Garry McDonald


Norman Gunston

Norman Gunston

Norman Gunston was a satirical TV character performed by Australian actor Garry McDonald.

Early years
Norman Gunston was originally conceived by comedy writer Wendy Skelcher and first appeared as a minor character in the second series of the cult Australian TV comedy series The Aunty Jack Show in 1973, in which he was portrayed as a gormless TV reporter from the NSW regional city of Wollongong. The Gunston character made enough of an impression for him to be revived in a subsequent comedy mini-series made by the Aunty Jack team, Wollongong The Brave (1974), in which he starred in a satirical mock documentary Norman Gunston: The Golden Weeks. His segments as Norman in What's On In Wollongong became one of the most popular parts of the Aunty Jack Show, and Norman appeared on the Aunty Jack Sings Wollongong album along with McDonald's other character, Kid Eager.

National Fame
In his later and most famous incarnation, Gunston had evolved to become the unlikely host of his own national TV variety show, The Norman Gunston Show, which premiered with a live broadcast on Australian Broadcasting Corporation on May 18, 1975. Dubbed "the little Aussie bleeder", (a play on the term "Aussie battler"), he satirised parochial Australian culture, media "personalities", and egocentric talk show hosts.

After a faltering start, the Norman Gunston show rapidly gained a huge national audience and the series became the pre-eminent Australian TV comedy program of its day, with McDonald winning a Gold Logie (the Australian equivalent of an Emmy Award) and scoring several pop hits. He is, notably, the only Logie recipient who has received the award in the name of his character, rather than in his own name.

According to McDonald, the Gunston character and his show were initially devised as a parody of an (unintentionally bad) late-night Sydney TV variety show of the early 1970s hosted by expatriate American club entertainer Tommy Leonetti.

Satirising club performers and TV interviewers of the time, Gunston dressed in an ill-fitting blue lurex tuxedo jacket (wrongly buttoned); the fly on his trousers was habitually left undone, with the shirt-tail poking out of the zip. Gunston also adopted an "up and over" Comb over hairstyle to partially cover his bald head. He also had small pieces of tissue paper applied to his pasty-pale white face to cover supposed shaving cuts. This comic device led to one hilarious exchange with visiting American actress Sally Struthers - noting Norman's apparent shaving cuts, she kindly suggested that perhaps Gunston should try an electric razor; the nonplussed Norman replied "Uh, I do" - at which point Struthers collapsed in a fit of laughter.

Gunston performed subversive TV interviews with many celebrities including Paul McCartney where he said to Linda McCartney: 'That's funny, you don't look Japanese.' (referencing Yoko Ono)[1], Mick Jagger, Warren Beatty, Charlton Heston, and Muhammad Ali. Perhaps Norman's most well known interview was with Keith Moon at Charlton stadium in 1976. Moon famously ended his brief encounter with Norman by tipping Vodka over his head.

The "ambush" interview technique pioneered by McDonald - founded on McDonald's considerable improvisational skills and precise comic timing wherein the actor creates a fully-rounded and often highly plausible character who is pretending to be stupid to throw their otherwise media-savvy subjects off guard. This technique has recently been revived with considerable success (with no apparent credit to Garry McDonald) by the British comic Sasha Baron Cohen with his characters Ali G and Borat.

Through sheer good luck, Gunston was immortalised in Australian political history when, on the morning of 11 November 1975, McDonald and his film crew - who happened to be in Canberra at the time - found out that the Labor government led by Gough Whitlam had just been dismissed by the Governor-General Sir John Kerr. On hearing the news, McDonald and his crew raced to Parliament House, where they were able to film McDonald (as Gunston) briefly addressing the assembled crowd, only moments before Whitlam and the Governor-General's press secretary appeared for the reading of the now-famous proclamation announcing Whitlam's dismissal.

