TV gardening celebrity Don Burke was controversial way back in 1991, when Richard Glover wrote this assessment for Good Weekend.
Obsessive, perfectionist, arrogant, self-reliant, conceited, brilliant, egotistical. When you set out to profile a gardening expert, the last thing you expect is passion, controversy, hatred and admiration – all so strongly brewed. Yet this is Don Burke. His television program is now the fifth most popular in the country; his second book the fastest seller in Australian publishing history. For a gardening man, his success is unusual, heightened, extreme. And so is the language people use to describe him.
Don Burke denies allegations
Don Burke has denied extensive allegations of sexual harassment on A Current Affair by stating that he could not remember any of the incidents and would never say the things he was quoted as saying.
In more than 50 interviews for this article with colleagues, former classmates and friends, Don Burke is never described as normal. And never is he described as the sort of character who appears on our television sets – that relaxed, laid-back, cheerful fellow with the twinkling dark eyes and engaging smile.
Some talk of this skill before the camera, his photographic memory, his driving desire to provide the best possible show. Others report a darker side, offering their nickname for him as a kind of jokey summary: they call him the Antichrist.
One former colleague refuses for a time to talk to Good Weekend. The reason, says a friend, is the person “is too cut up, too destroyed by the experience of working there, to be able to talk about it quite yet”.
Even Burke himself does not claim to be laid-back. During a day spent with him, his self-descriptions include “intelligent”, “persistent “, “perfectionist” and “driven”.
He’s a good-looking man, with olive skin, dark eyes, slightly greying hair and neatly cropped beard. His movements are precise and measured; there is a sense of accuracy and self-mastery about him..
He is the latest member of the G’day Mates: that tribe of mostly bearded, laconic fellows, who’ve long had a place on Australian television – from the Leyland brothers, through Peter Russell-Clarke and Harry Butler, to current incarnations such as the Bush Tucker Man.
Don Burke and Elle McFeast pomoting the Battle of the TV Shows series for Sale of the Century, Channel Nine, 1994. Photo: Publicity
He greets me on the drive of his newly rebuilt home in Kenthurst, on Sydney’s outskirts, with the characteristic smile and “G’day”. Today he will film two segments for Channel Nine’s Burke’s Backyard, one encouraging viewers to plant native trees, the other visiting a celebrity garden.
He works with a film crew of three, sharing the odd joke, moving through the work. When the camera is turned on, he is completely focused. His face cocks towards it, the neck stretches towards the lens, the smile flashes. There are no rehearsals, autocues, scripts. He just talks.
The result will be watched by some two million Australians seeking Friday-night advice for the weekend’s activities. Another 800,000 will watch the repeat screening. Better still, many also buy the books. The first volume of Burke’ s Backyard Information Guide sold more than 200,000 copies, most of them in a burst around Christmas 1989.
The second, published five months ago, has hit 70,000. The Lazy Gardener, his first book of popular horticulture, has clocked sales of 150,000. Burke’s royalties from the set: more than $750,000.
He’s massively conceited. He thinks he knows more about every subject.
Such success, as Burke himself says, does not come without effort, without attention to detail. During a break in filming, I casually comment on the walls of his house – lightly bagged with a grey-green render, in harmony with the surrounding eucalypts.
“Yes,” he says intently, “we tried a hundred different mixtures over a seven month period to get the colour right. It sent the builders crazy. And then we had to work on the application technique.”
Don Burke, right, with the creator of Footrot Flats, cartoonist Murray Ball, 1993. Photo: Publicity
As we move around the house – with his wife of 22 years, Marea, and their two children – every anecdote seems to strike the same chord. The green paintwork on the window sills? More than 100 commercial shades were tried, says Burke, but he was forced to mix his own exact colour and send the sample to Melbourne for manufacture.
What about the design of the house? We had 11 architects in, says Burke, “but none of them would do it my way. So I said to number 12, ‘Be very clear, either you do it my way or you’re wasting your time,’ and he did.”
Don Burke prior to the start of his weekly gardening show for the Nine network, August 30, 1987. Photo: Publicity
What about the bricks? “Some were stained with oil, but the brickworks denied responsibility, so I went to a laboratory, got a chemical fingerprint of the oil and matched it to the hydraulic crane inside the brickworks, proving they were responsible. They finally realised who they were dealing with.”
