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Clarke, John Morrison

1948–2017

Comedian, writer, actor, musician, director

This biography, written by Ian Pryor, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2024.

John Clarke was a pioneering comedian, actor and writer, whose television appearances as farmer Fred Dagg in the 1970s marked the emergence of a distinctive home-grown style of New Zealand comedy. In 1977 Clarke moved permanently to Australia, where he was best known for the popular television series The Games and a series of satirical mock interviews with Australian Bryan Dawe. His wide-ranging talents included scriptwriting, music, documentary presenting, and literary pastiche, and his comic performances encompassed pratfalls, parody and political satire. Throughout his work he displayed a keen awareness of the ways words could be used to entertain, exaggerate and evade, and celebrated the distinctive ways in which New Zealanders and Australians spoke.

Early life

John Morrison Clarke was born in Palmerston North on 29 July 1948, the eldest child of Neva Yvonne McKenna and her husband, salesman Edward Alexander (Ted) Clarke. Clarke and his younger sister grew up in Palmerston North, where they attended College Street School, until the family moved to Wellington in 1960 when Ted was transferred to McKenzies’ department store’s head office.

Both parents had an interest in the arts: Ted recited poetry and enjoyed singing and entertaining, and Neva acted in local theatre and wrote both fiction and non-fiction. Through his mother Clarke met literary figures such as Barry Crump, whose radio readings gave Clarke his first experience of ‘fiction which caught the rhythm and tone of the New Zealand voice.’1 He delighted in the satirical absurdism, use of language, and silly voices in British radio comedies such as The Goon show, and liked to invent comic characters and try out ‘different accents and appearances’.2 At Scots College (1962–66) he resented what he saw as a top-down school system and tried to find ‘clever ways of breaking the rules’; he was often caned.3

University and early entertainment career

From 1967 to 1970 Clarke studied at Victoria University of Wellington, where he dabbled in law, commerce and arts, but failed to complete a degree. His comedy career began in the university cafeteria, where he befriended a group of ‘clever, talented, funny, courteous and generous’ students who bonded over British comedians like Peter Cook. They met to tell stories and jokes, sometimes to an appreciative audience.

The university hosted live revues which combined comedy and musical numbers, and Clarke began appearing in comedy sketches in 1969. Clarke and two of his café friends Michael McDonald and Simon Morris were placed in charge of that year’s annual ‘extravaganza’. McDonald later dismissed the unscripted revue as ‘an utter disaster’, though it featured Clarke’s earliest comic performances based upon the rural people he had met working in shearing gangs after being kicked out of school.4 Morris recalled that Clarke was riveting amidst the chaos.

In 1970 Clarke joined the cast of the twice-weekly late night revue Knackers, at Downstage Theatre, which showcased the emerging talents of John Banas, Paul Holmes and Ginette McDonald (who created her comedy character, Lynn of Tawa, during this period). One night, after arriving on stage without his props, Clarke improvised a sketch about a flea race which would become a live favourite.

In 1971 Clarke headed to London, where he held a succession of menial jobs. Exposure to the class system gave him an appreciation of the more egalitarian aspects of his homeland. Within weeks of his arrival he was cast in a small role in his first movie, The adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972), based on a comic strip about a naive Australian in England created by Barry Humphries, who also acted in the film. Humphries and director Bruce Beresford recognised Clarke’s talent, and their encouragement made him think seriously for the first time about a career in entertainment.

In London Clarke met Australian teacher (and future fine art academic) Helen McDonald, with whom he returned to New Zealand in 1973. The two married in Wellington on 23 December 1973, while Clarke was starring in a production of Evgeny Schwartz’s satire on totalitarianism, The dragon. They had two daughters together.

Fred Dagg

John Clarke’s breakthrough character, the unflappable, long-haired farmer Fred Dagg, first appeared on television in December 1973, on the current affairs show Gallery. The episode featured a series of interviews, some real, some performed by actors; Clarke appeared as a farmer, attempting to shoot ducks from a median strip in central Wellington, and expounding on the insanity of daylight saving in the flat, nasal twang of provincial New Zealand. Clarke and interviewer David Exel called the character ‘Fred Dagg’.

But Dagg was born long before he got a name. Clarke spoke of how the character ‘grew up alongside me’ and contained elements of his own personality.5 Long interested in how people spoke and expressed themselves, he believed there was a distinctly New Zealand style of humour, which he characterised as ‘comedic but not jocular’, that was different from the comedy imported from abroad.6 This found expression in Dagg, a farmer in a floppy hat, black singlet and gumboots, who ‘spoke with enormous confidence in a slightly surreal manner’.7 Dagg placed a comic twist on the familiar rhythms and expressions of rural speech, his voice lifted from Clarke’s rural relatives and acquaintances. The performances drew on the kind of British comedy in which the audience was expected to do its share of the work.

Clarke traced Dagg’s origins to the 1971 university revue One in five, when he donned singlet, shorts and gumboots in a sketch about a farmer who faked a news story to meet media personality Relda Familton. Clarke wrote another sketch in which farmer Bruce describes a wild night to a friend through a one-sided phone call. Both sketches were preserved on a record album, The Brian Edwards show (1971).

