WHEN news came that Bert Newton had passed away, my immediate reaction was ‘we will never see the likes of him in the entertainment world again’.
Bert was unique, and he came from an era of television that was, in large part, make-it-up-on-the-run entertainment, where those in front of the camera had to have a fast wit and be able to react to the unexpected – the unrehearsed – it was all live and sometimes dangerous!
Bert was television tonight show legend Graham Kennedy’s side-kick, or ‘second banana’.
The two of them bounced off each other beautifully (sometimes literally) and every ‘In Melbourne Tonight’ show was a must-watch, compulsory viewing experience.
I joined GTV Channel Nine in Melbourne when Bert was Don Lane’s ‘second banana’, working alongside the ‘Lanky Yank’ for many years doing what he did best.
By then Bert had become a seasoned performer and while some things were planned and rehearsed, the spontaneity and the unknown surprises were still a trademark of that era of television.
I was privileged to know Bert. We weren’t close friends, but through my friend and fellow GTV Nine personality and close friend of Bert and Patti, Peter Smith, I would from time to time send a message to Bert and hear back from him via Pete. I sent him my best wishes when he first entered hospital earlier this year.
Bert was totally authentic, a lovely, warm and friendly bloke who had no airs or graces or an obvious ego − he was the same on, or off the telly. They said Bert put the colour into television before colour TV arrived. A truer statement couldn’t be made, and the Premier used it in his tribute last Friday.
I have never met Patti Newton, but like many others, I feel I know her − they were such a familiar couple and I remember them getting married in 1974 – it was a big media event.
Sadly, the last time I saw Bert was at former Channel Nine news reader Brian Naylor’s memorial service at King Lake, following the tragic death of Brian and his wife Moiree, who perished in the horrendous bushfires that swept through the mountain, trapping them in their home during February 2009.
I knew the Naylors well, and 10 months earlier their young son Matthew was killed in an ultra-light aircraft accident which happened on Brian’s property at King Lake.
Along with Bert, Peter Smith and Philip Brady, I attended Matthew’s funeral.
In typical modest fashion, I remember Bert quietly taking a seat, mid-way back from the front rows and when I made myself known to the Naylors, they noticed where Bert was sitting and asked me to invite him to come forward to join the family.
Following the service, and on the way back to Melbourne, Philip Brady, whom we had picked up from his home in Kew, where with my assistance he loaded a stack of pet food and other goodies into the boot of Peter Smith’s car. He needed to deliver this contraband to a pet grooming business in South Morang. They were sponsors of Phil’s radio show from memory.
So we stopped at this place and Phil and I took the gifts into the ladies who ran the business and then he said to them: “Come outside there’s someone I want you to meet”.
Well, they couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw Bert sitting in the front seat of the car.
He was so nice to them and cracked a few jokes at Phil’s expense and took a photo with them − that was Bert to a tee.
After Phil was dropped off at his home, Peter Smith needed to visit his son’s house in Richmond and while he was gone, I had a chat with Bert and it was around the time of the ‘King’ − the television series being released which was about the life of Graham Kennedy.
I asked Bert what he thought of it.
He said: “I haven’t seen it. What did you think of it?”
I said it was hard for me to know how authentic it was in all parts, but it was a well-crafted production.
Bert then explained that the producers had contacted him to ask about Graham and his experiences with him over many years. Bert said that he declined to comment because he had a pact with Graham to keep any personal details pertaining to his life, private.
“I wasn’t being precious or difficult, but it’s what I had always promised Graham and I wasn’t about to betray him,” Bert said.
Graham had died three years earlier and Bert could have chosen to ‘tell-all’ − but he didn’t. He was obviously a man of his word.
There are literally thousands of anecdotes about Bert and I remember being at Don Lane’s memorial service in late 2009 at Souths Juniors Leagues Club in Sydney, where Bert joined everyone on stage including Helen Reddy, Stella Lamond and Don’s son, ‘PJ’, for a variety show, that brought back memories of a by-gone era.
Bert’s parting gesture in Don’s honour, was to take off his toupee to reveal he was totally bald as he had been for years. It brought the house down. Apart from making others laugh, Bert could laugh at himself.
Vale Bert. You were a one-off. An icon and a true star. The young boy from Fitzroy who became a star has been laid to rest. May your memory shine brightly for evermore.
By JOHN DOOLEY