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: Ian Bannerman (TEN-10 Sydney); Ralph Baker (ATV-0 Melbourne); Shane Porteous (TVQ-0 Brisbane); and Hedley Cullen (SAS-10 Adelaide). Shane Porteous brought Deadly Earnest to the tropics. Yes, this is the same gentleman who starred in the long-running television soap opera A Country Practice, as Doctor Elliot. And you thought he was such a nice doctor, but just like Doctor Jekyll, he could turn into a Mister Hyde! Shane kept the Deadly tradition alive, by killing off characters in Neighbours.
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. I was approached by Channel 0 up in Brisbane. I’d made a bit of a small-time amateur career at that stage playing villains on stage – I played Caliban in The Tempest, and I played the man who turns into a rhinoceros in Rhinoceros, and I was doing theatre restaurant playing the villain in The Drunkard, and I loved doing my own make-up. I did that in all sorts of shows, and Channel 0 approached me – they already had Deadly Earnest in Sydney and in Melbourne, and because of course it wasn’t networked in those days, every capital city had its own version of Deadly Earnest. So they asked me if I’d do it, and they gave me a pretty open brief and I decided what I wanted was part vampire, part zombie who walks like Frankenstein’s monster. So it was based a bit on Boris Karloff, but also Alfred Hitchcock’s television show – Alfred Hitchcock Presents – was very popular then, so I sort-of borrowed a bit of his voice, and I had to make my mouth sort-of look more Frankenstein monster. I had cotton wool padding inside my lips, long before Brando thought of the idea, so I adopted a sort-of Hitchcock voice with a bit of Boris Karloff thrown in, and that was the character I did. He emerged from a coffin every night, that was the important thing. But having said that, we also did a few send-ups of other shows that were popular at the time, like The Dean Martin Show was very popular, and his theme song was “Everybody Needs To Love Somebody Sometime.” So on Deadly, which was one of our most successful shows, I had Wilbur Kentwell, who was a famous organist and pianist who worked on the ABC on all sorts of shows all over Australia and he was, even then – I’m talking about 1967 or 1968 – was very old. But we had a big baby grand at Channel 0 in the studio, and so Deadly Earnest’s introduction for that night was “Everybody Loves A Body Sometime, Everybody Loves A Corpse Somehow. Your Blood May Be Well Worth Bottling, But I’d Rather Drink It Now…” That was one of the gags we’d come up with.
Q. I thought I told you before the show – no singing! Ahem, one of the problems with working for community television is I have to do my own make-up. But your make-up with the droopy eye looked rather elaborate for 1970. Did it take you long to apply the make-up?
A. About a half-an-hour, or if I was running late, twenty minutes. The droopy eye was actually an optical illusion. If I remember correctly, I blacked out most of around the right eye, and whited out the top of that eye, and most of the time kept a slightly cocked eyebrow there, so the visual contrast with it blacked out here, and the white around that one made this eye look like it was drooping. When it first started I always had a scar, a scar across that cheek I think – I can’t remember now. But the first time we did it and for some of the stills we used an old nineteenth century recipe for making scars, which was using egg white and the inside skin of an egg. Use the egg white to stick the strip of the inside skin on, and as it dried it pulled the skin up in a scar. The trouble was, as soon as you spoke the whole thing cracked, and disappeared. So it was great for stills, but not much good for, you know, leaping around the set. We would have enhanced that with a bit of make-up.
