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My Life in TV: SportsCafé and Eating Media Lunch’s Graeme Hill-Humphreys

My Life in TV is a new weekly feature, wherein we interview a member of the television industry and ask them how they got here, and what they’ve learned along the way. First up: Graeme Hill-Humphreys. //

Graeme Hill-Humphreys is one of the more elusive characters these islands have manufactured. Some know him as the singer of the Able Tasmans, lushly melodic outliers from Flying Nun’s ’80s brigade. Others from his lengthy spells on radio: as the breakfast host during bFM’s wild-eyed ‘90s halcyon days; the erudite and faintly obstinate host of RadioSport’s afternoon programme; the one man band running RadioLive’s brilliant ‘Weekend Variety Wireless’.

Alongside the music and radio he had a parallel career creating television, including key roles in some shows which winningly matched a sense of the absurd with a relatively large and loyal audience. Sports Café, Eating Media Lunch and The Unauthorised History of New Zealand to name a few, alongside visionaries like Ric Salizzo Jeremy Wells and Paul Casserly.

I first consciously encountered Hill in the early ’00s when I was a postie and he was on RadioSport. I listened to the station non-stop, for 6-9 hours a day. After my beloved Brendan Telfer finished up on came this strange man. He was argumentative and terrifically smart and seemed to enjoy baiting his audience. I thought he was great. Thereafter I followed him to television, Sports Café, and his various other vehicles, finding a similar spark in each.

A few weeks back, before the fruit fly appeared, I went to Hill’s Grey Lynn villa. It was a stinking hot Friday afternoon and we drank beer in a shady part of his backyard, its edges thick with native trees. He talked about a childhood spent traveling around Northland with his father, a salesman, and getting chased out of the Whangarei mall for playing punk rock, but mostly about the television he’s made, and why he made it.

Do you remember what kind of TV you had growing up?

I can draw it for you right now. I could also draw a very, very accurate picture of the layout of the Stephens’ House at 1064 Morning Glory Circle, which was the house of Samantha and Darren from Bewitched. I can draw you the layout. Across the road, not a lot of people know, was the Partridge family’s house. In one episode of The Partridge Family when you’re watching it, it panned around – you can see it across the road, you can see the Bewitched house.

I learnt most of my early geography from watching sitcoms, I just loved it. Television was hot, it was such a beautiful thing. I loved it, loved, loved it, loved it. I loved television.

What was your first foray into TV?

I got an offer to work on a sports programme [Sports Café] compiling highlights. I just lied, saying that I had experience and went through the rollercoaster anxiety of having to live up to your lie. I learned very quickly, and worked very hard actually. I didn’t mind working harder, because I like a one-dimensional task. You could just work at it till three in the morning to get something right. So that’s what I did.

How would you describe Sports Café, what it aspired to and hopefully achieved?

One really has to be careful from ascribing aspirations to things when, in all honesty, there weren’t aspirations. The worse it got the more popular it was. Typically, I wanted it to be much smoother and more viewable, and this is something I get wrong over and over again. No, you actually should have intersections without traffic lights, because people love a car crash. And nobody dies on television – well, they do die on television but in a different way.

But it was live, a lot of it was off the cuff, and there was considerable talent in Mark Ellis and Andrew Mehrtens. Ricardo went from looking like a panda who is about to be shot to being like an affable fall guy who was also the frontman. This took a lot of development actually, but there was no direction there, it was like evolution. Evolution isn’t ‘you need arms so I give you arms’, it just evolves. What survives, survives.

What were the shows that you were watching at the time, whether you took inspiration from them, or they generally gave you a sense of the possibilities of the medium?

Probably number one was Chris Morris [creator of satirical news show The Day Today] and John Clarke from Australia. He’s done some marvellously creative stuff there over the years, things like the Frontline series, and much like that marvellous band from Brisbane, The Saints, was well ahead of the game. I think something like Frontline, when you think about it now, it was well ahead of the game for Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais.

Did you work on anything else through that era?

I was a presenter for probably one of the worst TV programs ever on TV New Zealand, Ground Zero. A musical youth culture program that was hidden away, hopefully so that no one would see, between nine and midnight on a Friday night. In 1999. Me and Francesca Rudkin. It came before Space. It was like a continuous pileup. I actually thought some of it was quite good.

