One year of My Life in TV (Image: Tina Tiller)
One year of My Life in TV (Image: Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureJune 15, 2024

The best things we’ve learnt after a year of My Life in TV

One year of My Life in TV (Image: Tina Tiller)
One year of My Life in TV (Image: Tina Tiller)

Alex Casey looks back on a year of talking television with local celebrities.

It all began with Chris Parker in a jacuzzi. Since, June 2023, Tara Ward and I have been interviewing beloved New Zealand personalities about their TV habits and memories for our My Life in TV series. We’ve seen Dame Susan D and Sir Ashley B crushing on The Six Million Dollar Man, Temuera Morrison lamenting KFC ads (“what the hell did I eat that for?”) and The Briscoes Lady giving an elocution lesson (“you’re part of a ‘community’, not a ‘communidy’”). 

Week to week, we’ve also noticed a few trends emerging. Basically everyone loves Friends (“Every episode keeps you hanging” – Guy Williams, “the most electric chemistry” – Alice Snedden). Many thought Game of Thrones was overrated (“too many names” – Janaye Henry, “too dark” – Aesha Scott”) and even more had a gutsful of Married at First Sight (“poor girls and guys” – Megan Alatini, “it infuriates me” – Tāmati Rimene-Sproat). 

But beyond the more obvious hot takes, there have also been some unbelievably good yarns, excruciating live television moments, deeply niche reference, impassioned takedowns, and thoughtful reflections on the role that television plays in our lives. We’ve surfed the channels, perused the archives, rewound the tapes, and brought together the most fascinating learnings from the first year of My Life in TV. Happy reading, happy watching. 

Everyone is haunted by their mistakes

If you are someone who agonises over every misstep you’ve ever made in your life, know that you are joined by some of the most seasoned pros in the game. “I was interviewing Karl Urban and I was quite hungover,” Dai Henwood told us. “I asked him a question, and he gave a wonderful, quite long-winded answer. Then I asked him the exact same question again.” 

Guy Williams still loses sleep over doing a haka to welcome Vanilla Ice to the country, and Matt Gibb will never forget dramatically slipping over at an ice rink on Breakfast, and then standing up and accidentally thanking a brand that was the direct competitor of the show’s sponsor. “My producer was standing there absolutely ashen-faced,” he recalled. “That was not ideal.”

Guy Williams’ life in TV (Image: Tina Tiller)

Instances of stage fright have come up a lot too, and not just childhood trauma like Sir Ashley Bloomfeld freezing up and spelling cemetery with an ‘S’ on It’s Academic. Ginette McDonald was presenting the TV Awards with Bruno Lawrence one year when she froze “like a possum in the headlights” on stage. “I was dimly aware of Bruno valiantly doing our entire rehearsed conversation by himself. I kept grinning like an idiot till, mercifully, we finished.”

At times, these televised mistakes have proved life-threatening. Jaquie Brown once poured 20 litres of mayonnaise on Dai Henwood during Pop Goes the Weasel, before realising that he was “severely allergic” to egg and broke out in “red pustules”. Matt Heath nearly burned to death in a flaming monkey costume while shooting Balls of Steel, and Jason Gunn got a case of the dreaded “shaving foam lung” after inhaling a cream pie too deeply on The Son of a Gunn show. 

“I’m no firefighter,” he said. “But being a children’s presenter can be scary stuff.”

Fashion fades, Hilary Barry is eternal

We always ask our interviewees who they think the most stylish person on television is, and our beloved controversial clothes-wearer Hilary Barry has come up time and time again. “She also just oozes style whenever and wherever,” said Tom Sainsbury. “She gets so much flak and she’s not afraid to call people out,” added Dame Susan Devoy. “She was in the news recently because someone told her she was showing too much skin and she really gave it to them.” 

Dame Susan Devoy’s life in TV (Image: Tina Tiller)

Beyond Hilary Barry, The Nanny’s Fran Drescher was a popular fashion favourite, but there have been a few sartorial surprises along the way. “Jack Tame always looks a million dollars”, said Sir Ashley Bloomfield, “he’s always absolutely rocking whatever he’s wearing.” Contradicting this public health advice, Chris Chang took an opposing view: “It’s not Jack Tame, even with his knitted Percival and Sons shirts.” 

