In many ways, Bert Newton was the last living link to Australian television’s Golden Era, and the showbiz culture it inspired that helped shape our somewhat irreverent national identity.
That his fame survived in a business built around fickle and fleeting popularity was testament to the love of his many fans, reinforced by the outpouring of affection in the days since his death.
From first curtain to last: Bert Newton was there at the birth of television in this country. Credit:Simon Schluter
But it would be doing his memory a disservice to ignore that Bert Newton’s cherished star had also been a little tarnished in recent years, a tarnish on his legacy disproportionate to the contribution he made for the greater good. He once told me he only ever wanted to make people laugh, not shout in anger.
The scathing criticism from the supposedly socially “enlightened” he received in recent years affected him deeply, not that he would ever let on publicly. Indeed, his story is a timely reminder that even the glossiest veneers can sometimes conceal a vulnerable interior.
In all the eulogising, the real Bert Newton, the man behind the showbiz court jester, remained a complex and enigmatic character, even to those who knew him best.
“To be honest I don’t think there were that many people who truly knew him other than Patti,” Melbourne showbiz commentator Peter Ford, someone who had worked with and personally known Newton for 40 years, told me.
Bert and Patti Newton at the 2006 wedding of their daughter Lauren.Credit:Michelle Ferguson
His TV career spanned almost the entire duration of television in Australia, but it was his last appearance at the Logies in 2018 when the late Newton discovered firsthand how much his beloved business and country had changed, and for a while, unforgivingly so.
He delivered a live routine – seemingly oblivious to the current state of affairs – that rankled the denizens of Twitter, sparking a mainstream media controversy over the following days that left him wounded for a long time after.
Six months after the #MeToo movement engulfed Hollywood and the global entertainment business and exposed the power imbalance and sexual exploitation it had created, Newton’s trademark risqué gag at the Logies about his old sidekicks Graham Kennedy and Don Lane “mentoring” young entertainers behind locked dressing room doors was clearly off-key.
In an instant, Bert Newton’s 60-year career was being “cancelled” over a poorly considered gag, and he was genuinely baffled by the uproar he had caused.
Bert Newton and the Logies were, for decades, synonymous.
We spoke shortly afterwards (he revealed an insatiable appetite for celebrity news and read everything about everyone). While he was reluctant to comment publicly on the controversy, during our frank conversation he revealed just how devastated he was at being portrayed as an outdated pariah, rather than a loveable, slightly naughty clown, whose only ambition was to make people smile.
Newton built a career out of pushing buttons and lampooning his targets. How had he missed his mark so badly to push the self-destruct button?
Not that he immediately realised it. The room laughed heartily on the night, as they did when he introduced himself as an “old poof”, another line that landed him in hot water outside the Logies ballroom.
At the time I mounted a case for giving Bert a hall pass: “There was no malice or hatred in Bert’s delivery, just self-deprecation and a few tired clichés, relics of another time.”
In a pre-Harvey Weinstein world, the gags would not have had the same negative impact.
But Bert’s high profile also made him an easy target for a public venting its outrage. His critics conflated his lamentable routine with the MeToo movement. Rather than saving their anger for the actual perpetrators of sexual abuse, homophobia, oppression and discrimination, they went for Bert.
Almost 80 at the time, Bert thought he was simply poking fun at a television popularity contest in an industry which had commoditised sex for decades.
Sadly, that was the last time many of us saw him on live television, his natural domain. Ill health, the pandemic and a distinct lack of motivation to go back into the much harsher spotlight meant he rarely left his Melbourne home.
Though he did make an intriguing appearance in 2020 on SBS’s family-tree show Who Do you Think You Are, revealing a sentimental man who bore the emotional frailties and imperfections of life behind the all-smiling public persona.
It was a potent reminder that just like the rest of us, behind the “mask”, Bert Newton was only human.
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