top of page

Notable Residents: Allan & Kym Gyngell

Updated: May 10

This is the second post on notable residents of Ashburton, Glen Iris and Burwood. Check out the first post on Professor Kwong Lee Dow and Robert Allenby. This post features Allan and Kim Gyngell.


Back in February 1988, a sketch comedy show began on the TEN Network. It was by no means the first of its kind and it only ran for a few years. But it would have a profound impact on Australian pop culture. It was called The Comedy Company. To a generation of Australians many of its characters would become household names: Kylie Mole, Con the Fruiterer, Uncle Arthur and the gormless, heavily Australian-accented, slightly dodgy but ultimately kind-hearted Col’n Carpenter, played by Kim Gyngell.


The ‘I’ in Colin is left intentionally silent. Trust me when I tell you this was really funny in the 80s.

 

Celia Street today

In 1952, the Gyngell family, comprising of mother Patricia and her children Allan, Kathleen and Kim, moved in with her parents in Celia Street in West Burwood (now Glen Iris). Allan was five, Kathleen three, and Kim six months old. Patricia had just divorced her children’s father. It was quite difficult for women in Victoria to divorce back then and it carried a significant stigma. As a result, young and pretty Patricia had her face plastered across the front page of Truth, a Melbourne tabloid dedicated to salacious scandals and social injustice.


The children never saw their father, who lived in Caulfield and died in 1979. ‘I was raised by my grandfather, Allan Otto,’ Kim told The Sunday Age in 1991. Allan worked as an advertising manager for The Sun. ‘He was born and raised in British India and came to Australia when he was 20. I had enormous respect for him. He was one of those men who raised children on fear. He could reduce us to tears just by a look. He was six foot five and amazingly good looking.’


Under the eye of their strict grandfather, the children grew up reserved, respectful and intrinsically united in the adult world they lived in. By the time the siblings were enrolled in Ashburton State School, it was already very clear to Kim and Kathleen that Allan was extremely intellectually gifted. ‘We saw how grown-ups regarded him and felt how it reflected on us,’ said Kim in 2023.


Allan loved reading, poetry and music. When Kim was 11, he brought home an album by Australian comedic legend Barry Humphries called A Nice Night’s Entertainment, featuring Edna Everage and Sandy Stone. Humphries grew up only a few streets away. ‘I would play it endlessly. It was Sandy Stone I particularly adored,’ Kim said.


For those who don’t know, Sandy Stone was an elderly man character Humphries developed to reflect the people of the conservative Melbourne suburbs. ‘I wanted to see how much boredom an audience could tolerate,’ Humphries would say. To drive the point home, Humphries made it so Sandy lived in Glen Iris.


Humphries ensured Sandy described his days in tedious detail:


‘Well not much that I can say about Tuesday, except it was a very nice night’s entertainment. We’re not one for the pictures as a rule. When we go we like to see a good, bright show. After all, there’s enough unhappiness in the world...’


As noted writer Clive James once put it, ‘the events in [Sandy’s] life don’t leave him at a loss for words. The words are at a loss for events.’


‘I just got it, even as a child,’ Kim said years later. ‘I knew exactly what [Humphries] meant. I went to all his early live shows.’

The brothers could not have been more different. At school, Allan excelled while Kim spent a lot of time staring out the window. ‘I wasn’t stupid but I missed stuff.’ He loved sport, especially football and cricket. ‘I spent huge amounts of hours of my childhood rebounding balls off walls. That was our entertainment.’[1]


The surprisingly large Library Committee of Ashwood High School (1964). Allan Gyngell is circled.

Meanwhile, Allan attended Ashwood High School where he was on the Library Committee, in the Madrigal Group, and a regular form captain. A poem appearing in Ashwood High School’s 1964 yearbook, Allan’s last year, indicated he had little aptitude for sport.  


Old Gyngell slopes round like a bear,

With a blond mop of basin-trimmed hair.

When they call, “Hey there, sport!”

Alan pulls up quite short,

And looks round with a blue sort of stare.


‘[We] grew up in a Methodist enclave in the middle of the suburban grid system,’ Kim told The Australian in 2010. ‘It was great. All nature strips and Sunday drives.’[2] It was also a long-established dry area with a staunch commitment to temperance.

  

Allan stayed on the straight and narrow. As a teenager, he sung spiritual folk songs like Michael, Row the Boat Ashore and Kumbaya at Inter-School Christian Fellowship events. But his life was beset by sadness at the tragic death of his best friend Ian at only 13. ‘I felt him disappear from family life,’ Kim said later. ‘Into his world of books.’


Allan’s future career path emerged soon after his friend’s death. ‘One of his favourite anecdotes was how his high school teacher recognised his interest in international affairs and sent him with a note to the Victoria branch of the Institute of International Affairs to let him sit in on its meetings,’ said Bryce Wakefield, the Institute’s current director.


Allan even combined this interest with another in a poem published in the Australian Women’s Weekly when he was 15:


Ode to the World

I am feeling very moody,

As o’er the news I’m broody,

What with Kennedy, Khruschev, and the rest

The civil war in Laos

Threw the world into chaos,

And the Berlin situation ain’t the best.

 

Things are far from being serene

On the Caribbean scene.

An assassin shot Trujillo with a gun,

But on TV, Mat Dillon has shot about a million,

So why’s there all this trouble over one?

