Saturday, November 16, 2013

Tapping into that small-town connection

(First published in The Dominion Post, November 15.)
I'M NOT ABOUT to take back all the terrible things I’ve said about TVNZ, but credit where credit’s due.
This Town, which TV One has been screening in prime time on Saturday nights for the past few weeks, is a priceless series about ordinary New Zealanders.

Actually, that’s not quite correct. Many of them are extraordinary: eccentric, clever and colourful. But they are ordinary in the sense that they are not big names (with one exception: Lynda Topp of the Topp Twins, but even she was shown in a new light).
You won’t see any of them in the social pages of the Sunday Star-Times. What’s more, there are no attention-seeking presenters hogging the camera. This Town is a celebrity-free zone, and all the better for it. It’s also mercifully free of the irritating production gimmickry that intrudes on so many shows.

If you haven’t seen the programme so far, you’ve missed some great New Zealanders. Most of them have a passion for something (a greatly overused term these days, but applicable in this case), like the Otago family that built its own power station, the man who restored the moribund Wairoa movie theatre and the Kaponga (Taranaki) woman who turned her house into a horse museum.
One appealing aspect of the show is seeing Kiwi blokes – even the hard men who inhabit the Chatham Islands – speaking honestly and unselfconsciously about their lives and what’s important to them.

I especially enjoyed the episode that featured the Patea Maori Club, famous for its 1984 hit Poi E. Drive through Patea these days and it’s easy to get the impression it’s a town that has lost all hope, but not so. Patea still has a beating heart, as the stalwarts of the PMC showed.
Producer Melanie Rakena has done a superb job seeking out engaging characters with interesting stories and allowing them to tell them in their own way. The series takes me back to the days of Gary McCormick’s Heartland, which had a similar knack for unearthing unconventional but likeable people in out of the way places.

Many of us still identify with small-town New Zealand, though the number must be diminishing. For one hour on Saturday night, This Town taps into that emotional connection.
Perhaps the key to its appeal is that makes you feel good about being a New Zealander – which is not something that could be said for programmes like Police Ten 7 (or, come to that, Seven Sharp, which seems based on the assumption that we’re a nation of airheads).

* * *

ON SUNDAY morning I listened to Radio Zealand host Chris Laidlaw talking to Bryan Gould, a retired New Zealand academic who was once a British Labour MP and contender for the leadership of the British Labour Party.
It wasn’t so much an interview as a meeting of minds. Mr Gould was holding forth on his favourite theme, the wickedness of free-market capitalism, and it became clear as the interview progressed that the two former Rhodes Scholars were kindred souls.

By the end, Laidlaw was murmuring in agreement and lamenting that the spirit of egalitarianism on which New Zealand was founded had been “sold down the river”. Hardtalk it wasn’t.
Laidlaw may not regard himself as being on the left, as he told this paper on Wednesday, but regular listeners will have formed their own conclusions about his leanings long ago.

Now it has been announced that he’s leaving the programme at the end of the year. He says it’s because he wants to devote his time to his local government work, but some will wonder whether Radio New Zealand, which has a new chief executive, has decided the Sunday morning programme can no longer ignore the charter requirement that it be editorially balanced.
If so, it’s not before time. Laidlaw is entitled to his political views, but the state broadcaster exists for, and is funded by, all New Zealanders – not just a cosy, left-leaning elite.

* * *

SHARIA LAW proponents advocate cutting off the hands as a penalty for theft, but the idea also has merit as a solution to a persistent problem afflicting television reporters.
One News glamour boys Jack Tame and Matt McLean are among the many young TV journalists who seem incapable of telling a story without making extravagant physical gestures to emphasise their point.

An even worse offender is Breakfast weather presenter Sam Wallace, who waves his arms around as if he were participating in a demented game of charades.
Having observed them closely, I have concluded they suffer from a disorder known as tardive dyskinesia. A common side-effect of anti-psychotic medication, this condition results in repetitive, involuntary body movements and is often seen in psychiatric patients.

Whatever drugs TVNZ is giving them, I suggest the treatment be discontinued immediately.


hughvane said...

You are a tad selective in your criticism of reporters' gestures. Add presenters into the mix, a la John Campbell, who looks like his shirt sleeves have ridden up his arms, and he's trying to shake them down again. Very much a BBC TV physical affectation also.

Brendan McNeill said...

Chris Laidlaw

A passable Allblack halfback, (forgive the pun) a forgettable broadcaster. His best interview was with Bob Jones. Bob was at his unrelenting best. He exposed Chris in the first 30 seconds of his interview as the weak broadcaster that he was, and then proceeded to trample over his preconceptions for the remainder of the interview.

I listened to it as we wound up the Takaka hill on the way back to Christchurch. It not only helped to make the journey enjoyable but reminded me of how much Radio NZ has failed to deliver a balanced perspective on life and politics in its weekend line up.

Hopefully Kim Hill takes the hint and follows Chris out the door, stage left.

rivoniaboy said...

Chris Laidlaw

At last we will now be spared our Sunday morning Communist Party broadcast.

Jigsaw said...

I am amazed that Chris Laidlaw is finally leaving RNZ, I thought that they had their jobs for life-they certainly act as if they do. I long ago gave up listening as he selected his interviewees and then gave them nice soft questions that made sure that their replies were just as he wanted them to be. I complained but never had reply of course.I heard the first part of his interview with Brian Gould as I quickly moved to another station-I thought that they would go well together!
The gestures that TV 'personalities' make had always annoyed me - Duncan Garner being one of the worst but apparenly that is the way that they are taught and I don't expect it to end anytime soon.