The history of New Zealand television features plenty of lowlights, but few as low as the drunken and chaotic 1987 Listener Gofta Awards. Comedian Michele A’Court was there.
It is possible that I am one of the few people who has fond memories of the 1987 Gofta Awards. It’s also possible that I am one of the few who has memories of that night at all. Everyone else was either hammered, or they’ve willfully blotted it out. NZ On Screen files it under “one of NZ television’s most notorious episodes”. I found the whole thing thrilling.
OK, sure – ‘thrilling” in the way of a drunken brawl at a family wedding in which no-one really gets hurt. Terrible frocks, bad language, special moments ruined. And all of it broadcast live to the nation. The people who make television making appalling TV as they attempted to honour television makers. It was a terrific night out.
I don’t remember where in Auckland it was held – the city was a mystery to me then. As the newest presenter on What Now, I’d been flown up from Christchurch (already exciting) to present the Children’s Television Award. The dress code, we’d been told, was to fit with a “space age” theme. No idea why. Possibly as an excuse to use lasers and dry ice. I believe the lovely people at TVNZ in Christchurch whipped up some little confection for me in purple and pink. I’m a little fuzzy on the detail but 1987 was the year I made David Hartnell’s Worst Dressed list for looking like “an explosion in a paint shop”, so I am assuming it was quite loud.
But whatever it was, I must have looked wildly under-dressed and country-cousin-ish next to the show’s co-hosts, Leeza Gibbons (flown over from the US from Entertainment Tonight) and Nic Nolan (TVNZ continuity announcer and handsome, square-jawed radio guy).
I need to say this quite firmly to anyone watching these clips 29 years later – no-one ever, at any point, thought these clothes looked cool. Even in 1987, this wasn’t aspirational couture. Leeza, gorgeous thing that she is, almost pulled it off. Her first outfit (segment one, 2’25”) was reminiscent of a Christmas fairy your kid would make at kindy out of cardboard and tinfoil. If you think Nic resembles a turducken, you’re only thinking what everyone else thought on the night. When Leeza comes back in the third segment in a different tinfoil arrangement, you could be forgiven for thinking the wardrobe department had spotted signs of hypothermia and had wrapped her in a special blanket.
So right from the start, there was that “What the fuck?!” feel to proceedings. Which guests might have kept to themselves if they’d been sober. But they weren’t. We’d all been crammed into the room for what seemed like hours already on “lock-down” – TV-speak for no-one comes in, no-one goes out, no-one moves seats – while they set cameras, worked out where the nominees and winners were sitting, and prepared to broadcast live. Dinner was to come later but, to keep everyone cheerful, champagne was poured. It was a hot room. There was a lot of waiting. Nominees and supporters were overexcited. There was nothing to do but drink. Possibly other things – I don’t know, I was a children’s TV presenter. But it was 1987, pre-stock market crash, in Auckland, amongst the glitterati. There’s probably some maths to be done. Quickly, in a loud voice, and with confidence.
Most people look back and suggest shit really went south once John Inman walked on stage. Inman (Mr Humphries from Are You Being Served) happened to be in New Zealand touring a stage show so the producers shoulder-tapped him for a bit of international star quality. Almost before he makes the podium, he’s heckled. In the second segment, 13 seconds in you’ll hear some bloke shout (twice) “Sexist shit! Fuck off!” (Watching this again, it occurs to me that “heckling” is an early form of “trolling”. This bit plays like a live Twitter feed.) I’ve never quite understood why the young man shouts “sexist”. “Anachronistic” and “pandering to homophobic stereotypes” might have been closer to some kind of mark, I guess. Poor John. He copes, and like a trooper sticks around to follow through with the bit of script they’ve given him about Grace Brothers (the store in which Are You Being Served? is located) offering to make Nic a less tinfoily suit, and therefore needing to measure his inside-leg. Badoom tish.
But I’d argue the die was cast before that all erupted. The feeling in the room was adolescent anarchy from the start. First, there was the madness of trying to rein in a bunch of film and TV creatives for a live show. (Cut to production meeting where someone says, “We shoot and broadcast sport live and that works. What can possibly go wrong with actors and entertainers?”) So there was all that tension already about whether it was a live show for the people in the room, or a TV show for the folks at home. And second, the dry ice and lasers and tinfoil and space theme. It was like a school social where the kids have been promised something cool like Beyoncé, and a brass band turns up. And then they’re told to sit up straight forever, and there’ll be a test shortly. School social turns into detention. And then you give them alcopops.
