John Clarke on being Fred Dagg

by Fiona Rae / 10 April, 2017
Writer, director, actor and bit of a Dagg.

John Clarke, aka Fred Dagg.

It is fair to say that New Zealand wouldn't be the same without Fred Dagg. A laconic presence on our one and only TV channel in the mid-to-late 70s, John Clarke's rural creation strolled into the national consciousness in oversize gumboots and black singlet, proof that we had our own sense of humour and identity. Clarke left New Zealand in 1977, taking Fred to Australian radio and branching into many other areas of writing and performing. A documentary screening this week unearths what's left of Fred Dagg from those early days and talks with Clarke about the wild west frontier that was New Zild telly.

What was it like revisiting the Fred Dagg character after all this time? It was enormous fun. I was looking at myself and I realised I'm younger than my kids. So I thought, "There's a bit of a moment for you. John, deal with that." I'm actually looking at this person who both is and isn't me. I suppose it's like anybody looking at early photographs of things you regard with great fondness, because it was a very happy and very creative time for me, I had a field-day, as you can imagine, it was just the best fun imaginable.

When you were doing Fred Dagg, did you have a sense that the character was becoming an icon? The reason I did that character was because I thought that was the sort of character that might resonate with the New Zealand audience at that time. And of course an audience communicates with you quite quickly, so if there's a bit of a groundswell of popularity, you know about it quite quickly. That's also a product of the fact that there was one TV channel. Nowadays, it would be very hard to have that blanket coverage.

Perhaps there was more of a sense of ownership of the character and the TV channel. That may be right, certainly of the TV station and of what you watched on it, yes. And people watched quite intently and in a day when you couldn't record things off television, the memory becomes terribly important and one of the wonderful things about Fred Dagg is that when people talk to me about him, it's clear that somewhere in their memory is this thing. Well, what a precious place to be.

When you meet New Zealanders, do they say, 'Yeah, g'day', and ask you where your gumboots are? Some of them do, yeah.

Do you mind? No, not at all. People have always been very nice to me about it. If people have some affection for a character, they're going to behave in that way when they see you. I mean, it's not Alf Garnett.

Do you think that you'd be able to do Fred Dagg today? Yes, I do. You could do the character again and in fact if you look at the stuff I've done since, Fred Dagg is laced all through, it's just changed its name a bit. But, of course, the same instincts are at work in what I do, that's my work and my life, so it's made of the same sinew. But I think that the nature of television has meant that things have changed a bit.

The Fred Dagg costume is in Te Papa now. I gave it to them because it was sitting in my house and I thought it's just going to get mouldy. I actually used to mow the lawns in the boots, but I thought I should be a bit more sensible and give it to them.

One thing you notice is Fred smoking. Yes, don't you. I haven't smoked for years. Everybody smoked when I was a kid, it was compulsory, but, yes, I notice it, I've got yellow fingers. I eventually thought, this is bloody silly, I'll stop doing that, I'll grow up now.

Your latest writing and directing forays are the telemovies Stiff and The Brush Off, which were very popular over there. Yeah, well, they had David Wenham in them, who's one of the most popular actors ever on Australian television. He was in SeaChange, he's a fabulous actor. We made those telemovies very, very quickly. Stiff, for example, was shot in 20 days, so you can't have an actor in the lead who isn't a bit of a genius.

Australians and New Zealanders like the flawed hero. The character that David plays, Murray Whelan, is described in one review as "richly futile". Yes, that's right, and there's a sort of a laconic thing, one of the elements in the humour is the knowledge that "things aren't going too well and it's probably largely my fault". It is quite endearing.

Do you prefer directing, writing or performing? I think it's all very interesting, and if you're a writer-performer, part of your mind is occupied with a lot of director questions, anyway. But I think the casting is so important. We got the casts we wanted. If I'm directing Sam [Neill], for example, I'm not going to go, "Sam, that's terrible, for God's sake concentrate", I'm going to say, "Sam, could you be here at two o'clock please?", because what am I going to tell Sam about how to be Sam in a film?

This article was first published in the March 4, 2006 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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