Improving on our model

Australians learn to hold their own

Published: Nov 04 2018, 01:01:am

Saturday, November 30, 1974

    You'd never know it to see him on the screen. Never, during the 109 minutes of The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, does actor Barry Crocker's head part with his broad-brimmed hat.
    He could be as bald as Brynner.
    The truth, a mane of fashionably long, carefully groomed hair, emerged during a recent stopover in Vancouver. Crocker, one of Australia's top popstars, was on his way home from Edmonton, where he had just taped two guest appearances on CBC-TV's Tommy Banks Show.
    "It was all very strange," he said, slipping into the McKenzie character. "They delayed the plane for half an hour and told us that we were waiting for Eskimos. Later some massively large Negroes got on and we took off.
    “I never did see any Eskimos."
    Barry McKenzie, the archetype of the ingenuous Aussie abroad, was created by humourist Barry Humphries. Originally a comic-strip character, he came to life in 1972 when six-foot, two-inch Crocker fleshed him out on the screen.
    Directed by Bruce Beresford, the film was a major breakthrough both for Australian moviemaking and for the broad-shouldered singer. Made for $300,000, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie "broke every box-office record in Australian history," Crocker said.
    "It made its money back in eight weeks, and it's still playing after two years."
    The turned-on comedy introduced the 37-year-old TV star to a whole new audience. “Up until then, I was the Andy Williams of Australia,” he said.
    A night-club performer with four gold records to his credit, Crocker spent six years as the host of Australian television’s top-rated variety program.
    Earlier this year, Crocker was master of ceremonies for the Australia Day celebrations at Spokane's Expo 74. Among the performers on the program was singer Helen Reddy, an old friend — Crocker is godfather to her child — who used to be a frequent guest on his show.
    As Barry McKenzie, he not only became a part of, but virtually the symbol of Australia's powerful new nationalism. "It's a question of identity," he said.
    "We know we're not Americans, and we're not English. So what the hell are we?’
    Australian performers have the same problem as Canadians, according to Crocker. "You can't really make it at home until you've made it somewhere else — America or England — first."
    Just as there is an Aussie ghetto in London — created, says Crocker, by an urge that's "innate in our souls: to visit the mother country once in our lifetime to realize how great our own country is'' — there is also a Canadian one.
    "There are lots of you there, but the Canadians are generally better behaved," he said. "I don't think you like (Britain) any more than we do, but you're usually more respectful, as if you really believe you're in a superior land.
    “We don't believe it. But that's because of the basic ratbagger in the Australian character.”
    Canadians like to think they've borrowed basic British and American institutions and improved upon them. Australians, says Crocker, flashing a toothy smile, improve on the Canadian improvements.
    In the music industry, for example, "we copied you with a lot of quota systems and such, and improved them."
     Next to Japan, he says, “Australia leads the world in per capita record sales.” Recently [1970], an Australian Film Development Corporation was founded on the Canadian model to foster feature filmmaking down under.
    At present time the AFDC gets back at least half the money it invests, he says. This year [1974], 22 features were made in a nation with a population approximately half that of Canada.
    One of them was a sequel to the original McKenzie saga, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own. "Many great men had to hold their own," Crocker said. "Even Superman had to before he got his glasses."
    Bazza's latest satirical odyssey, subtitled Carry On Up the Poms, will take him to Europe. Along the way he will run into the likes of Roy Kinnear, the portly comedian who played D'Artagnan's loyal valet in the recent Three Musketeers, and a sinister Donald Pleasence.
    Pleasence, Crocker says, plays a "very old vampire named Count Plasma. His fangs are pretty well shot, but he can still give you a nasty suck."
    The highlight of the new film is the scene in which Bazza finally takes off his hat. "It's very, for the first time ever, tastefully done,” he says reassuringly.
    Then, turning from mock sincere to mock serious, Crocker reminded Canadians of their heavy responsibility to national filmmaking movements.
    "It's up to you to make the next move." A broad, Barry McKenzie grin follows.
    "Show us the way, so we can improve it again."

The above is a restored version of a Province interview by Michael Walsh originally published in 1974. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: I should explain that very Canadian joke quoted in the fifth paragraph of the above interview with Barry Crocker. Since 1949, Alberta’s capital city has been home to a Canadian Football League team called the Edmonton Eskimos. In North America, of course, football is a sport dominated by African-American players. So Crocker, channeling his Barry McKenzie persona, was confused when he saw not Inuit, but athletes board the plane. Hey, the joke was funny in 1974.
    An Australian entertainment institution, Crocker called his 2003 autobiography Bazza: The Adventures of Barry Crocker. Much like William Shatner in Canada, he has aged into a national treasure. In the process, he has seen his name absorbed into the rhyming slang that is a part of what lexicographers call “Australian English.” (This is only appropriate, given the rich wordplay that is central to the satirical intent of The Adventures of Barry McKenzie.) Sometime in the 1990’s, his countrymen embraced “Barry Crocker” as a phrase meaning “shocker." The online Urban Dictionary suggests that in reaction to a really bad kick in football, an Aussie might say “What a Barry Crocker!” Perhaps its most infamous use, though, was on April 17, 2014, when a Sydney tabloid, The Daily Telegraph, ran it as a Page One headline over the story of a political resignation occasioned by an alleged personal impropriety. Always one to appreciate a good joke, Barry Crocker turns 83 today (November 4).