Born: February 15 1934
Died: May 25 2005
If Roy Rene is regarded as the top stage comedian in Australian theatrical history, the king of the country’s television era is undoubtedly Graham Kennedy. In addition to sharing the same birthday (February 15th), and for a time the same scriptwriter (Fred Parsons), both earned their share of notoriety from the more prudish elements of their audience. To the vast majority though, they were regarded as the cheeky larrikin poking fun at authority whilst occasionally getting away with ‘blue’ murder.
Graham was born in the Melbourne suburb of Balaclava in 1934. As an only child in a family struggling through tough times, his chief pastimes were visits to nearby Luna Park and St. Kilda beach. Like millions of other children in the 1930s and 1940s, he was fascinated by the wireless. It was a time when its stars had personality … they were real people who related to the streets and shops of their local audience.
By the time he reached his mid-teens in the late-1940s, Kennedy was employed after school as a news-runner for the ABC’s Radio Australia, delivering the bulletins from the journalists to the studio (then located in different buildings). When he left school soon after, he went to work in the record library of Melbourne commercial radio station 3UZ.
By a stroke of luck, the top name on the local airwaves ‘Nicky’ (Cliff Whitta) was lured to 3UZ some months later and young Graham found himself making tea and running errands for a man he and most of Melbourne idolised. When Nicky’s regular panel-operator was conscripted for a period of National Service, the lad from Balaclava was chosen to replace him in the on-air studio.
The early 1950s saw the emergence of a talented offsider for the radio legend as Kennedy grew in confidence and learned the tricks of the trade from one of the best in the business. In reality, the morning program was little more than a succession of advertisements but the attraction was in the intimate conversational style they delivered to the listeners. That, and the ever present banter.
Nicky and Graham were not only attracting listeners at home … when they were involved in outside broadcasts the scene was guaranteed to be jam-packed with eager fans. The duo was highly sought after on the cinema screen as well. Not as movie stars, but extolling the virtues of a variety of grocery items (colour footage survives of one of their ice-cream advertisements).
By the mid-1950s it was assumed both would be successful on the new medium of television, due to start in time for the Melbourne Olympic Games at the end of 1956. But it was not to be. Two months before, Cliff Whitta suffered a heart attack and died, leaving his protégé and millions of avid listeners stunned.
For a time, Kennedy continued on radio with Happy Hammond, then the following May transferred to the recently-opened Channel 9 for a five-nights-a-week variety show In Melbourne Tonight. There weren’t a lot of television sets in use at the time, which was just as well as the on-camera talent (who were mostly from radio) and the production personnel were full of inexperience.
Patterned on the American Tonight Show formats, the local model had a cast of resident singers, dancers and an orchestra plus Graham and offsider Geoff Corke to link the segments and tout the sponsors’ wares. Any comedy content was basically adlib during the first year, but the program quickly built up a loyal following of viewers and enticed a lot of people to buy a television set to see what the fuss was about.
Within twelve months, ex-Vaudeville comedian Joff Ellen had joined the team, not only to appear on screen, but to revive dozens of his old stage sketches which were then adapted for the program. Kennedy himself preferred lending his talents to these traditional routines rather than the standard interview segments which were the mainstay of similar shows overseas.
As television became more popular in the late-1950s, budgets were allowed to increase, and by the turn of the decade In Melbourne Tonight was able to boast a supporting cast that included Evie Hayes, Hal Todd, Bill McCormack, Bob Horsfall, Jack Little, Phillip Brady, Elaine McKenna, Dorothy Baker, Barry McQueen and barrel girl Panda. One of Kennedy’s early rivals, on Channel 7’s Late Show, was Bert Newton but he resigned from the station in March 1959 and was snapped up by IMT soon after.
By the start of 1960, Kennedy had become the medium’s top performer and three years of Monday to Friday exposure was beginning to drain his creativity. It was decided to limit his appearances to three nights a week (with Newton eventually taking over the other two). Channel 9 were also eager to introduce him to the Sydney market and a special one-hour Friday edition of In Melbourne Tonight (retitled The Graham Kennedy Show) was produced for both cities. In addition, a local 30-minute extension aired for Melbourne audiences following the national program.
The introduction of television may have delivered a body blow to live theatre but variety shows were among the most popular on the box (and provided regular employment for many singers, dancers and comedians). Comedy writer Fred Parsons was hired to provide a steady input of material, and along with Johnny Ladd and Mike McColl Jones was responsible for IMT’s emphasis on humour throughout the 1960s. On the performing side, Joff Ellen had been joined by Rosie Sturgess (who, like Ellen had worked with such theatrical greats as George Wallace in stage revues).
