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Pop CultureOctober 1, 2015

Television: Feature – Neighbours at War Lays Down its Guns

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Duncan Greive watches Bill Kerton and company finish the last episode of New Zealand’s reality classic Neighbours at War – airing tonight – before it heads into long-term hiatus.

It starts with something shared: a driveway, a boundary, a cul-de-sac. Two sets of New Zealanders, meeting at the edge of their properties, disagreeing over noise, over rubbish, over roots. Over the right way to behave.

It ends with video cameras peeking through curtains, stolen garden gnomes, and, surprisingly often, with poo. 

Once they’d tried everything  – reasoning, the council, the local MP – that’s when Neighbours at War came in. For ten years and eight seasons the show has scoured the country, looking for irreconcilable differences, and trying to solve them through the mediation of a famous New Zealander. 37% of the time, they say, it even worked.

Tonight this magnificent programme comes to an end. While the lurid graphics, hokey sound effects and plain-spoken narration meant that it never had a chance of joining a canon of ‘important’ local shows, Neighbours at War has “rated its tits off,” as Kerton puts it, throughout its run, and become a much-loved middle New Zealand staple.

Producer Tash Christie invited me along to watch the final edit of the ‘Best of the Worst’ compilation – airing tonight at 8.30pm on TV2 – with which they’ll send off the series. It happens on a side street off Great North Road, where she, editor Mike Viskovich and narrator – and director of the first four seasons – Bill Kerton are camped out, watching the final edit one last time.

On screen a roll call of the series’ most extraordinary characters appear, baring their buttocks, hurling pizza boxes and yowling “tight arse” as if it were the most horific insult ever expressed. Our advertisers and politicians might tell us otherwise, but to me this is the real New Zealand, and these the real New Zealanders. They’re prim and proper, lewd and crude, shocked and shocking. Most of all, they’re extremely steamed up about their bloody neighbours.

“It provides a snapshot of life in New Zealand that most people would not otherwise see,” says Kerton’s successor as the show’s director and writer, Lee Baker, “and it’s a snapshot that would not normally be considered fit for television.”

Every last one of them had something beautifully kooky about them. The metallers who just loved to have loud, boisterous sex, and hated mowing their lawns. The politically divided old women of Tauranga. The hoarders. The animal owners. The drinkers and the Christians. All trying to live their lives in Godzone. Kerton found a profundity in the idiosyncrasies.

“Invariably you’ll go to do these stories and they’ll be something you never expected,” he says. “Something you just could not make up. They’ll have a habit, or a pet or something. Invariably there’s something unusual.”

He was handed the show after he finished up with Havoc and Newsboy in the early ‘00s. After that show’s famously shambolic demise, he wondered if he’d find any other work in the industry. A production house named Greenstone – who still make the show – had a germ of an idea, a take on a UK show with a different feel. Kerton took the job because it was work, little knowing what it would grow into. As he headed around the country, chasing these stories in our small towns and outer suburbs, he grew to love the vision of our nation he saw.

“Reality television – it’s such a clumsy description,” he says. “But any opportunity, for me, to go out into New Zealand, a country I know and love – to go out there and film people. That’s something I’d want to do, no matter what it is really.”

We sit in the dimly lit room while Viskovich plays with the footage. Kerton’s thin, compact, wearing a Kathmandu hoodie and practical shoes. He once gently chided me for a review in which I insinuated he was a city slicker “I’m a country boy,” he wrote, “always have been. Here are some of my steers,” attaching an image of a few hundred kilos of beef eyeballing the camera.

The country boy in him helped shape the show, and the gentle, affectionate humour with which it treated its subjects. His narration – which continued even after he quit directing – gloried in the mundane and profane of New Zealand life.

The voice strong, the accent pure, he made these men and women tower: “In a fit of rage, he gives the fingers. And then: the unspeakable,” Kerton says, as tense strings quiver in the background, “An authentic West Auckland browneye!”

In the edit suite, as a series of the show’s most iconic moments play out, there’s an assault of the series’ signature stylistic features: the ominously heavy synth chord; the beautifully framed couch shots; the fidgeting of hands and feet. Most gloriously, the long linger on an awkward moment. Or, as Kerton puts it, “letting something completely smash onto the ground.”

