In 1975 Fred Dagg became a beloved national icon. More than 20 years on Russell Baillie finds out what happened to the gumboots and singlet.

• This story first ran in 2000 and is being republished after John Clarke's death at the age of 68.

Here I am talking to John Clarke - aka the Man Who Was Fred Dagg, the Funniest New Zealander of the Century - and I feel the need to confess something to him.

Y'see, way back in 1975 when he was at the height of his fame on this side of the Tasman, I ripped him off. Well, I was only 10 at the time.

It was the end-of-year shindig at Morningside Primary School in Whangarei and our pre-pubescent talents were being pushed into something called "items" for our parents and teachers.


Gather round boys, I have an idea ... Out we hoofed, gumbooted and towelling-hatted, some having borrowed the school's netball pinafores to substitute for black singlets.

I was Fred - 'cos it was my idea after all - and they were the Trevs. Together, more or less, we sang Star of Wonder. Given our age, it was probably an octave higher than the original on Fred Dagg's Greatest Hits but we gave due blokey gusto. Song over, we hoofed off again. People laughed. We were a hit. Comedy's easy really ...

No doubt it won't be the first view on What Dagg Meant To Us now that he's released a CD, Fred Dagg Anthology.

But he laughs warmly at my view all the same as he sits in the Melbourne production office for his new series The Games, a "mockumentary" about the Sydney Olympics (dis)organisation which had its on-air debut this week.

It's made him a hard man to get hold of. He's already spent the morning on the phone to many an Australian radio station to pump up the programme's profile.

But his present promoted, he's happy to spend much longer reflecting on his - and our - past and that of the alter-ego he refers to as Mr Dagg. Yes, he does remember the effect on those of us who were kids during the Dagg years. "When we toured the country we went to places from which I'd had a lot of mail, most of which was from kids.

"That first record I did, kids really liked it. We insisted the price be lower than the conventional price and the record company thought we were mad. But the reason we did it was that such a vast percentage of the mail sent to Mr Dagg was from kids and I didn't want kids to be paying too much money for it. I remember being a kid writing away to some- body or other and it was fantastic if somebody wrote back to you ..."

And yes, Dagg's stardom - he was television personality of the year in 1974 and 75 - was a bit strange.

"But it wasn't too staggering. There was always a handy reality check. At the time it was absolutely going through the roof I couldn't get a show to happen on New Zealand television because they were totally opposed to it. There was really only the public and me.

"I had a wonderful relationship with the New Zealand public which I was always deeply grateful for."

What Dagg meant to us is now wrapped up in nostalgia, and where our national sense of humour meets folklore. Many will have their own memories of Dagg's appearances on the television, skewering the news of the day on Gallery, Nationwide or Tonight at Nine.

Others who weren't allowed up quite that late can probably recite some of the Dagg comedy albums track by track.

But with this latest revival, which includes a re-recorded version of We Don't Know How Lucky We Are, it's illuminating to have Clarke reflect on what his alter-ego means to him 20-plus years on.

How does he think the material has aged?

"I think all right. I hear it and I sometimes wince at parts of it. But by and large no. By and large I still like it. I was always doing a character who wasn't so far away from me that I would go into denial about it." How about the first time he did him on stage?

"Early versions of the character I did very early, but then I didn't do the fully fledged character on stage until 1976 or something.

"In those student revues I did the character which my friends and I had been mucking about with for years, and I walked on stage for the first time and did it and thought, `Hello. We are on to something here ...'"

Fred Dagg Anthology is a roughly chronological collection that might have been more accurately titled The Life and Recordings of John Clarke. Much of it is devoted to his comedy and political satire which made him a star under his own name on Australian radio and television, having left New Zealand for Melbourne in the late 70s.

However, the early tracks collect some of Dagg's best known Kiwi moments live and in the studio. He remembers the sessions well. All that time spent in front of the microphone. It took, aw gee, at least until ... lunchtime.

"The very first album I recorded in a morning. They gave me one morning to do it and I finished it. I stood in the studio and did it and I got my old mate Simon Morris to come down. We did How Lucky We Are.

"He played the guitar. He and I multi-tracked our voices. It was so much fun, like being let loose in a fairground. A couple of kids were wagging school in another room, playing the piano, and we got them to come in and they backed us on another track. They turned out to be Sharon O'Neill and [husband-to-be] Brent Thomas. That was a great morning."

The talk turns to the present and inevitably to politics, given recent political events on this side of the Tasman.

"It's going beautifully isn't it," Clarke chuckles. "There's no economy and no government. I think it's quite like here in terms of the national psychology. Both countries are rather troubled. I think there is a great sense of disenfranchisement and alienation in large sections of the community because they feel, rightly I think, that they have been ignored and treated like idiots for a number of years by a centralised administration which is made up partly of politicians, partly by the media and partly by international companies."

Clearly, the John Clarke of today and the Fred Dagg of 1975 have something more than a gumboot size in common.

Underneath the joking exteriors lies a quiet outrage about the way things are run. Ask him where it comes from and he'll say it comes down to his old-fashioned ideas about authority carrying with it the burden of fairness. That soon expands into a thoroughly entertaining few minutes of answer, far too lengthy to include here but some edited highlights include:

"You don't devise a health system, for example, for the well. You devise it for the sick."

"If you are going to devise a social benefit system, you don't get a whole lot of people in who don't need it and are never going to need it and ask them how you think you should do it."

After the frontal lobe-expanding stuff we wind back into Daggdom. So where are the tools of his former trade?

"The gumboots. They get pressed into service for doing lawns and the manly stuff in the slightly reduced rural sector we operate here, and the rest of the gear is probably still there. My sister gave me a hat as a birthday present and it's still there."

So Te Papa hasn't been in touch?

"Well I haven't had a formal approach. That is all still there just sitting around. And the pants are a bit of NZBC costume trousers I ripped the bottoms off."

The question isn't so much could he fit into them again, but would he want to?

"I've always felt I'm just a whisker away. Also a lot of what I do now is a later development of that, although it is now called John Clarke. So really the name has changed but it's all relatively seamless and it's all part of the same imagination as it were.

"And the thing I have always felt about the New Zealand public really is that there is a shared imagination there. Even when you are being told by the television people in 1975 that you can't do what you want to do, you are not funny and you should go away, it doesn't hurt your feelings that much if you know a whole lot of people are going, `Yeah, I quite like that.' They don't go out and scream. They just say, `Aw, he's not bad... that'll do me.'"

As we say our farewells I'm feeling as impressed as that 10-year-old once was. Which is probably the reason I say "goodbye Fred" by mistake.

Clarke just laughs. Happens all the time.