Performance costume, consisting of jacket and tie, synthetic cloth / metal, made by the wardrobe department at Channel 7, worn by Garry McDonald on television as Norman Gunston, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1993
Certain television programs are cited as great moments in TV history. For those who remember the 1970s, 'The Norman Gunston Show' is frequently mentioned in discussions of Australian television highlights. This costume is significant as one of the tuxedo jackets worn on television by actor Garry McDonald in the character of Norman Gunston. It was worn in 1993 when the character was revived on Channel Seven.
In 1972 the ABC produced the cerebral and surreal comedy of Grahame Bond's 'Aunty Jack Show' which, along with the show's sequel 'Wollongong the Brave', introduced audiences to a fumbling, amateur TV reporter from Corrimal, the 'little Aussie bleeder', Norman Gunston. By 1975 Norman had his own tonight show on the ABC, where he sang, danced and interviewed guests.
Light entertainment or variety programs compered by a host introducing an assortment of acts and guests have been a staple of Australian television from its start. 'Tonight' shows, chat shows and musical variety programs offered a direct and immediate form of television entertainment. The tonight show genre usually took the form of a mid-evening talk and variety program anchored by a congenial host who interviewed celebrity guests and sometimes sang, as in the case of Tommy Leonetti and Don Lane. The host would also introduce a series of short unrelated performances from at least two artists, often a comedian or singer.
'The Norman Gunston Show' satirised these conventions. Each week Norman sang corny popular ballads, presented regular segments and introduced his 'talking guests' and 'singing guests'. The show sent up television's obsession with ratings and awards, its vanity and its phoney amiability, even its 'fabulously well-paid cigarette commercials'. Norman's act also alluded to the second-rate variety entertainers found in RSL and Leagues clubs. He wore a tuxedo jacket with ill-fitting black trousers and concealed his bald head with a greased-down combover. Small pieces of tissue paper covered his shaving cuts.
Norman thought of himself as a star but blundered through disastrous interviews with big names in showbiz (usually visiting overseas stars). He inspired uncomfortable laughter in his audience and bewilderment in his guests. A key to Gunston's humour was that the audience understood that he was subverting the interviewees, who did not comprehend many of the jokes. Frank Zappa, for example, could not have known that Norman was playing the ABC news theme while jamming on the harmonica. When Norman interviewed Colonel Tom Parker he deliberately confused him with Colonel Sanders. This was the theatre of embarrassment. A similar style of humour was later adopted by Britain's Sasha Baron Cohen with his 'Borat' character. Although writer Bill Harding provided brilliant scripts, McDonald showed a remarkable skill for ad libbing and a marvellous sense of comic timing.
In March 1976 Norman Gunston became the only fictitious character to win the Gold Logie award. 'The Norman Gunston Show' moved to Channel Seven in 1978, and McDonald revived the character on Channel Seven in 1993.
The massive success and celebrity of the Norman Gunston character might have become a burden for McDonald, if not for his versatility. He distinguished himself as a film actor, including roles in 'Picnic at Hanging Rock', 'The Picture Show Man', 'Moulin Rouge' and 'Rabbit-Proof Fence'. He gave an inspired performance in the ABC sitcom 'Mother and Son', as a middle-aged man trapped in a situation where he must care for his absent-minded but wily mother, played by Ruth Cracknell. With a gentle, compassionate slant, the show was one of the ABC's greatest successes in comedy and ran for six series between 1984 and 1994.
McDonald was inducted into the TV Week Hall of Fame in 1997. He was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2003, 'for service to the community by raising awareness of mental health issues and the effects of anxiety disorders and depression on sufferers and carers, and to the arts as an entertainer' (www.itsanhonour.gov.au).