One of the most popular regular routines featured Graham and Rosie as elderly pensioner couple “The Wilsons”. As the toothless old reprobate in constant need of laxative assistance, Kennedy was forever milking every nuance for a laugh and along the way causing a great deal of ‘breaking up’ mid-sketch. The catchphrase “That was a joke, Joyce” invariably followed one of George’s unsuccessful attempts at wit. Like those created for Parson’s “McCackie Mansion” two decades earlier, it was a phrase that entered the Australian idiom.
Despite his continuing popularity in Melbourne, Sydney audiences were not won over by Kennedy’s talents and the two-cities show was discontinued after a couple of years. In 1965 a further attempt was made to break down the traditional interstate rivalry by having Kennedy and New South Wales host Don Lane engage in special coaxial cable linkups. It would take until the 1970s for Kennedy to be accepted by viewers in the Harbour City.
Graham hosted three IMTs a week until the end of 1968, with salary demands by his newly-acquired manager Harry M. Miller being invariably met lest he desert the network for one of the many lucrative offers made by the other channels. The industry not only valued his comedic talents; his advertising skills (well-developed in his days with Nicky) meant solid response at the cash registers.
As the sixties drew to a close, Kennedy was growing tired of the treadmill. Financial inducements lured him back for two-night-a-week appearances in 1969, but by the end of the year he made it known he had had enough. He wanted some time off, and was eager to try something new. As a result, the 1970 model In Melbourne Tonight featured four hosts: Ugly Dave Gray, Stuart Wagstaff, Bert Newton and Jimmy Hannan. A little over a year later all four hosts had gone, and an institution named In Melbourne Tonight was no more. Graham meanwhile returned to radio on Melbourne’s 3XY.
After a two year absence, Graham signed to appear in a couple of special programs, on a pre-recorded basis. Two 60-minute shows, backed by Screen Gems, were produced at Channel 9 in Melbourne and featured IMT regulars Newton, Sturgess, Joy Westmore, Pete Smith and Bruce Mansfield. More akin to the Benny Hill format, they featured an opening monologue and a series of sketches.
In late1972 Kennedy agreed to return to his traditional Tonight Show presentation and The Graham Kennedy Show aired on Tuesday and Thursday nights for a little over a year. Then, once again, he announced he wanted a break.
After another year away from the cameras, the introduction of colour to Australian television enticed him back for a further series of shows, again for the Nine Network. In his absence, Ernie Sigley had become popular in Kennedy’s old timeslot, and it was decided they should each do two shows a week.
1975’s Graham Kennedy Show featured Bert and Patti Newton, Rosie Sturgess, Phillip Brady, Johnny Ladd arid Joy Westmore but despite being a gathering of old friends the program was not destined to be a long runner. Kennedy was increasingly accused of indulging in innuendo for cheap laughs. In reality he was merely reflecting the more liberated attitudes of the era, but on one notorious telecast adlibbed an impersonation of a crow – a ‘crow call’ – which sounded somewhat similar to a certain four-letter word not then permissible on television. ‘Wowser’ elements around the country considered this time he’d gone too far, and flooded the network with complaints. As a result, it was decreed the show would henceforth be pre-recorded to allow the deletion of any future indiscretions, an arrangement not altogether displeasing to the host who could now be home a lot earlier.
A month later, however, Graham was considerably irritated when some of his opening comments (in which he called for the resignation of a leading politician) were removed from the program before broadcast. He disagreed with the Network’s view that the remarks were defamatory and, in the absence of a contract, was able to walk away from the series in disgust. Such was the official explanation of events – however it has been speculated the furore was used an excuse to end the extremely costly venture, which was flagging in the ratings compared to its significantly cheaper Sigley stable mate.
Whatever the reason, Graham Kennedy had done his last Tonight Show. Later that year he ventured back into radio, first at 3LO in a drive time show with Richard Combe, then a year later on an afternoon show with Denis Scanlon. He also travelled to London for a week’s Royal Jubilee broadcasts in mid-1977 (again for 3DB). His three decades in the business had taught him the value of thorough preparation for what he would say on air, and as the years progressed Kennedy was becoming more and more interested in the joys of the English language. A mixture of wit and good old-fashioned hokum were now becoming a mainstay of his work (and would dominate a good deal of his 1980s television appearances).
Straight acting was also entering his repertoire with roles in TV’s Power Without Glory and the movie Don’s Party earning him critical acclaim. With the resurgence of the Australian film industry, he was also cast in The Odd Angry Shot and The Club (and later, in Travelling North).
