On this day April 6: Gordon Chater

gordon chater april 6 elocution of benjamin franklin
Image: The Bulletin, January 1978.

Born in London on April 6, 1922, Gordon Chater became an Australian stage and radio actor before gaining national recognition as a TV star in the 1960s. After moving overseas, he returned in the seventies for a one-man tour-de-force in Steve J. Spears’ groundbreaking play The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin.

Gordon Chater studied medicine at Cambridge to make his parents happy. But he spent too much time acting in student revues to achieve a degree. He joined the British Navy as an ordinary seaman in World War II.

“They made me assistant captain of the heads which is one rung lower than the lowest job on the ship — captain of the heads. It’s where the ship’s loos are situated. I mean those relegated to the lower orders, seamen and stokers and suchlike.

“Imagine what it was like trying to keep them clean on a destroyer pitching and heaving with every capful of wind. And it was none the easier for me with my plum-in-the-mouth accent, not exactly right for the fo’csle.

“But I survived, I survived.”

He moved to Australia at 24 and enjoyed a successful radio, stage and television career. He became most recognised for his role in The Mavis Bramston Show, the first nationally successful Australian comedy show. Nearly 60 years later, it’s mind-blowing the gay jokes they got away with on that show. No doubt, lots more on that in Andrew Mercado’s upcoming documentary OUTRAGEOUS: The LBGTQI History of Australian TV.

However, Gordon said later he sometimes struggled to make a living.

“I’ve had my ups and downs in Australia. There isn’t enough work for actors.”

After suffering a career decline and becoming seriously depressed in the late sixties, he moved back to the UK.

The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin

“A few years ago, I got out of the acting game altogether and went into bartending and catering, and learnt how to solicit a tip by putting the change in a saucer — customers will scoop up change from a bar or a table but they usually draw the line at emptying a saucer.

“To be honest, I was doing very well in the restaurant business and then The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin came along.”

The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin was unlike anything Australian theatre audiences ever previously experienced. It began with Gordon Chater walking on stage stark naked in his role as a Melbourne elocution teacher. As he dresses, the outwardly respectable teacher confesses his predilection for cross-dressing and his obsession with an underage male student. Later, the audience learns the character is actually confined in a ‘mental institution’.

Then, as the Sydney Tribune noted, “the broken victim of social intolerance dies after hearing a John Laws radio talkback show discussing his case.

“John Laws is likely to have that effect on anyone, in hospital or out.”

Of course, in 1976 when the Tribune printed those words, Alan Jones was yet to begin his radio career.

Gordon Chater enjoyed success in the role in Australia, the UK and the US. He moved to New York but a few years later moved back to Australia’s Gold Coast and resumed his stage career.

In 1996, he published his autobiography The Almost Late Gordon Chater. A man of his word, he died three years later.

Asked in an interview how he would like to die, Gordon Chater said, “Like my mother.”

He said he asked a Hyacinth Bucket-type friend of his mother’s about the circumstances of her death.

“She had just come back from a matinee and looked rather tired. I said, ‘Mrs Chater, you shouldn’t bother changing for dinner.’

“She said, ‘I’d rather die than not change for dinner.’

“And she did.”

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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