GORDON CHATER’S CHUCKLE AT THE WORLD

By Desmond Zwar

Actor Gordon Chater is sitting in his high-backed white throne, looking out at the pelicans on Australia’s Gold Coast, tapping at his word-processor with its mean little screen; laughing at what he’s been writing in one of his interminable letters.

And ready to talk about his Life ‘(The Almost Late) Gordon Chater’; and the ‘wonderful, unbelievable’ advance cheques that have come in from the publisher. He’s so excited, Luvvie, with this new literary action that he is - at 74 - planning a novel.

The roly-poly actor assures his audience that ‘one is terribly blessed, being able to laugh.’ Everyone should do it a lot more. ‘I’m told that laughter is a sort of internal aerobics; expands circulation,’ he chuckles, ‘quickens the heart and boosts the immune system.’

Jolly as ever, but having to suck in medication in the mornings for his asthma and emphysema, he admits the day starts badly; with hot sweats and a lot of coughing. But his little upstairs seaside flat is spotless; the dishes have been washed from breakfast, the bathroom cleaned and food for lunch prepared. He’s ready to have the first big laugh at the day.

‘You’ve got to hear about my amazing experience!’ he shouts at me from an armchair not two metres away, the rounded English tones delivered as from the stage. ‘Ha! Ha! I was coming out of Woolworth’s check-out the other morning, and I was approached by the grubbiest, dirtiest young man that I have ever seen! In this day and age, one thinks one is going to be stabbed, you know. Or at least mugged. But there were a lot of people around and I didn’t think he’d do it with them watching. He said: "Have you lost something?" (Well, I thought...maybe my marbles). "What do you mean?" He said: "Check your pockets.’’ So I carefully put down my plastic bags and I thought: "That’s good, he’s not going to stab me. Just rob me."

‘I found that although I had been given two $20 bills in change at the counter, I only had one of them. The young man handed me $20 and said I’d left it on the check-out. I said: "You have it. Or at least take $10 for a drink. I am very grateful."

‘He said: "No. No. I couldn’t bear to deprive anyone as decrepit as you.’’

That’s missing from the 340 pages of his book he tapped out in 3 1/2 months at 1,000 words a day. But the fact that he arrived stillborn into the world in London is, and how he was revived by a midwife and went on to Cambridge to study medicine, which he failed. And his 18,000 theatre performances all over the world; and the hit television series The Mavis Bramston Show, so embedded in the Australian memory that a taxi-driver picked him up the other day and asked if he was the Gordon Chater. Easing his bulk into the front seat Chater admitted to it. ‘Gord, I thought you was dead years ago!’ said the driver through the actor’s cruelly accurate mimicry.

The only time he fell out with television was when he broke the network edict that no cast member should talk to the Press without permission from Publicity.

‘The phone rang early in the morning and I answered it half-asleep. A reporter wanted my reaction to an outcry - particularly from Sydney’s Bishop Muldoon - about the content of the show. He said: "The Bishop’s selling his shares in Ampol (a sponsor)." I replied that it was very immoral for a Catholic bishop to have shares at all.’ It made the noonday edition, and there was trouble.’

In six years at the Gold Coast he’s unpredictably kept away from theatre. ‘I’ve been up to Brisbane three times - to see Warren Mitchell and Jilly Perryman, and of course to see Barry Creyton, who I regard as a surrogate son, in Blithe Spirit. I watch ‘Sale of the Century’ on television; it’s my bible. I shout the answers at the screen.’ And if the mind is rusty about a date he rummages through the full set of Encyclopaedia Britannica which he bought because he always promised to do so if he had enough money. He has always been a letter writer and (‘thank God! for my book’) a lot of people he wrote to, kept his letters. ‘I wrote every month to my Godson until he was 21, because I thought I should. And to my parents, once a week, all through the war and when I came out to Australia 50 years ago.’

That, apparently, was a mistake - the Australian arrival. He’d gone aboard a ship when he was demobbed from the Navy, which he thought was heading for Shanghai. A sailor told him as it pulled away: ‘Shang’ai, mate? You’re goin’ to ****ing Fremantle.’