In early 1977, television beckoned again and he agreed to host a game show Graham Kennedy’s Blankety Blanks for the 0/10 Network (based on the US program The Match Game). Despite having two contestants competing for prize money, the program was in reality a vehicle for Kennedy to indulge in a considerable amount of banter with showbiz friends like Ugly Dave Gray, Noeline Brown, Barry Creyton, Noel Ferrier, Stuart Wagstaff and Carol Raye. Despite its family timeslot of 7pm the double entendres were plentiful, the more inappropriate adlibs liberally edited prior to broadcast. The show quickly became enormously popular and spawned an LP, a canned soft drink, a board game, and several other money earners – as well as making household names of Peter the Phantom Puller and Tony the Moustache Twirler.
Apart from becoming another personal success, the program also led Kennedy to permanently depart his home town of Melbourne and move interstate. Blankety Blanks was taped in Sydney, and after living in a hotel for some months he eventually bought a residence on the harbour.
In 1979, Graham joined forces with the Naked Vicar Show’s writing team of Gary Reilly and Tony Sattler to appear in the ABC radio series Graham Kennedy’s RS Playhouse, a collection of eight unrelated playlets with Kennedy taking the lead role in each. In the early eighties he utilised his acting talents in a telemovie Silent Reach (with Robert Vaughn) and a couple of minor league theatrical films.
1984 saw him venturing back into television in a capacity not entirely in keeping with his range of experience thus far when he was asked to fill in as host of the Seven Network’s morning news hour Eleven AM. Originally signed for five weeks Graham eventually stayed eight, and his repartee with newsreader Ross Symonds produced some delightful television. A regular feature centred on his penchant for correct pronunciation, and a question-and-answer segment between the two anchors soon had viewers writing in with queries.
This association with his third commercial network led to a series of specials a year later – Graham Kennedy’s World Of Comedy – in which he provided the links for a number of extracts from various overseas sketch comedy shows owned by Seven. With material by Gary Reilly and the writers of radio’s The Samuel Pepys Show, Graham introduced pieces from Britain’s Stanley Baxter, Three Of A Kind, Kenny Everett, Assaulted Nuts and the US show Not Necessarily The News.
With the success of Kennedy’s involvement on Eleven AM, the Seven Network had continued the idea late at night with Clive Robertson (a Sydney radio announcer) in a program called Newsworld. With Don Lane signed to appear in a Tonight show format on Ten, executives at Channel 9 decided the best way to compete with both was to lure Graham Kennedy back on air.
Originally titled The Graham Kennedy News Show, Graham joined sports reporter Ken Sutcliffe for a review of the day’s major items and quite a bit of joking about. Working to a floor crew for response to the humour, Kennedy soon decided he’d prefer to work with an actual audience in the studio to liven things up. And (for the first time anywhere) a news program played to a studio audience. And once again Graham Kennedy was a hit.
For its second year the show was retitled Graham Kennedy Coast To Coast, and Sutcliffe (who left to pursue his interest in sporting presentation at the Network) was replaced by John Mangos. Ever the perfectionist, Graham had created another time-consuming monster and despite the program being pre-recorded at eight o’clock at night (with the news update inserted live during the actual transmission a couple of hours later) by the end of 1989 he decided to relinquish the program. In an ironical twist, he was eventually replaced by Clive Robertson, whose program at Seven had been dropped because of Kennedy’s success.
Unwilling to lose a ratings-winner like Kennedy entirely, the Nine Network offered him the hosting role in a weekly collection of amateur video bloopers (and were even prepared to allow him to film his introductions at home!). When Graham Kennedy’s Funniest Home Video Show debuted in March 1990 it was taped at Nine’s Sydney studios before an audience, and proved to be just as successful as nearly every other Kennedy vehicle of the preceding forty years.
Again he became bored with the venture after a year, and retreated to the solitude of life on his farm in country New South Wales. As the 1990s progressed, Kennedy’s health worsened. A serious fall left him unconscious and unattended for a lengthy period, requiring brain surgery. Coupled with circulatory problems caused by years of smoking, he was left bedridden and requiring nursing home care.
Though expected, his death in May 2005 stunned and saddened a nation. It was a tragic end for the greatest performer produced by Australian television in its fifty year history.
A biopic telemovie, The King – The Story Of Graham Kennedy, was screened in 2007 with actor Stephen Curry in the title role and Garry McDonald as Nicky Whitta.
