Claire Adamson shares her arduous journey to watch a few precious episodes of the part Barbie, part human after-school series This is Serial Stuff, and celebrates the smart technicolour antics of the iconic kiwi kids show.
I want you to cast your mind back to a time before you were cool – catching the bus home, eating all of the Nutella after school and listening to your Garbage CD on the discman you got for your 13th birthday. These were the heady, glory days of after school television: Rugrats, Pokemon, Fresh Prince. And naturally, This is Serial Stuff.
Part human, part Barbie, This is Serial Stuff was an episodic saga that centred around the lives of a group of brightly coloured, adventurous friends. They were played by the What Now presenters of the time – Shavaughn Ruakere, Anthony Samuels and Fiona Anderson, plus a big cast of ringins. Sports Susie was the ditzy, outgoing one, Outdoor Trevor the camp, agreeable Ken doll, and Lifestyle Sharon the exasperated busybody (the ‘Monica’, if you will). There was drama, scandal, action and romance, and more Barbies than had been seen on screen since Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story. It was clearly ridiculous, but I watched it every afternoon with a kind of gleeful, self-aware reverence that I was too young to understand as irony.
So 29-year-old me decided to crack back into it and relive the magic. Was it as good as I remembered? Was Sports Susie still deserving of her place on my “Top television characters of all time” list, right below Willow and Mary Cherry?
It was not as easy an endeavor as I had imagined.
This is Serial Stuff’s entire YouTube presence is a few tiny clips in a What Now blooper reel, and NZ on Screen only has the What Now 30th anniversary episode. I discovered this back in 2012 when I eschewed the classic buzzy bee and rugby player outfits, and hit the Waitangi Day Pub Crawl in London dressed in a pink visor and a purple seersucker shirt with a tie in the front. A clear homage to Shavaughn Ruakere’s magnum opus.
There was no sign of This is Serial Stuff on the internet then, and to my horror, nothing on the internet now. But surely the show was not some kind of collective hallucination of the nation’s youth in the late ’90s. There were episodes somewhere, and maybe I could be the one to find them. So off I went, armed with an email address, a fierce determination and the little search engine that could.
Everyone I emailed with this seemingly impossible request for footage got back to me quickly with bad news, or cheerfully misguided optimism at the amount of budget I had allocated to watch this thing. I was told that I was welcome to come out and view some of the episodes at TVNZ’s archive at Lower Hutt, but to get a DVD made and shipped to Auckland will cost $78. Alumni membership to the Auckland University AV library will cost me $500 a year. Whitebait TV has no earthly idea of what I am talking about, and Avalon Productions emails me back with a resounding ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
And unfortunately, in the true spirit of ‘treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen’, my obsession with watching this thing kept growing. Tiny, plastic Ken-doll wigs danced in my eyes as I experimented with search terms and desperately messaged a guy I found on MySpace who claimed to have shot the episodes. Friends became bored of me talking about Manly Jack and evil twins and screaming “HIII!! UT’S MAAAY!!” at any given opportunity. I managed to stop just short of scouring the living room windows of my neighbours to see if they coincidentally had a collection of What Now tapes dating back 15 years.
And then, a hit! Nga Taonga – a sound and film archive based in central Wellington – had a long list of old What Now episodes that they could ship me up to watch at their K Rd office. I enthusiastically arranged a time, and headed along to the office on a rare day off from my day job. An odd art installation in the stairwell jangled noisily as I walked up the stairs, announcing my arrival. No matter – the office was closed anyway due to ‘unforeseen circumstances’.
After several attempts, success. I take a seat next to two young girls who are clearly on their school holidays and, in a desperate ploy to keep them occupied, someone has plopped them in front of YouTube. To the other side of me is a pretentious art film with no audience that loops, plunking sporadically (and annoyingly). Rows of tapes line the walls, and I sit in front of an ancient iMac wired up to a video player with headphones on. I begin to fast forward.
