John Clarke: Loss of comic legend echoes across Tasman

Legendary Kiwi comedian John Clarke died taking photos of birds on a bushwalk with family and friends.

The 68-year-old - who moved to Australia in the late 1970s but is still fondly remembered for his creation Fred Dagg - collapsed and died of natural causes while hiking in the Grampians National Park, Victoria on Sunday.

A family spokesperson said: "John died doing one of the things he loved the [most], taking photos of birds in beautiful bushland with his wife and friends. He is forever in our hearts.

"We are aware of what he has meant to so many for so many years, throughout the world but especially in Australia and New Zealand. We are very grateful for all expressions of sympathy and love which John would have greatly appreciated."

Prime Minister Bill English tweeted his sadness for the comedian, while Labour leader Andrew Little said he was devastated by Clarke's death.

"He taught us to laugh at ourselves and more importantly laugh at our politicians."

Clad in gumboots and a black singlet, Dagg was played with such conviction that to many New Zealanders, he was a real person.

But when Clarke relocated to Australia in search of creative greener pastures in the late 1970s, he took his cherished Kiwi icon with him.

He left with a sense of disillusionment stemming from a run-in with the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC).

"In a place the size of New Zealand there is only one game in town and if you are not allowed to do it, what can you do?" Clarke said in a Listener interview in 1990.

"I dealt with directors who thought they were comic geniuses and regarded me as a hired hand.

"I have never had those problems in Australia."

After settling in Melbourne, Clarke became such a hit on Australian television that cross-dressing comic Barry Humphries described Clarke as "Australia's best humorist".

Clarke became known to many Australians for his five-minute satirical spots on Channel Nine's Friday news programme A Current Affair, the first of these appearing in 1989.

He also co-wrote ABCTV's The Fast Lane from 1983-85, as well as co-writing and appearing in ABCTV's The Gillies Report from 1985-86.

Clarke's film credits include Lonely Hearts (1981), Footrot Flats (1985), A Matter of Convenience (1987), Blood Oath (1989) and Death In Brunswick (1990).

The Dagg Sea Scrolls documentary was one of many TV outings for the much-loved character Fred Dagg which John Clark created in NZ but took with him to Australia in search of greener creative pastures.
The Dagg Sea Scrolls documentary was one of many TV outings for the much-loved character Fred Dagg which John Clark created in NZ but took with him to Australia in search of greener creative pastures.

Clarke was born in Palmerston North in 1948. He went to primary school in Palmerston North before going to Wellington's Scots College, after which he spent 14 months working on a shearing gang.

"My teachers mistook my indolence for rebellion and I was often caned. At one stage I held the world record. When I left secondary school I knew roughly what I knew when I left primary school plus how to shave," Clarke said.

In between time spent on a law degree and Bachelor of Arts - completing neither - he performed in satirical revues while at Victoria University in Wellington.

On the revues he worked with "some very talented people" including Ginette McDonald, Tom Scott and "a brilliantly funny young man, Paul Holmes".

After a year at the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, a bored Clarke went to London.

"When I left my file said that I should not be employed under any circumstances whatsoever."

From 1971-73, he "swanned around" Europe before returning convinced that New Zealand was ready for satirical innovation.

The Fred Dagg character was born and promulgated between 1973 and 1977 on radio, stage and screen, becoming a huge hit.

Video

Your five-step guide to NZ

• "The principal business in New Zealand used to be sheep but the country has now moved into milk in a big way, and if you'd like to enjoy the beautifully clean, swift-flowing New Zealand river system, you should make every effort to get out there before the dairy industry gets any more successful. New Zealand also produces a large quantity of fruit, wine, fish, coal, wood pulp, flightless birds, cups of tea, middle-distance runners and other people's film industries."

• "There is a national Parliament in Wellington, which looks like the hats in the Devo clip Whip It, although very little of any importance has ever occurred there. The country works a lot better during the weekends than it does during the week."

• "The country's most famous pop singer, best-known opera star, most famous short story writer, greatest novelist and most consistent world champion athlete are all women. They're not allowed in the All Blacks as yet, but don't be fooled. It's just a matter of time."

• "During the early 1980s, the economy was put in the hands of finance ministers due to a filing error, and authorities are still looking for the black box. A social democracy with only one previous owner was asset-stripped and replaced by a series of franchises. Even rugby sides stopped being called Canterbury, Wellington, Otago and Auckland and were instead given the names of animals, colours and weather conditions."

• "New Zealand remains the most beautiful country in the world. You can go to any part of it with confidence, at any time of year, with the possible exception of Hawera at Christmas, Otautau in August and Taihape in a stiff westerly."

- Taken from New Zealand, A User's Guide, by John Clarke.

- NZ Herald

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