3UZ: 1950 to 1956 (with Cliff ‘Nicky’ Whitta)
3AK: 1961 and 1962 (with Bert Newton)
3LO: June to December 1975 (with Richard Combe)
3DB: September 20 to November 5 1976 (with Denis Scanlan)
and June 6 to 10 1977 (broadcasting from London, with Mike Lester)
ABC: Graham Kennedy’s RS Playhouse (8 x 30 min)
August 11 to September 22 and September 23 1979
The Birthday Boy/Because He’s My Brother/You Only Live Once/Sunday Morning Fever/The Chocolate Milkman/The Prawn Broker/Mad Jack’s Dentist/The Good Morning Show
2DAY-FM: from May 24 1981
In Melbourne Tonight (90 min) Channel 9 Melbourne
May 6 1957 to December 23 1969
(five nights a week until the end of 1959,
three nights a week 1960 to 1968,
two nights a week in 1969)
Graham Kennedy’s Daylight Saving Show (60 min) 9 Network
November 15 1971
Graham Kennedy Show (60 min special) 9 Network
March 2 1972
The Graham Kennedy Show (90 min) 9 Network
(Tuesdays and Thursdays)
September 19 to November 23 1972,
February 6 to November 27 1973
The Graham Kennedy Show (90 min colour) 9 Network
(Mondays and Wednesdays) March 10 to April 23 1975
Graham Kennedy’s Blankety Blanks (30 min) 0/10 Network
(Mondays to Fridays) February 7 to December 23 1977,
January 9 to September 15 1978
Eleven A.M. (60 min) 7 Network
(Mondays to Fridays) from April 16 to June 8 1984(8 weeks)
Graham Kennedy’s World Of Comedy (7x 60m specials) 7 Network
April 18, June 3, July 4, July 29, September 24, November 5 1985, July 2 1986
The Graham Kennedy News Show (60 min) 9 Network
(Mondays to Fridays) April 25 to December 9 1988
Graham Kennedy Coast To Coast (60 min) 9 Network
(Mondays to Fridays) February 13 to December 8 1989
Graham Kennedy’s Funniest Home Video Show (30 min) 9 Network
March 29 to November 15 1990 (final edition ran 60 minutes)
Several Best of Kennedy specials have also been aired on the 9 Network
1959 On The Beach (appears as an extra only)
1966 They’re A Weird Mob (cameo)
1975 The Box
1976 Don’s Party
1979 The Odd Angry Shot
1980 The Club
1982 Silent Reach (telemovie)
1982 The Return Of Captain Invincible
1983 The Killing Fields
1987 Travelling North
Graham Kennedy – The King of Television
Sony Music DVD 202338.9 (2004)
Graham Kennedy’s Blankety Blanks
Umbrella 5DVD boxed set DAVID0773 (2005)
The Best of Graham Kennedy
Nine Network 3DVD boxed set (2005)
The Graham Kennedy Collection
Umbrella 4DVD boxed set (2007)
includes Don’s Party/The Club/Travelling North
plus episodes of Blankety Blanks
Graham Kennedy’s Coast To Coast
Umbrella 2DVD (2009)
includes 8 episodes:
April 25, May 6, September 23 and November 9 1988,
March 10 and 13, April 10 and November 6 1989
Graham Kennedy’s Coast To Coast 2
Umbrella 2DVD (2010)
includes 8 episodes:
May 4 and August 5 1988,
February 20, March 7 and 15, May 15, August 30 and September 6 1989
Mother’s Day With Nicky
W & G Records WG.FL 628 (EP)(1956)
features Poor Old Mum (with Cliff ‘Nicky’ Whitta)
Carolina In The Morning (with Smacka Fitzgibbon)/
Smacka Fitzgibbon solo: Miss Annabelle Lee
Magnasound MSP 08 (7” single)
Graham Meets Smacka
Magnasound MEP 18 (EP)
features two Kennedy vocals:
Shine On Harvest Moon (with Smacka Fitzgibbon)
Are You From Dixie? (with Smacka Fitzgibbon)
Graham Kennedy Sings The Shows
Warner Bros. WS 20013 (LP)(1973)
If You Could See Her
Corner Of The Sky
Do I Hear A Waltz + Embassy Waltz
My First Love Song
Musical Comedy Man
No Time At All
Let’s Go Back To The Waltz
Graham Kennedy’s Blankety Blanks
R.C.A./Laser SP 196 (LP)(1977)
features soundtrack highlights from the 0/10 Network game show:
All The Horsemen Knew Her
A Mouse In Her Pussy
Cyril, Horse And Carts
Dick Without A Hole
Who Is Bernard King?
Did It Need Picking?
Cocky, Crutch And Stump
Midnight In The Toilet
Cyril At The Doctor’s
Dick The Butler
ABC 2CD 0-642-17861-5
The Graham Kennedy Story
(pictorial magazine, published by Southdown Press c.1960)
Graham Kennedy’s Melbourne
(Thomas Nelson, 1967)
King: The Life And Comedy Of Graham Kennedy
by Graeme Blundell (Pan/Macmillan, 2003)
King And I – My Life With Graham Kennedy
by Rob Astbury (DNA paperback, 2006)
Graham Kennedy Treasures – Friends Remember The King
by Mike McColl Jones (Melbourne University Press, 2008)
(Includes a DVD of a Channel 9 Best of Kennedy special hosted by Stuart Wagstaff)