The TV star and the interview that ‘chopped’ her career

This is the story of three Australian entertainers: one whose career path hit (at least temporarily) a brick wall after the first guest on her brand-spanking-new TV show turned up profoundly drunk; the next who won a Walkley Award for interviewing the same guest in entirely different circumstances; and the third — the guest himself — who cheerfully admitted to being a homicidal maniac.

It was 25 years ago this month that Libbi Gorr, under her stage name, Elle McFeast, stood in front of a live TV audience to welcome her first guest, career criminal turned bestselling author Mark “Chopper” Read.

Chopper Read appearing on McFeast Live. When he talked of killing crooks, he helped kill the show.

Five weeks earlier, Read had been released from his latest (and last) stint in prison and many media groups had reached out to interview him. Gorr won the race, and it would cost her dearly. She is living proof that the industry of confected outrage was up and about long before social media.

Gorr (or McFeast) was a budding star. Brassy, bold and unafraid, she progressed from a character to host of the satirical ABC sports program, Live and Sweaty, along with another new-generation star, Andrew Denton.

In 1998, she was the first woman to be given her own national night-time variety show, McFeast Live.

She was part of a generation of “Spice Girls” feminists, she says. She had the confidence to feel she could handle just about anything.

That was until she was confronted on national television by an earless killer left legless from the free grog in the waiting room.

Around the time of Read’s release, I received a call from a McFeast Live staffer asking whether I thought Chopper would be a good guest for the program. I said it was a particularly bad idea to fly him to Sydney from Hobart, where he was living on a farm having just served nearly six years for shooting bikie Sid Collins in the guts. (Collins later disappeared and his body has never been found.)

“It’s been 25 years [since the interview] and that’s the first I’ve heard of that,” Gorr told me.

Respected journalist Andrew Rule, Read and my good self conspired to publish a series of crime books that, while an affront to good taste and grammar, became bestsellers. Read had delighted in referring to well-known Sydney crooks as hoons and pimps who were protected by crooked cops.

I liked Read and always found him engaging company, but a live interview would be as risky as a high-wire act over a pool of sharks. If nothing went wrong, it would be entertaining. If something went wrong, it would be deadly.

I told them that if he was left to his own devices in Sydney, it could end badly.

The McFeast team decided to press on. It did end badly.

They hired some form of security to protect Read and to protect people from Read. What they didn’t do was protect Read from the booze in the VIP green room, which meant he committed grievous bodily harm on the beer fridge.

When he staggered on stage, he leered at the host’s breasts, joked about killing people and told a story of the dangers of putting a victim in a cement mixer.

Elle McFeast with Chopper Read. The earless was legless.Credit:ABC

I remember thinking how game Gorr was not to flee from the stage.

It emerges now there was an emergency guest in the green room and if anyone had known how drunk Read was, they could have made a switch.

As the interview started, a floor manager madly gave the wind-up sign but Gorr, unaware Read was hammered, continued: “I was taught the show should go on.”

When he moved in for a grope, she knocked his hands away and continued the interview. “That’s what you did back then. It was a long time before the MeToo movement.”

Gorr did slap a man’s face for copping an unsolicited feel of her bottom. He was a captain of industry once touted as a possible prime minister.

She pushed through, leaving Read to sit in the corner dozing and occasionally interject for the remainder of the program.

After the show, Read made an unusual offer, telling Gorr: “I don’t know anyone in Sydney but if you ever need anyone knocked off in Melbourne …”

The response to her program was immediate. She wanted to ruffle feathers, but the interview left her show a dead duck.

There were more than 100 complaints and the ABC apologised, conceding the interview was “an error of judgment”.

Libbi Gorr – unlike some of Chopper’s victims, a survivor.Credit:Justin McManus

Then-communications minister Richard Alston blasted: “I think it is appropriate for the government to express its outrage at the appalling way in which I think this episode has been conducted.”

Gorr and Read were to pay a price. She was commissioned to host 32 programs, but the show was shelved after 16. “I was cancelled before they invented cancel culture,” she says.

Many who had been in her corner disappeared after the Read interview. Brave and a natural risk-taker, the aftermath to the Read interview shook her confidence with a microphone. A comedian/interviewer requires split-second timing and if you second-guess yourself, the moment has passed.

The Read interview was big news and the Midday show, with Kerri-Anne Kennerley, wanted a piece of the action, believing it was a perfect subject for a blast from broadcaster Alan Jones.

Trouble was to invite Read in for a chat would open them up to the very criticisms they had planned to make of the ABC.

In fact, more than a month before the Gorr fiasco, and the day after Read was released from Tasmania’s Risdon Prison, Midday had written to him asking him to come on the program, adding: “We can put you on the telly [and you can] hold your books up while Kerri-Anne asks you relatively mild questions.”

Then the backroom boys hatched a plot: Drive Read to the Nine studios in Hobart, where he would “just happen” to ring in as Jones was condemning the already infamous interview.

That morning, Read rang to tell me of the plot and his plan to rebut Jones by raising an unfortunate incident when the broadcaster was arrested (and later released) in London.

Read rang again from the television station to complain that the fridge was locked and that he had broken into a cupboard to steal (and drink) a couple of long-necked beers.

Sure enough, right on cue Read was on the phone to Jones, informing him that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones and recalling the events of London.

It was the television equivalent of a drive-by shooting. An outraged Kennerley terminated the interview. Jones remained silent.

Five years later, Denton, Gorr’s colleague on Live and Sweaty, hosted an interview program called Enough Rope. He interviewed Read, but it was not a light chat about his life in crime. It was a deep dive, taking Read to places where he was not comfortable, including his brutal childhood.

It was compelling and part of a package that won Denton the 2003 Walkley Award for broadcasting.

Reflecting on the interview, Denton said: “There was a lot of debate within the Enough Rope team about putting someone with this sort of record on television. Initially, I wasn’t sure, but remembering the Elle McFeast fiasco, Chopper’s last TV appearance and the way in which many interviewers tended to giggle at the violence of the stories rather than addressing it, I thought it was worth a try at a different approach.”

Denton’s attitude had changed markedly from February 12, 1998, when he wrote to Read (the same day as Midday did) with a different proposal.

Then on FM radio, he offered Read the opportunity to “shamelessly promote your latest book and take Sydney listeners inside your humour-filled world”.

For a while, Gorr felt her career was destroyed. Since then, she has come back as a successful writer, broadcaster, radio host, lawyer and performer.

“I’m still up for taking risks, but they need to be considered,” she says. “If you plan to hang out the window, be sure of who is holding your legs.”

For Read, it was an expensive exercise. The movie, Chopper, was just getting off the ground but the government made it clear that if Read was paid, any funding would disappear.

No cash here.

Read donated his payment of $22,000 to the Royal Children’s Hospital. They refused to accept it, and so we slipped it through a police charity that sent it onto the hospital. It amused Read that the police were laundering his take. While Read said it was good karma to help sick kids, we knew there would be a massive spike in book sales.

Much later, when Read surrounded himself with bottom feeders, he was convinced he had been ripped off, to the point he sent heavies around to co-producer Michael Gudinski’s home. As the character Neville Bartos said in Chopper: “There’s no cash here. Here there’s no cash. Cash no.”

Read always said his biggest success in crime was to write a series of bestsellers. He died in 2013 a household name.

Libbi Gorr will be discussing the Read interview, among other things, in her Bold Conversations show, My Favourite Failure, at the Malthouse on March 16.

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