mike McColl Jones read a jokey eulogy in the form of a fax supposedly sent from heaven by Graham, in which he referred to the Hinch incident, with Graham 'reporting' that homosexuality was "rife" in heaven and that he had seen Oscar Wilde walking hand-in-hand with Chips Rafferty. At the end of the service, Kennedy's coffin was carried by pallbearers from his beloved St Kilda football club.

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REFERENCES / LINKS
FURTHER READING:

Graeme Blundell
King: The Life and Comedy of Graham Kennedy
(McMillan, 2003)

television.au - The Seventies
http://televisionau.tripod.com/seventies.htm

strewth.org
Great Moments in Live Television
http://www.strewth.org.au/v1n1/live_television.htm

Suzanne Carbone
"Entertainment's faux pas haunt the wicked"
The Age, 29 July 2002
http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2002/07/28/1027818484898.html

John Docker
"Graham Kennedy"
http://www.memorabletv.com/halloffame/grahamkennedy.htm

Peter Galvin
"King: The Life and Comedy of Graham Kennedy"
The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 May 2003
http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/05/30/1054177717129.html

Jonathan Green
"Does Anyone Use The Sleeper Anymore?"
The Age, 9 August 2002
http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2002/08/09/1028158008627.html

Megan Gressor
"King of comedy, fears of a clown"
The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 April 2003
http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/04/25/1050777394925.html

Peter Wilmoth
"Here's Graham"
The Age, 4 May 2003
http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/05/03/1051876902018.html

 

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