In 1976, ABC television aired a third season of The Norman Gunston Show. By this stage, increased production budgets afforded Gunston more opportunities for overseas interviews, including Malcolm Muggeridge, Michael Caine, John Sturges, Glenda Jackson, John Stonehouse, and Rudolph Nureyev. One memorable encounter with Frank Zappa ended with Zappa and Norman duetting respectively on guitar and harmonica in a spontaneous blues jam (McDonald is in fact a proficient harmonica player). As the jam concluded, McDonald threw in a witty musical quote from the well-known ABC news theme, an action which also gave a clever nod to Zappa's well-known proclivity for inserting musical quotes such as TV themes into his work.

In November 1976, a specially prepared 45 minute UK Gunston TV special was screened on BBC2 TV. Some of Gunston's guests on the show included Diana Dors and Tony Greig.

After the third and final ABC TV season finished in late 1976, Gunston was popular enough to approach commercial TV networks. In particular, the Seven Network showed interest in producing another Norman Gunston series. Because of McDonald's other commitments, the series didn't commence production until early 1978.

In 1977, Norman Gunston was included in the ABC TV series, The Garry McDonald Show. Other characters were also played by McDonald, including Harry Butler ala (Harry Butler in the wild), and Mo McCackie.

Channel 7 years
In 1978, the Australian Seven Network aired another Norman Gunston series, which continued over an 18 month period till 1979. Ten 60 minute episodes were produced by John Eastway and ATN7. Highlights of this series were also screened on UK Channel 4 TV from November to December, 1982.

In February and March 1981, Channel 7 aired a program called Gunston's Australia, which intended to show the Gunston character approaching the end of his shelf life. Wearing a safari jacket and shorts, Gunston travelled around outback Australia, interfering and adventuring in high and low places in his usual cack-handed manner. This series was later screened from February to March 1983 on UK Channel 4 TV.

In 1985, a 2-hour video was released titled, The Gunston Tapes. This was a compilation of interviews and comic sketches from the first, second and third 1975-1976 ABC TV series. McDonald also temporarily revived the Gunston character for the purpose of narrating the video. [3]

In February and March 1993, McDonald revived the Gunston character for the channel 7 network. However, by the time the series premiered he was suffering from severe depression, hence the series was prematurely cut short. After leaving the series, Garry McDonald suffered a much-publicized nervous breakdown. A 3-set DVD compilation of the 1993 series was subsequently released in 2003.

During the late 1990s, Foxtel cable TV screened all 24 episodes from the first, second, and third 1975-1976 ABC Norman Gunston Show. This was the first time the series had been aired since the late 1970s.

Recording Career

Gunston's single record releases sold sufficiently well to enter the Australian top 40 charts. Parody tributes included Punk rock (I might be a Punk but I love ya baby), Sherbet (Howzat), ABBA (Salute to ABBA), KISS (KISS Army), Boz Scaggs (Nylon Degrees), and Billy Ray Cyrus (Achy Breaky Heart).

In 1976, Gunston released an album titled The Popular Ballad Animal, which covered both contemporary and classic era compositions, several of which Norman has performed on his show, including his theme song, "I Who Have Nothing". In particular, notable tracks include Gunston's bizarre but inspired interpretations of Liza Minnelli's "Liza With a Z", David Gates' "If", Tom Jones' "Delilah", Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns", "Jailhouse Rock", "Piano Man", "Vesti La Giubba", "A little love and understanding", "Daddy what if?", and the Judy Garland classic "Over the Rainbow".

In 1978, Gunston released another covers album titled Nylon Degrees. His next album was released in 1984 with the title of Join The Dots, which included out-takes and previously unreleased rare recordings.

Mother and Son years
McDonald's partnership with writer Geoffrey Atherden continued very successfully in the 1980s when Atherden wrote the award-winning sitcom Mother and Son. It starred veteran actress Ruth Cracknell as Maggie Beare, a dotty pensioner being cared for by her long-suffering younger son Arthur (McDonald). Loosely based on the cult Carl Reiner comedy feature Where's Poppa?, the series was very successful in Australia, was repeated many times, and has become one of the best-loved Australian TV comedies of its time. It also enabled McDonald to escape, at least to some extent, from being typecast as Gunston.

Norman Gunston is the only fictional person to win the prestigious Gold Logie. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Media Man Australia does not represent Garry McDonald