Behind Bert: Doug Ackerly Recalls Bert Newton
Doug Ackerly is a radio and TV broadcaster and producer. In this article he recalls working as a segment producer on Good Morning Australia, hosted by Bert Newton (1938–2021).
A Vehicle for Bert
I grew up with Bert Newton: second banana to Graham Kennedy on In Melbourne Tonight, then a much-anticipated dessert on the eponymous Don Lane Show. The halcyon days of live variety on the Nine Network:
On Good Morning Australia with Bert Newton, the title said it all: 'Moonface' had his own show. A sidekick no more.
But unfortunately, the 'recession we had to have' also meant no orchestra and no ballet. This was TEN, now based in South Yarra’s Como Centre, in a pokey studio with no audience; and it was morning TV.
For the orchestra, read John Foreman – a genius on keyboard, sequencing the other instruments through a computer. Predicting COVID times, the crew became the audience.
For Frank and Kerry Packer we had Canadian opportunists Canwest, who had bought TEN from the receiver, Westpac Bank. Midday still had the band and an audience, and a journo as host. It may have been galling to Bert, but you wouldn’t know it. He kept his own counsel.
It was generally understood that Bert was on $250,000 back then. Beyond insulting, really. There were people reading an autocue a few hours a week 'earning' more than twice that. God knows what Nine were paying Ray Martin!
But, Good Morning Australia was Bert’s vehicle. Okay, it was an early model Holden, but he added twin carburettors and mag wheels. And, he genuinely loved it. The show became an institution and gave him great satisfaction:
It was what passed for live variety when I joined in 1993, in its second year. You had 3 music acts and 7 chats to offset 10 lucrative advertorials. I estimated the show was making $15 million a year. It was the network’s cash cow with a crew paid peanuts to do the milking.
From losing $2 million a week in 1992, Canwest made a profit of $103 million in 1995! They even started to pay for the odd staff function. Quite a contrast to when I started.
For Bert’s birthday in July 1993, we all had to put in for a present. Series producer Robin Jolley had arranged a slab of Abbots Lager. It said a lot about Canwest, and a lot about Bert. It was his favourite beer. There were no tickets on the boy from Fitzroy. For all the fame, he was truly down-to-earth, if quite private.
'Simply World Class'
While working as a radio announcer, I had written for Ernie Sigley and The Ossie Ostrich Video Show on which Robin Jolley was producer. He got me the gig, and Bert knew my name from 3DB. We hit it off pretty well at 7am production meetings where the banter flowed, and 'mickey' was taken. Meetings were often as hilarious as the show itself.
Every so often a guest on the show plugging something had a gift for the host. 'Is it a surprise?', Bert would enquire. We laughed. Bert was well practised at confecting surprise before the camera.
But of course there was never a surprise where the host was concerned. As the host, Bert had every right to be across everything. Surprises were for other people. At times, he would plan sight gags before the show, and woe betide the inexperienced segment producer who blew the set-up in the meeting.
The show relied on the energy of the crew and he fed off our reactions. To be in on the joke would destroy the effect and, in our oblivion, we rarely let him down. But, then laughter was as compulsive as it was compulsory because the guy was simply world class.
In some ways Good Morning Australia was Hey Hey It's Saturday without the budget. Bert would involve as many of the crew as possible. And floor manager Rob 'Belvedere' Mascara achieved cult status in the cookery spots with his taste-test poems written, incidentally, by the host.
Three years on 3DB was enough for me to become voice-over man for performers' tour dates which were not put on screen because they made the chat look like an advertorial. But, leaning on the piano, I was always compared ruefully to the real deal on proper shows!
Not only was Bert Newton funny, he was a highly intelligent man whose interests and knowledge went well beyond showbiz. He loved politics, was deeply religious and followed the AFL and racing keenly.
But his interest in finance did not match his keenness on the punt, and one of my regulars, Ross Greenwood, often had to deflect distractions to convey his wisdom.
Once, I set up the topic based on communication I had received from some investment that was in the news. I had provided Ross with the relevant correspondence to which he was in the process of referring when Bert took it from him and said, 'Let me see who Mr Ackerly has left his estate to. Oh, John Michael Howson!'
The crew broke up. John Michael was another of my regulars, providing showbiz reports by satellite from Los Angeles. I got on well with him, but we weren’t that close!
A colossus of Australian TV
I soon realised that almost everyone in Australian showbiz watched Good Morning Australia, and all had the utmost respect for Bert. Some were quite clearly stoked just to be on the show – whether contemporaries, or those who had grown up with him on the box.
Overseas stars including Tom Jones, Van Johnson and Phyllis Diller felt the same way. As did a little-known expatriate Australian actor who launched interminably into his life story. Bert managed to break in with, 'I'm sorry, George, I promised Patti I'd be home for Christmas'. We all collapsed, and I think George got the message.
Most of the big names were a delight, but there was this Irishman who had been the singer in a recent cult movie. Yet to turn 20, it had clearly gone to his head. I found him sullen and arrogant. Well, blow me down if Bert hasn’t sussed him out in a matter of seconds and the bloke was on the couch for barely 4 minutes. And, he was the second chat! It was the only time we were ahead of the rundown in all my time on Good Morning Australia.
Bert was a master of the medium. He would link vision and props to his instinctive ability to ad lib, a verbal dexterity honed on radio. Fazed by nothing, he could bounce off anyone and anything. And, his incredible short-term memory ensured accurate recall of guest details and feed lines if we had a comic on the couch. No clipboard required.
Bert Newton was a colossus of Australian television. But, like live variety itself, his time has passed. We are all the poorer for the loss of both.
Doug Ackerly is also an NFSA Oral History interviewer and the author of Coleman, The Untold Story of an AFL Legend (2014) and Front Foot!: The Law that Changed Cricket (2016). The views expressed in this article are his own.
Main image: Bert Newton and the Good Morning Australia crew, 1993. Courtesy Network Ten. NFSA: 1656711