Fred Dagg’s rapid climb to fame began at a time when New Zealand had only one television channel (the second was launched in June 1975), and local comedy rarely featured on screen. Dagg’s Gallery interviews were the first of many short appearances on current affairs shows, including roughly 40 instalments of Tonight at nine in 1975 and 1976. They offered viewers a new and original form of social satire, based on recognisable New Zealand archetypes and scenarios. Sometimes Clarke was interviewed by one of the show’s reporters and at other times he worked alone, setting up the camera before improvising a monologue. Some television staff expressed discomfort at satirical content featuring on a current affairs show, and Dagg’s efforts to mine comedy from a Labour Party conference in 1975 resulted in a Nationwide camera crew being expelled from Wellington Town Hall. Dagg also featured on another show not normally associated with comedy: a beloved 1974 episode of rural programme Country calendar, which featured Dagg and six black-singleted sons, all named Trevor, down on the farm.

Fred Dagg made Clarke a national celebrity, and he was soon getting recognised on the street. He converted his Dagg persona into blokey farmer Ken in the second season of New Zealand’s first sitcom, Buck house (1975), about life in a Wellington student flat, which he also helped write. But television appearances paid poorly, so Clarke enlisted university colleague John Barnett as his manager and began to diversify his act. His album Fred Dagg’s greatest hits (1975) attained gold status on the day of its release, and became one of New Zealand’s biggest-selling albums despite Clarke being given only a morning to record it. He managed to persuade EMI to lower the purchase price so it was affordable for younger fans. The album was quickly re-released in response to copyright concerns, with a medley in which Clarke improvised Dagg-related lyrics to the tunes of popular songs removed.

Advance orders for Fred Dagg’s year (1975), Clarke’s first book, were so high that reprints were ordered before it hit the stores. In 1976 Clarke jointly won the Feltex Award for Television Personality of the Year with newsreader Dougal Stevenson, and he was named New Zealand Entertainer of the Year.

Television One attempted to develop a series starring Clarke in 1975, but the creative team struggled to find a formula the executives liked. The half-hour show The wonderful world of … eventually screened in September 1975, with Clarke playing a range of characters, but despite some good reviews it was not developed as a series. Clarke later complained that some members of the state broadcaster’s management team did not understand his work, and that its head of light entertainment had stated publicly that it wasn’t funny. This unpleasant experience nudged Clarke and Helen closer to their decision to leave New Zealand.

In July 1976 Clarke began an extensive tour of New Zealand with singer John Grenell and a five-piece band, though some critics felt that there was too much music and not enough Dagg. There were also syndicated radio shows, and further books and albums, and the Dagg song ‘Gumboots’ spent three months in the New Zealand charts. Clarke starred as Dagg in a short film, Dagg day afternoon (1977), which had a cinematic release on a double bill with Geoff Murphy’s Wild man, which Clarke also appeared in. By this time, though, Clarke had begun to despair of making a living as an entertainer in New Zealand. By the time the last Fred Dagg television show screened in late 1978, Clarke had moved to Australia.

Australia

Clarke had first appeared on Australian television in early 1977, and he had soon found he could make a better living as an entertainer in Melbourne than in New Zealand. The opportunities were more numerous and the canvas for social satire broader. After a period alternating between Wellington and Melbourne, Clarke and Helen decided to make Melbourne their permanent home. Clarke lived in Australia for the rest of his life, although he occasionally mastered his dislike of flying to visit New Zealand.

Clarke honed his writing and research skills by performing daily radio monologues as Dagg for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) from 1977; he gradually made Dagg more cosmopolitan to more effectively satirise the Australian scene. The engagement ended abruptly in 1981, after Clarke declined the ABC’s request that he tone down his satirical takes on politics and current affairs.

After his radio job ended, Clarke turned his attention to television and film. He co-created and co-wrote the ABC comedy series The fast lane (1983–5) with Andrew Knight, and co-wrote and appeared in the sketch comedy show The Gillies report (1985–6). In the latter he delivered deadpan commentaries on the made-up sport of farnarkeling, and parodied politicians while dressed as an exotic bird. In 1993 he adapted his and Ross Stevenson’s 1991 stage show, the political satire A Royal Commission into the Australian economy, into a television feature.

Clarke wrote and appeared in a number of films, starting with Lonely hearts (1982), which he co-wrote with its director Paul Cox. In 1986 he performed the voice of Wal’ Footrot, another iconic New Zealand farming character, in the hit animated film Footrot Flats: the dog’s tail tale, which was adapted from Murray Ball’s comic strip. He reunited with Geoff Murphy for a brief cameo role in the 1988 action comedy Never say die, and played supporting roles in the films A matter of convenience (1987), Blood oath (1989), Death in Brunswick (1990) and Crackerjack (2001). He co-wrote Lust and revenge (1996) with Cox.

