Steve Vizard has delivered 10 of the most diverse characters in Australian TV history to make up his list all-time greatest characters. There was not a Charlene, Scott or Alf in sight. Instead, readers were given a cross-section of jokers, larrikins and characters from the nation’s favourite dramas.
Number 10, today’s honourees, are the deliciously funny comedy duo Kath and Kim. It’s no coincidence that, like Con the Fruiterer, Vizard has a soft spot for the troupe of comedians he worked with in the 1980s.
Aside from Kath, Kim and Con, his list also included Cleaver Greene from Rake, the intense Harry from The Slap and the harried Laura Gibson from Seachange. Interestingly, Vizard also chose four characters from distant past. Uncle Harry, Dorrie Evans, Dominic McGooley and Norman Gunston may not be household names any longer but they had an era-defining impact on television.
For the record, VIzard’s number one was Cleaver Greene from Rake. Now we know where he stood, it’s time to choose your own favourites from the list.
10. Kath and Kim – Full Frontal, Big Girls Blouse, Kath and Kim
Who can forget this wonderfully grotesque comedic parody of Australian suburban life, a dark reinterpretation of Sylvania Waters, or, to use the idiom of its creators a ‘fly on the slice of life’. At the heart of this mockumentary/sitcom are Kath and Kim. Kath, a devoted mother, full of malapropisms, aspiring to effluence and Kim, her spoilt, churlish nitwit of a daughter, two halves of one character, as impossible to separate as Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello.
The gift they leave is that through the magic of their mouths we hear the everyday transformed to the “Noice, different and unusual.”
Originally developed by Jane Turner and Gina Riley with veteran scriptwriter Doug Mcleod for our TV shows Full Frontal and then Big Girls Blouse, these are characters built ground up, tiny observation by tiny observation, bit by bit, phrase by phrase. I can recall Jane and Gina incessantly bantering in a makeup room even as they were starting out, endlessly repeating the phrase “Look at moi” “Look at Moi’”.
Where Hamlet and Lear touch large issues and universal themes, these big fish in a small pond feed on minutiae. Flattering as they mock, their world shrinks to Fountain Lakes and Fountain Lakes shrinks to the contents of a fridge, the colour of a bridesmaids dress, shopping mall etiquette, the recipe for Kel ‘Purveyor of Fine Meats” new sausage or the pleats on Sharon’s netball uniform. Their targets may be small but these are gargantuan parodies of the Les Patterson proportion. Much as Barry Humphries great creation, the comatose pensioner Sandy Stone, reduces to ‘approximately, in the vicinity of” a litany of domestic lists –“ Aspro, Bex”, or a recitation of the stations on the Glen Waverley train line – so the staple of Kath and Kim is the magnification of the mundane. The gift they leave is that through the magic of their mouths we hear the everyday transformed to the “Noice, different and unusual.”
9. Uncle Harry – The Sullivans
For seven years, four nights a week from the mid Seventies to the early Eighties, Australia relived the events of World War Two in real time storytelling through the eyes of a suburban Camberwell family, The Sullivans. Thirty years on, the horrors of the war were now far enough removed to be romanticised. We layered our memories with sepia and woollen vests and the crackling stomp of big bands and reimagined Camberwell as Camelot.
Churning out episodes at breakneck speed it was inevitable that characters would accumulate back stories by the truck load. Uncle Harry was no exception. Brother to the series anchor and patriarch, Dave Sullivan, Harry is the raffish, ne’rdo well. Harry is that likeable rogue, one part comedic relief, one part poignancy. Harry’s spent a bit of time in the clink for receiving stolen goods, owned a scrap metal business and later a shop, which he ran with his wife Rose, until she drowned in the river, and then remarried the woman who boarded with the series gossip Mrs Jessup, before enlisting and eventually moving to Queensland.
Are you with me? Harry is your favourite Uncle, winking and cajoling, always a treat in his pocket and a tale to tell. Harry is tomorrow’s scheme and the next big thing as if played by Chips Rafferty.
