This week saw the glamorous debut of Filthy Rich, New Zealand’s most expensive television show. But is it merely standing on the shoulder pads of giants? Gloss creator Rosemary McLeod looks back at the 80s Kiwi drama that had a wealth of big hair, high heels and old money.
I walked into Sue Crockford’s Auckland art gallery one day when, without even looking at me she said, “Clergerie.” That was a Gloss moment, so 80s.
I had become my shoes and yes, they were Robert Clergeries. Everyone in Auckland seemed to have an eye, back then, for posh labels. The city shimmered with flashy riches, French shoes and The French Café, with big, bold art, and branded everything. My Auckland friends glugged champagne like they could really afford it, and featured in Metro magazine’s wonderfully wicked Felicity Ferret gossip column. It was terrifying. I worried about how people could afford all this, and in Auckland nothing has changed.
I was living in Wellington with two small children, a hefty mortgage, and a dicey marriage when Janice Finn approached me with an idea for a TV series and asked me to develop it. Some background: I had spent a year writing and editing sitcom for the ABC in Sydney, had a TV series of my own broadcast on TV One in the 70s, and I’d sooner walk over burning coals than see any of them again; writing comedy is hell. I’d also written for a number of TV drama series.
Janice knew the visual style she wanted as executive producer. There were stately old Auckland villas and a look epitomised by Liz Mitchell’s memorable wardrobe designs. Big padded shoulders and big hats had a sharp and ironic tone which, as well as the scripts, was new to this country’s television. If I was devisor, writer, script editor and storyliner at the start, Janice made everything else happen.
In the 80s we were witnessing the beginning of the end of egalitarian New Zealand. Rogernomics meant a flood of consumer goods, and choices we’d never had. People reeled back to work after long drunken lunches; the lifts at Avalon reeked of booze and garlic in the afternoon. One mate of mine lurched out of a job interview with, “I bet I’m the first woman to apply … with no panties on.” That’s how it was, even in Lower Hutt.
Swaggering new money met old money in Gloss. I named the main (old money) family Redfern, after the Sydney suburb where I’d been warned never to go because it was full of Aborigines (!). Magda, the cynical magazine journalist played by Kerry Smith was my favourite character, a smarter me, and Ilona Rodgers, as editor of Gloss magazine Maxine Redfern, won two best actress awards. Other cast members won awards, and Gloss won the 1989 Listener award for best New Zealand drama.
The backdrop for all this was the stock market crash of 1987, the year the first series was screened. A lot of people lost a lot of money then, but the party went on.
My best Gloss memory is the laughter at script and storyline conferences. Janice had long fingernails, always painted with pale, pearly lacquer. She would weep with laughter, as we all did, cupping her nails under her eyes to catch the tears and protect her mascara, which made you laugh even more. Discussing casting, she’d veto actors with one word, in her high, light voice: “Trouble!”
I had moments of what seemed almost like brilliance. The running bride (a recurring nightmare of mine) at the end of the first series was one of them, but my finest hour was bringing a character (Rex Redfern) back from the dead. Gloss was that kind of programme.
I wrote, “A thing of beauty is a boy for ever” with such pleasure that I was never quite sure I hadn’t read it somewhere. And I had. The Internet, which didn’t exist then, tells me I inadvertently quoted from a novel by Carl Van Vechten that I’ve never actually read. He was the literary executor of Gertrude Stein’s estate, I’d read a lot about her, and I’m still a fan.
Gloss ran for three seasons, till 1990, when Miranda Harcourt, who played the key role of Gemma, decided to call it quits. By then I’d gone back to full-time journalism.
Gloss was the most fun I ever had in television, and I never wrote another script. For years afterwards cheques for devisor’s fees arrived from sales of the programme to strange foreign countries. I’m told there were issues over the rights that the actors and writers were given in our contracts, meaning Gloss can’t be re-screened without paying us all again. I’m not altogether sorry. Gloss is probably better left where it was, like an old boyfriend you remember fondly. As the great Merle Haggard puts it, time changes everything.
Throwback Thursday is brought to you by the legends at NZ On Screen, home of an excellent archive of Gloss goodness including the full premiere episode from 1987, this Jim Hickey cameo and Kevin Smith’s debut on the show in 1989.