Alex Casey talks to Hilary Barry about juggling Paul Henry and 3 News, watching X Factor and playing second banana.
When I arrived at TV3 to meet Hilary Barry, I was deeply excited to find out that the interview would take place on the Paul Henry set. “It’s about the only quiet place left in the building,” Hilary explained. The whole place is undergoing a revamp – they’re bulldozing all the walls. Eventually there will just be one open plan pit of MediaWorks employees to mix and mingle in, whether they like it or not. Seems like a fitting metaphor for a company so determined to break down all television boundaries, and eventually fold all of it’s franchises and talent into one heaving television rat king.
Hilary was incredibly spritely for someone who has to wake up long before most of the Viaduct goes to bed. Apparently the siesta has been a revelation for Hilz – she has an hour-long nap between Paul Henry and 3 News at 6 o’clock. Coffee in hand, she led me around the set, and even offered to take snaps of me around the place. I got to sit in Paul’s chair (but he isn’t allowed to know that), and Hilary took her usual spot at the desk. A creature of habit, she leaned in and subconsciously talked into the microphone, as if we were broadcasting live.
There’s no denying that Hilary is a national treasure, seemingly universally loved by all New Zealanders. Since she first graced our screens in the mid-90s, she’s charmed the 6pm news slot with her consistent warmth and the occasional blooper. Beyond that, she always seems more than happy to pop up in Jono and Ben, and weigh in heavily on X Factor NZ week to week. She has her own beer fridge, loves the cricket and isn’t afraid to make fun of herself. She appears to be the ultimate perfect personality, so it’s no surprise that she was chosen for TV3’s multi-platform Paul Henry vehicle. Hilary’s healing properties counteract Paul’s toxicity perfectly, and through tolerating him daily, the audience does too.
The first thing Hilary noticed is that I had spelled her name wrong in my notebook. I knew it, but didn’t think she would see it. “Hillary Clinton has caused terrible confusion for one L’d Hilarys everywhere – bitch,” she laughed. She was alarmingly warm and casual despite the eerily quiet, unlit set around us. You could tell she was at home. Although relaxed, she would not give any comment on Campbell Live. Later in the interview, she would drop me a quite obvious hint about her stance on the programme. Watch out for it.
What was your relationship like with television growing up?
There was only one TV in the household. It got switched on around 5.30pm and the whole family would watch the news. Then it would get switched off and we’d have dinner. That was the late ‘70s – things were a lot more structured then than people’s viewing now. We’d watch the news and then Mum and Dad would let us choose shows. But we’d never just pop it on and plonk down in front of it. It was quite strict in that regard.
When you watched the news as a family, did you see that as an aspirational medium to work in?
Not when I was really little, it all seemed far too serious. I was interested in what was going on in the world, but before about the age of 14 I had never really thought about it as a career. To be honest, I’d never really thought about television journalism specifically. My aspiration was to be a radio journalist and work for Radio New Zealand. I did that, and then I kind of got stuck in the Wairarapa. It was when I was offered my “big” promotion to Timaru when I thought I should spread my wings a bit. Not that there’s anything wrong with Timaru.
I sent my CV all around the place to TVNZ and TV3, and TV3 gave me the job. I’ve been there ever since – since 1993. I worked from the Christchurch newsroom for six months, and then moved to Auckland. I didn’t start reading the news for a few years after that.
How did you first get into newsreading?
It was very much a case of everyone being sick one night, and someone saying “oh God Hilary, go find a jacket and read the news because nobody else can.” I wasn’t awful but I was pretty bad. They’re probably in the archives somewhere. From then I became the last cab on the rank if nobody else was available. As people dropped off the cab rank over the years, I got to move up. And here we are.
How daunting is live television, or are you used to it by now?
It was initially terrifying. It’s not nearly as terrifying as it used to be, but when things go wrong and you know hundreds and thousands of people are watching, your heart starts beating and you get sweaty palms. The feeling is still just like “oh my god, it’s a sinking ship and we’re all going down”. I will always have those moments of anxiety, but they aren’t nearly as bad as when I was 25.
Shall we talk about Paul Henry then? How’s it all going and are you coping?
I’m loving it. I’m coping because I’m programming in my sleeps. I’m really enjoying how the time goes so quickly. From when I arrive at 4am – oh my God that sounds so early when you say it out loud – to when we go on air, it’s all just a blur. The three hours on air goes in an absolute heartbeat. It’s so high-paced and the guests flit in and out. I’m loving the setup of the studio for guests, it just works so well. It feels like a dinner party conversation, the inbetween bits between important updates and information is supposed to be – and I think is – the kind of conversation you have when your friends come over for dinner.
The lovely thing is that because of the way the desk is built, they pick up on the relaxed vibes. It puts everyone at ease, it’s not quite as combative as a normal television set – more convivial. What ends up happening is that people will show up to talk about a serious topic, and be lured into something else. It shows a different side to people.
The set does feel very relaxed, especially when you cut to the wider shots and you see all the crew and wranglers just milling around.
