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The Age

Breaking Up - When Garry McDonald and Trevor Farrant split, it killed Norman Gunston

Author: Mark Lawrence
Date: 27/03/1993
Words: 2292
          Publication: The Age
Section: Saturday Extra
Page: 1
LATE ON the night of Friday 5 February, after a long and contentious discussion, Garry McDonald and John Eastway walked out of the Potts Point production office of the `Norman Gunston Show'. Norman Gunston _ one of Australia's most enduring television characters _ was all but buried.

They left behind Trevor Farrant, McDonald's friend and writer of 18 years. Farrant, who had been living on the premises to save the show a few hundred dollars a week, was shocked by what had transpired. He felt betrayed by McDonald, usurped by Eastway. The same day he sent faxes to various people informing them of his departure from the `Gunston Show'. McDonald and Eastway pressed ahead with the revived show, but the strain of working without his writer _ although the first show was all Farrant's writing _ was too much. After only three appearances, McDonald suffered a nervous breakdown and the series was axed by Seven.

From Extra 1 FARRANT lived and breathed Gunston almost as much as McDonald. He put the words into Norman Gunston's mouth and, when circumstances demanded, even delivered his own Gunston impersonations on radio. For Gunston was not, as many perceived, the product of a brilliant ad- libber, but the result of a brilliant comic actor, McDonald, bringing life to the words of a brilliant comic writer, Farrant.

Farrant, the scriptwriter, and McDonald, the actor, had each forged illustrious careers independent of each other, but their ``marriage" became a unique component of Australian showbusiness from the mid- '70s, when they first united to project the image of Gunston even deeper into the Australian psyche.

McDonald had already made his mark with the Gunston character he created for Graham Bond's ABC series `The Aunty Jack Show', and he further reinforced his position as our most profoundly embarrassing comedy treasure in his own series on the ABC with writer Bill Harding and producer/director Eastway.

Farrant began writing for McDonald in 1975, but because they were at opposing networks for a couple of years, he was only able to write for McDonald's performances away from television. The union flourished through the '80s with commercials, 13 TV shows in the US, a record, and the `Can't Stop the Gunston' show that travelled Australia to rave reviews. More recent collaborations between the two had included the highly acclaimed film `Struck By Lightning', for which Farrant was writer/producer and McDonald co-star, and in McDonald's hosting of the inaugural `People's Choice Awards'.

Seven had been trying to woo Gunston back to television for at least five years, and in the lead-up to the now-defunct new series, no one was better qualified than Farrant to understand how the character of Gunston had matured, or to provide a window into Norman's soul.

Up until now the two principals in this poignant tale have remained silent. McDonald, apparently on medical advice, has refused all interview requests, including one from `The Age'. Farrant had made himself uncontactable, first by going overseas soon after quitting the show, then, on returning, by simply lying low. He was honoring a promise made to McDonald and Eastway on that Friday night. Now, because of the publication of what Farrant calls grossly misleading interpretations of the events surrounding his departure and because of some ``frantic arse-covering" by certain network executives, he says he no longer feels bound to keep that promise not to talk about his sudden exit from the show. ``It is, as much for Norman Gunston's sake as anything, time to set the record straight," he says. ``More than anything else, this is part of the history of Norman Gunston and the facts should be set straight." FARRANT, who was interviewed on the phone several times for this article, refused to reveal his whereabouts and has not spoken with McDonald since he rang him to tell him of his decision. Farrant has been accused of causing McDonald's breakdown by walking out a week before the first show. But he denies responsibility: ``I think what he (McDonald) did was to look around and see the kind of people he was surrounded by and decided he didn't want to do it any more _ and I don't blame him." Farrant said McDonald's emotional problems were not new. ``A year ago he told me he was consulting a psychiatrist about stress and his inability to go in front of the cameras or to do TV, so this is nothing new." He said McDonald had already developed severe anxiety about the return of Gunston because, among other things, he was showing signs of no longer being able to memorise the scripts and he had shown a ``reluctance to work". He said that during their stay in America to record celebrity interviews for the new series, McDonald had spent a lot of the time ``curled up in a foetal position", and refusing to work. ``You can look at his face during the American interviews and the strain shows.

``I'd actually said at that last meeting with Garry and John that the only problem I felt I had with the show was Garry's lack of commitment to his own show. Garry just sort of nodded and shrugged and looked around.

``Garry wouldn't work. He was in hiding from me and everybody a lot of the time. He didn't want to be involved. He'd say, `Oh come over to my place and we'll talk about the monologue'. I'd go there and he'd say, `What are you doing here, I don't want to talk about it'." Farrant says he believes McDonald's motivation was another problem.

The actor acknowledged he had brought Gunston back for the money.

``That's not a good enough reason," Farrant said. ``When you are the character, you are the show, you've got to have your heart in it. I don't think he did, and I think a lot flowed from that." Further, Farrant says, while he had always deferred to McDonald's talent and his ability to walk out in front of a million people and perform with real genius, ``the tragedy is that Garry now seems to have lost that ability".

ON THAT crucial Friday night, Farrant says, the heart of his contract with the show _ creative control _ was torn from his hands by McDonald and Eastway, the executive in charge of production.