He may call himself “the lazy gardener”, but it’s his obsessional perfectionism, his determination to get exactly what he wants, which seems the more remarkable characteristic.
Lorraine Bayly with Don Burke. Photo: Fairfax Media
Burke’s Backyard is a highly appealing TV show. Burke is terrific on camera, engaging and casual, intelligent without ever seeming superior. Horticulture is the mainstay, but delivered in a practical, no-Latin, you-can-do-it style, and leavened by material on pets, celebrities and do-it-yourself-ing.
In the Ken-Doll world of television, Burke’s “reporters” are a pleasingly eclectic mix – a middle-aged naturalist (Densey Clyne), a one-time drag and theatre star (Reg Livermore), a plump vet (Harry Cooper). The camerawork is clever, the information accurate. If there is a subtext to the show, it’s this: our lives are pretty good, and here’s how to make them a little better.
In a country built around the backyard, a country with one of the highest rates of home ownership in the world, Burke’s Backyard is a great idea. And Don Burke thought of it.
Burke, 43, says he always knew the show would rate its head off: “Gardening was massive, but the gardening shows were aimed at the 2 per cent that wanted to win gardening competitions. It was a media blind spot.”
He’s sitting in a coffee shop, his hands on the tabletop, motionless except when he decides to use them. He talks intently, without pauses or hesitations. “My program is not so much about plants, it’s about people. It’s about recreating your spirit, about keeping sane in a world that’s often off the rails.
“Backyards are one of the greatest things about Australia – we have the environment and the city cohabiting better than anywhere else in the world. The flying foxes are there, the birdlife, all in the middle of the city. It’s a unique experiment that has worked.”
His conversation is relaxed, but write down his speech and it looks like a well-prepared script: logical, ordered, precise. That, say colleagues, is how his brain works.
Steve Wood, Burke’s executive producer, calls him a one-off: “With no scripting, no preparation, he can give you anything from five seconds to 30 minutes about anything without stopping and never need a second take.”
Many items, say insiders, begin when Burke spots an interesting plant by the roadside. “He’ll stop the car, get out the gear, and within a few minutes he’ll have done a piece about this tree, its botanical name, its history, the conditions it needs. He carries an encyclopaedia in his head.”
Certainly, many will tell you Burke is a genius. Judy McMaugh, his teacher at Sydney’s Ryde School of Horticulture, says he was one of her best students. Neil Black, head of the department at the time, remembers him as a student with “a genius-level IQ”.
Intelligence comes with arrogance
But with that intelligence comes an arrogance. Supporters and detractors use 14 different phrases, but all agree Burke has unusual self-confidence.
From the supporters: “He doesn’t suffer fools gladly”; “He’s an egotist – but so are most achievers.”
And from the detractors: “Don’s always got to be right.” Or, “There is a complete absence of humility, as if it’s been surgically removed.” Or, “He’s massively conceited. He thinks he knows more about every subject under the sun than anybody else.”
One experienced staffer remembers the day Burke told him, “I could learn the whole of your job in a day if I wanted.” Another remembers contacting acknowledged world experts in a field, only to be told constantly by Burke that he knew more about the subject.
“He reckons,” says one TV heavy, “that he knows more about cameras than the cameraman; more about editing than the editor; more about the topic than the expert they’ve brought in; and more about television than Kerry Packer.”
Back in the Sydney coffee house, Burke offers his own view: “I was always very confident of my ideas – not myself, but my ideas. When you’ve worried at an idea, and come up with an answer, then you have a right to feel confident.
“I feel sorry for people who do not set good standards. If I wasn’t a perfectionist, Burke’s Backyard wouldn’t exist. I get incredible joy out of doing things right.”
He grew up the son of an estate agent in the middle-class Sydney suburb of Lindfield, and was educated at St Aloysius, Milsons Point. Schoolfriends mostly remember him as a loner, obsessed with his hobby of breeding budgerigars. “I always felt I was different,” agrees Burke, “but I kept my difference to myself. I felt my parents did a good job, but I kept a lot of myself to myself.”