In an era when death is as close as a telegram boy on a bicycle and the Radiola wireless is a harbinger of doom, Uncle Harry is more than the sideshow. Uncle Harry is hope.
8. Mike Moore – Frontline
For a delightful three series Mike Moore, the coiffed and fearless anchor of the award winning current affair show Frontline fought for stories that mattered and to retain his car park and dressing room. Just as Garry Shandling’s brilliant sitcom The Larry Sanders Show had taken a scalpel to the phenomenon of the Late Night Talk Show, so Frontline was our own blistering satire of current affair television and of the media and celebrity in general.
Mike Moore, the anchorman of the fictional current affair show Frontline, is a creature born of television, a mediocre journalist possessed of authoritative good looks and a full head of hair. Moore is a man preoccupied with his own press releases, a vain self consumed mannakin, torn between his self image as an independent, hard hitting insightful purveyor of ground breaking news stories and his desire for fame. Like Charles Dicken’s John Podsnap he is a man who wants to be taken seriously but offers no reason for us to do so.
Moore is a master of compromise and self-justification.
Forever fearful of beautiful ‘stop at nothing’ ace reporter Brooke Vandenburg (Jane Kennedy), and readily manipulated by a string of executive producers who flatter Moore into submission, Moore is a deft embodiment of the schizophrenia of the electronic media. He is desperate for our respect but pompously presides over a litany of foot-in- door, fence -climbing, house -intruding, foot –in- mouth, chequebook -interviewing calamities that corrode any prospect of it.
Moore is a master of compromise and self-justification. Like the masters he serves he manages to convince himself that the truth is not important as the story, the story not as important as the commerce. A decade before the Leveson Inquiry, Moore is a prophetic personification of the bear trap of self-delusion – merely because we are not wholly responsible does not mean we bear no responsibility at all.
7. Dorrie Evans – Number 96
I was at school when Channel 10, still grainy black and white, announced over a succession of weeks we had better get ready – “Number 96 Is coming.”
Set in a fictional apartment block, in a fictional street in the Sydney suburb of Paddington, five nights a week Number 96 tackled issues mid-1970s Australia had never before seen on the idiot box – rape, incest, racism, homosexuality, remember lawyer Don Findlayson?, adultery, full frontal nudity. Thank God for Abigail me and my Year 10 mates would opine. “Television Has Lost Its Virginity”, “Ban This Filth” the papers proclaimed.
At the comedic heart of the piece was the time tested archetype; a domineering matriarch, an all seeing all hearing all gossiping landlady, Dorrie Evans.
To the chagrin of her diminutive earbashed husband Herbert Evans, Dorrie Evans was our community’s self-appointed moral barometer. Dorrie Evans was an antipodean incarnation of Middlemarch’s caustic Mrs Cadwallader, Pride and Prejudice’s omniscient Mrs Bennett, part detective, part housewife, part personification the status quo.. Played with magisterial relish by Pat McDonald, Dorrie Evans was Pauline Hansen in an apron, Big Brother with a perm. Much as Dame Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess of Grantham has Downtown Abbey over which to pry and prowl and pass muttered judgement, so Dorrie Evans presided over the denizens of Number 96 and indeed our Nation, issuing vacuous edicts and recycling long held prejudices.
Dorrie Evans was a laughable, living, breathing, earbashing reminder to us all of what we can so easily become if we stop thinking but keep talking.
6. Laura Gibson – Seachange
Seachange was more than a television series, it signalled a change in a nation’s aspirations. By the late 1990s, Seachange was not merely a new word in our national lexicon, but a genuine lifestyle possibility. Escape. Seachange gave a nation consumed with consumerism hope.
Set in the mythical seaside resort of Pearl Bay (read Barwon Heads), Seachange told the tale of corporate lawyer Laura Gibson (played by Sigrid Thornton). When Laura’s husband is arrested for fraud and Laura discovers her husband has been having it off with her sister, Laura picks up her life and moves to Pearl Bay where she has holidayed in better days. Taking on the role of local Magistrate, Laura Gibson, starts afresh.