For the millennial comedian crowd, 90s characters also loomed large. “I don’t know anyone else who can pull off a hat and coat at the same time like that,” Chris Parker said of his style icon Carmen Sandiego. For Janaye Henry, Ms Frizzle from The Magic School Bus was a “queer icon” in a rockabilly silhouette. But perhaps the most niche answer of all came from Pax Assadi: “she is a legend in the watch world,” he said of Ellen Degeneres.

Even celebrities are obsessed with celebrities

While sharing her devotion to Kath & Kim, Anika Moa shared that she once bumped into Magda Szubanski at a bread shop in Melbourne and “followed her home”. She then did the same during a stint living in New York, walking “all the way to the gay village” behind Julia Roberts. “When you’re a nobody overseas, no one notices you,” she said. “If I tried to follow John Campbell home, he would turn around and say ‘come in, let’s listen to some Trinity Roots’.”

We are well on our way to collecting the full cast of Friends sightings too, with Matt Heath once bumping into Matthew Perry at a Barnes and Noble in LA. “He was taller than I thought and he was buying a pile of books. I said ‘that’s a lot of books’ and he said ‘it sure is’.” Temuera Morrison gave us even one better – going to the “unbelievable” home of Matt Le Blanc. “Fridges all around, in every room, full of beer,” he recalled. 

Temuera Morrison (Photo: South Pacific Pictures / Design: Tina Tiller)

Even when the celebrity encounters happened on the job, they remain treasured. Tāmati Rimene-Sproat was the only person in the Te Karere office when he got a tip-off that Oprah was visiting Ōrākei Marae. “They rushed me into a car, got down to Ōrākei, and I had one question with her. She was really lovely with her time,” he said. Finally, without this impassioned plea from Will Ferrell and John C Reilly, we may never have got the Jaquie Brown Diaries. 

Beloved TV characters never really die…

Alice Snedden “wept” for Denny after he died on Grey’s Anatomy, and Turia Schmidt-Peke “cried so much” for Claire after she drove off a cliff on McLeod’s Daughters, but the truly iconic TV characters live on to this day. “She has been a curse and a blessing,” said Ginette McDonald of Lyn of Tawa. “A few old boomers still think I actually am Lyn, and far too common for polite society. I choose to take this as a compliment.”

Cheryl West from Outrageous Fortune was another enduring favourite. “She just embodied this powerful woman in this really male-dominated society,” said Megan Alatini. “A Kiwi boss woman who could rule the roost while still holding onto her femininity.” Robyn Malcolm still gets called Mrs West, occasionally Slutty Pants, but she doesn’t mind much. “It turned my career in a completely different direction,” she said. “Cheryl got to drive fast cars, smoke, drink, shag lots of men, yell at her kids, love everybody and do terribly illegal things, and be whole.”

Robyn Malcolm’s life in TV (Image: Archi Banal)

There was also a strong soft spot for titans of local advertising – chiefly The Briscoes Lady. “She’s fantastic in my eyes,” said Mark Richardson. “She’s just got a likeability about her.” As for The Briscoes Lady herself? She’s only got eyes for Tina from Turners, who “makes me laugh every time she comes on.” And who does Bubbah think would win in a fight between them? “Definitely the Briscoes Lady. She’s been in the game a while – plus Tina respects her elders.” 

…And neither will Shortland Street 

“Everybody rolls their eyes at me, so I never watch it in front of anyone,” said Dame Susan Devoy of her Shortland Street addiction. “I grew up with Chris Warner, and I just find it so good and so bad at the same time.” Matt Gibb won his school speech competition in 1993 with a speech about Shortland Street, and Aesha Scott always says “you’re not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata” to Below Deck charter guests even though none of them have a clue what she’s on about. 

For Temuera Morrison, that line of dialogue still haunts him. “It has died down a little bit. But every now and then I go to a convention and I’m signing autographs for Star Wars, and someone will pull out a Shortland Street photo and go ‘Eh! It’s Dr Ropata!’ As for the second most iconic Shortland Street line of all time, Michael Galvin said that “please tell me that is not your penis” will probably be on his gravestone. 

Michael Galvin as the iconic Dr Chris Warner in Shortland Street (Photo: South Pacific Pictures / Design: Tina Tiller)

As for other memorable moments, James Mustapic said that the reveal of the Ferndale Strangler was “exactly what I had been waiting for my whole life” in 2007. “No friends in Dunedin, watching TV everyday, everyone was speculating about who it was. I remember it so vividly.” Miriama Smith’s strongest Shorty memory was the day she left – “I was crying, not as my character, but as me, because I knew it was going to be the end of a chapter.”

