Local telly is 50 years old in June. Idealog lists its greatest hits
Fifty years ago, on June 1, 1960, a belated broadcast was beamed out of Auckland’s Shortland Street Studios. New Zealanders had been hearing about this television thing since letters from home started referencing ‘the old BBC’ a quarter of a century before. Now here it was: The Adventures of Robin Hood, to be followed by a live interview with a visiting ballerina and a performance by the Howard Morrison Quartet.
A formula for forever, it would seem. Flick on any free-to-air channel right now and you’re bound to find a rehash of a remake, harassment by microphone, and some form of New Zealand Idol—if not American, Australian, or OECD Other.
But while some things never change, other TV moments are powerful enough to snap us out of our electromagnetically-face-sucked stupor. Big things can happen in 50 years on the small screen. But as I’ve only been around to catch 33 years of them—less if we don’t count Play School, the Hemi years—here is my blatantly biased list of The Ten Biggest Things to Happen in Half a Century of New Zealand TV.
Not a Telethon like last year’s happy-clappy affair. Real Telethons like 1984’s Fight for Ethiopia, events that made eight-year-old kids smash open their porcelain pigs with a sledgehammer and forced sleep-deprived parents to phone in and pledge to name their newborn baby ‘Telethon’ as Selwyn kissed Basil Brush.
Fair Go giving its presenters a really good go
Fair enough, I guess—a show that specialises in hounding guilty parties till they hand over the cash is not going to plant itself in the Employment Tribunal’s line of fire. Besides Brian Edwards’ eight-year stint, Kevin Milne has been with the show since 1984. Now 45-year-old Alison Mau is stepping into his bossy boots she can start planning her retirement.
Yes, they’ve been doing it for years in Europe, but does Europe have its very own pseudo-celebrity, rugby-streaking, pole-writhing, Boobs-on-Bikes-leading, high-class hooker to read its news topless? Alt TV did, for a few months in 2008. But, for all her originality, Lisa Lewis wasn’t the first to whip off her top on TV; that honour goes to New Zealand’s first female newsreader, Angela D'Audney, in 1979—though not on the news, but on a TV drama called The Venus Touch co-starring Bruno Lawrence.
Hugely loved and hated, but rarely liked or disliked, Paul Henry keeps pulling out the -isms. Rough gems like “That is a moustache on a lady” make us wonder how the hell we used to wake up properly before someone made us choke on our toast. And it’s not just me that thinks Henry’s big—even his giggle is world-renowned, twice making the UK Daily Telegraph’s World’s 20 Best Moments of Uncontrollable Laughter on Television, the only laugh to do so. If you’re one of the thousands likely to disagree with Henry’s big spot, take his advice: start a group.
Proper use of proper swearwords
There was such a furore over Toyota’s ‘Bugger’. But what about Kiwi TV’s first C-word? Remember there were no asterisks when Krusty the Klown said it live on Max TV. Cheered as he was by a good three hours of pre-Boxdog drinking, former Klown Russell Chambers recalls prefacing his C-bomb with “You’re a f**king …”. But the caller had called him a dick, so he was asking for it really.
The real big starshttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDqd8nVTPQg
Sure, Dr Chris Warner has had a soap residency to rival Ken Barlow’s, but the real big stars, I reckon, are the ones who’ve managed to stay on the small screen every day, every year, without us really realising it. Keith Bracey, for example, made a seamless transition from fronting Town & Around to Keith Hay Homes. Lynette Forday stepped out of Dr Grace Kwan’s white coat and into voice-overs for Maggi Gravy and the lumpy like. And although Vince Martin is an Australian, he sneaks through for holding his head as high in his off-Broadway Beaurepaires ads—“Gidday, I’m Vince Martin and Christmas always makes me feel like singing”—as he did in Sons and Daughters.
The hair on Gloss
Surely there’s been nothing bigger on New Zealand TV, ever. Episode one began with Chelsea emerging from the hairdresser with a teased and terrified yellow, green and purple mop, setting the minimum hair prerequisite at a perm and frosted tips for all cast members—female and Alistair. And if you could add a mullet to the spiral-perm mix, as Simon Prast indeed did, all the better. It was no accident the cast shot was panoramic.
The Fernleaf Family sagahttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEtXyV3AqMM
Like thousands of Kiwis, I had to know what fate would befall the befreckled Sam in the eight-year Fernleaf Family Butter To Be Continued Saga, the last time I remember caring about any sponsored character. Was it the idea, the standard of acting, or the standard of acting in the programming on either side of the spot that made it stand out? Maybe it was because, a decade shy of reality TV, it didn’t seem like acting at all. The saga even had Leighton Smith begging creators Roy Meares and Jeremy Taine to tell him “what happens next?” Of course no one, including Meares and Taine, remembers what did happen, but that’s not the point.
Pissy Prime Ministers
Nothing makes for better TV than a politician throwing a tanty. Especially when he’s the biggest kid in the supermarket. In a 1976 interview, diminutive journalist Simon Walker played Frost to Muldoon’s lopsided Nixon. Except where Frost nervously met Nixon’s eye in the chair opposite, Walker calmly challenged Muldoon on his claim that New Zealand is vulnerable to Russian missiles through a Philips telly perched on the corner of his desk.
Muldoon was having none of it. “You’re not going to set the rules my friend,” he said to Walker with flint in one eye and a dent in one cheek. “This is an important matter and we’re going to get to the truth of it,” he insists, before blatantly reading his answer from a pre-spun sheet.
Muldoon ended the interview with: “I will not have some smart-aleck interviewer changing the rules halfway through the game.” And indeed he would not. Walker received 5,000 letters in response to the interview—half of which demanded he was sacked. He wasn’t, but Muldoon refused to be interviewed by Walker again. Walker went on to become chief spin doctor at British Airways when it decided to scrap the Union flag from its tailfins.
We must end where we began. But while that first broadcast out of Shortland Street Studios lasted just three hours, New Zealand’s longest-lasting soap of the same name may never end. Seventeen years and counting, the show still asks its ubiquitous rhetorical question, “Is it you or is it me?” every weeknight at seven, again in an omnibus on Sunday mornings and again, again, again, again and again in repeats on weekday afternoons. While “You’re not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata” is often quoted as the show’s standout quote, I much prefer the 15-year anniversary episode reworked edition: “You’re not in Hyderabad now, Nurse Kumari.”