I press him on the point, and for once he hesitates. “Well,” he says, “I wanted to be the one who walks through the crowd that no-one notices; but to carry a big stick so if anyone has a go at you, you can defend yourself. If you box me into a corner and have a go at me, I will try to resolve it, but when I’ve had enough … well, I don’t take prisoners.”
Certainly, as he runs through the details of his life, it seems we’re dealing with someone different from the crowd. “I was very intellectual,” he says. “When I was even very young I was studying Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, Sartre and all the existentialist philosophers. I was reading them all before I was 10.”
“Really?” I say, stunned. “Kierkegaard seems a little tough for an under-10.” He answers matter-of-factly, “Kierkegaard to me is not difficult. It’s Aquinas that’s hard work when you’re young.”
Such disarming comments emerge in each chapter of his story. “I began breeding budgerigars at around five or six,” he tells me. “By 10, I had developed a whole series of major theories in genetics. Breeding budgies was immensely complex – it would probably be the most complex animal breeding on earth.
“At 15, I was going around giving genetics lectures to all sorts of breeders who’d been breeding animals all their lives, and I was lecturing in certain areas of theology.”
Or later when he was 17 and received a science prize from that great Australian scientist Sir Mark Oliphant: “Sir Mark and I talked about genetics after the ceremony. We were probably the only two people in Australia to really know what was happening in the field.”
In 1966 he enrolled in the dentistry course at Sydney University. The next year, he dropped out and enrolled in agricultural science. Again he dropped out, going to work in a bank. Were these the first failures in a life which had seemed blessed? Not according to Burke. “I formed the judgment,” he says, “that the ag. science course was a mess, the professor hopeless, and so I left. I sat the professor down and told him so. I told him he was a failure in his job.” He joined the bank, he says, “because I knew I’d hate it, and I didn’t want to settle into a comfortable job.”
He later moved to the bank’s nominee company. “I did one thing where I saved them some millions of dollars because I realised they were doing things all the wrong way. After that, I was offered several jobs in stockbroking companies and finally accepted a position with Constable and Bain. I worked in their overseas department – that was where the big mess was – and I went and sorted it out for them.”
He left and went to work for the admissions department of Sydney University, he says, “because I thought it would be convenient for courses”. He says he enrolled in some units. “They all wanted me to do higher degrees. Everything I did, people wanted me to follow up. The professor of philosophy – I think it was Anderson – said I was the best student he had ever had. I studied philosophy and theology but, in the end I thought it was a lot of claptrap.”
It is a remarkable story – so full of quick success – but some former colleagues sound a note of caution. “There is a touch of the Walter Mitty in Burke,” says one. “If you add up all the things he claims he’s done, there just isn’t room in his life.”
They say he makes constant claims about his past, talking of his “career in banking”, how he became “quite senior” in the administration of Sydney University, his world-class knowledge of computers, his brilliance as a runner, his victory as a bank teller in counting and shooting competitions. His colleagues remain unsure as to when to believe him.
Certainly, staff at Bains cannot remember the high-flyer who came to “sort out the mess” in the overseas department. Burke, they say, was in fact a lowly settlements clerk, most memorable for his collection of bonsai plants, and retrenched after only about six months with the company.
Certainly also, according to public records, the boy who knew so much about Kierkegaard and genetics, achieved a bare pass in all but one of his leaving certificate subjects. And certainly John Anderson, perhaps Sydney University’s most famous professor of philosophy, died in 1962, a decade too early to tell Burke that he was his most brilliant student.
“He’s just intensely competitive, ” explains one former colleague, “so he can’t stand meeting, say, a runner and admitting the guy is better at something than he is. So he makes up a story about how he was once a great runner too.”
Yet others confirm Burke’s stories. Eric Ziehlke, a close schoolfriend, remembers the books of philosophy, read at an early age. “He was always different,” recalls Ziehlke, “intellectually a very deep thinker.”
Other claims largely check out. In the mid-’70s he enrolled in a part-time course at Ryde School of Horticulture. “I topped all the courses, highest distinctions. Everything I ever got was a maximum pass. I’m certainly one of their distinguished students. Maximum passes in everything I ever did.”
