Way back in the sixties, way before Elvira, a favourite amongst Australian students was Deadly Earnest, the television schlock horror host on the 0-10 Network. Late on Friday nights, the atrocious old science fiction and horror films became compulsory viewing, solely because of the gothic Master of Ceremonies. Actors portraying Deadly Earnest were: Ralph Baker (ATV-0 Melbourne); Ian Bannerman (TEN-10 Sydney); Hedley Cullen (SAS-10 Adelaide); and Shane Porteous (TVQ-0 Brisbane).
Ralph Baker played the role of Deadly Earnest in true Gothic style on ATV-0. Taking on the role after moving to Channel 0 from GTV-9, Ralph had previously worked in the props department as well as appearing in comedy sketches on the original In Melbourne Tonight with Graham Kennedy. Deadly was supported by the unforgettable characters of Claw (played by Ralph’s left hand), Igor (the devouring sound-effect), Hoof (played by Ralph’s foot) and Lily (the skeleton). The following interview was conducted in October 2009 in Ralph’s home in Chirnside, Victoria.
Q. Thank you for joining me here tonight on The Schlocky Horror Picture Show. Now, the obvious first question is how exactly did the character of Deadly Earnest come about?
A. Deadly Earnest came about because the 0-10 Network had bought a package of films – they were all B-grade horror films – and they didn’t know what to do with them. I believe it was Ian Bannerman in Sydney who came up with the idea of having a horror host, and then presenting these as horror movies. So he was actually the first Deadly Earnest, and all the other channels throughout the 0-10 Network decided to follow suit, so there was one in almost every state. Brisbane had one, we started one in Melbourne, there was one in Adelaide – and I think the Adelaide one also covered Perth. They asked me if I’d like to do it, showed me footage of Ian Bannerman’s work in Sydney and then we set about writing and producing our own version. We went to Wardrobe and messed about with the clothes and coming up with the costume that I wore, which was the top hat, sort of like an Eighteenth Century funeral director’s hat with a ribbon tied around it, and a frock coat, a big exaggerated bow tie, and so on. We developed things like Claw, that was Deadly’s left hand, and that came about because, as we messed about in Wardrobe, I put the costume on and said “My hands don’t look right – they look too clean and it doesn’t look right.” They gave me some gloves. I put the right-hand glove on then I put on the left-hand glove, except it was two right-handed gloves, and as soon as I put my right glove on my left hand, it immediately looked grotesque, so we kept it. We did the same thing then, we said “Okay, we’ll have two right boots.” So I had one boot that fitted and one that was too big, and I had two right feet as well. So we didn’t really base Deadly on any character we knew of. Even Claw, which came about because of that glove, and people said, “Oh, you took that from Peter Sellers’ character in that movie, where it just went off and did things all by itself.” Really, we did it purely and simply because of the glove and just carried the concept on from there. But the fact that each state did their own version meant they were all quite different, or work differently, and they went about in a different way – so that’s about how it happened.
Q. I believe you made a lot of public appearances, too? I don’t go out much myself, I’m quite the homebody, you might say…
A. Yes, I did quite a lot of personal appearances. At first, it was quite by surprise – we had no idea the character was going to be so popular, and when the people starting contacting the station and saying “We’ve got something on, we’d like Deadly Earnest to make an appearance…” we had to start following them up and doing these personal appearances. I would generally get made-up and dressed at the studio, and then from there we’d drive to where ever the venue was. Well, across Melbourne, it might be an hour away before you got there, and here we were, driving through suburban streets and city streets with me in full make-up and full kit, and got some very funny looks at stoplights at times. People, as they do at stoplights, just sort of looking around, they’d suddenly see you and say “Ooh, that’s Deadly!” We got all sorts of funny reactions. One of the funniest ones that I did – fortunately it wasn’t far from the channel – and it was a football match, believe it or not, between the cast of Hair! and the Channel 10 boys – or Channel 0 boys as it was then – and I was going to make an appearance at the match. They got ahold of an old 1924 hearse and put my coffin in the back of the hearse and said “Right, well, you can hop in the car, and just before we get there we can open the back and you can get in the coffin.” Well, we found that didn’t work because as soon as you put the coffin inside the hearse there wasn’t enough room to open the lid, so the only thing I could do is hop in the coffin, then they put the coffin in the hearse, and I drove to the football match in the coffin. Not many of you could say you’ve been driven around in your own coffin, I’m sure! But we arrived there, they unloaded the coffin out of the hearse, and I popped out of the coffin – so it was something quite different.