But you did say it was the worst program ever been made?

Some of it was quite good, yeah.

And when it wasn’t?

It was a show that was pulling itself apart. I wanted it to be one thing and everybody else wanted it to be another. I wanted it to be loose and, like Sports Café, wrong. I wanted it to have fewer rules, I suppose. But when big, important people earning lots of money tell you that this is the way we’re supposed to do things, pathetically one acquiesces.

Toward the end of Sports Café you started working on Eating Media Lunch, right? How did Casserly pitch that to you, and how did you respond?

I think he got halfway through his first sentence and I said yes. I like the way Paul works. I like those people, we understand each other pretty much all the time. It doesn’t mean we always agree, but we understand how it works. I just really feel comfortable with those characters. That’s the television involvement that I’ve had that I felt more like being at home than anything else.

Who were the key personnel?

Paul Casserly I think, even without trying a lot of the time, he could just look you in the eye and influence direction, and would. Captain Casserly, Lee Baker, myself, Jeremy Wells, and Steve Braunias.

Nothing more complex than this: before you had an episode, there would be a meeting, we’d sit around and talk about shit, and have fun, and somehow there was this magician that would write it down. And sometimes if I wasn’t involved in actually editing or directing anything – which was most of the time actually – you would watch it when it went to air and these ideas had formed into these things.

It’s just so cool. Not saying the program was cool – it was just so cool seeing it happen that way. Frequently there would be items within a program that you’d write or edit and direct in some way. That was great fun. Just to get a stupid gag that was your own and you felt was your own and sometimes it was just ridiculous just to see it happen. There’s a great joy in the gall of it all, the cheek.

Did it feel like it was done when it ended? It seems like it lasted long enough to just miss the time when it would could have run forever, in this internet era.

Cut off before critical mass, yes. I’m totally confident – and I think I know as much as anybody about this – I’m totally confident that it would have never gotten stale. Because the people that made it are acutely aware of very special things. It would have changed, and gotten weirder, and then gotten more normal, and then confounded, and then broke your expectations, and then turned upside down. It would have kept moving.

The same team worked on a few shows together.

Unauthorised History of New Zealand, that was fun. It was talking about the history of New Zealand, sometimes telling the truth, and sometimes telling lies. When you told lies, it had to be convincing and funny, and to try and airbrush the cracks between fact and fiction, so it was a smooth continuum. Sometimes it was obviously false, and if it was obviously false then it would be funny. The pinnacle moments were when it was false and it was funny, but it wasn’t obviously false.

Birdland was a sweet show, the way that it managed to balance a kind of tenderness about its subject with the same kind of vein of humour that was present in the other shows.

Yeah. I’m passionate slash enthusiastic about conservation, so I was rather reticent about taking the piss out of some things. But I was wrong, they were right. And I’m still friends with DOC [Department of Conservation].

What was different about that crew?

How many good calls do you need to see before you really go: I’m really lucky to be working with these people. I’ve worked with other TV projects, and the feeling was like when you were young had gone away from home and were billeted out. You were with a strange family, and there was that feeling of these people are weird. It’s like, ‘why aren’t you like the others, your house smells funny’. Massive amounts of enthusiasm for ideas you think are lame, and you feel pressured to smile. I felt that almost always outside of that team.

Those were wonderful shows. And then they stopped, all of a sudden. Given how much you guys and the audience got from all of those productions – quite a lot for quite a while – it does seem sad that the old team isn’t working together…

I knew you were going to say it, ‘the old team’. I feel the same way.

Do you stay in touch?

Oh yeah, definitely. It’s a professional friendship. It’s also a personal friendship, but the professional friendship’s more important actually. There’s been no better working relationship ever in my life in working professionally than working with that team. And in some ways it still is. It makes me feel quite at home. Maybe that’s feeling too comfortable, but I really mean that. Inasmuch as there is a real free engagement of ideas, and no one cries if they get pulled down. In fact, sometimes your idea being pulled own is so hilarious that it can make it into a programme. And you’ve just got to brave up.

Graeme Hill-Humphreys hosts the Weekend Variety Wireless from 8pm to midnight, weekends on RadioLive.

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