I’ve actually got a bit self-conscious about the back of my head because of that. In the makeup department there’s so much concentration on the front of you for the 6 o’clock news. Because there are so many wide back shots of us on Paul Henry, the people in makeup are getting really obsessed with the back of my head.
Were you shoulder-tapped early on for Paul Henry?
I was involved in discussions for a while, but I didn’t know if my schedule would make it possible. I thought long and hard about it, there were deep concerns but at the same time I was really excited about the concept. In the end when I was required to make a decision I just said “absolutely”. I haven’t regretted it one iota.
What do you think of the multi-platform experience?
I was so in love with the idea. Obviously it’s not perfect yet, but the concept is a really good one. A lot of people have reviewed it through the television aspect, but the truth is that it’s not primetime TV. It might be one day, but breakfast television is not prime time. The radio component is incredibly important, as is the online component. When people roll out TV ratings I roll my eyes at them – online and radio is where the actual revenue is. Breakfast TV isn’t prime time in New Zealand yet – I hope to change that.
Were you looking forward to working with Paul again since your time on Radio Wairarapa?
I was. I had a great experience working with him fresh out of journalism school in Wellington, and the same is true now.
No backstage tensions? Dramas? Tantrums?
Quite the opposite. I know people don’t like to think this of him – but he is genuinely a lovely person. A lovely, caring, kind man. He’s polarising, he’s opinionated, but the fact is – he’s not boring. You tune into the show and you won’t want to poke your eyes out with a stick. I dare anyone to watch and not laugh at least once. You’ll be informed, you’ll have a laugh and you’ll get all the news anyone else could provide. It’s just much more entertaining.
Is it partially your responsibility to reign Paul in or keep him on track?
Not really. I feel like I’m responsible for having my own opinions and putting up a fight from time to time, but I am under no instruction to do that. I’m not his Mum, I’m not the BSA, I’m not even the executive producer. He’s been hired to be Paul Henry on the Paul Henry show, and he will be. I’m just along for the ride, he can say what he likes and I’ll do the same.
Is it difficult to stay engaged all the time that early in the morning?
Shivers yeah. I go blank all the time. Especially because you never know where Paul is going to go. I’ll tell you what – I am on autopilot. I’d like to tell you that I’m not but, for that first bulletin especially, I am definitely still waking up. The caffeine is yet to kick in and I am not at my sharpest. By 9 o’clock I’m on fire – it’s just a shame we’re not on air anymore. There will be times when I look very blank again, rest assured. With so many cameras, you can’t cover it up.
So outside of Paul Henry and being on the news, do you have time for other TV? I understand you are quite a big fan of The X Factor? I like X Factor because it’s a great show to watch with your kids. There aren’t a lot of family-oriented TV shows like that anymore. I like that you can sit down, and other than Natalia Kills being a total f****** bitch, you can generally rely on it being clean, kind caring, family entertainment. That’s why I like it. [At this point the publicist said “you can’t swear?!” to which Hilary replied “why the hell not?”]
How do you think the show is faring now?
I still think it’s brilliant, really fantastic. The judges aren’t the main focus, it should be all about the contestants. They’re the stars. I couldn’t believe Finlay went home though. I remember I was watching on delay and I made the mistake of checking Twitter. I thought the world was trying to kid me.
Do you have a favourite?
I thought Beau was going to clean up, but I just want to see more confidence. He’s so amazing and talented, but it still feels like he’s not comfortable on stage. Looking at all the competitors, I actually think Brendon Thomas and the Vibes could win. Maybe it’s weird for a band to win, but that’s my pick. Go the Vibes.
Have you been voting? Are you even allowed to vote?
I have. I actually have a MediaWorks phone though so I have to pull out my old prepaid in the cutlery drawer whenever I want to vote. Or can I vote from my MediaWorks phone?
Are you watching anything else on TV at the moment?
Love The Good Wife, love House of Cards. What else?
[publicist: “The Block, you love The Block”]
Oh yeah, I love The Block. Again, great family viewing. It’s weird that kids get so into it, but they do. I try to watch all the news shows and current affairs, of course I love Campbell Live.
[Hilary let a pause hang after this, there’s that hint I told you about]
The news is obviously my thing. Outside of factual programming, I’m watching the final season of Mad Men and Homeland.
On a final note, are you aware that the entire country seems to uniformly love you?
That’s very sweet of you to say, but my Twitter feed would disagree.
It just seems like a lot of your TV3 counterparts like Gower, Henry and Campbell have all come under fire at some point, and you seem to have dodged that over the years. What’s your secret?
My secret is that I’ve been very boring. I’m not in the first banana position. When you are the host of a show, it’s inevitable that in live broadcasting you’ll get into trouble in the heat of the moment. But when you’re second banana, I’m never going to lead a huge argument or slag someone off.
I think I’ve been more protected. Apart from maybe in the news, we are both sort of second bananas there. I guarantee if I was the host of my own show I would come under the same scrutiny.
You don’t have any solo hosting aspirations?
You know what? I really don’t. I don’t want the personal pressure or the professional pressure. I’m totally happy being second banana.
You can watch Hilary on Paul Henry weekdays 6-9am online, on TV or the radio, and frequently again on 3 News at 6pm after her siesta.