There were some big views on the news…

The state of news and current affairs has been front of mind for many people, with Ginette McDonald calling the cancellation of Sunday and Fair Go an “affront to democracy”. Dame Susan Devoy agreed. “We have so little in-depth longform journalism left on television in New Zealand,” she lamented. “Soon, there’s going to be nothing left that digs deep into what is really happening, that challenges our intellect and tells the real stories of New Zealand.”

Beyond those specific shows were some broader thoughts about the impact news has on our daily lives. “It makes me anxious,” Anika Moa said of getting her news from breakfast television. “I don’t want to hear bad news in the morning, I’d rather hear it at night.” Michele A’Court doesn’t think news should be on TV anymore at all, due to the visual nature favouring “the worst possible moments of disaster, mayhem and chaos.” 

Anika Moa’s life in TV (Image: Archi Banal)

“The news is way too long”, grumbled Mark Richardson. “I don’t think you need an hour of news. So much of it is fluff. If you don’t have to provide so much content, you can do a better job with the important stuff… I would definitely shorten up the news”. Whatever you do, don’t tell him about Chris Parker and Roseanne Liang’s controversial opinions that there should be as much arts and culture coverage every night as there is sports coverage. 

…And some even spicier television takes

One great thing about My Life in TV is that the subject matter is so low stakes that even our most composed media personalities can unleash some of their most scandalous opinions. Whether it was the “appalling” Better Call Saul (Dai Henwood), the “piece of shit” Sex and the City (Robyn Malcolm) or the “dreadful” Lord of the Rings Amazon series (Sir Ashley Bloomfield), no show or person was safe when it came to “my most controversial TV opinion”. 

“People from television shouldn’t get into politics,” declared Kanoa Lloyd. “Nothing good has ever come of it and nothing ever will.” Both Aesha Scott and Jess Hong took issue with critical darling Succession, with Scott stating it “wasn’t witty enough for me” and made her feel “motion sick.” Matt Heath reckoned Jim Halpert from The Office US was “a bit of an asshole” and Alice Snedden confessed she thinks The Bear is “sometimes cheesy”. 

Sir Ashley Bloomfield’s life in TV (Image: Archi Banal)

Some takes were also deeply specific. “New Zealand made a massive mistake in losing the game show format,” opined Matt Gibb. “The game show era needs to come back, otherwise New Zealand will never rise to the heights that we should have risen to.” Guy Williams had a gripe with too many logins, and Sonia Gray had one wish for Lotto fans nationwide. “When people say, ‘Can you call my numbers out?’, they are the millionth person that’s asked me that.”

Colin Mathura-Jeffree offered a more positive spin on things. “My controversial opinion is that TV is healthy to watch. It’s a great moment of escapism when life is hard, where I can shut the door, turn off my phone, put on my pyjamas, open the fridge to find the right snacks, lounge under a duvet and flip on the TV to fall into another universe.”

Television is a crucial part of our history

For all the Game of Thrones outrage and grizzling about the news, My Life in TV has proved one thing for certain: television has been there for all the important moments in our lives. There’s the Gen Xers remembering snuggling up to watch The Goodnight Kiwi before the TV turned to static, millennials watching Danyon Loader at the Olympics on their school’s one TV, or those who were around in the 1960s when New Zealand TV was in its infancy. 

Ginette McDonald’s life in TV (Design: Tina Tiller)

“I would have been three, and I was sitting on my potty in our living room in Motueka,” said Robyn Malcolm of watching the moon landing in 1969. “I remember the black and white, and the image on our little TV and the heater on, knowing there was something major going on.” Tammy Wells, the Briscoes Lady, recalled sitting on her stepfather’s knee and watching images of the Vietnam War. “It was an image of soldiers in trees, and I remember feeling really scared.” 

Going even further back, Ginette McDonald raced up to Haitaitai Village with 50 other kids to witness “the new miracle of communication” of television arriving at the local store. “We watched black and white footage of flying geese. Grainy, a bit boring, but so extraordinary to not be in a cinema where we had to stand up when a picture of the Queen came on.” Not long after, she watched the JFK assassination while her friend’s mother wept inconsolably. 

“The power of that moment and the potential of television to entertain, educate and inform in real time has never left me,” she said. 

Read all our My Life in TV interviews here.

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