Viskovich is reminded of a quintessential example, and pulls it up on screen. A man is introduced in a pretty rural property. “I have a lovely view which you see here. I,” he says, before pausing for three or four aching seconds, “needed a place…”

It doesn’t translate into words, but is absurd, and deeply funny in a way which defies explanation. We all fall about laughing. “There’s no reason why you can’t do that,” says Kerton, after recovering. “None whatsoever. The instinct for television makers is cut that, to tighten it up. But I don’t see why you actually need to.”

“It’s the Bertolt Brecht side of things,” says Christie of the practise, a statement at once ridiculous and entirely correct. Kerton says they look for the worst, most dated music, clunky cuts and other odd devices which helped give it a sense of strange New Zealand humour all its own.

“The style of the show is in many ways anti-television,” wrote Baker via email. “Lots of voice over, long prosaic cutaways, awkward moments, cheesy music cues.

“I’ve always liked the fact that on Neighbours at War we can hone in on the detail and minutiae that most TV shows are very careful to avoid. It’s all about the detail when you’re dealing with the apparently low stakes and yet high drama of the disputes.”

The final episode is all climax, a relentless compendium of the series’ oddest, angriest and most iconic moments. Kerton and Christie gathered to Franklin road a few weeks back to record the final voice-over. I arrive at 8am and find them deep into their work. Christie is running through some script adjustments: “we weren’t allowed to say ‘unfortunate’. They’re ‘crestfallen,” she says firmly. “And no to ‘our many, many failures’. We haven’t had that many!”

Kerton enters the booth. “New Zealand,” he says, in his peach of an accent. “Nu Zillun,” rejoins Tash, hammily. “New Zealand,” responds Alex, recording that day, in his Argentine accent. Then Kerton finishes his sentence:

“New Zealand: Home to four million ordinary hard-working New Zealanders. We love The Warehouse, sexual intercourse, rugby and going round to the neighbours for barbecue on Sunday.”

Kerton runs through his lines in a brisk hour, mostly in one or two takes. He gets hung up on ‘cataclysmic collage’ (“you wrote it mate,” says Christie, helpfully) and “rural Rangitikei”: “In ruru – ah fucking shit!” he says, after trying and failing, as many have before, to pronounce ‘rural’. Eventually he cracks it: “In rural Rangitikei, Margaret, Craig and Roger had a strong suspicion their neighbour Roger was, in fact, the fugitive Lord Lucan.”

Such brilliantly crisp, concise writing. Always delivered with his trademark generosity and affection.

That came from time spent around these extraordinary subjects. They didn’t just land in their lap; they had to be ferreted out. The eight seasons over 10 years – the lag was because they wouldn’t go to air until they had sourced enough quality stories. At first people were mostly happy to front up.

“Often they just haven’t talked to each other,” says Christie of their neighbourly issues. “70% of the time we used to get two sides.

“It’s just harder now to get disputes where both sides will front up,” she says. “Because people have seen the show.”

That lead to a series of tantalising half-stories toward the end of its run. Brilliant characters with fantastical tales – but with the opposition cowering behind a locked ranchslider. That deprived the show of its resolution: the moment of mediation. Everyone from a young John Key to an old Tom Bradley has performed the function. Some more successfully than others. Occasional Spinoff writer Dan Taipua is huge fan of the series, and nominates Tariana Turia as a particular favourite.

“She was there to settle a dispute that didn’t involve fencelines or murdered pets or loud music, but the injured friendship of two pensioners in an HNZ block,” he wrote via email. “Over a cup of tea and a kai, the Right Honourable Aunty T rebuilt a friendship stronger than cinderblock and sturdier than an uncertified retaining wall.”

Without those moments the show risked becoming a freak show, showing only the anger and not the nuanced humanity of the resolution. Rather than let it betray its roots, the decision was made to let it out the gate and off into the hills. It may one day return, but if not, it should stand as one of the shows which has most accurately captured the strange creatures who people these windswept islands.

On Franklin road, Kerton emerges from the booth. His time here is done, but his day is just beginning. He’s working on the local production of the BBC’s Coast, with Neil Oliver, a figure he greatly admires. It’s a very different show in tone and aspiration from Neighbours at War, but one he likely would never have made without taking that odd job a dozen or so years ago. He and Christie exchange hugs and pecks on the cheek, then he heads for the door.

“The end of an era,” he says. And it is.

Catch Neighbours at War, tonight at 8.30pm on TV2 or later on TVNZ OnDemand

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