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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Newton, Albert Watson (Bert) (1938–2021)

by Dom Knight

from Sydney Morning Herald

Bert Newton was a star, an icon, a legend, an institution and all the other accolades we’re hearing spoken in his honour as the nation mourns him. But, above all, he was great at being on television. He took to the medium like a duck to water, or a NSW premier to an ICAC hearing. He made it look effortless – and he was so outlandishly talented that for him, it probably was.

Whether trading risqué barbs with Graham Kennedy or laughing at his own spherical features with Don Lane, Bert, who died on Saturday aged 83, was always warm, polished, unflappable and, above all, witty. He could make even the banal, infomercial-clogged world of morning television watchable, as he proved for years on GMA – when things got too ridiculous, he arched an eyebrow or grinned down the barrel of the camera to let the viewer know that he was entirely aware of what he was doing.

I had the pleasure of going on GMA back in 2005 to plug a Chaser book, and Bert good-naturedly praised it as though he’d devoured every word. It was his sixth-last show doing three hours, five mornings a week, and we were chuffed to be invited.

I was particularly impressed that GMA had its own branch of Michel’s Patisserie in the green room – being from the ABC, I’d never imagined a studio with its own barista. But somehow it all seemed very Bert, both in terms of the hospitality and the nifty cross-promotion.

The show was completely live – in other words, in Bert’s element – but I wasn’t used to being on camera, and was terrified that I’d screw up. But he was incredibly warm and kind and, for a few brief minutes, Bert made me feel like we were old friends, before the show inexorably rolled on to the next segment, presumably with Moira promoting some breakthrough exercise device.

Bert was better than the show, of course – but he always gave it 100 per cent because he was that kind of performer. In the past day, I’ve seen dozens of comics and musicians write on social media that when they were starting out, Bert bent over backwards to bring them onto GMA, with a spirit of generosity that was positively Carsonesque.

We call Kennedy the King of Australian TV, but Bert ruled the Logies. I was in the room on several occasions when every intoxicated starlet stopped braying in order to hear who the great man would roast next. His controversial 2018 effort should not overshadow the countless times he was the best thing about Logies night, even long after he left our screens full time.

With four gold wins, 19 hosting gigs and countless cameos, they should rename the whole event after Bert. “Logies” was a witticism of Graham Kennedy’s – but a Gold Bert, named for Kennedy’s great sparring partner, would be truly worth winning. The trouble the event has had in finding hosts in recent years also highlights what a hard act he was to follow.

Going live and having Bert’s taste for the risqué increased the risk of gaffes, as with Muhammad Ali – but it makes for better television. Bert was genuinely spontaneous, not made to seem so in post- production, and when he was on air, you honestly never knew what would come next – especially in the days when there was no chance it could be a shopping segment.

Bert could shift effortlessly from bonhomie and banter to a gag so sharp that its target might have been taken aback if it hadn’t been immediately followed by that celestial grin, which was unmatched in its width and warmth. His departure represents the end of a style of television – or even of making television with genuine style, with the obvious exception of Osher’s hairdresser.

If someone with Bert Newton’s wit and charisma arrived today, network executives would ask them to host some lazy format filched from overseas before axing it a few weeks into the run. Since his prime, there have been precious few live comedy shows on Australian TV with the delicious sense that things could go horribly wrong and that the presenters were genuinely happy to get into trouble with their bosses. One exception was The Late Show, which at one point aired a hilarious clip of Bert maintaining his composure even after a skolling competition ended in an extraordinarily projectile vomit. Talk about unflappable!

At a Logies in the early 2000s, Bert brought down the house by saying “You’re probably thinking to yourself, well he’s now doing morning television, surely death is next”. Like all the greats, he had an incredible sense of humour about himself – even his toupée was constantly removed for comic purposes.

But now that he and his hairpiece have left, Bert will be missed more than he might have imagined. He, Kennedy and Lane were the Rat Pack of Australian television, only with more of a sense of humour and fewer mob connections. Let’s hope they’re now propping up some elegant bar in the afterlife, reminiscing about the good old days when television was live and unpredictable. I fear we won’t see their likes again.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Albert Watson (Bert) Newton

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Citation details

Dom Knight, 'Newton, Albert Watson (Bert) (1938–2021)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/newton-albert-watson-bert-32162/text39752, accessed 8 December 2022.

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