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Tuesday 19 November 2019

Comedian and satirist John Clarke dies aged 68

John Clarke died of natural causes while taking photographs of birds in the Grampians National Park (ABC via AP)
John Clarke died of natural causes while taking photographs of birds in the Grampians National Park (ABC via AP)

John Clarke, a comedian and political satirist beloved in Australia and New Zealand, has died at the age of 68.

Clarke's family said he died on Sunday of natural causes while taking photographs of birds in the Grampians National Park, a three-hour drive from his home in Melbourne, Australia.

Friend and former colleague Ross Stevenson said Clarke died of a heart attack.

His death led to people from both countries reminiscing about the skits and songs Clarke performed which often touched on the essence of life Down Under.

One of Clarke's finest hours came during The Games, a mock-documentary from 2000 about that year's Sydney Olympics.

After Australia's then-prime minister John Howard refused to formally apologise to indigenous Aboriginal people for past atrocities, an actor who happened to have the same name as the nation's leader read out a moving apology on the show.

The apology resonated, and was later read out in the Australian parliament, becoming part of the official record.

"I speak for all Australians in expressing a profound sorrow to the Aboriginal people. I am sorry. We are sorry," the actor John Howard said on the show.

"Let the world know and understand, that it is with this sorrow, that we as a nation will grow and seek a better, a fairer and a wiser future."

Stevenson, who co-wrote the show, said the apology was Clarke's idea.

"Every word of it was his," Stevenson said. "It's remarkably brilliant and poetic."

Stevenson said Clarke had a great appreciation for the absurdity to be found in daily life and was driven by a passion for social causes and anger about injustice.

"He maintained that rage," Stevenson said. "It never diminished for him."

He said his friend's death came as a shock because Clarke lived a healthy lifestyle and kept himself fit.

"As he liked to say, he dearly loved to commit golf," Stevenson said.

Clarke was perhaps best known for his 27-year collaboration with Bryan Dawe, producing weekly satirical political interviews.

Born in Palmerston North, New Zealand, Clarke achieved fame in his home country before moving to Australia in the 1970s. He created the persona Fred Dagg, a gumboot-wearing farmer and archetypal good bloke.

As Dagg, Clarke performed a song about his gumboots, which are now on display in New Zealand's national museum, Te Papa: "Now there's rugby boots and racing boots, and boots for drinkin' rum. But the only boots I'm never without are the ones that start with 'gum'."

New Zealand's prime minister Bill English took time during a media conference to reminisce about some of Clarke's skits, saying he was "a man who showed us how to laugh at ourselves and created a rural vernacular for New Zealand".

Jay Cassells, another friend and creative collaborator, said Clarke was a voracious reader and had a particular interest in poetry. He said Clarke was also a careful student of human nature but had the knack of being generous rather than cruel in his critiques.

Cassells recalled once leaving a show with his friend in Melbourne when an eager fan came up to Clarke and said: "I love your work."

"Oh," Clarke replied. "You're the one."

Clarke is survived by his wife Helen, his daughters Lorin and Lucia, his grandchildren, Claudia and Charles, and his son-in-law, Stewart Thorn.

PA Media

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