It’s been said that a successful Tonight Show host doesn’t have to do anything, but must do it well. In the case of Norman Gunston, he did numerous things … sing, dance, interview, break into a harmonica solo (at the drop of a ratings point) … and all very badly. He was, however, enormously successful.
Norman is the brainchild of actor Garry McDonald who first used him in the second series of The Aunty Jack Show in late 1973. As part of the programme’s sending up of the New South Wales coastal city of Wollongong, Norman would do a short, in-depth segment highlighting some aspect of the way of life there, purporting to be a local show business identity.
By 1975, the team was producing a series of specials titled Wollongong The Brave and one edition profiled Norman with a storyline involving the kidnapping of this “south coast superstar”. In fact, the show was a teaser for a fully-fledged series featuring the character (a one-hour pilot for which had been taped earlier that year). This pilot never made it to air (though, strangely, it did and does turn up on pay-tv’s thecomedychannel over twenty years later!).
After several months fine-tuning the idea, The Norman Gunston Show finally burst forth on an unsuspecting public at 7.30pm on Sunday May 18th and for nine weeks proceeded to use the framework of a traditional Tonight Show to satirize interview styles, musical numbers and Australian television in general. Norman would appear in shiny turquoise tuxedo with pants that finished a good two inches above the ankles, his face appearing the victim of several shaving cuts, and a hairstyle which tried in vain to centralize what few strands of hair remained on his balding pate.
Clipboard in hand, he’d zero in on his interviewees (usually a touring actor or musician, or controversial talking head like Fred Nile or Dr. Bertram Wainer) and after plying them with a complimentary bucket of chips and lime cordial, probe them with a series of questions which sometimes seemed straight out of the Twilight Zone. Some of these spots were pre-taped at genuine press conferences for visiting celebrities, many of whom were totally unaware the off-centre reporting was actually part of the joke.
On the musical side, each show would feature a “straight” vocal by some well-known local performer (occasionally interrupted by Norman) with the host himself launching into a couple of numbers, often with harmonica playing thrown in for good measure. Sentimental ballads, loud rock songs and even operatic arias were given the full Gunston treatment, as was a touching rendition of Liza With A ‘Z’ which (he was surprised to discover) had only ever been sung by Leeza Minulli prior to his interpretation.
There were also such features as “Consumer Straight Talk” (with Norman’s helpful tips on how a householder could better utilise everyday items), “Norman’s Dreamtime” (a storytime segment presented for younger viewers by “Uncle” Norman) and an evaluation of the show’s ratings over previous weeks (with suggestions of how viewers and audience members might help them skyrocket).
Apart from being an overnight sensation (even if it took months), Norman had several definite career goals. Above all else he wanted to be awarded the television industry’s coveted gold Logie (in his eyes, the ultimate success symbol). Like his fellow personality Paul Hogan, he craved a series of fabulously well-paid cigarette commercials, and even presented a sample advert showcasing “Something-Or-Other” super-milds or menthols to give any multi-nationals who might be interested a chance to see what he had to offer.
By the end of the series, the character had become famous across the country, and the A.B.C. quickly arranged for a second season of programmes to go out later that year (this was despite an ongoing stunt throughout the latter episodes insisting Aunty was about to axe the superstar on the ascendant).
For the new batch of shows, McDonald flew to America and recorded a number of interviews with such personalities as Muhammad Ali, Telly Savalas and Hugh Hefner for inclusion in the programmes. He also succeeded in gaining a cigarette sponsorship, with the manufacturers of Dukes signing him up for a number of tv commercials, before such advertising was banned.
The second Gunston series continued on as before with several new features. “Consumer Straight Talk” evolved into “Spaceship Southern Hemisphere”, a 3-minute soap opera segment “The Checkout Chicks” was launched (starring ex-Number 96 sexpot Abigail) and Norman conducted a Look-A-Like contest, with viewers lucky enough to resemble him invited to send in an entry. Eventual prizewinners included Messrs. W. Beatty and R. Redford from overseas.
Never one to shirk the hard-hitting news stories as they happened, Norman rushed to the steps of Parliament House in Canberra that fateful day in November 1975 when Prime Minister Whitlam was sacked by the Governor-General. Footage of him thrusting his microphone into a crowd of Labour heavyweights including Bill Hayden and Bob Hawke found its way on to his programme the following week. Throughout the constitutional crisis, Liberal politicians had been banned from appearing on the Gunston show following a party directive.