I traverse six hours of What Now to watch a mere 15 minutes’ worth of New Zealand television history. This is Serial Stuff is much, much camper than I remember. Shavaugn Ruakere’s Sports Susie has an almost offensive streak of vacant optimism and the kind of kuywuy inflection that makes everything she says into a question. Lifestyle Sharon, played by Carolyn Taylor, is unusually angry (in my advanced age, I think I identify with her a little bit more than Sports Susie). I like her jaunty red bulldog clips, and I like them even better when she’s in her Barbie form. And best of all, my advanced years have brought me the maturity to appreciate – nay, adore – Outdoor Trevor.
Outdoor Trevor is played with the campest aplomb by Anthony Samuels. Trevor is a dream: fancy-free but rather timid, drifting happily from scene to scene in this colourful world. He wears his pyjama pants high on his body, and his hair glints plastically in the studio lights. Sports Susie is still on my list, but Trevor is making a very real play for glory in the Serial Stuff power rankings of my mind. A quick and very stalkery search on LinkedIn tells me that Anthony Samuels is now married and the CEO of some kind of water pump business. Quite the about turn, but fair play to him.
In one of the episodes I watch, Trevor is talking to Manly Jack, the staunch, scarred action hero who goes around with a mighty rocket on his back (as his theme song tells us – in reality it appears to be a vivid pen). Manly Jack is bummed because the women all have romantic interests that aren’t him. He muses dramatically: “What’s the point of fighting for democracy and freedom if you can’t get chicks!” Trevor, who up until this point is following along attentively, nervously replies, “Oh, I wouldn’t know”.It’s a great moment, and it sends Manly Jack into an all-night reverie in the front garden, where he startles Sharon in the morning. Her and Trevor decide that in order to find out what’s wrong, Trevor will have to act like a Real Bloke. It’s a thought that fills him with abject terror. The now-empty Nga Taonga office endures my intermittent guffaws.
There are, of course, a whole host of other characters that I encounter in my three episode run of Serial Stuff. Horse enthusiast Angela Parker Rowles wears a riding helmet at all time, and speaks with a preposterous English accent (the kind of accent that would say words like ‘preposterous’). She is invited by a spittingly enthusiastic Sports Susie to move into the flat, much to the chagrin of grouchy old Sharon. Angela Parker Rowles becomes a recurring character, obviously, as she features in the next episode I watch.
In this one, Sharon is determined that the gang will go to Angela’s father’s Enormous Beach House. They end up with a couple of tents – one for the boys and one for the girls. Lifestyle Sharon is clearly pissed, in what seems to be one of Serial Stuff’s most enduring plot points. Jason Fa’afoi plays a kind of savage viking with Madonna-esque cone boobs, and Mark Wright, of Oddfellows mints fame, shows up in one of the episodes.
I know that these are merely snippets of This is Serial Stuff, and a true experience can only be had by watching episode after episode – it is a serial after all (albeit one with far fewer Nisha calls than we’re used to). But this has been a rich and rather rewarding experience, and it occurs to me that I am probably the first New Zealander in about a decade to have watched any of this national treasure. Well, maybe not: I like to imagine Anthony Samuels in his den after the kids have gone to bed, reliving his glory days on his personal collection of DVDs that TVNZ made him for the low price of $78 (and $46 for each subsequent DVD). Perhaps I should have peered in his window.
I feel a kind of responsibility, in that case. I don’t want to be the only one who remembers this show past the fact that it once existed, and I definitely don’t want to go to my grave without an adult perspective of This is Serial Stuff. I feel like there are so many adult moments that I definitely would have missed in my pubescent state, and I want to be able to say things to friends about this show without them snorting “oh yeah”, and then we move on to remembering much more accessible moments from, say, Spongebob or The Simpsons. I want to be able to find things which were once on television and skip through them quickly rather than having to awkwardly fast forward to the right spot. I want more New Zealand television to be bloody well digitally archived, and easy to access for people who don’t live in the Hutt Valley.
On the other hand, I kind of can’t help but feel a little bit relieved that I had to go to so much effort: This is Serial Stuff is so colourful and overwrought that it’s hardly suited to the marathon viewing sessions we enjoy these days. I think the five minute bursts as I avoided my homework and argued heartily with my sister about the remote control were just right.