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The Scottish man who charmed a coast, who charmed a nation.
The Scottish man who charmed a coast, who charmed a nation.

Pop CultureMay 28, 2018

The real star of Coast New Zealand isn’t the coast

The Scottish man who charmed a coast, who charmed a nation.
The Scottish man who charmed a coast, who charmed a nation.

It might be called Coast New Zealand but, after three seasons, it should really be called Neil Oliver New Zealand, writes Calum Henderson.

After three seasons of Coast New Zealand, most reasonable TV watchers will surely agree: Neil is the best Oliver. He’s funnier and smarter than John without even trying, and even though he looks like the kind of man who does extremely gross cooking, you’d still prefer to be stranded on a desert island with him than with Jamie.

What is it that makes him, and Coast New Zealand, so great? It would be disingenuous to start with anything other than his accent. You just don’t hear that kind of full-blooded Scottish brogue on TV very often. It stops you in your tracks; you hang on every word. Everything he says sounds poetic, profound, his voiceovers and pieces to camera full of glistening sentence fragments. “As we wend our way through south Westland” – that was one from Sunday night’s series final. “Remote shingle beaches soak up the booming Tasman Sea” – another.

When you talk about Neil Oliver you also have to talk about his ‘look’, which is really more of an anti-look. Basically he could have stepped right out of the pages of a Kathmandu catalogue: the constant silk scarf around his neck, the light blue shirt with two or three top buttons undone to reveal a white t-shirt underneath, sensible beige trousers. Such beautiful, shiny shoulder-length hair. They say one of the keys to a strong personal brand is having a uniform – there should be a photo of Neil Oliver in every PowerPoint presentation at every personal branding seminar.

The most important thing, though, is the way Coast New Zealand uses him so sparingly. A full hour of Neil Neil Neil would inevitably dull his brilliance, but every episode leaves you wanting more. He’s there at the start, to set the tone with his opening monologue, and at the end to bid us cheerio. But in between vast chunks of the show are presented by other people – engaging academics and popular local experts like geologist Hamish Campbell and marine biologist (slash professional stuntwoman) Jacky Geurts.

If you stare into the coast, the coast stares back into you.

Each episode just about manages to fit a full school day’s syllabus in a broadcast hour. There’s always plenty of geography and history: in the series final, for example, “Coast’s resident pilot” Dave Murray had a cool story on the beginnings of commercial aviation in New Zealand, between Hokitika and Haast. Campbell tied a quick science lesson into Hokitika’s gold mining past, and Ocean Mercier gave it a social studies twist with a piece on Seaview Hospital, home to the many people the gold rush drove mad.

Though ostensibly made for an overseas audience (see the mandatory DOC rangers looking for kiwi eggs story), Coast New Zealand always manages to find plenty to educate and interest its New Zealand audience as well. And every time you start to worry that Neil’s not coming back, there he is – popping into a marae at Bruce Bay, where Maui first landed from Hawai’i, and ending the episode at the Hokitika driftwood and sand sculpture competition.

After three series – one more than Australia got – the big worry is how much New Zealand coastline there is left for Neil Oliver and chums to wend along. ‘South Westland’ (there was already a Westland episode in series 2) suggests they might be running out. But by the same token, what about North Westland? South Northland? North South Canterbury? To paraphrase another famous, inferior Oliver: please, we want some more.

You can watch Coast New Zealand on TVNZ on Demand right here.

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