His teachers agree he was a good and stimulating student, adding that he also activated the students’ union.
After graduating, he quickly became president of the NSW branch of the Australian Institute of Horticulture and nursery manager at Bonds in Sydney’s Terrey Hills. In three years, says Burke, “I took it from having a receiver appointed to the highest-turnover nursery in the country.” Ross Bond, the nursery’s owner, largely confirms the claim.
At the same time, Burke was teaching marketing at TAFE, running a small business marketing plants (creating catchy names such as Ned Kelly and Ginger Meggs), and breeding new varieties.
Push into television
But most incredible was his push into television – from standing start to major star in less than a decade. Again the self-confidence was notable: he resigned his various jobs, living for months on $60 a week as he worked his apprenticeship in radio and television. Finally, in 1987 and after much pushing, Channel Nine gave him his own weekly show, moving it quickly to prime time after it blitzed the ratings.
He remains a remarkable figure: elected a fellow of the Australian Institute of Horticulture; author of a scholarly work on grevilleas; a popular hero. Yet there’s another, darker side to Don Burke.
The g’daying and hoo-rooing is just an act, say detractors, the product of a dictionary of colloquial speech which he keeps on his desk. “It’s illusion,” says one staffer. “I’ve seen him screaming at the lighting man, and they’re counting down 3-2-1, and he turns from glaring mad to this smile for the camera that looks as genuine as anything.”
Others complain he can be vindictive. “Watch what you write about him, mate,” says one. “If he doesn’t like it, he’ll pursue you for years.”
A typical tale recounts how he sacked one researcher, who then moved to Channel Nine’s Earthquest. When Burke was asked to record an Earthquest segment, he instructed his staff to recheck the research. His intention, say several staff, was to find fault with the sacked researcher. “We spent ages trying to poke holes in the script,” says one staffer. “It was the most intense piece of research ever done in that office.” Soon after, the researcher resigned for a career outside television.
Burke denies the story. “What happened was I was asked to do bits for another show and some of it was done by a researcher who’d been on my show. Remember, I write all of my own stuff, so I said, ‘Well, I’d want to see the research’ and it was all wrong. So I went back to the boss of the show and said, ‘I don’ t know who did your research’ – I said, ‘I know you have a researcher there who we had’ – but I said ‘It’s not good enough’ and I refused to be part of that show. All I did was sever connections with that program, I never asked that they get rid of that person.”
Even those who like him say his main feature is intense competitiveness. “Don is somebody who can only enjoy something if you envy him for having it. One of his favourite phrases is: ‘So-and-so would kill to get this.’ There’s very little direct enjoyment.”
Burke disagrees. He says he loves life, and that, except for a short starting-up period, staff relations have been excellent. His supporters also point to his work popularising horticulture.
Maybe the clash of views is simple enough: Don Burke likes total control, and that can put others offside. Certainly, it seems appropriate that his hobby has always been genetics – the ability to create your own animal; to play God. As a boy, he created budgies. Now, out at Kenthurst, he’s breeding striped sheep.
And in the end, despite it all, he succeeds. The sheep is striped; and the television is good.
First published in the Good Weekend on April 27, 1991
We cannot let Don Burke weaponise autism. Stereotypes hurt
Don Burke’s claim that Asperger syndrome is to blame for his behaviour is not only laughably uninformed but dangerous.
‘Don Burke’s lack of filter is not a sign of Asperger’s but a wanton disregard for the feelings of others.’ Photograph: Channel Nine, A Current Affair
- Wednesday 29 November 2017 36 AEDT Last modified on Friday 1 December 2017 09.11 AEDT
Towards the end of his interview with A Current Affair on Monday night, disgraced host of Burke’s Backyard Don Burke dropped an unexpected bombshell. He told the interviewer, Tracey Grimshaw, that he is “an Asperger’s person” who has difficulty looking people in the eye and reading body language. He admitted that he has not been diagnosed by a medical professional: he simply “worked it out”. He then referred to Asperger’s as a “terrible failing”.