Musical highlights during this second season included a harmonica harmonising session with Frank Zappa and an in-depth chat with Paul and Linda McCartney, with Norman enquiring whether there was any truth in the notorious rumour that Paul had died back in the sixties. By the end of the eight-week run, Gunston had cemented himself in the annals of Australian television history, but the year of 1976 was to prove even more momentous.
To keep in the public gaze, Norman guested on a number of radio stations (both music and talkback) and began releasing records of songs he’d performed on his television show. His debut single, notable as the industry’s first double B side, offered a salute to the Swedish group Abba which soon racked up enough sales to go “gold”. As a result, he quickly followed it with an album Norman Gunston – The Popular Ballad Animal, which was also a big seller.
Then, the night of Friday March 12th 1976 and the TV Week “Logie” Awards. Early in the proceedings Norman was named as the best new talent on Australian television and collected his award to an enthusiastic response from his fellow artists. An hour later though, their cheers and applause neared pandemonium when the name Norman Gunston was read out as the winner of the gold Logie – the most popular performer on tv. What started out as a satire on an industry riddled with mediocrity had all of a sudden backfired in spectacular fashion.
In the months that followed, Norman’s fans could buy a souvenir booklet tracing his illustrious career – Norman Gunston’s Finest Moments, and Garry McDonald packed his turquoise tuxedo for a second overseas trip … this time to Britain, where the B.B.C. had signed him to tape a Gunston special. The 45-minute programme aired on BBC2 later that year with guests Michael Caine, Diana Dors, Malcolm Muggeridge and Glenda Jackson encountering the man the Radio Times dubbed “Australia’s most unusual interviewer”.
Meanwhile, the A.B.C. commissioned a third season of shows (to begin mid-year) with footage from the BBC programme to be included. Norman also welcomed Mary Whitehouse, Tim Brooke-Taylor and political identities Margaret Thatcher, Malcolm Fraser and the vanishing MP John Stonehouse. Not all of Norman’s “victims” went along with the joke, however, with Rudolph Nureyev throwing him out of his dressing room mid-interview and Keith Moon (of “The Who”) showering him with alcohol.
By the end of the year, Garry McDonald began to worry he was becoming typecast as his monstrous creation and convinced the A.B.C. to finance a series of programmes featuring him in a range of other characterisations. In the meantime, he acted the part of Roy Rene’s classic comedy alter ego “Mo” in a stage production at the Nimrod Theatre, and used his interpretation in several sketches for the television series (titled The Garry McDonald Show) which went out in mid-1977. Just to be on the safe side, Norman made a few appearances in the venture as well.
Gunston fans could also see their hero in person when McDonald launched him on a concert tour across the country, and more high-brow followers could attend a special presentation of Norman’s version of the perennial Peter And The Wolf.
Throughout the 1970s the Seven Network had relied heavily on comedy product for its ratings and in recent years had enjoyed success with hour-long specials by Paul Hogan and The Naked Vicar Show team. With Hogan’s defection to the Nine Network, Seven management approached McDonald to bring Gunston to commercial television to fill the void.
With a bigger budget and more production time between shows (packaged as four 1-hour specials rather than a weekly series) he felt Norman wasn’t dominating his life quite as much and was free to pursue other ventures. Once again he flew to the U.S. to tape interviews with the likes of Burt Reynolds, James Garner, Henry Winkler and Richard Burton. By now, word of mouth had spread through Hollywood about this wierd Aussie character with shaving nicks and strange dress-sense so doors to the big names were more easily opened.
McDonald did two years of specials for Seven before opting for a change of approach from his traditional interview/music programme. A new series, titled Gunston’s Australia, would see Norman travelling to all parts of the country in his personalised aeroplane, and investigating the people and places that made up the “wide, brown land”. From cattle stations in the outback to oil rigs off the coast, he and his clipboard visited every notable nook and creditable cranny. In one segment he recreated an authentic picnic at Hanging Rock, and in another did his best to help out the tourism industry by puttying up the cracks on Ayers Rock.
The shows were designed to air as a series of half-hours but Seven chiefs in Sydney programmed them as hourly specials, much to the annoyance of McDonald and the writers. Elsewhere in Australia they were transmitted as intended, but a twelve month delay in scheduling (they finally went out in 1981) lead to a rift between artist and employer, and McDonald decided the Gunston career was perhaps coming to an end. He was also eager to move on to new ventures.
Subsequent success in the A.B.C. sitcoms Mother And Son and Eggshells resulted in Norman being put on the backburner for most of the 1980s, although he did make a brief attempt at cracking the U.S. market when he supplied reports for an unsuccessful entertainment-style programme. He also interviewed Boy George for a Willessee show (to coincide in with a Gunston record release of the singer’s hits).