The greatness of Laura Gibson was not merely that we empathised with her…
Other roles may have been bigger, funnier, more memorable – David Wenham’s Diver Dan, or the Sir Toby Belch of the piece, John Howard’s fast talking Mayor Bob Jelly, or his neurotic wife Heather, beautifully performed by Kerry Armstrong. But it was the carefully observed, long suffering Laura Gibson who was the emotional and narrative fulcrum around which this brilliant galaxy of municipal misfits oscillated.
The greatness of Laura Gibson was not merely that we empathised with her as she struggled to rebuild her disintegrating life in this whacky Eden, as she battled with a failed marriage, a fledgling romance with Diver Dan, the demands of a working Mum, her despair as a single parent, her attempts to dispense handcrafted justice to the perverse denizens of Pearl Bay, but that with dazzling synchronicity Laura Gibson kindled our own deep yearning to lead a simpler life and to find our own Pearl Bay. To escape. And as a nation we did.
5. Con the Fruiterer – The Comedy Company
“Cuppla days.” Its easy to forget the impact of Mark Mitchell’s leering corpulent suburban greengrocer Con Dikaletus; the Cucumber- wielding Confucius, the garrulous Chauncy Gardner, he of the six daughters, Roula, Toula, Soula, Voula, Foula and Agape and the hirsuit wife Marika. Yet there was a time, late 1980s, early 1990s, when the whole nation peppered their daily conversations with Con’s guttural aphorisms, “Beewediful” and every matter of state could be reduced to the condition of a lettuce or the colour of a carrot. Cuppla days we all said. Cuppla days.
We all knew Con. In every greengrocer, every butcher…
If in the 1960s, O Grady’s fictional immigrant Nino Cullotta was an outcast, a Wog, by the 1990s, a generation on, Con the Fruiterer, Nino’s inheritor, was the naturalised embodiment of this new multicultural Australia. Con the Fruiterer, our swaggering Falstaff, chewing up life, relishing the mouthfuls, spitting out his pips of wisdom in weekly prime time Sunday night instalments. “Good luck to youse and your family”. We all knew Con. In every greengrocer, every butcher, Con was that smirking, winking, irreverent physical evidence we needed that our new multiculturalism might yet work, might yet be bewdiful….if not today then at least in a cuppla days.
4. Harry – The Slap
Handsome, self- made, proud. Angry eyes. A man used to wrestling life into shape with his own hands, Harry is a mechanic, and self made business man, who has fashioned ground-up his own magazine perfect business, wife, kid, home, lifestyle, life. Harry is living proof of the Australlian Dream. Until ‘the slap’.
A suburban BBQ in Melbourne. A screaming, undisciplined three year old child, Hugo, terrorises the afternoon and finally threatens Harry’s child. Harry intervenes to protect what is his, as he always has done, and slaps the kid across the face. The Slap. The slap fractures everything Harry knows; not merely friendships, but Harry’s undiluted self assurance that he alone can control his universe.
For all his flaws we share his despair and desperation…
The Slap is the art of screenwriting and the craft of acting at their best. This is humanity perfectly observed and portrayed. We witness a confronting exploration of the boundaries of intimacy as a proud man stares down humiliation, a man who knows only order confronts chaos. This is tragedy. A great man falls.
The genius of this writing and of Alex Dimitriades’ portrayal is that even in the overreaching of this impulsive arrogant narcissistic adulterer, we somehow empathise with the flailing Harry. For all his flaws we share his despair and desperation as he struggles to save his family, his friendships and his life. For all his hubris and vainglory, we feel his pain. He knows no better.
3. Dominic McGooley – My Name’s McGooley – What’s Yours?
It’s a truism that Australian sit-coms never work. But the exceptions are pearlers. Mother and Son, Frontline and the forerunner of them all My Name’s McGooley – What’s Yours.
Sydney, mid 1960s, a mere 202 years after the Second World War, pre Opera house, pre Harold Holt, pre indigenous vote. Dominic McGooley, played masterfully by Gordon Chater, is a cantankerous inflexible pensioned malcontent who whiles away his life, fishing from the pier at Balmain, blueing with his son in law Wally Stiller (John Meillon from Crocodile Dundee fame) under whose roof he lives, and arguing with his best mate Nancarrow about the increasingly unsatisfactory state of the Universe.