 

Here at home there’s Holt-ey,

And there’s Calwell and there’s Bolte,

And a nearly deadlocked Parliament as well.

The Federal credit squeezy

Hasn’t made things very easy,

And a politician’s future – who can tell?

 

After weeks of long delays

They got Glenn up into space,

His spacecraft seemed to be absurdly small.

I expect that very soon

They’ll get a man up to the moon

And find that it’s not made of cheese at all.

 

At every White House dinner

It is Jackie who’s the winner;

Her char mis said to be without a flaw.

Why argue with the East

To bring about world peace,

When a smile from Mrs K,

would do so much more?

 

World tension is increasing

And it doesn’t look like easing.

We’re on the brink of yet another war,

So I think I’ll be a beatnik

And wear nothing on my feetnik,

And from this wicked world myself withdraw.

 

Allan was accepted into the University of Melbourne to study history and politics. In 1969, he became one of a cohort of 22 other graduates joining the Department of External Affairs, the precursor to the Department of Foreign Affairs today.


Meanwhile, Kim went a bit off the rails. ‘The first time I was drunk was when I was 15, with a bottle of cream sherry stolen from the liquor cabinet of a friend’s father. We drank it in a storm water drain near Ashwood High School. I don’t know why we found that necessary.’


Kim followed his brother and sister to Ashwood High School. He assumed he would follow his friends into a trade. ‘My mates at Ashwood High all seemed to have older brothers who were panel beaters so that was kind of what you aspired to in 1984,’ he told The Age in 1993.

His grandfather Otto was not having a bar of that idea. He removed Kim from Ashwood and sent him to Camberwell Grammar. There, like Allan before him, a teacher played a pivotal role in setting the course for his future.


‘I was very lucky. In my last year, I wrote a play for a house play competition and won.’ His English Literature master suggested thinking about acting as a career. ‘It was the first time anybody had suggested to me that I could make a living out of anything.’[3]

Kim quickly sought out an audition. He found his feet on the stage with occasional TV work as the ‘rapist’s best mate’ and various other unsavoury characters.


Meanwhile, Allan forged a distinguished career in foreign policy and diplomacy where he was not afraid to speak his mind. ‘Allan Gyngell had a knack for plain speaking ­– cutting through the honeyed tones that so often stick to debates about foreign policy and Australia’s place in the world,’ Daniel Flitten of The Interpreter said. He became Australia’s chief intelligence analyst, advising ministers from the time of John Gorton to Penny Wong.


Allan Gyngell speaking at the Lowy Institute where he was the inaugural chair

‘He had possibly the smallest ego in Australian foreign policy’, Senator Wong said in 2023. Behind Allan’s gentle demeanour and steady way of speaking was a savage wit, droll humour and a capacity to keenly observe the nuances of the Australian identity and place it in the larger landscape of its geopolitical space.


This observational quality was shared by his brother Kim. It just manifested in a very different way.

Kim created Col’n Carpenter as a quintessentially Australian character. With his broad Australian accent and seemingly simple-minded and very literal approach to life, as the host of the StayTuned! YouTube channel surmised, ‘Col’n often confounds authority figures with his unorthodox approach, and yet, he always seems to come out on top.’ Kim drew on aspects of his own life and gave them to Col'n: Col’n’s father also left when he was a baby, and he used to hang around his brother-in-law’s panel-beating business, to name two.


‘He was created from observations I'd made about my peer group when I was 14 or 15,’ Kim said in 2007. ‘It was that sort of desperation to be liked. There was a tragic side to Col'n but he was internally optimistic. He was my clown character.’

In 1989, at the height of the Comedy Company’s success, Prime Minister Bob Hawke appeared in one of the sketches with Col’n Carpenter. For Kim, this paled in comparison to the person who came with him: Allan. ‘Allan was Hawke’s foreign adviser and I didn’t get to see him often, so I was more excited about seeing him than the sketch with the Prime Minister!’


Kim Gyngell today

After the demise of The Comedy Company, Kim went on to star in a show based around Col’n Carpenter. After a few years, he lay Col’n to rest and went on to forge a successful career in dramatic acting roles on stage and television. He most recently played Professor Alistair McGregor in the TV series The Artful Dodger (2023).


In 2017, Allan Gyngell published a comprehensive history of Australia’s foreign policy called Fear of Abandonment. It was praised as a masterpiece. In it, Allan wrote of how Australia was historically reluctant to forge its own path on the world stage, instead aligning itself with big cool friends in the hope it would be looked after. Desperate to be liked, you could say, a bit like Col’n Carpenter.


In April 2023, Allan Gyngell was suddenly lost to cancer. At such a tumultuous time in global politics, his keen insights and depth of thinking remain sorely missed by the foreign policy community.

For his family, it is a far deeper pain. Although the brothers did not see each other often, they remained connected by a deep love and their shared childhood.


‘He somehow made sense of our lives,’ Kim said sadly at his funeral. ‘Allan was a rare intellect in so many ways and so very precious to us.’


UP NEXT: Notable Residents: Musical Edition. Do you of someone who should be featured? Drop me a line!


References


[1] O'Brien, Kerrie, "The Good Life: Lunch with Kim Gyngell," The Age, 30 September 2017.

[2] Callaghan, Greg, "What I've Learnt... Kym Gyngell, Actor, 58," The Australian, 1 May 2010.

[3] Reilly, Graham, "Much Ado About Quite a Bit," The Age, 27 April 1993.

52 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page