As the 1990s dawned, Norman came out of semi-retirement (or as he put it, “semi-retrenchment”) for appearances on The Midday Show where he co-hosted a couple of editions with Ray Martin. He also did a vocal at the 1991 Melbourne Comedy Festival.
A year later, McDonald and Mary Coustas recorded a Gunston/Effie duet of the song from that year’s Barcelona Olympics (Amigos Para Siempre) which was launched as a CD-single. The pair later performed the vocal a couple of times on television to ensure it was well publicized. It was all part of a full-scale Gunston revival which led him back to the Seven Network in early 1993.
The Norman Gunston Show (original 1970s format) was back on the schedules for a series of half-hour shows which were to go out live every week. McDonald had jetted off to Hollywood to tape more interviews for the venture which was eagerly awaited by Seven. In fact, preparations were a little too hasty for the star, who thought more time was needed and was beginning to feel the strain of a production whose success rested squarely on his shoulders.
Norman’s reappearance was greeted warmly by old fans and he was soon welcomed by a new generation of viewers (many of whom weren’t born when the character made his debut). And his repartee with Shirley MacLaine (with a walk on by drinks waiter Andrew Peacock) and studio guests Ian Botham and Liberal leader John Hewson sparkled with the old Gunston magic. But the beads of perspiration were beginning to form.
After three shows, something snapped and McDonald fled to his property in rural New South Wales. The Seven Network faced a crisis … the series was proving popular, but the star was unavailable. They quickly arranged for Mary Coustas to host that week’s edition (as her Effie character) to link several of the pre-recorded Gunston interviews, in the hope McDonald would be well enough to return for the following show. When that didn’t happen, Maryanne Fahey stepped in (as Kylie Mole) for the next edition but by then the supply of taped Norman was about to run out. In desperation, Seven packaged two highlights shows (using many 1970s A.B.C. segments) under the title of Top Gunston, before realizing that McDonald’s illness was more serious than first thought, and Norman would not be returning in the forseeable future.
It was a sad end for one of Australian television’s few successful comedy characters. But happily Garry McDonald was able to fully recover his health, and there is always the chance that (in some less-taxing form) Norman Gunston may once again brighten our television screens.
The Aunty Jack Show (2nd season only)
(ABC Oct – Dec 1973)
#1 The Channel 9 Show
#2 The Iron Maiden Show
#3 The Golden Glove Show
#4 The Ear, Nose And throat show
#5 The Little Lovelies Show
#6 The R Certificate Show
The Norman Gunston Show (pilot edition)
(ABC – not aired, but screened as part of thecomedychannel repeat package)
Paul Graham, Abigail,
Wollongong The Brave (series of specials)
(ABC Apr 1975)
Norman Gunston – The Golden Weeks
The Norman Gunston Show
Series 1: ABC May – July 1975
#1 Rolf Harris, Lady Fairfax, Kerrie Biddell
#2 Edward Woodward, Colleen Hewitt, Prince Leonard Of Hutt
#3 Stratford Johns, Andrea, Reverend Fred Nile, Chelsea Brown
#4 Ray Barrett, Jack Thompson, The Skyhooks, Edith Dahl
#5 Warren Beatty, Jack Mundey, Paul Graham, The Horrie Dargie Trio
#6 Mike Willessee, Dr. Bertram Wainer, Marcia Hines
#7 Cheech And Chong, Al Grassby, Bobbi Sykes, Little Pattie
#8 Edward Woodward, Michele Dotrice, Peter Wherrett, Beatrice Faust
#9 Gary Glitter
Series 2: ABC October – November 1975
#1 Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Winifred Atwell, Lady Fairfax
#2 Telly Savalas, Ray Charles, Peter Allen, Juni Morosi
#3 Denise Drysdale, Ayers Rock, President Nixon’s bodyguards
#4 Hugh Hefner, Barbi Benton, Don Dunston, Barry Crocker
