With Heartland in it’s final, feeble week of life, Calum Henderson sat down and watched one day’s worth of nostalgic programming.
TVNZ Heartland is dying. At midnight on the 31st of May, the national nostalgia channel will shut down, taking with it our chances of ever again opportunistically stumbling upon a classic episode of Mucking In to the grave. On a cold, sad Tuesday night I sat down in a solemn vigil, to flick through the our televisual scrapbook for one of its daily six hour programming blocks.
6:00pm Shortland Street
Since Heartland began in 2010, Shortland Street… From the Beginning has been a cornerstone of its programming. It’s a generous second chance for all the idiots who missed out on phenomena like Nick, Kirsty, and the original Bachelor Chris Warner the first time around. I never took this opportunity previously because the daily effort of watching an objectively bad TV show on a 20-year delay seemed like a waste of time, even by my standards. I fully acknowledge this as ‘my loss’.
Tonight we find a Ferndale community reeling from a drugs scandal. “It was your pills that killed Les!” an irate Minnie shrieks at a villainous drug lord as the show reaches its dramatic climax. Meanwhile, several different romance plots are unraveling – an unfeminist receptionist badgers Waverley into dating a nice man she doesn’t like, some bumbling dolt in a tux drowns his sorrows at the Buzz Bar, and dirtbag Greg Feeney tries to make amends with a shabby bouquet of roses. Weird to think this all meant something to people in 1999.
Like every episode of Shortland Street, I’m compelled to keep watching in pursuit of that one weird, thrilling moment. Tonight it’s a brief glimpse at the front page of Ferndale’s local rag, and an unremarkable appearance by the show’s best ever character Nick Harrison.
In retrospect, it’s blindingly obvious that the character of Nick was originally based on Daniel Johns from Silverchair. While his eventual arc from puberty-ravaged adolescent to responsible 9-5 family man was fine, I can’t help but think how much better Nick could have been had they kept him on the Silverchair trajectory. All the way through to the ‘Walking in a Straight Line’ era. Instead of a lowly hospital PR man getting rarked up over a Ferndale Times headline, tonight he would have been deep in the throes of his harrowing Ana’s Song phase. “Please die Waverley / For as long as you are here we’re not.”
6:30pm Open Home
Like some kind of Edward Gorey book, a macabre series of fates seem to have met so many of our nice lady TV presenters – head injury, bankruptcy, becoming a tory MP… I always counted Jude Dobson amongst this number due to a hazy recollection that she got sent to prison because her dog bit someone. But when I google ‘jude dobson dog attack’ (good band name?) nothing comes up. Was it all just a strangely vindictive dream?
Open Home is a pleasing reminder of the days before DIY was de rigeur. As the title suggests, Jude and His Majesty the Lord Mayor of Dunedin Dave Cull simply take us for a look around a few houses. Not a reno in sight. It’s more chill than The Block or even Grand Designs, but times have changed and this is something we can never go back to.
Tonight we have a poke around a trendy Parnell townhouse, then find the exact opposite in Bluff at Fred and Myrtle Flutey’s paua house. In between, Jim Hickey talks to a Remuera man intensely passionate about selling reproduction furniture, and a great segment called ‘Bowls’, which is just a nice soothing slideshow of various bowls.
7:00pm Tux Wonder Dogs
While it’s sad that things like Open Home don’t work on telly any more, the same can’t be said for Wonder Dogs. This show is perfect. What are all these idiot media execs thinking, having no dog shows on the box? John Campbell, probably the only sane TV person we have left, taught dogs to drive and still they’ve all got their heads in the sand.
We seldom see this kind of pure, indulgent amateurishness on the telly any more. While it might seem like amateurs are more abundant than ever on our screens these days, today’s telly amateur is a quite different proposition. Now the entertainment tycoons have convinced everyone that amateurism is some quagmire they have to fight their way out of. But in the same way that the cheerful karaoke of Homai Te Paki Paki is infinitely more fun to watch than X Factor, it’s a joy to watch folks light-heartedly having a go at dog obedience.
Everyone remembers the classic obstacle course, and most will recall the river retrieval and drag race rounds. The underrated highlight is the final round, though, where everybody has to dress up like it’s Shakespeare in the Park. With a table at the end of a red carpet set up like a royal jumble sale, the dogs have to fetch specific items one by one. This seems like an ability only the most highly trained service dogs will ever possess?
Basically, sadistic old Mark Leishman just devised a cunning way to trick people into dressing up like bloody Polonius and Laertes, delivering deranged soliloquies to their dogs who, with quiet dignity, must attempt to make sense of their instructions.
After what was probably about two hours before editing, one dog has finally deciphered the shrieking cacophony of “Jester’s hat! Jester’s hat!” “You can buy them”, remarks Jim Mora, calmly commentating this shambles. “I saw one on Ponsonby Road for $24.95.”
7:30pm There & Back
We’re on a roll here – Open Home into Wonder Dogs feels like an authentic Sunday night line-up circa 1998. A deep, instinctive dread has settled in the pit of my stomach at the prospect of school in the morning. After an ad for a new parenting show hosted by Jude Dobson – she isn’t rotting in jail after all – the blazing high definition of one of TVNZ Heartland’s new productions, There & Back, snaps us back into the modern age.