Collaborations with Bryan Dawe and later film and television career

In 1987 Clarke began a near three-decade partnership with Australian radio presenter Bryan Dawe. Dawe invited Clarke to deliver Dagg monologues on his ABC radio comedy show, Don’t get off your bike, but instead Clarke adapted the satirical interviews featured in his newspaper columns into a radio dialogue between him and Dawe. Clarke generally played a public figure trying to avoid answering direct questions from straight-man interviewer Dawe, making no effort to sound like the person he was portraying. The interviews highlighted what Clarke viewed as the ‘unconcern, dishonesty’ and ‘complete stupidity’ of public figures and their spin doctors.8

Clarke and Dawe adapted the format for television in 1989 and performed a weekly ‘Clarke and Dawe’ interview segment on the Channel 9 show A current affair until 1996. The pair revived the format on ABC television in 2000, initially as a segment on the current affairs programme The 7.30 report and later as a stand-alone short which screened immediately before the news. The interviews continued until Clarke’s death.

In 1998 Clarke and Ross Stevenson co-created the Logie award-winning mockumentary The Games, which starred Clarke, Dawe and Gina Riley. Clarke played a bureaucrat struggling to circumvent the political obstacles presented by his bosses, in order to ensure the successful staging of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Like ‘Clarke and Dawe’, it satirised political spin and bureaucratic corruption and ineptitude. Clarke and Stevenson later accused the BBC of plagiarising The Games in its Olympic comedy Twenty twelve, which followed almost four years of discussions about adapting the Australian series for British television.

Clarke appeared frequently on Australian and occasionally on New Zealand television. In 1999 he launched the film production company Huntaway Films Ltd with actor Sam Neill and producer Jay Cassells. This produced two Clarke-written television movies based on Shane Maloney’s detective novels; Clarke directed the first, Stiff (2004). He also made cameo appearances on television shows such as Bro’ Town, Radiradirah and Kath and Kim, fronted a series about men’s health in 1997, and presented the Australian documentaries The sound of Aus (2007) and Sporting nation (2012).

Writing and recording career

Clarke was a regular newspaper columnist and wrote more than 20 books, most drawing on characters and scripts he had developed for radio and television. The first five centred on Dagg, in both his New Zealand and Australian formulations, along with text versions of broadcast material such as The Gillies report scripts (1986). He produced a series of ‘Clarke and Dawe’ highlights packages, beginning with Great interviews of the twentieth century (1990). The complete book of Australian verse (1989), and its sequel The even more complete book of Australian verse (1994), presented parodies of famous British poems using Australian settings and idioms. His only novel, The tournament (2002), imagined a tennis tournament between a variety of literary, artistic, scientific and philosophical figures, including Jorge Luis Borges, Albert Einstein, Ayn Rand and Marie Stopes. Several anthologies drew together career highlights, notably A Dagg at my table (1996) and the posthumous Tinkering (2017).

Clarke’s recording career ran alongside, and drew upon, his writing, film and broadcasting activities. He had released six Dagg-themed albums by the end of the 1970s, and audio versions of The Gillies report, The complete book of Australian verse, ‘Clarke & Dawe’ interviews and The Games followed during the 1980s and 1990s. Four of his albums were nominated for Best Comedy Release at Australia’s ARIA Music Awards, and three won. He donned a suit for a 1998 remake of the classic Fred Dagg tune, ‘We don’t know how lucky we are’, and he lent his musical talents to Fane Flaws’ short film, The underwatermelon man and other unreasonable rhymes (2006).

Later life and legacy

By the early twenty-first century, John Clarke was widely honoured as a pioneering figure in modern New Zealand comedy. Victoria University of Wellington awarded him an honorary DLitt in 2007 in acknowledgement of his place in New Zealand culture. Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s national museum, took possession of Fred Dagg’s hat, black singlet, shorts and gumboots. In Australia, too, he was celebrated, awarded the Australian Film Institute’s Byron Kennedy Award in 2004 and inducted into the Logies Hall of Fame in 2008.

Clarke died of a heart attack on 9 April 2017, aged 68, while hiking with his wife and friends in Grampians National Park in Victoria. He was eulogised in both Australia and New Zealand as a beloved, ground-breaking and influential entertainer.

Footnotes:
  1. J. Clarke. Tinkering: the complete book of John Clarke. Melbourne, 2017: 15. Back
  2. Quoted in J. Connor. ‘The life and times of Fred Dagg’. New Zealand Listener, 6 September 1975: 14. Back
  3. Ibid. Back
  4. M. McDonald, quoted in M. Elliott. Kiwi jokers: the rise and rise of New Zealand comedy. Auckland, 1997: 15. Back
  5. Quoted in J. Connor. ‘The life and times of Fred Dagg’. New Zealand Listener, 6 September 1975: 14. Back
  6. ‘John Clarke: a bit of a Dagg’, interview, 2011, NZ on Screen (https://www.nzonscreen.com/interviews/john-clarke-a-bit-of-a-dagg). Back
  7. Quoted in D. Wichtel. ‘Deadpan man.’ New Zealand Listener, 27 December 2008: 22. Back
  8. Quoted in V. Aldridge. ‘Come back Fred, we need you.’ Dominion, 21 June 1997: 19. Back
How to cite this page:

Ian Pryor. 'Clarke, John Morrison', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2024. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6c13/clarke-john-morrison (accessed 25 April 2024)