Q. Not for me! Lucky you’re not claustrophobic!
A. Well, normally I am, but it didn’t seem to bother me. I could hold up the lid a bit so I could breathe and so on. It didn’t worry me, or perhaps I’ve just become paranoid in my older years, or something.
Q. One of the problems with working for community television is I have to do my own make-up – did you ever have that problem?
A. No, generally we did it at the actual studio. The exception to that, I guess, would be the time that I was actually on holidays way out to the south east of Melbourne, and they wanted me to make an appearance at the Ballarat Races during the Begonia Festival, so I actually had to drive down to Moorabin airport, they flew me from Moorabin up to Ballarat, and then I had to make-up there. I guess I had to do my own on that occasion, which was a rarity because I always had a make-up artist do it. In appearances in later years – and I have done some since he finished on television – my daughter has done a make-up course, and she’s able to do it, and my wife has been able to do it, so we’ve managed to get by. But generally, as I say, we went to the studio and did all the make-up and getting dressed there, and then just shocked the motorists on the road as we went.
Q. Did you ever get fan mail saying what a complete bastard you were? I get those sorts of letters all the time – which I sadly have to hand over to the ASIO profiling unit…
A. Well, people would write and say that, and he took it as a compliment, of course, it’s what I was supposed to be so it was very hard to know in that case, if they were really meaning to be nasty or if, in their nastiness, they were being complimentary. We just took it that they were complimentary, and that was that. Because of the number of fan letters you get, again something that took us by surprise, I didn’t really have to write much of a script because the fan letters gave it to me. They’d write poems and all sorts of things that I was able to read and use on-air. So they actually made my job easier, which was good.
Q. I happen to know Deadly Earnest is not the only character you’ve played on television. What other television work have you done?
A. I did do a bit in The Magic Circle Club once as another character, just a small character, in part of their show, and I also stood-in once for Fifi Bear in The Magic Circle Club. Fifi Bear was played by John Michael-Howson, and of course it was a bear costume and you couldn’t tell who was in the costume anyway, so I did have to stand-in for him once, because he had to dash off somewhere. I made a few very minor appearances in my earlier days in television – In Melbourne Tonight, doing comedy sketches with Graham Kennedy. The only other thing that I remember making an appearance was again In Melbourne Tonight, was my 21st birthday. I was actually on In Melbourne Tonight and they sang Happy Birthday To Me on the show, so that’s something memorable, too.
Q. Getting back to Deadly Earnest, how was the name chosen?
A. Well, we didn’t have to choose the name, it came to us all ready, saying “We want you to do this character called Deadly Earnest,” and we looked at the spelling of it, where Earnest was spelled E.A.R.N.E.S.T. and it was a nice play on words that we could use, and it became Deadly’s signature line. He’d say “When I say this movie is awful, I’m Deadly Earnest!” and that became his signature line each week introducing the movies.
Q. Were there any Jekyll and Hyde problems separating the character from your own real life?
A. There’s a funny thing with Deadly. I’d walk into the make-up room as Ralph Baker, sit down in the make-up chair, and one hour later I’d emerge as Deadly Earnest, and there really was a change that took place. As Deadly, I did things that I would never do as myself. One perfect example was hosting a horror movie night at a local theatre, and I was sitting on the stage talking with the audience, and someone had placed a hessian bag on the stage beside me and said “That’s for you, Deadly.” I didn’t know what was in the bag, but I guessed there was a snake in there – and sure enough, there was. But as Deadly, I just opened the bag, stuck my hand in there and pulled the snake out. Now, I would never do that, snakes are not my thing, but as Deadly I just did it without a second thought. I was handed a dead rat another time at a university function that I attended. All sorts of things I took in my stride as Deadly would absolutely horrify me as Ralph Baker.