Tonight, New Zealand’s nicest tellyman Matt Gibb is on his way to Oamaru with an iPad full of clips from the TVNZ archives. It’s a fruitless attempt to introduce modern technology to this stubbornly anachronistic town. Watching Matt interact with small town folk is to regional tourism what watching Hugh Grant in Notting Hill is to romance. “That’s what I’d be like if I went to Oamaru – hit on a woman in my bookshop” I can’t help but imagine, in the face of years of lived experience, to the contrary.
The show’s concept of tracking down people from weird old archive clips is nerdily enjoyable, and they somehow find a way to make Oamaru seem cool and interesting. We leave Matt there, eating a 27-metre saveloy by himself. Is this a good idea? Seems irresponsible. God I hope he’s OK.
8:30pm Wild About New Zealand
As a casual viewer, Heartland’s programming always felt like it had been recklessly left on shuffle. Sticking with the channel all evening, though, reveals a weird but deliberate flow. From the small towns of There & Back, we go full sweeping panoramic vistas on another new production Wild About New Zealand.
It’s ambitious, large-scale and well-made, but it also feels a bit like something that might be playing in a museum. Just endlessly looping to no one while a pair of worn out headphones hang beside it. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy this on DVD and send it to an overseas relative as a smugly patriotic Christmas present. But mate, it’s Tuesday night. I’d rather be watching The Bachelor‘s painstaking courtship of multiple women instead of a high quality production showcasing our country’s stunning natural landscapes.
One of Heartland’s many underrated trump cards is that it’s home to some great ads for businesses who can’t afford to advertise on the main channels – businesses like The Bidet Shop. In their impressively elaborate piece of anti-asswiping propaganda, a businessman at a bus stop is splashed with mud by a passing vehicle. “That’s a bit misfortunate, try this” says a well-meaning but clearly idiotic woman, passing him a roll of toilet paper.
“That ain’t gonna work!” sneers the voiceover, as the man pulls out a remote control and summons a shower to appear above his head and soak him clean. “Jeepers,” remarks the enlightened but still filthy woman. “Gotta get me one’a those.”
9:30pm Country Calendar
Is there anyone further from Country Calendar’s target audience than an Aucklander arbitrarily watching a six hour block of telly to write about it on the internet? Then again, that has always been Country Calendar’s thing – somehow making the world of farming accessible and interesting to a wider, city-dwelling New Zealand audience.
Like the predictable late-’90s Mt Eden yuppie throwback I am, it’s not long before I’m deeply engrossed in the annual muster on Molesworth Station. While from the comfort of my vintage three-seater couch there certainly seems to be some degree of folly to having such a big bloody farm. Despite the fact that it requires a small plane and week-long horse treks to round up all the cattle, it’s an impressive operation nonetheless.
If I have one criticism of Country Calendar it’s this – I think the beloved theme tune is overrated. Tonight I’ve had an epiphany: New Zealand’s best telly theme, and truthfully it’s not even really close, is the Tux Wonder Dogs boogie. It has aged incredibly well. You know who else made catchy hooks out of dog barks? Kate Bush and Prince. That’s the rare level of genius and artistry we’re talking about.
10:00pm Nothing Trivial
In the night’s first and only true programming misstep, we’re violently shunted from the remote beauty of the high country to the horrible bourgie Auckland of Nothing Trivial. The episode description tries its best to sex up a show about a bunch of wealthy idiots having mid-life crises.
Emma’s sexy secret is that she secretly uses some kind of horny nasal spray. Rangi from Shortland Street finds it and gets very passive-aggressive, weirdly confronting her about her “lady drugs”. Meanwhile Dom from Shortland Street is passive-aggressive with his wife because of something to do with their vile kids. He ends the episode undressing another woman in a bowls club. Jesus I miss Country Calendar’s stoic farmers.
If TVNZ Heartland is our TV scrapbook then it stands to reason there will be some odd inclusions. You can never fully predict what’s worth remembering and what’s not – the most meaningless things can take on unforeseen significance with time, while seemingly important things can turn out to mean nothing. Only time will tell whether Nothing Trivial ever means anything.
Mercifully, the light at the end of the previous hour’s incredibly dark tunnel arrives in the form of Kerre Woodham at the Riverton Races. Such haunting cinematography, such artful editing – shit this show was good. Did we realise at the time? Do we realise now?
Where Gary McCormick roguishly charmed his way around the backblocks, Kerre steps straight out of the talkback studio, and her direct approach produces some great interviews. “What’s it like getting old?” she asks a retired axeman, as the shot pans to show his relic-filled living room, heavy with the past. He replies: “Pretty miserable.”
Back at the races, some poor bastard’s horse has broken its leg going down the straight. He walks towards the camera fighting back tears. “They’ve got to shoot it.” Partially obscured by the canvas screen held up by track stewards, we watch in silence as the hobbled creature flops to the ground. What a fitting metaphor for this TV channel.
As my vigil draws to a depressing close, the Shortland Street episode I watched six hours ago comes back on. History repeats. This block of programming will cycle through another three times – like memories stirred from the depths of the past, Heartland’s schedule lingers for a day before settling back into the murk.
Life will obviously go on post-Heartland, just like it did after the arguably more important TVNZ7 shut down. Still, it’s a shame that we’ll no longer have the opportunity to so easily revisit our finest telly moments, to stumble upon a 1979 Miss New Zealand pageant on a Sunday afternoon, to see ourselves and our country through the prism of the past.
Head over to heartlandtop10.co.nz and vote for the shows you want to watch as the channel draws its final dying breaths on the 30th and 31st of May. Options include the Benson & Hedges Fashion Awards 1978, a marriage-based quiz show called Pop The Question, and, inexplicably, The Food Truck.