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Wallace Chapman says goodbye to an ‘old friend’: Back Benches

As we bid farewell to the world’s only pub politics show, Back Benches host Wallace Chapman looks back at the series’ weird and wonderful nine years on air.

Well, a big part of my life is over. I don’t want to hype the point, but that’s how it seems. We just had our last show on Wednesday, and in true Back Benches fashion, Winston Peters turned up to the show unannounced, as did original co-host for eight years, Damian Christie. The marijuana crowd was out in force and the pub was pumped for the final outing of New Zealand ‘pub politics.’

NZ On Air decided not to renew funding for 2018, and I don’t blame them. Shows have a lifespan, and nearly 10 years is one hell of a lifespan. And in all honesty, it was going to be hard to know how to top this year – especially when some of the smaller parties that make up the diversity of the panel have gone.

Way back in March 2008 the show didn’t start well. It was ropey. The audience didn’t know what it was. Was it satire? Humour? Was it a proper political show? Brian Edwards called it an abomination. Jane Bowron called it unpleasant to watch. I wasn’t sure if it would last the 10-week mark.

Yet we persisted, and the commissioners — god bless them — persisted with me. The one thing Back Benches truly had was the hardest ingredient to source in television: originality. It was a unique show. We often hear that about every new idea that gets rolled out, but Back Benches truly was. No other show in the world had (or has) a live show with an unregulated audience, haranguing members of Parliament on television. Whilst drinking.

A Texan judge who came to the show couldn’t believe it. He went away thinking it was a fake pub in the vein of Cheers. And in that respect, there was something uniquely Kiwi about holding a politics show in the pub – with the arguing, the shouting, the din, and every so often, the informed discussion.

FINAL SEASON HOSTS CHARLOTTE RYAN & WALLACE CHAPMAN

It was never used to harvest breaking stories, but in a small way, it was fundamental to how I essentially view politics — that it should be as participatory as possible. That the distance between politician and audience be cut down to an absolute minimum. The ‘public sphere’, to use the famous Jurgen Habermas phrase. I often thought the ideal Back Benches format would be to ‘cut out the middleman’ – to use a topical quote. That there’d be no host. Just a pub audience asking questions of the MPs.

After five years, it was all up for Back Benches when TVNZ7 closed down. After the final episode, I was flying home the next morning to Auckland when I sat next to a gentleman who loved the show. He was high up at Sky TV, and told me to come round to his house with a pen and a napkin to see how we could save the show. From then on, it started its life on Prime, as a co-production with TVNZ.

A few things about Back Benches that I’ll always remember: Hone Harawira tossing a bunch of education badges all across the floor, Keith Locke (hopelessly) trying to roll a joint of synthetic cannabis, Paula Bennett as a young backbencher, Chris Carter doing a series of press-ups in a strange display of strength, and the two Grand Masters of politics – Michael Cullen and Roger Douglas– on the same show, both in explosive form. I’ve now developed a well-honed eye for spotting the next sharp talent seeping up through the backbencher rung.

WINSTON PETERS MAKES A SURPRISE BACK BENCHES APPEARANCE (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

Back to that notion of the ‘public sphere’, I agonised that some candidates were not allowed on the panel. We had the same rule as TVNZ. You needed a seat in parliament or 3% in the polls. How fair was it that we had ACT or United Future, but not TOP? How was that participatory democracy?

There are many to thank, but I will reserve mention to senior producer Maryanne Ahern. A former producer to the likes of Kim Hill and Paul Holmes, as well as the current election specials, working with Maryanne was a formidable learning curve in television and presenting. She taught me to simply be myself. It’s harder than it sounds.

Charlotte Ryan, to see someone blossom into a star presenter as Charlotte has, has been fascinating. Uniquely engaging and authentic, Charlotte has a fantastic future. Watch this space.

The door has been left open for a Back Benches election season in 2020. Of The Beatles, Paul McCartney said you can’t reheat a soufflé. We’ll see.

But there is one moment that comes to mind as I write this. Paul Holmes, in his leather jacket, is in the Back Benches audience. He comes up afterwards and we get talking. He stands in the presenter’s spot and looks around the pub.  I cheekily say. “Paul you really need to know how to handle a live audience to do this show.“  Paul replies: “Let me know if you need a fill in.”

Paul Holmes doing a Back Benches show. Now that would have been something.

Wallace Chapman is host of Sunday Morning with Wallace Chapman on RNZ

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