Richard Swainson: A wedding speech, and gift, to remember

John Clarke as the ubiquitous Fred Dagg.
FILE PHOTO

John Clarke as the ubiquitous Fred Dagg.

OPINION: For anyone who grew up in the early 1970s and had access to a television set, Fred Dagg was a ubiquitous figure.

When I was very young I didn't quite know what to make of him. The broader, physical material resonated on some base level and there could be little doubt as to the man's sincerity when singing about wet weather footwear but, for the most, part Fred Dagg confused me. At that age I believed he was an actual person. Maybe someone who clowned and played up to the camera but nevertheless a real farmer, improbably burdened with a multitude of male offspring called Trevor.

It took until my teenage years to appreciate the distinction between Fred Dagg, the comic creation, and John Clarke, the brilliant writer and improvisational performer. A primary school friend, Dave Mitchell, had one or two of the old Fred Dagg books as well as a copy of Fred Dagg's Greatest Hits, a record of music and monologues. The more I read and listened, the more I laughed. It was political and social satire as never heard before or, arguably, since. John Clarke understood New Zealand – albeit Pakeha New Zealand – in a way that no one else did. He was at once one with the culture and beyond it, making mischief and poking fun in a manner that was both critical and celebratory at the same time. With John Clarke there was no so-called "cultural cringe", that uncomfortable moment when audiences feel the gap between the calibre of local productions and that of imported equivalents. From almost the very beginning, John Clarke was a world class talent, the comic equal of anyone on the planet and the better of most.

All through university and beyond I collected what I could of the great man's work. Given Clarke shifted to Australia in the late 1970s, this wasn't easy. Still, his pre-emigration output had been vast and records or anthologies of his Australian radio and television scripts were sometimes released locally.

Ultimately his forte proved more dialogue than monologue. John's pairing with Bryan Dawe, a relationship which began in 1989 and continued until a week before his death, was satirical gold.

In 2010 something quite miraculous happened. At that time I was co-hosting an innocuous little show on Hamilton Community Radio. My partner in crime, Andrew Johnstone, was a man of ambition. Also a lifelong Fred Dagg fan, he happened upon John Clarke's website. From there it was a short step to emailing god himself. To my surprise – though perhaps not to Andrew's – Clarke replied. More to the point, he agreed to be interviewed on our show.

The moment when that distinctive voice filled the Hamilton studio, beamed in live from Melbourne, almost induced tears. We said "g'day" but Clarke himself resisted Fred Dagg's trademark greeting. Nothing he offered in those two, fun-filled, glorious hours was in anyway cliched or predictable. The wit we anticipated. It had us often doubling over, trying to contain ourselves for fear of spoiling the recording.

What was in some ways more surprising was the man's intelligence and command of the English language. The opposite of the "on comedian", Clarke was precisely as funny or as serious in his answers as he chose to be, dialling up the sarcasm where appropriate yet never stooping to pettiness or meanness. He had such a profound understanding of the human condition that listening to him became an exercise in philosophy as much as a master class in humour.

Whatever else it's worth, the interview provided a means to communicate our love and respect for the man. Andrew told a story about how he and his fellow students found solace at boarding school listening to Fred Dagg records. I hope such compliments were music to his ears. It was difficult to tell given Clarke's inherent modesty.

His was not just a modest talent but a generous one. Four years later, as I prepared to get married, I hit upon a cheeky idea. Given that Fred Dagg delivered the most famous ever piece of New Zealand oratory – the 21st speech – wouldn't it be great if I could convince Clarke to write something for our wedding? Within 40 minutes of receiving the request, Clarke responded in the positive. Less than two weeks later an original Fred Dagg monologue arrived in my inbox. At the wedding it was delivered, impeccably, by my old friend Dave, a dream come true for both of us.

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 - Stuff

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