Ugly Dave Gray had only been in Sydney for a few months when he got the call Graham Kennedy wanted him on In Melbourne Tonight.
It was 1969 and the British comedian and his wife had relocated to Australia for 3 months to try his luck after tiring of the same UK clubs.
“I’d never done television in my life. I was petrified. They said ‘We just need 6 minutes. Keep the jokes reasonably clean,'” he recalls.
“I got to Channel Nine and the show was always Live. Graham came up to me before the show and said, ‘Hi. I hear you’re pretty funny. All the best.’ I went on but it was very, very ordinary.
“About 3 weeks later they called and said Graham wanted me on the show again. I couldn’t understand it.”
This time Kennedy passed on some of his television expertise.
“He said, ‘Don’t keep staring at the camera. Work to the audience, the camera will pick up the rest.’
“From then on the started using me every 3 weeks, and in a few months I was getting quite well known.”
It was a friendship that would endure across decades, including when Kennedy invited Gray to join his new show, Blankety Blanks.
“I had to go to Crawfords and hand in my notice”
Gray had been performing on The Young Doctors in a dramatic role as publican Bunny Howard, but he struggled with the constraints of playing straight man. Kennedy offered a way out.
“I had to go to Crawfords and hand in my notice. They were furious because they’d built up my part,” he remembers.
“I suggested my character leave town, to leave the door open. But I had a heart attack behind the bar and died! It was their way of telling me ‘You’re never coming back!’”
Much greater success would come on Blankety Blanks, 10’s game show that only ran for two years but hit extraordinary heights with its double entendres in an early evening slot.
“We never had trouble with the network and never told to clean it up or watch what we do. I was amazed. Some nights were very near the bone,” Gray admits.
“The ratings were higher than the other 3 channels put together.”
“The ratings were higher than the other 3 channels put together.”
Gray would famously end the show with a gag, commonly involving a fictional “Dick” joke, with which Kennedy would gleefully riff. They stemmed from a gag Gray related around literary figure, Dick Turpin.
“It got such laughs, he asked me after the show, ‘Do you know any more Dick jokes?’ Gray laughs.
“So every Friday I used to just take an ordinary joke and revamp it.”
Blankety Blanks churned out some 500 episodes but not everything ran smoothly with the very private Kennedy. He rarely socialised with his colleagues.
“He was gay and had his boyfriend but when it came to work we were inseparable,” he explained.
“Graham was very difficult to get along with. We’d been doing Blankety Blanks about 3 months, and one night Graham had a siphon of soda water. He walked around the panel and pointed it at me. And I said, ‘You wouldn’t dare’ and he said ‘Wouldn’t I?’
“I was getting fed up.”
“There had been a few situations where he was taking the piss out of me and I was getting fed up.
“So the following week we went out for dinner and I didn’t say a word until we’d finished dinner, sipping on a red wine, and I said, ‘I realise Blankety Blanks has been fantastic for my name, I couldn’t have had a better shop window. But I’m not there for you to take the piss out of me. And I realise what I’m saying might cost me my job, but I don’t care. You love sending people up, but don’t do that to me on national television. If you ever do it again I’ll walk off the set.’
“He said, ‘Dave I wouldn’t upset you for the world. You are my backstop. When I’m stuck for anything to do, I know I can throw to you. I rely on you so much.’
“I don’t think anybody had ever spoken to Graham like that.”
“I don’t think anybody had ever spoken to Graham like that. From that day, we got on like you wouldn’t believe.”
Gray was also a regular on Celebrity Squares and hosted two game shows, Play Your Cards Right and Celebrity Tattle Tales. He was a regular on Sydney’s club scene and cruise ships, was crowned Moomba King and once lent his voice to radio ads for erectile dysfunction.
“I’d forgotten all about those. It was ok. It didn’t do me any harm,” he offers.
“Why don’t you call yourself Dave Ugly Gray? But it didn’t sound right.”
He had been born Graham David Taylor, but after shortening it to Dave Gray, he felt he still needed a gimmick.
“A friend said, ‘You have an ugly mug, why don’t you call yourself Dave Ugly Gray? But it didn’t sound right. And someone said pop it the other way around,” he says.
“He got his first gig in Australia after hunting out an agent in the White Pages, and gave strict instructions to the emcee at his first Aussie club.
“Please don’t give me a build up. I want you to do the opposite.”
“I said, ‘Please don’t give me a build up. I want you to do the opposite. Say something like ‘Ladies and gentlemen I’m very sorry about our next act.’
“So I went on and I hadn’t a clue what made Australians laugh. But it went over well and the agent put in more jobs for me.”
His trademark cigar was borne from a desire to give up smoking.
“A friend said you never inhale off a cigar because you cough your head off. You just puff in and blow out.
“It was alright on television, but to be on stage for an hour I found it got in my way.”
Gray is now in his 80s and living on the Gold Coast, and admits to being a long term advocate of cryogenics -he is a paid member to be immersed in nitrogen upon death.
“If they find a cure they can bring you back and you can have another go at life. So I thought ‘Well there’s nothing to lose. All my jokes will be new again!’” he jokes.
“So I signed up with them. I get a Long Life magazine every 3 months.”
Hopefully that’s not needed for some time. But before we wrap I ask if there is anybody working in Comedy today whom he considers top of their game?
“I haven’t seen anybody that’s had me rolling in the aisles, to be honest,” he reveals.
“I don’t find as many things to laugh at these days.”
“I don’t find as many things to laugh at these days. Comedy on the telly hasn’t climbed up at all. I think it’s deteriorated, quite frankly.
“We had more freedom when I was doing it. You could have a giggle about anything really, as long as it wasn’t racial. That was always frowned upon. But there are so many things you can joke about without offending people.
“Comedy has changed. Maybe I’m old-fashioned. But to me the art of telling a good joke is to draw pictures with your mouth. If you’re telling a gag, make people see it.”
“Everything was unrehearsed, that’s why it worked”
But he does enjoy when fans speak fondly of his glory days on TV. Blankety Blanks and the Kennedy chemistry is always the first talking point.
“Everything was unrehearsed, that’s why it worked. He never knew what I was going to say, and I never knew what he was going to say. But we always had a comeback.
“People used to stop me in the street and say ‘I wouldn’t miss you and Graham for the world.’”
On the day we speak, Gray was recognised at a Gold Coast shop.
“I walked in and the new guy said ‘Oh God. You are him, aren’t you? I recognise the voice!’ And he was only about 40. I thought he’d be too young to remember me. But he wanted a photograph on his phone.
“He said ‘Wait until I show me mates!’
“And I said ‘Thank you.’ It still happens after all these years.’”