Q. Did you make any appearances as Deadly Earnest outside of your own television show?
A. I didn’t do any other shows as Deadly. I remember at one stage – after it had been going for a few months – I was doing a school tour of one-act plays that were set for that year’s school syllabus, and there’s one particular play which was a terrible old play, and we decided that anything goes. Where ever we can get a laugh, fine. So I decided to play it as Deadly Earnest, and the first time I did it I came on, staggered on as Deadly Earnest. “Good evening, I’m Deadly Earnest!” and there was dead silence, and I had to go through this whole thing playing Deadly Earnest to utter silent confusion in the audience. It was a boarding school where kids aren’t allowed to watch television, and they had no idea who Deadly Earnest was or what I was relating to. So that was the last time I ever made a public appearance as Deadly Earnest. In fact, I was also doing a children’s show live-to-air on Channel 0 on Saturday morning. It started at nine o’clock and we finished at twelve o’clock. It was compered by a singer named Sherry Wheeler, and Ted Dunn, who played Fred Bear in The Magic Circle Club, came up from Melbourne every week. He was a big man, Ted, and a wardrobe controller down at the 0-10 Network, and he had this gorgeous big character called Fred Bear. The other character was Sir Digby Diggory played by John Dommett, a really good young actor I worked with in theatrette – he sadly died quite a few years ago now without fulfilling his full potential – and he played Sir Digby Diggory in a children’s pantomime one Christmas and had been very popular. So he was the sort-of doddering hero, and I was the villain. I started off playing a character called Landlord, and I was greedy and always going to get Sherry’s, Sir Digby Diggory’s and Fred Bear’s rent out of them all, or do them down, or throw them out of the house every week. But eventually we decided there wasn’t much plot in that, so we decided to create a new villain called Meano The Magician, and he was just evil, loved anything that made people cry, and did something terrible to them whenever he possibly could. The pay-off at the end of each show was at least a cream pie in the face or a soda syphon squirted in the face, and Meano The Magician retired in ignominy and frustration, vowing to get even next time. But that was amazing. It went live-to-air, as I say, for three hours. We arrived at about eight o’clock at the studio in the make-up room, and sat around without a script and decide, “What story will we do this week?” John Dommett, because he was a Channel 0 regular – he was actually paid, employed by Channel 0 full-time – and he usually came up with some kind of story, and we’d improvise. We had probably one camera on us – there were three cameras, one on the live studio audience of kids, and two on the action and what was happening – and they just improvised that. We did it on a terribly small staging area in fact, in front of a cardboard cut-out backdrop with a central microphone, so you had to be aware of all the dressing, and we improvised, and I mean there were deadly silences at some stages: “Well, what do we do now?” And somebody usually rescued us, or they dropped through to commercial – but I’d hate to try to do that now.
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. A little bit. I didn’t do it for all that long, and I think I only did a dozen shows – could be a bit more. I’m not sure now, I can’t remember. Because then I left Brisbane to come down to Sydney to try to make a living as a real actor, so the fan-base didn’t build up the way it did, I think, with Deadly Earnest in Sydney and Melbourne. But we certainly did get a bit of feedback. Most of them hated the movie, I mean, we called them frightful: “This is Deadly Earnest, welcome to tonight’s Frightful Movie!” And they were, as often than not, frightful, and we had a lot of complaints saying “You really think that was scary? My little sister scares me more than that film!” and sometimes, I think, we read a couple of the more interesting complaints on-air. But no, it wasn’t anywhere near the big deal it was in Sydney and Melbourne.
Q. Your series didn’t go for very long, only about three or four months back in 1968. What happened then?
A. As I say, I left Brisbane and went to Sydney. Now, because the Saturday kids show was fairly successful, they were happy to fly me up every week for a while, just to do the Saturday show. But Deadly Earnest, because they only had a time-slot they could record on Thursday, they weren’t going to fly me up to do that, so I was replaced by John Dommett – again – playing a character called Professor MacAbre. I can’t remember his voice, or I’d try to imitate him if I could. I don’t think I ever saw his set or anything, but I think there’s a photograph of Professor MacAbre killing off Deadly Earnest, never to appear again.
Q. Do you still keep in contact with any of the people you worked with at Channel 0?
A. Not really, no. Our director for both Deadly Earnest and The Saturday Show was Mike Murphy, and I left in 1968 and didn’t see Mike Mike until we started making A Country Practice in 1982, and Mike Murphy turned up as director on that. He directed a few Country Practice shows, and then later, only a couple of years ago, I ran into him again down at Fremantle Media – who make Neighbours – for a seminar on Neighbours, and Mike Murphy was there, who went on to become a high-ranking international executive for Fremantle Media.
Q. Were you able to keep any of Deadly’s costume as a memento of your time on the show?
A. No, I don’t think any of it – I think I borrowed some of it from the various theatre companies I worked with, none of it was ever mine. I don’t think any of it was Channel 0′s either. I think I borrowed it from the theatre companies and wore it up there. I’d have loved to have kept the top hat, actually.
Q. As regular viewers already know, we do our show almost live and direct every Friday night, but your show was prerecorded. Did anything go to air that shouldn’t have?
A. Not that I’m aware of. I didn’t drop any four-letter-words accidentally, as far as I know. I never saw any of them back to air, mostly because I was doing a lot of theatre in those days, and on Friday nights when it was played to air, I was usually on stage, or just coming off stage. I never saw Deadly Earnest on-camera.
Q. For the last four decades you’ve still been ‘treading the boards’, so to speak, with many Crawford Productions in the seventies, A Country Practice in the eighties, and Neighbours in the nineties. What have you been doing recently?
A. Well, at the moment I’m involved in a terrific play called Codgers which is touring New South Wales and Victoria and Tasmania, so if you get a chance to pop along and see it, do so. It’s a very funny play and a very warm play – I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.
Q. My producer’s giving me the wind-up signal again. I’m afraid that’s all we have time for, Shane, these live satellite interviews are far more costly than we can afford here on community television. Thank you again for being my guest here tonight on The Schlocky Horror Picture Show.
A. It’s been a pleasure! Goodnight Nigel, I love your show!