#5 Paul and Linda McCartney, Father Jim McLaren, The Renee Geyer Band
#6 Sally Struthers, John Gorton, The Seekers, Miss Australia
#7 Vidal Sassoon, Michael Cole, Debbie Byrne, Senator Albert Field
#8 Frank Zappa, Edith Head, Judy Stone, Marc de Pascale
Series 3: ABC July – September 1976
#1 Rudolph Nureyev, Malcolm Muggeridge, Frank Hardy, The Ink Spots
#2 Michael Caine, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Tony Greig, Julie Ismay
#3 Diana Trask, John Stonehouse, Margaret Fulton
#4 Fred Daly, Glenda Jackson, Holly T. Lipton
#5 Mary Whitehouse, The Leyland Brothers, Donald Smith, John Sturgess
#6 Jack Brabham, Malcolm Fraser, The Four Day Riders
#7 Diana Dors, Caroline Jones, Delilah
#8 Vera Lynn, The Who, Margaret Thatcher, George Davis
(BBC2 November 19 1976 – 45-minute special)
Michael Caine, Diana Dors, Tony Greig, Glenda Jackson, Malcolm Muggeridge, Diane Solomon
The Garry McDonald Show
(ABC July – September 1977)
Norman appears in several of the 8 episodes
The Norman Gunston Specials
Series 1: 7-Network – 1978
#1 Burt Reynolds, Helen Reddy, Henry Winkler, Phil Silvers
#2 James Garner, Elke Sommer, Robert Stack, Bob Simpson
#3 Mick Jagger, Susannah York, Fred Schepisi, Karen Knowles
#4 Richard Burton, Christopher Plummer, James Mason, Olivia Newton-John
Series 2: 7-Network – 1979
#1 Lee Marvin, The Bee Gees, Troy Donahue, Dawn Fraser, Karen Black
#2 Jack Lemmon, Leif Garrett, Chevy Chase, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Ian “Molly” Meldrum
#3 Elliot Gould, George Segal, Valerie Perrine, George Hamilton
#4 Peter Fonda, Ricky Shroder, James Brolin, Martin Landau, Lillian Gasinskaya
7-Network – 1980/81
shown as 8 half-hour or 4 one-hour specials
#1 Ayers Rock – Pine Gap
#2 Malcolm Fraser’s homestead – Hutt River Province – the footsteps of Burke and Wills
#3 sheep shearing – lady mud wrestlers – a picnic at Hanging Rock
#4 Normanton – oil rig – nudist beach – land speed record
#5 Thredbo – cattle droving – Coober Pedy
#6 Aboriginal land rights – Kalgoorlie – plane hijack
#7 Darwin – Cairns deep sea fishing – Barossa Valley
#8 Bill Hayden accepts Canberra statue – Wollongong
The Norman Gunston Show
7-Network February – March 1993
#1 Shirley MacLaine, Ian Botham, Dr. John Hewson
#2 Paul Mercurio, Billy Crystal, Julian Cleary, Sonia Dada
#3 Guns N Roses, Lionel Ritchie, Laurie and Noeline Donaher, Mahotella Queens
#4 (hosted by Effie) Paul Keating, Bryan Brown, Sam Neill, Gough Whitlam, Brian Austen Green (+ Warwick and Joanne Capper, The Dukes)
#5 (hosted by Kylie Mole) Corben Bernsen, Col. Tom Parker (+ Jeff Fenech, Jane Flemming, Peter Andre)
Norman Gunston’s Finest Moments
(Angus & Robertson, 1976)
Videos and DVDs
The Gunston Tapes
ABC/Thorn-EMI video ZABCV 8507, DVD
100 minutes of highlights from the A.B.C. editions
The Norman Gunston Show – Volume 1
PVA video 0892, Umbrella DVD
47 minutes of highlights from the 1993 editions
The Norman Gunston Show – Volume 2
PVA video 0902, Umbrella DVD
52 minutes of highlights from the 1993 editions
The Norman Gunston Show – Volume 3
PVA video 0912, Umbrella DVD
42 minutes of highlights from the 1993 editions
The Aunty Jack Show – series 2
contains all 6 episodes
Aunty Jack Sings Wollongong
(Polydor LP 2905 012, Shock 2CD AUNTY-1*)
Norman is featured on four tracks (*plus an additional track on the expanded CD reissue)
Salute To Abba/Hors D’Oeuvre
(Electric/Lamington 7″ single LAM 021)
The Popular Balad Animal
(Electric/Lamington LP LAM 4338, Festival L 36272)
I Might Be A Punk/Love Me Tender
(Festival/Mushroom 7″ single K 6766)
(Festival/Mushroom LP L 36700, CD D 19758)
(Festival/Mushroom 7″ single K 7171)
(7 Records 7″ single MS 455)
Boy Norman – Join The Dots
(EMI/Plaza 12″ maxi-single PLAZ 1204)
Amigos Para Siempre*/Venereal Girl
(BMG CD-single 7432 11 25792)
* duet with Effie