Chater’s grand portrayal is the original Grumpy Old Man…
Distant, bemused, dreaming of things left undone and yet to do, struggling to remain relevant but working at his own pace, McGooley is the embodiment of 1960s Australia.
Chater’s grand portrayal is the original Grumpy Old Man – brooding, leering, muttering, conniving; an irascible Mo McCackie, a scheming Steptoe, a laconic Alf Garnett. McGooley is the patriarch in decline. King Lear with a fishing rod. In a rapidly aging Australia increasingly confronting the intergenerational difficulties of working couples and their parents living under the one roof, Dominic McGooley is a prescient and poignant foretaste of the struggles of curmudgeons everywhere to find daily purpose.
2. Norman Gunston – The Norman Gunston Show, Aunty Jack
11 November 1975. An unforgettable day – the unforgettable day in Australian political history. All eyes centre on Old Parliament House, Gough Whitlam, et al loitering on the steps, wondering how this will play out. Look closely. There! The Little Aussie Bleeder, Norman Gunston in outsized jacket, string-thin tie, clutching an ABC microphone, prowling the Forum like a circus clown infiltrating NASA mission control. This man should not be here. Think Sacha Baron Cohen at the fall of the Berlin Wall. Think Stephen Colbert in the Oval Office at Richard Nixon’s resignation. Yet here is Norman Gunston at this momentous moment, misappropriating history, an antipodean Zelig, a laconic Forrest Gump, writing himself into the record, pricking all self delusion for the record.
Even at our most seminal of moments, our Nation can’t help but take the piss.
Who can forget Norman’s pallid face, devoid of the makeup artists handiwork, his chin peppered with tissue paper to stem shaving nicks, the sad clown brown eyes? Who can forget Norman’s weekly chat show? Norman’s pursuit of the Gold Logie?
Music? Remember his skewering rendition of Sondheim’s Send In The Clowns replete with Pagliacci costume, clown hat and mime actions?
Stardom? Remember his gob – smacking interviews with the worlds greatest? Muhammad Ali? “Could you pick us up a duty free transistor in Manilla?” Paul McCartney? Mick Jagger? Charlton Heston?
Even at our most seminal of moments, our Nation can’t help but take the piss. The King was Dead, Long Live the Queen. Norman Gunston was our Nation’s Court Jester.
1. Cleaver Greene – Rake
Cleaver Greene LLB Barrister at Law, is Richard Roxburgh’s magnificently realised cocaine–sniffing, toilet bowl-hugging anti-hero, a fine legal mind fallen, his marriage broken, his son estranged, his friends deserted, his life reduced to the battered cardboard boxes he lugs from one borrowed bedroom to the next and one adulterous drug-induced catastrophe to another. Cleaver Greene is a Twenty First Century Rumpole on crack.
Temptation stalks Cleaver like a debt collector. And he never disappoints. His pillow hair and crumpled suit bear testimony to the pitfalls of narcissism. Cleaver invariably takes the wrong fork in the road. He sleeps with his best friend’s wife and borrows money from the mob. Greene is a self-immolator of Shakespearean proportions.
Greene is incessantly mocked by what might have been and is always a bottle away from self-loathing.
Like all great wastrels, the magnificence of Cleaver Greene’s predicament is heightened by the magnitude of his fall. Rubbing salt into the wounds of his demise, Cleavers’ contemporaries now control the known universe, the Bench, the media and the corridors of power. Greene is incessantly mocked by what might have been. A bottle away from self-loathing.
And yet there is hope. Greene can still fight. He still retains the vestigial remnants of his moral compass. For all his flaws, Cleaver Greene knows right from wrong. He is a just man. A pissed, just man who earnestly traverses the no mans land between the Law and Justice. Redemption is still within grasp. One drink away. Perhaps tomorrow…
Steve Vizard is an award-winning television and radio presenter, lawyer, comedian, producer, author and screenwriter.