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Set Visit: Behind-the-Scenes of the World’s Only Political Debate Show Made Live at the Pub

Back Benches frequently and entirely correctly refers to itself as “the world’s only pub politics show”. It’s both true and somewhat redundant: what other country on our splendid planet would be fool crazy enough to allow it to exist? The show features sitting MPs, who set up in a pub adjacent to Parliament for an hour of debate, filmed before a live audience and broadcast, unedited, to the nation.

No other democracy would allow something so strange to not only happen, but keep happening for eight years, enduring the GFC, the end of its former broadcaster TVNZ7 and five Labour leaders.

It has survived and thrived despite the dim wattage of the pols it attracts – the show’s name tells you precisely which breed of MP is targeted by its producers, Caroline Bruner and Maryanne Ahern. If cabinet is like the All Blacks (which seems like the current messaging) then Back Benches is like the ITM Cup – mainly populated by low-to-no hopers doing a few seasons on the fringes.

This is the precise source of its oddball appeal. The guests aren’t ministers or key opposition spokespersons. They’re the rank-and-file. The churn. People so enraged they’re willing to submit to the myriad indignities of public office for a measly few hundred grand. Who would put themselves through such hell without the baubles of power, or at least its promise?

These people would. As a result they’re less slick than their more prominent colleagues, and more prone to bizarre statements and malformed ideas.

Except when they’re not. Sometimes a future star flits through, touched by greatness, stopping by for a pint on the way to a bigger role and national exposure. On a Wednesday in late July we saw one such chimera. Her name was Marama Fox, of the Maori Party. She has nine children, had nine months of Parliament behind her and was already sharp and charismatic enough decisively own the night.

I watched her from a table immediately adjacent to the leaner at which the night’s guests crowded. She wore leopard print, spoke clearly and directly and her smile lit up the room. Alongside her New Zealand First’s Richard Prosser ranted and roared entertainly, while Labour’s vet Sue Maroney and National’s rookie Barbara Kuriger muddled along.

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Fox shone despite her being the only MP without a large and vocal support crew present. Amongst the ample and surprisingly aged crowd were Young Nats and old Labourites, and, as always, Act’s David Seymour. The largest contingent, mystifyingly, was New Zealand First’s, who have a long table reserved near the door. Ron Mark sat at its heart, a large smile playing across his face whenever Prosser started up with his clipped, unequivocal sentences.

All these enemies, who infuriate one another in the House, whose acolytes write terrible, despairing 140 character laments all day and night. Yet here they are, in this room, smiling, yelling, and often listening. It’s a deeply heartening scene.

Earlier in the evening I’d interrupted Wallace Chapman, the show’s host, during his pre-show reverie in a handsome wood-paneled room above the pub floor. He spoke lovingly of his show, and its ability to disrupt the angry choir-preaching which characterises this era’s political discourse.

“Breaking down the tribalism is one of the reasons why I still do the show,” he says. “I get really energised by it. Sometimes I’ll look out and see a Young Act really having it out with a Young Greens. There was a priceless moment, where the former Director General of the GCSB was having a strong discussion with one of the guys who broke into Waihopai and popped the balloon.

“I was looking at them – and they were both at Back Benches. And I thought, ‘fuck. Where else?’”

Nowhere. The show – which visits Auckland tonight, at Britomart Country Club – is deeply old-fashioned in many ways. It presents an idealised version of our national conversation, and at its best does get close to providing what Chapman describes earnestly as “the contest of ideas”.

“In the six o’clock news, we don’t want that,” he says sadly. “We want conflict.”

He’s right, for better or worse. But we do get that here too. While Fox and Prosser seem to get on fine, perhaps operating under a kind of mutually-assured-irrelevance minor party detente, Kuriger and Maroney replicate the generation-spanning disdain of their parent parties in miniature, talking over one another and using expressions of mock humour and outrage which you only ever see on the faces of politicians and professional wrestlers.

