Bernard King: the original acid-tongued TV judge


Bernard King
Image: Jon Waddy, National Portrait Gallery

In the 1970s, Australia’s Bernard King invented the acid-tongued TV talent judge.

Decades before Red Symons or Simon Cowell, he pioneered the acerbic comment, the withering criticism, and the derisive stare. He was bitchier than any since — and much funnier.

Originally from Maleny in Queensland, Bernard King was flamboyantly and openly gay. He later became a celebrity television chef.

Pot of Gold

Pot of Gold and successor shows were TV talent quests minus the production values and high ambitions of today’s mega-searches. Bernard and his fellow judges sat behind plyboard desks and watched whoever turned up perform in a space cleared on the studio floor. No auditions or celebrity mentors. No singing coaches, backing singers or backup dancers. Certainly no choreographers, stylists or pyrotechnics. Only one person had to believe the contestant was worthy — the contestant!

They sang pop, country, opera and god-awful musical comedy. There were ballet, tap, and disco dancers not to mention spoken word orators, bell ringers and piano accordion players.

Many of the acts were bad enough to be funny, except for the comedians, who were never funny. Nor were the magicians ever magical.

Bernard was renowned for his bitchy quips and low scores. However, he became noticeably tamer after incidents like a contestant emptying a jug of water over him. Then the first host — a rather bland American import — quit midshow over Bernard’s ‘unkindness’.

However, Bernard King insisted he was kind.

“No one has the courage to tell them that they’re awful. I’m the only person who is sincere.”

One person he told the truth was 11-year-old Keith Urban who performed Dolly Parton’s AppleJack.

“I desperately encourage you to escape the mediocrity, get out of country & western music, and get into some real music otherwise you’ll end up sounding like Dolly Parton and absolutely useless.”

Sadly, clips of his earlier shows are apparently lost. But I enjoyed Bernard’s delicious bitchiness so much, I’m pretty sure I remember some scenes word for word.

You’re giving me a two?

“You’re giving me 2?” one teenage lad asked incredulously.

“Yes,” said Bernard, “2… for your shoes – they’re beautifully polished. Did you shine them, or your mum?”

“My mum.”

Bernard scowled, scribbled out the 2, and replaced it with a zero.

“Well, we can’t go giving you points your Mum earnt. What a shame I can’t mark you on the shoes because I certainly can’t give you anything for the singing — I couldn’t call you a singer.”

You call yourself a judge?

The lad was gobsmacked. “You call yourself a judge?”

Bernard retrieved his card and pen. He paused, regarded his victim for a while… and then crossed out the zero.

“Unable to take constructive criticism — minus 2.”

Another young man’s greatest asset was his astonishing self-confidence.

Bernard: Do you have a particular ambition young man?

Contestant: A very big one. I’m going to become a legend.

Bernard: So how many singing lessons will you be taking?

Contestant: I’m going to be an entertainer. I’m going to make movies.

Bernard: Are you? And in how many years do you expect to achieve this?

Contestant: I’ll be a millionaire by the time I’m 30.

Bernard: Yes… I suppose in this crowded and confused world there’s room for yet another dithering, shambling mess. Modern entertainment is so perverse. If you find a gimmick, there might be a gimmick you could add to the little you have to offer. Stripping might do it!

Carmen Miranda impersonator

My all-time favourite was a lady in her 50s who impersonated Carmen Miranda, the Latina movie star noted for her colourful ruffled dresses and headdresses piled high with feathers, flowers and just about anything else she could balance on her head — bananas, grapes, pineapples, parrots — anything…

Much was made in the introduction of the performer’s charity work. She apparently brightened the day of the elderly by performing her impersonation at Brisbane retirement villages.

The music started. She flung one arm above her head and another out to the camera, fingers curled like some demented vampiric flamenco dancer and screeched.

Ay-ye, Ay-ye, Ay-ye, Ay-ye, Ay-ye, Ay-ye like ye very much.

Her presence established, she stampeded toward the camera.

Ay-ye, Ay-ye, Ay-ye, Ay-ye, Ay-ye, Ay-ye think you’re grand,
You see that when I feel your touch…

She continued her gallop at the camera until the operator realised she was not going to stop and he and his machine must retreat. The camera lurched backward and she followed. When it slowed – she did not! The camera raced backward again, this time with a violent wobble, a wobble explained when electric cables came into view on the studio floor. I waited breathlessly for her to wade through the mess of cables in her high heels, but sadly, as suddenly and erratically as she’d advanced, she began dancing backward toward the intended performance space, gesturing impatiently for the camera to follow.

And never for a moment did the screeching falter.

Ay-ye, Ay-ye, Ay-ye, Ay-ye, Ay-ye, Ay-ye…

Twice more, she advanced

Twice more, she advanced on the camera. Each time, the camera’s retreat became smoother.

The song ended with her inconveniently beyond the bounds of the set where she serenely struck a final pose, teeth and gums bared menacingly at the still intact camera lens, and through it, the home viewers, daring them not to applaud in their living rooms across the length and breadth of the country.

The camera swung to the judging panel. Bernard picked up his pen.

Bernard: So you donate your time to perform in old folks’ homes?

Contestant: Yes.

Any shows coming up?

Bernard: Do you have any shows coming up?

Contestant: Yes — quite a few.

Bernard: Can you tell me the dates and where you’ll be doing this?

She proudly rattled off a list of times and places and Bernard carefully wrote them down on his pad. Once the list was complete, Bernard read from it, repeating the details of her upcoming performances.

Finally, his victim blissfully oblivious to the coming storm, he attacked.

“I want everyone who is watching to note these times and places and check if you have loved ones in those places.

“If you do… get them out now. What a terrible way to treat our elderly Australians. People who have worked hard, and some even fought, to make this country great – only to have their retirement ruined by a visit from this terrible woman.

“Can you imagine being stuck there in a wheelchair, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and suddenly out of nowhere, shattering the peace and tranquillity of your twilight years, you are attacked by this terrible woman?”

Also: Graham Kennedy, the king of television.

Adventure Island: Drag Queen Storytime daily.

Andrew Mercado on Number 96.

For the latest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) news in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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1 Comment

  1. Rodney Hall
    1 April 2023
    Reply

    I loved Bernard King. He was the only person with the courage to tell people that they had no talent and not deceive themselves.

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