Bert Newton is relaxed in his dressing room at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre, where’s he’s playing The Narrator in The Rocky Horror Show. The royal blue velvet blazer is off, replaced by a dressing gown. The famous hairpiece is off, too. The minders and dressers have melted away, the TV cameras and photographers at the media event have gone and suddenly it’s just the two of us. And it’s very much Bert Unplugged.
It’s the same Bert I interviewed at length 32 years ago: meticulously courteous, hilarious, thoughtful, comfortable with – but modest about – the knowledge that he is a true pioneer to an earlier generation and a cult figure to a later one.
Today there are two main impressions being up close with Australia’s most enduring television legend. The first is that rich, resonant voice that flows like molten lava across the room. Then there’s his storytelling. You know that game where you nominate your five wish-list dinner party guests? He’s on my list.
At 76, after 60 years in show business and still going strong, he’s ready for the questions about longevity.
“The question always asked, once you get to a certain age, is, ‘Are you thinking about retirement?’. From my experience in this business you either can’t do it physically or perhaps mentally, or there’s a tap on the shoulder. Over the years, with programs that have failed, I’ve had a light tap on the shoulder but I’ve never had a heavy-handed one – yet.
“Television networks aren’t knocking my door down. Theatre is giving me a living. I’ve never done any of those things for fame or fortune. I’ve done it because it’s the work I like. I think that I just want to keep going until such time as I see a stop sign or a caution sign of some kind.”
But there don’t seem to be any stop signs. Why would there be? He’s still at the top of his game. For those who grew up watching In Melbourne Tonight in the ’60s, The Don Lane Show in the ’70s, the regular Logies hosting across 40 years, and Good Morning Australia in the ’90s and 2000s, Bert has been, to appropriate Joni Mitchell, as constant as a northern star in our lives.
In 1983 I wrote in The Age: “The day Bert stops smiling is the day we have the perfect right to believe that things really have changed.” Well, Bert is still smiling, so all is well.
As his work on television wound down in recent years, he has appeared in stage shows including two productions of The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, The Producers, Wicked, Grease and now Rocky Horror.
“My television career – I don’t think it had stopped dead, but I think it had a large cough,” he says. ‘‘There wasn’t very much available for me and that was fine. I’ve said before that if I were to be annoyed that television wasn’t knocking down my door, I would be seen – and rightly so – as a very ungrateful person.”
In theatre, Bert is just one of the cast. In television, he had much more control. “The best times of my television career have been when I’ve been allowed my head, to have some control over what the show was all about,” he says.
“Graham [Kennedy] gave me that on IMT, Don gave me that in spades on The Don Lane Show and Channel 10 gave that to me with Good Morning Australia.
Mention of Good Morning Australia prompts a reflection on the show. “I thought that would be a gig for a couple of years. It lasted 14 years and we used to have a gag saying that we thought we’d get three good years out of it and we think we did. Because that’s the attitude of most people towards morning television.”
I mention his veteran status in hosting the Logies and, with several hosts (notably Wendy Harmer) failing spectacularly, Bert always delivered. Once, though, Muhammad Ali might have delivered something to him in the shape of a fist. Hosting the Logies in 1979, Bert’s fluid banter with Ali ended when Bert told him, “I like the boy!” (Bert was unaware of the racial overtones of the word ‘boy’).
“I’ve got to bless it because a week never goes by without someone saying it,” Bert says with a smile. “There’s a beautiful thing that Graham Kennedy said to me. I went to see him in Bowral four or five times when he was seriously ill. The first time I saw him there I was quite distressed, I didn’t show it. He wasn’t well at all. [Kennedy died in 2005.]
“The second time we were just having a lovely chat, he was in bed. He was smoking a non-existent cigarette, because he was a very heavy smoker. There was nothing there, no smoke or anything. I eventually referred to it, ‘Can I relight it for you?’.
“He used to call me Herbie. He said, ‘Herbie, you know, it doesn’t matter what we’ve done in our career, we could have had the biggest highs the world’s ever known, the biggest audiences the world’s ever known, but we’re both going to be remembered for one thing. I’m going to be remembered for the crow call, and you’re going to be remembered for, “I like the boy”. So remember that’s it. That’s going to haunt you as it’s haunted me’. I had one kid who said, ‘My dad told me about you and Mike Tyson’.”
