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Entertainer excelled on the wry side




27-7-1927 2-5-2011

RAY Taylor, who broadcast to a different drummer and was co-host for Australia's first breakfast show, Channel 7's Today, has died of cancer at the Sacred Heart Hospice in Darlinghurst, Sydney. He was 83.

In another phase of his working life, in the 1970s, he joined the writing team of the highly successful Bill Cosby television show in Los Angeles, and also wrote for other top American television shows.

Taylor often dressed in overcoat and sunglasses for Today, and the show's theme tune was A Night in Tunisia, "which gives you some idea of our grasp on reality," Taylor wrote in his self-effacing 1992 memoir, The Man Who Came to Breakfast.

Yet if anything, his grasp on reality proved a little stronger than the medium could handle. One evening in 1965 he had moved to Melbourne to do The Ray Taylor Show, broadcast live from The Top of the Town restaurant viewers heard Taylor meekly inquiring of the munchers what they thought of the crab souffle while seeing pictures of starving Africans. The station, Channel 0, was forced to make a large pay-out and Taylor got the boot, a recurring theme in his working life.

Not long afterwards, Taylor received a lifetime ban from the ABC's general manager for a joke about the Pope.

"In my time I have done breakfast shows, lunchtime shows, afternoon shows," he said in later years. "Had I persevered with television, watching my Ps and Qs, I could have still been doing it today along with the rest of the recycled."

Taylor was born in Harrogate, Yorkshire, the only child of Jessie and Vernon, a real estate agent. "Ours was not a close-knit family," Taylor remembered. "An even greater danger than my father's wrath was the possibility of the family having to talk to one another.

"Luckily this was averted by the wireless."

After his schooling, Taylor joined the Royal Navy on his 17th birthday and after a brief time in the Combined Services Entertainment Unit, he asked his uncle, Royston, an actor, about a possible stage career. The answer, "You're too tall", did not put him off, but a short stint at the Dundee rep did. "A morbid desire to eat regularly" saw him take advantage of an ex-servicemen's grant to study ecomonics in Liverpool, where he remained resistant to figures but fell heavily to the charms of jazz. In 1948, he crossed the English Channel to work "dish-washing, hash-slinging and cocktail shaking" in Paris and Marseilles, and most things French became another lifelong love.

Back in Britain, his French experience got him the position of "assistant manage in charge of bins" at the Berkeley Hotel in London. And when a Canadian guest suggested other opportunities awaited, he moved to Canada in the early 1950s and landed a few small parts on the national broadcaster, CBC. He also married an Australian woman, about whom he would reveal nothing, and the newlyweds arrived in Sydney in 1953. Taylor got an agent, took an announcer's course and found work at 2GN, Goulburn, where the streak that would later move him to broader canvases first emerged during the Hospital Hour, where requests for Mario Lanza were ignored and he played Dizzie Gillespie instead.

Then came television. "For a long time I held back from showbiz because I thought you had to be able to sing and dance. Television took care of all that. To be a star on television, it is sufficient to appear on it."

For the next decade, Taylor compered, hosted, anchored, interviewed, reported, editorialised, joked, provoked, mused, acted, quizmastered, voxpopped and generally charmed his way through hundreds of on-air hours across all four networks few CVs span Four Corners and a Reg Grundy game show.

Meanwhile, he wrote for stage revues, newspapers and a magazine, toured in the English sex farce There's a Girl in My Soup, and spoke at anti-Vietnam War rallies. All this, along with alcohol and a marriage break-up, lead to a breakdown, but, as always, he bounced back.

Digby Wolfe, another Channel 7 almunus, invited him to join the Cosby writing team, where he wrote for guests such as Richard Pryor, Bob Hope, Lily Tomlin, Peter Sellers and Johnny Carson. He lived in the Hollywood Hills for 10 years with his second wife, singer Annette Klooger, also turning out scripts for All in the Family, Barney Miller, Dinah! and Cher.

He returned to Sydney in late 1980, and in 1986 moved back to Melbourne and commercial radio, 3AW. The ratings of his dicey 6pm to 8.30pm timeslot rocketed, before he moved back to Sydney where, despite the ABC lifetime ban, he was welcomed back to 2BL for the gruelling 5am to 8.30am shift. His last broadcast was on December 28, 1990.

In retirement, he travelled, watched SBS and read Proust. Taylor is survived by his wife, Annette, and her family.

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