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Laughs to boot: Bridgette Allen and John Clarke were cabaret co-stars at Auckland's The Ace of Clubs in 1976.

A voice just like Fred Dagg's comes on the line.

"John Clarke here."

He needs no other introduction. Clarke has broken off his filming schedule to ring from Australia after chortling over an emailed photo of he and jazz singer Bridgette Allen larking about.


It was taken in March 1976, at Phil Warren's cabaret club, The Ace of Clubs, in Auckland. Clarke (aka Fred Dagg) was doing a series of live shows with the help of guest artists like Allen and drag queen Diamond Lil. Lots of ad-libbing, "specially if I was involved," Clarke laughs.

But nothing Allen couldn't handle. Apart from being a "fabulous" singer, he says, "she's very funny, you could throw anything at Bridgette. There's not much she can't do."

Allen remembers Clarke as quick-witted and with a personality "you can't help but warm to. You were working with a very astute mind." These days Allen teaches jazz and classical singing, holds workshops and helps prepare performers for public performances. And she still gives jazz concerts.

Both Clarke and Allen moved to Melbourne years ago but have lost touch with each other. However, they still remember the "huge fun" of those live shows and Allen laments the loss of cabaret as a way for up-and-coming performers to cut their teeth and learn skills. Clarke says cabaret was one of the few places a Kiwi entertainer could work up the all-important relationship with the audience.

Back then, "you weren't really allowed on television".

"It was far too important," he says, lapsing into his performing voice, "people in dinner suits read the news and stuff. It was so pompous."

But then all that changed. Television programmers decided they did want New Zealand performers on screen and headhunted them from the cabaret acts. "It sucked a lot of the oxygen out of that business," Clarke says.

These days the former Fred Dagg is flat-out writing, performing and producing for film and television. He is working on a documentary series featuring sports people, including some Kiwis, and yes, it will be funny. But it won't be Clarke trying to get the laughs. Instead he's letting the sports stars do it.

"Fortunately they are funny people. They're very clever."

By funny, he doesn't mean laugh-out-loud comedy. It's a "tonal" thing, he says.

"In a sketch comedy you need to be funny as often as possible. But in church you only need to say a couple of things and you can feel the pew quivering. It's contrast."

He's also about to start working on a drama series, but nothing will interrupt his weekly political satire on ABC, Clarke & Dawe, in which Clarke plays the role of a prominent person being interviewed by Bryan Dawe. He's done it for 22 years and, at age 63, sees no point in slowing down. "I love it."