Timaru, Waihi, Greymouth and Woodville entered; only one could emerge the winner. Tara Ward looks back at one of the most exciting moments in regional New Zealand history: the grand final of Top Town.
It was a hot summer’s day in 1977 when 10,000 people gathered in Whangarei’s Okara Park to witness one of our country’s finest displays of powerful athleticism. Forget the 1990 Commonwealth Games, forget the last round of every episode of The Krypton Factor. The 1977 grand final of Top Town was the moment when New Zealand, a famously lithe and supple nation, hit our physical peak.
Top Town was the iconic show that travelled through heartland New Zealand each summer, bringing the regions together to compete in a series of ridiculous physical challenges. It ran for 14 years between 1976 and 1990, before being rebooted in 2009 for one lonely season. The show gave every small town the chance to become world famous in New Zealand, and celebrated community spirit with a prize of $9,000 (a whopping $72,000 in 2020 money) for a significant local project.
More importantly, winning Top Town earned the respect and admiration of the entire country. Nobody could rightfully take the piss out of Gore or Temuka if they had won Top Town. Nobody.
The 1977 grand final was a symphony of organised chaos, as teams from Timaru, Waihi, Greymouth and Woodville took their hopes and dreams all the way to Whangarei. They ran into the packed stadium like it was the Olympics, arms raised skyward, bodies resplendent in terry towel bucket hats and stubbie shorts. The crowd roared in support. This was history in the making.
The final involved a series of wacky challenges like ‘Dunk the Dude’ and ‘Zoom Zoom Joust’. Competitors slid along greasy poles while holding big balls, or ran in flippers while pushing a wheelbarrow, or rode tiny motorbikes while knocking balls out of a bucket. There’s almost a sexual energy here, as half-naked men hold fire hoses between their legs so other half-naked people could collect water in a bucket on the end of a long stick. Athletes slid and tripped their way around the greasy obstacle course, while on the sideline, super cool host Howard Morrison chewed on a Mintie and the cheerleaders spelled out their town’s name on their knickers.
This malarkey goes on for eight frenetic rounds, and it’s mayhem from start to finish. “I can’t explain this course, you’ll understand when you watch,” Morrison told the viewers at home, and it feels like the brains behind Top Town got raging drunk one night and came up with as many silly ideas as they could, then chucked in a giant trampoline and put it on the telly. It’s shambolic and unpredictable and completely bonkers, and makes for magic TV.
What isn’t so magic is the sexism of the late 70s, which is messier than the competitors after slithering through the Tarzan and Jane challenge. Female athletes are always referred to as girls, never women, and there’s even a Miss Top Town, whose beauty wins $100 for her team and some makeup for herself. Commentator Paddy O’Donnell describes the show’s female scorekeeper as “busting out all over”, and at one point, refers to “a little ginger there”. It’s not clear if he’s talking about a competitor’s injury or a small red-haired woman being carried on a wooden horse. I fear it’s the latter.
Top Town became slicker over the years, and the 1986 finale is a slightly tamer affair that uses proper equipment and sensible colour coordination. The competitive spirit endures, as teams from Alexandra (“where the wind is so fresh you could slap it”), Waihi, Whangarei and Timaru launch themselves across swimming pools and into mud pits, through rubber rings and down slippery slopes until they reach the point of exhaustion. It’s every team-building day you were forced to do at work, only fun, and parochial pride at it’s finest.
The dream was over by 1990, but Top Town returned in 2009 in an almost unrecognisable format. Twenty-first century health and safety dictated filming had to take place over water, which made it more Wipeout than Top Town, while the affable slap-dash vibe of ye olden days was replaced with intense commentary from hosts Marc Ellis and Mikey Havoc. “I’ll bet she doesn’t make it across,” Marc says of one contestant during the finale, which was certainly not the vibe Sir Howard and his Minties went for in the late 70s.
Greymouth took the win on that beautiful day in 1977, having played a masterful game by saving their joker until the final round to score maximum points. “Heeeeeere’s Greymouth!” Morrison shouted, as Tony from Greymouth came forward to collect the winner’s cheque. Balloons were released, a bagpiper began to play, and off-screen, there was probably a lolly scramble for the kids. Tony held the Top Town cup aloft and then stuffed the cheque down his shorts, as Morrison signed off with a jubilant “thank you, New Zealand”.
We can only hope that a retro-hearted Top Town will rise again, but until that blessed day, the show remains a nostalgic gem from a time when adults behaved like big kids in the name of regional pride. The closest we’ve come to capturing Top Town’s unpredictable mayhem since then was Uncle Barry’s trip around the inflatable maze in Xventure Family Challenge, and can you imagine a whole hour of Uncle Barry-esque shenanigans on prime time television these days? Yes, please. Chuck in a slippery tarp and a bunch of big balls, and I am busting out all over.