The morning after, my older brother Peter, who has Asperger syndrome, quietly shared a link to an Asperger’s advocacy website that states facts and dispels common myths about the syndrome. I know that sharing this link to his Facebook followers was a silent protest against Burke’s erroneous claim that having Asperger’s is an acceptable excuse for predatory behaviour. Burke’s claim is not only laughably uninformed, but it is extremely dangerous for the autism community.
With unscrupulous anti-vaxxers looking to latch on to any bad press about autism spectrum disorders, it is clear that autism cannot afford to be misunderstood any longer. Burke has painted a target on the back of the Asperger’s community to soften the backlash against him. We cannot allow this man to perpetuate the belief that Asperger’s is a genetic failing.
Social media has rightly erupted with outrage at his attempt to shield himself from culpability. The founding director and CEO of Autism Awareness Australia, Nicole Rogerson, said she was furious, that his comments are “incredibly hurtful to those people on the autism spectrum and their families”. Burke has dragged the Asperger’s community into the whole spectacular trash fire of victim-blaming and sexual harassment pardoning.
This is not Asperger’s but a calculated attempt at deflection. Playing the autism card may as well have been a direct lift from the Weinstein playbook: man uses his power to intimidate, harass and belittle others. Man then gets caught after years of abusing his power. Man then leans on an “affliction” to explain said behaviour. It’s a dance as old as time.
Harvey Weinstein’s representatives attempted to arouse sympathy for a powerful man who was apparently “fighting demons” and seeking sex addiction therapy. Kevin Spacey attempted to deflect scrutiny by coming out as soon as allegations emerged that he molested an underage male actor in the 1980s. Spacey’s coming out did no favours for the gay community, a group that already contends with the abhorrent notion that gay people are sexual deviants with a flair for pedophilia.
Now, representatives from autism spectrum communities have to remind the public that having the condition does not lead to a pattern of predatory behaviour, bullying tendencies or a lack of regard for language used.
Asperger syndrome affects one in 100 people in Australia and is essentially high-functioning autism. Most people are diagnosed during childhood through standardised testing by specialists, however it is increasingly common for people to be tested in adulthood (my brother was diagnosed at 25). Common characteristics include low social interaction functioning, an inability to pick up on social cues, slower developmental rates and, yes, a decreased ability to make eye contact with people.
People with Asperger’s often have difficulty identifying emotions, but these traits have been amplified and become synonymous with having no feelings at all. Nationals senator Barry O’Sullivan recently demonstrated a shocking ignorance about autism by stating that the banking sector holds an “almost autistic disregard” to the law. There is a damaging, ableist stereotype circulating popular culture that all people with autism lack empathy, which is untrue.
Popular culture has clung to these character traits and perpetuated the idea that people with autism spectrum disorders have received a free pass to say what they want, when they want. Larry David has done this in the latest season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which his romantic interest puts her 10-year-old son’s rude, obnoxious behaviours down to having the neurological disorder without an official diagnosis. These stereotypes are hurtful and untrue but continue to be played for laughs.
Burke has certainly shown evidence that he has a “no filter” approach at times. The allegations against Burke show that he has no qualms about making women feel uncomfortable in a calculated manner. Burke’s lack of filter is not a sign of Asperger’s but a wanton disregard for the feelings of others.
You think autistic people have no empathy? My little boy is so empathetic it hurts
Burke has arrogantly asserted that he can self-diagnose himself. I highly doubt he is using any standardised metric to place himself on the autism spectrum. He is simply using a flimsy understanding of a complex neurological disorder to explain his inappropriate behaviour.
Whether or not he is actually on the spectrum does not matter. He has delivered a gut-punch to an already marginalised group, with haunting stereotypes that need extinguishing.
As a person with Asperger’s, my brother has certainly had difficulties that include picking up on social cues and identifying emotions in others. However, he is also confident, cheerful man who loves music, travel and pizza. He also happens to hold an endless ability to empathise with others. He is one of my favourite people.
In the words of Nicole Rogerson, having autism does not make one “more or less likely to be a sexual predator, anymore than having red hair makes you more likely.” We cannot let Burke weaponise autistic spectrum disorder. Let the record show this before more people get hurt.
…weaponise AUTISM? What about these words: HATER – HOLOCAUST DENIER – ANTISEMITE – NAZI – RACIST – XENOPHOBE ?