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But it’s a cute, small-time conflict, which winds down as easily as it winds up. And whenever the train threatens to run away, Chapman throws to his Robin: Damian Christie, who drinks slowly but steadily and scuttles around the audience throughout. He’s a human roulette wheel – you never know when he’ll stop and thrust his microphone into a startled face. Or why.

“I’m the bad cop on Back Benches,” says Christie, who arrives late to the green room, perspiring from a run. “My key job is to go round the audience and get a response out of them. You don’t know whether they’re going to be awesome or just freeze up. And you’ve got to make a moment out of that.”

Sometimes Christie’s crowd work can feel too haphazard. He takes perhaps a hair too much pleasure in a startled face, and a messy, mumbled response. It’s understandable, perhaps, given his accurate diagnosis of a peculiar condition, one likely unique to the capital.

“There’s a lot of self-censorship in Wellington,” he says. “People will go ‘I work for the government – I couldn’t possibly talk about whether I like the new Jelly Tip chocolate or not.’ Well, you can.”

Back Benches began as a foundation of TVNZ7, and was initially pitched as something more urgent and serious. “The show was sold as having a very high powered, elite discussion,” says Chapman. “But we had other ideas.”

Chapman agonised over accepting the role. He loved the idea of the show – to “translate politics into that ‘forum for democracy’, where it’s basically pub talk.” But it was literally pub talk. It was in a pub! Surely that was the single worst venue for live television you could possibly imagine? And certainly a diabolical place to commence your television hosting career.

He asked his friend, TV critic and creator Paul Casserly, what he thought of the project. ‘Sounds dodgy,’ Chapman recalls him saying. ‘This is your first TV project. Think about it mate. You’re live in a pub. What happens if a glass breaks. What happens if the audience is drunk. This is your reputation!’

Chapman said yes anyway, but never quite got over the uncontrollable environment. “I start getting the nerves on a Sunday night,” he says. The show shoots on a Wednesday.

He was paired with longtime friend Christie, another ex-bFM staffer. The show plays to their strengths: Wallace’s eye-watering sincerity and Christie’s slightly manic intensity. Inevitably, Chapman is the one people gravitate toward. “Everywhere I go,” says Christie, “people come up to me and go ‘You do Back Benches, don’t you?’ I say ‘yes’. And they go ‘oh that Wallace, he’s a lovely man’.”

Somewhat cruelly, I ask Chapman whether the reverse happens to him.

“No,” Wallace replies, “it doesn’t.”

“I’ve got used to it,” says Christie, though without complete conviction. “It used to really piss me off.”

After over a decade working alongside one another across radio and television, they’ve grown comfortable with one another’s characteristics. Wallace is the meticulous, organised one, who frets and sweats the details. Christie “throws chaos” at him, on- and off-air. This is not a recipe for perfect television, but, as Christie says, “It’s been a long, long time since we’ve had a show which I would consider to be a shitter.”

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Back Benches is now eight years and three elections old. It’s grown up a little: they no longer use security, and it no longer plays live. But it’s still recorded as if it were. That’s a bedrock of the show. It means parts are ropey, but that it retains a sense of potential for disaster which, while it doesn’t happen often, gives it a necessary edge.

“I said to Prime when they took it over ‘I only want to do the show if it’s never edited,” says Chapman. “That’s very important to me. Other shows will reset if there’s a mistake, or an MP might say ‘I don’t want that in’.

“We don’t do that.”

What they do is create this strange show, which could be made nowhere else, most weeks of the year. It’s an odd, deformed creature, at once debating big issues while by its very nature really unable to do much about them. That gives it an entirely different feel to the bruising of The Nation or insistence of Q&A.

But this is not a handicap. The show is by and for political junkies, and features Parliament’s background dwellers taking a rare turn under hot lights. Tonight we watched three women and one man, none of whom are household names, or ever likely to be, trying gamely prove themselves human and relatable. For one of them, it even worked. 

Back Benches screens late on Wednesday nights on Prime. There is a live recording tonight, Wednesday September 2nd, from 6pm at Britomart Country Club.