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Stevie TV: The Changing Faces of John Campbell

Stevie TV is a monthly column by Steve Braunias. In this instalment, he recalls the many faces of John Campbell through the ages.

The final of Campbell Live on Friday night marks the end of an era which encompasses the entire history of New Zealand since the coming of Captain Cook.

The show, and its genial host, has been with us since that marvelous day when Cook and several of his party first set foot on New Zealand soil on October 8, 1769. Campbell came ashore as the Endeavour’s broadcaster, and immediately set about establishing lines of communication with the native peoples.

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His friendly manner and boyish looks were well-received by the tangata whenua, and he was voted best current affairs host of the year in 1770. And so began his fabulous career as the helmsman of Campbell Live, which was then a stage show.

He toured his news theatre to the gold fields of Otago and the West Coast, and the whaling stations in Banks Peninsula and the Cook Strait. It was Campbell who dubbed Kororakea “the hellhole of the Pacific”. The adverse publicity forced townspeople to change its name to Russell.

Campbell Live gained exclusive interviews with many of the movers and shakers of the 19th century.

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By the 20th century, and showing no signs of looking a day older, Campbell was a constant thorn in the sides of colonial governments. He was ably defended by his boss, head of news Mark Jennings, who once stepped Premier Dick Seddon outside and beat the cunt senseless.

In World War II, Campbell risked his life as he broadcast alongside New Zealand troops stationed in Egypt and Italy.

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The post-war years of economic prosperity failed to lull Campbell into a false sense of security. He spoke up for the unemployed and the homeless when they didn’t have a voice due to the fact that full employment and the housing boom meant no one was unemployed or homeless.

But he always maintained an interest in reporting on the lighter side of life. During the summer of 1956, he was filmed swimming with Opo the wild dolphin.

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The age of rock’n’roll initially threw Campbell. His conservative suits and refusal to wear his hair long made him out of step with the 1960s. He attempted to compensate in the 1970s by joining a commune, but Jennings axed Campbell’s radical plans to relaunch the show as Commune Live.

He regained his composure and settled into the role that has made him beloved by New Zealanders in the 1990s and 2000s through to the present day – until Friday.

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He leaves behind a legacy of first-class investigative journalism, and with the thanks and appreciation of hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who don’t count as far as Mediaworks assholes Julie Christie and Mark Weldon are concerned.

For 246 years, he has appeared as a rare sign of intelligent life in these islands. It’s over, and there are no words.

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The final episode of Campbell Live airs 7pm Friday, TV3. It will be replaced with Road Cops from Monday.

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