At some point the awards presenters, myself included, were ushered out of the room and away from the champagne to wait backstage in relative sobriety for our turn. I watched most of the shenanigans on a monitor with the TV sound turned down. Though it would have been drowned out anyway by the hubbub in the room. I loved it back there – it seemed every face I’d ever seen on my telly was lining up for makeup, and their turn trying to make a decent fist of announcing finalists and winners out on stage.
For a while, it was tremendously lovely. I seem to remember Angela D’Audney, who nightly told me the world’s news, fussing about her lipstick with the makeup artist and then, when he’d finished, getting her own out of her evening bag and doing it again. I sat and watched as streams of famous people came and went, and waited for my turn. And then the anxiety started to rise as I realised no-one knew who the girl in the corner in the (possibly) pink and purple confection was, and I wasn’t going to get to the makeup chair (my face was largely bare) before we got to the Children’s TV Award. More than that, the chaos out in the room had well and truly permeated backstage. By the time I screwed up the courage to introduce myself to the makeup artist, it was clear he’d reached the point where there were pretty much no fucks he was prepared to give.
By way of context, I need to tell you about my hair. When I got the job on What Now, I had a pretty serious undercut (that thing where you shave the bottom half of your head but keep the rest long and whack it in a ponytail) (no, I don’t know why either) and faced with this, the lovely makeup artist at Christchurch TVNZ had given me a number-4 all over and bought me a hairpiece. It was arguably a funky hairpiece (think Flock of Seagulls if you have to – we were thinking Cyndi Lauper) which clipped to the top of my head and shot up in multi-coloured spikes. With not enough time for makeup, and clearly in a foul mood, the makeup guy slapped it low on my forehead and said, “Why don’t we put it here?” Which is why, that year, the Award for Best Children’s Television was presented by a girl no-one knew with a multi-coloured toupee covering most of her face. No, no idea why I made David Hartnell’s Worst Dressed list.
The speech I had fretted over for weeks went pretty well. Even the boozed and boisterous have that primal sense of protection for the young and weak. A puppy had been thrown into a cockfight. They were kind, laughed in the appropriate places, and I went back to my seat unscathed. Though still unable to see through my hair.
As we reached the business end of the awards, they had run out of broadcast time. Winners were announced, then told they couldn’t come up to the stage to receive them. In the clips, we see Nic “I still have to work in this town tomorrow” Nolan obediently delivering this bad news from the director, who is still trying to make a TV show (segment three, 45”). Leeza tries to soothe the angry mob – to her, it’s still a live show and the audience is telling her they don’t like it. Watch her eyes from about one minute into that segment. If you can bear it, pause it at 2’07”. She is weeping inside.
It was a fabulous hot mess. Everyone at the after-party had a sense of having survived some shared trauma. I recall tiny pikelets with salmon, and more champagne. I looked at all those people and realised this was the business I was working in now. They were loud, untamed, raucous. They made television, but they wouldn’t be told by television-makers how to behave on a night that was supposed to be about celebrating their work. This being-in-TV thing was going to be fun.
As far as I can tell, that was the last time anyone tried to do a live broadcast of an awards or entertainment show. When we have them now (if we have them) they’re recorded “as live” with the broadcast delayed for editing. Pussies.
Leeza forgave us and came back a year later for Telethon. Her stuff was done in Christchurch, where I was still working on What Now. At one point, I was sent off to find her and walked into her dressing room to find her snogging Christopher Quinten, him what played Brian Tilsley on Coronation Street. They were married a year later, divorced two years after that. Lord knows under which heading she files her memories of New Zealand.
My other lasting memory of that night at the Goftas was a TV executive coming over to me at the after-party and saying, “Well done!” Then he turned to my boyfriend of the time who was already pretty well known around the place for being a comedy writer and saying to him, “Great speech – I’m assuming you wrote it,” and then wafted away. Welcome to television.
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