``They told me they wanted to appoint a new producer," Farrant says.

``I said it was unacceptable; that John would choose this person; she would be appointed over my head, and she'd be answerable only to him.

``I said `contractually I have creative control over the show; it's clear that between you, you're taking that out of my hands, so I'll step down as producer. No animosity. If that's what Garry wants then I'll give you some time to think about it. I'm happy to stay on as writer, providing my money stays the same'." He offered to stay on as a writer because he cared about the character and he felt he had a professional obligation. ``I also thought that Garry might wake up in day or two with a clearer perspective on what was happening. But they refused to let me stay on as a writer.

``Garry leapt up from his chair, ran around behind me yelling `no, no, no, no' and Eastway just sat there shaking his head and saying `no, mate, no'. It was just another nudge by John in what I saw as him trying to take outright control of the show, with Garry in a state of panic and fear going along with whoever would offer to hold his hand.

That's the best explanation I can give." Farrant says that what made it impossible for him to stay was his sense of betrayal by McDonald, who, he says, had become a participant in a process of eroding his authority. ``Because of McDonald's fear and nervousness about going forward with the (Gunston) character, suddenly he had John Eastway _ who used to do Gunston at the ABC _ holding his hand and saying `Trevor's trying to reinvent television, let's just go back and do it like we did it before'." Farrant believes McDonald clutched at this security blanket.

``I guess out of my own needs, my own vanity, I expected McDonald to say `don't go, don't go'. It took the wind out of my sails." Farrant says that, despite his decision to leave, he continued to write, completed the script for the first show, and gave it to McDonald. No one denies that the writing of the first two shows was substantially Farrant's.

John Eastway refutes Farrant's version of events, claiming he and McDonald had asked Farrant to stay on as writer, and that the ``line- producer" they had suggested hiring was simply to deal with the ``nuts and bolts side of things". ``I'm completely at a loss to understand how Trevor could have misunderstood our intention," he says.

SINCE his departure from the show, Farrant has been accused of having been unable to cope with his dual writer/producer role on the `Gunston' shows. Phil Gerlach, the executive director of Total Film and Television, the company packaging the `Norman Gunston Show' for Seven, has questioned Farrant's ability to produce a show, saying ``he had struggled to retain the kudos of being writer and producer of the series and, in the end, ultimately didn't handle either at all". A senior Seven executive fuelled Farrant's anger further by stating that Farrant had never been a producer ``and was floundering in that role".

These were more barbs that had the normally placid Farrant bristling.

``I've produced more than 100 hours of prime-time Australian television and 20 hours of American prime-time TV," he says. ``Anyone is welcome to challenge my judgment, but not my experience." Little love is now lost between former friends Farrant and Gerlach, a fact strongly reinforced this week when Gerlach suggested that Farrant himself had probably had a breakdown before McDonald's.

``I'm in perfectly good mental and physical health, although Phil has been telling people that my physical health was a problem," Farrant says. ``I don't suffer from stress because I prepare. I work hard. If you go in with your conscience clear, you sleep at night. I just think that Garry resisted the truth of the process for so long. He would not go back and rediscover the character, he would not do the work, he wanted the easy life, he wanted the kudos of being the star of `Mother and Son' and one of Australia's best-loved actors. But he spent a lot of the time retreating to the farm and not doing the work. The clock ticks away. Eventually you're only a week away from having to go out there and be Norman Gunston." Farrant said that there were signs of this panic while he and McDonald were in America waiting to record interviews. ``While we were there he started attacking the material. I wrote 1000 pages of material in four weeks in America. I didn't get to bed for six or seven days on the trot, and he began to say `this is not funny'.

``Eventually he admitted that he just could not learn it; he was just rejecting the whole process, and it had caught up on him. And it does; if you don't do any homework and suddenly you're sitting there turning over an exam paper, well ..." Seven's cancellation of `The Norman Gunston Show', following confirmation that Garry McDonald had suffered a nervous breakdown, casts serious doubts on his ability to begin recording a new series of `Mother and Son' for the ABC (scheduled for June). More important, even if McDonald recovers sufficiently to want to bring Gunston back again, there are now questions about whether he will be able to get medical insurance to cover him for another Gunston series. A senior Seven executive's response to this was that ``some people are simply worth the risk", but he agreed it would not be an easy matter to resolve.

With the death of the Farrant/McDonald relationship, both have not only lost each other, they have also lost Norman _ and so have we.

They both loved him, the bloodied, gormless innocent from Wollongong, with the inimitable ability to push the cringe button in us all. A resurrection of Gunston without reconciliation between the two is remote. Reconciliation, Farrant says, is impossible.

Farrant says he still believes that if it had been a matter of just him and McDonald working things through, it could have been done.

``I've always been good at getting him to the post," he says. ``But triangles don't work; it's like a love relationship really, and from my point of view there's a lot of love for the character and a lot of hurt on the part of the character. If others had not been there I think we probably would have been all right." Farrant has repeatedly said that he bears no malice towards McDonald, but his sense of betrayal is such that the rift is beyond a healing touch. ``Some day Garry will have to speak for himself; there are things I cannot say."

 
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