I suggested it was probably lucky it wasn’t Tyson. “That’s right,” Bert says. “I probably wouldn’t be looking at a full set of teeth now.”
In 2012, Bert underwent quadruple heart-bypass surgery after falling ill while appearing in Wicked in Singapore. “It was traumatic for all of us,” Bert says. “I went to hospital to have a regular check-up and I had already had a couple of stents put in [the arteries leading to] my heart, which had operated beautifully for a couple of years. [In Singapore] I took ill and had some time in hospital and they placed another stent or two into [there].
“Patti flew over immediately. I thought everything was fine. When I got back to Australia for a check-up six months later, they laid me out, did what they had to do … When they’d done the tests, I thought, ‘I’m lying here much longer than I usually do’. The surgeon came in and said, ‘We need to do a bypass’.
“Started out as a double and then it went to triple and he came back and said: ‘It’s going to be a quadruple’. I said, ‘Can we stay on four because it’s my favourite number?’ ’’
He spent weeks in hospital. I asked if he reflected on what the result might have been. “I don’t think they give you a percentage but they do explain there’s a possibility that you won’t recover, or that it might not be as successful as they want it to be.
“I remember after the operation, lying in the bed and a priest friend of mine, a Jesuit, came in to see me. We were having a chat about various things. He said, ‘Would you like a healing, a blessing?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that used to be called extreme unction [last rites] didn’t it?’. Which meant, you know, you were about to move on.
“Patti had been in earlier to see me and she’d gone out to get a coffee. She didn’t know anything about the fact that extreme unction was no longer on the cards, and she came back to see this priest … I think we’re lucky that Patti didn’t have a heart attack.
“It woke me up to the story you hear all the time, that men don’t take as much care of themselves. I guess I’ve never been a fitness fanatic but I was introduced to words that haven’t been in my vocabulary before, like exercise.
“I had to do two Ks a day. I walked around my suburb. I remember once realising that, without wanting to be, I was quite a shut-in … I remember talking to a lovely bloke who was doing the same thing as me, taking a walk. We had a lovely chat and I saw him another couple of days later and I said, ‘Where do you live?’ and he said ‘Next door to you’. Which was a slight exaggeration – it was a couple of doors away. But because of the new regime I got to meet lovely people who I’d not met before.
“When I’m not working, I’m at home. That’s what I like to do. I like to be with the family, I like to watch television, I do a lot of reading … I’m not seen at the local gym, I’m not seen at the annual picnic or whatever.”
So Bert, when will you stop?
Bert has never considered retiring voluntarily. He’ll stop only if the opportunities dry up for him. But he knows it can’t last forever. “If I’m totally honest with myself, I think that if there’s a break of any magnitude where I’m not offered anything, I think that would be it,” he says. “I would have to accept the fact that for some reason I can’t do it or for some reason they don’t want me to do it.
“It’s a very hard thing to explain. I achieved my major professional ambition in life very early on when I was able to get that announcer’s job at 3XY. I know that’s so many years ago but that was the one burning ambition I had. I wanted to be part of that radio station. I’ve had such a lucky career. The three things you need in this profession are: you need some sort of talent, you need someone in power to want to employ you … and the third thing you need is luck, obviously.”
It will be our luck if he keeps going for many years, and from Bert there will be the characteristic Aussie modesty. Of his career now, he says: “I see myself as plodding along and I don’t mind plodding.”
Like another comic genius, Barry Humphries – who at 81 is still performing at his usual rarefied height – Bert is as good today as he was in 1957 when Channel Seven first signed him up. His consistency, energy and self-belief never diminished. Neither did his capacity, as his biographer Graeme Blundell wrote, to “spin a fantastic web of absurdity from the merest thread of an idea, a word, or a phrase”.
And he’s loved as much as ever. On the night I saw The Rocky Horror Show in Sydney, Bert ambled out holding his Narrator’s book to a huge cheer from the crowd. “You remember me!” he smiled, just briefly breaking character.
They remembered him, all right.
» The Rocky Horror Show at Comedy Theatre from June 11.
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