Q. Were there any other problems with these personal appearances?
A. Yes, there was one particular case in the west of Melbourne and it was at a drive-in movie theatre, and I was giving my little spiel up on the little platform they’d put up there – a rostrum that I could stand on – and people started giving cheek from the back of the crowd, which I relied on for material, because I could answer them. But then it got a bit more than that, and a tomato or something came from the back of the crowd and hit me, and I made some comment like “You’d better cut that out or I’ll come and get you!” and then another one got me and I sort of did my block a bit, and I jumped off this rostrum straight at the audience who then parted like the Red Sea and the people who were throwing things were at one end, and I started to charge down toward them – goodness knows what might have happened – fortunately there was security on hand and they grabbed me and bustled me away out of harm’s way. Otherwise we might have started the whole ‘thug’ thing years before it really took place.
Q. As regular viewers already know, we do our show live and direct every Friday night – was your show prerecorded or did it go straight to air?
A. No, it didn’t go straight to air, we used to tape it a fortnight at a time, so we’d tape on a Friday afternoon and we’d do that Friday and the next Friday, so one would go to air that night, the other one the following week. But everything that was taped went to air, sometimes – as far as management was concerned – with disastrous results. There was one occasion when Deadly had a copy of the TV Times, and he was looking through the TV Times to see what was on at the same time-slot, and he said “There’s nothing really worth watching…oh, on Channel Two there’s the tennis. The tennis is on Channel Two! I don’t know why you’re watching me, you should be watching the tennis!” Evidently, the next day the General Manager had a phone call from a friend of his who said “Very grateful to that host of yours. I’d forgotten all about the tennis and he reminded me.” The General Manager wasn’t actually very impressed. “You don’t spend time recommending people watch the other channels!” and as a joke – fortunately – when I went to collect my pay that week, there wasn’t any. He told the paymaster “Take Ralph’s envelope out and tell him he’s not going to get paid.” They did come good, fortunately, but that was his little joke to get back at me.
Q. When was the last time you appeared as Deadly? Will we see him again any time soon?
A. No, not at the moment, I haven’t got any future ones. I’ve done things like an appearance for The Sixties Appreciation Society, who celebrate all things sixties and Deadly, of course, was toward the end of the sixties and into the seventies, so I did that. I did do an on-stage appearance for another group at Box Hill Town Hall some time ago, so I have done various things over the years, which is where it’s been very handy to have a daughter who has done make-up courses and knows how to do the make-up, because I don’t think I could anymore.
Q. Now, for the last three decades you’ve still been ‘treading the boards’, so to speak, with your very own puppet theatre – tell us all about it.
A. I’ve been involved in puppetry for over almost years now. I worked for twenty-five years with a lady and her puppet theatre, Laurie Gardner. We worked in schools, kindergartens, some childcare work. We used to do twelve-to-fifteen shows a week, which comes out to about three shows a day, and you really had to move to do that. Toward the end of our twenty-five years together we slowed down somewhat. Laurie was in her seventies and I was getting into my late sixties, so we did slow down to only a couple of days a week. But then, sadly, Laurie passed away and I continued on with my own puppet theatre which I’m still doing. I don’t do an enormous amount of work now. I do a lot of kid’s birthday parties, some work in kindergartens and primary schools, and during school holidays I get a lot of work in school holiday programs and even shopping centres on occasion. My theatre’s called The Pinnacle Puppet Theatre which began originally by a friend who asked me to do an event she was organising, so I made the whole show and put it all together, and just carried it on ever since. My wife and I have recently finished a five-month journey with a caravan on the back of the car, touring around the western half of Australia, and thoroughly enjoyed it, and we want to take twelve months and go around Australia with a caravan and take the puppet show with us, and do puppet shows on the way – I think it’d be a great experience.
Q. My producer’s either giving me the wind-up signal, or he’s demonstrating how to pleasure a very large lady – do you have any final comments concerning your time with Deadly Earnest before we wrap-up this interview?
A. Deadly was a fun character to play, because he could play things in reverse so, if Deadly said something was horrible, you knew that it was really quite good. You could also do the opposite with him, and he also had the ability – because of the sort of character he was – of being able to tell the truth. Many other television presenters of the day were quite jealous because Deadly could say “Look, I don’t know why you want to watch this movie, it’s absolutely dreadful!” which was absolutely true. Other hosts couldn’t do that, they had to build-up their programs and say “This is a wonderful program, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it thoroughly!” and they’d say to me “I wish I could tell the truth the way you do.” So that was a side of Deadly that was fun, and I had great fun doing it over the years. I guess the thing we missed out a little bit in those days – these days would be different – we didn’t have the merchandising to follow-up on it. Who knows? I might have made a lot of money!