An in-depth Spinoff investigation reveals exactly who invented What Now gunge and unravels the mystery of the secret recipe. Calum Henderson reports.
“I was gunged while wearing a huge chicken suit in 1999.”
“I was gunged in the presence of Lana Coc-Kroft.”
“I was gunged on completion of the High Flyers course during a Shrek 2 themed episode.”
“My sister and I were on ‘Fill Ya Pants’.”
These are the testimonies of ordinary New Zealanders who have had the extraordinary experience of being gunged on the children’s television show What Now.
Over the last two-and-a-half decades countless Kiwis have had similar encounters with gunge. But how many of them knew exactly what was in the substance being tipped over their heads or pumped into their plastic pants?
It is a simple question that nobody seems to have the answer to: what is gunge?
A simple question with an unexpectedly complicated answer.
Chapter 1: What is gunge?
The brightly-coloured substance we know as gunge appears to have British television origins dating back as far as the 1960s. Modern gunge (known as ‘slime’ in North America) emerged on both sides of the Atlantic around the start of the 1980s.
The exact date of New Zealand’s maiden gunging on What Now remains unknown. While there are some earlier ‘proto-gunge’ precedents, the true invention of gunge seems to have taken place sometime around – and no earlier than – 1993.
I asked Simon Barnett, who hosted What Now with Catherine McPherson from 1988 to 1992, if he was there to witness the invention of gunge. “I am really sorry to say they introduced gunge AFTER I had finished my tenure,” he replied. “It is to my regret that I never had the sensation [of being gunged].”
Like many New Zealanders, Simon Barnett can only imagine what it feels like to be gunged. The people best placed to describe the sensation are those who have at some point in their lives taken part in one of What Now’s many gunge-based games – ‘Fill Ya Pants’, ‘Target Ya Teacher’, ‘Gunge Ya Granny’… The list goes on.
I wanted to talk to some of these people, so I tweeted a request for testimonies from anyone willing to share their gunge experiences.
Chapter 2: Being gunged
“I remember it being cold and slimy, like you’d expect,” wrote Harriet, who experienced a “classic over the head gunging” in 1999 upon completion of a balloon-popping game. “It kind of smelled like dishwashing liquid; the texture was kind of like semi-set instant pudding.”
“The gunge was lime green, cold, heavy, and viscous,” remembered Cameron, who was gunged in 1995 as part of a skit involving then-Wheel of Fortune host Lana Coc-Kroft. “It had the consistency and smell of cheap shampoo mixed with porridge. Actually, it was freezing.”
“I mostly remember how cold it was, nothing about the colour or smell,” said Marian, who competed against her twin sister Eileen in the popular gunge-based game ‘Fill Ya Pants’ in 2001. “The gunging itself wasn’t too bad because it was only in the pants.”[It] overflowed down our legs into the container we stood in. Most of the sliminess was just under my feet.”
“It washed out easily from my clothes and hair but I think my shoes smelled strange no matter how many times I washed them,” claimed Ashok, who took part in a game called ‘Gunge On The Run’ in 2006. “[They were] the only pair I had at the time and they were pretty much ruined.”
Here is footage of Ashok having his shoes ruined by gunge. He identified himself as: “the one in the yellow who shouts to the other team that they suck.”
“I sneakily touched some on the floor,” admitted Joseph, who attended multiple What Now tapings with his brother Tom in the 1990s but was never gunged. He remembers it being “Cold. Thick. Honestly, a little bit like green semen.”
My gunge correspondents all provided vivid, detailed testimonies, but none of them brought me any closer to answering my question: What is it? What are the ingredients of gunge?
“Every kid at my school had a theory,” remembered Harriet. “But yeah… I never found out what was actually in it.”
“I would like to know what the gunge was made of,” said Marian.
Chapter 3: The search begins
To find out what gunge was made of, I approached Whitebait Media, the Christchurch-based production company which has made What Now since 2004. I submitted a list of questions via the show’s TVNZ publicist.
The main question was: “Are you willing to reveal the recipe, or at least the ingredients, of gunge?“
Optimistically, almost as a joke, I also asked if they could send me a sample.
The publicist’s response was immediate and very positive: “I’ll fire this off to them now and hopefully have something back in next few days,” he wrote.
While I waited for answers from What Now I tried to think of anyone else I knew who might have some gunge intel. I asked Matt Gibb, former host of TVNZ children’s shows Squirt and Studio 2, if he had ever been gunged.
“God, not for about 16 years” he replied. “I don’t remember much other than being amazed at how fast they washed and dried my clothes. I couldn’t believe how clean they smelled afterwards.”
Matt’s vague gunge memories were of little use to me, but he said something else which ended up being a key part of the investigation. He suggested I talk to an old friend of his – a guy called Props Boy.
Chapter 4: Props Boy
Props Boy, who declined to use his real name for this story, is fondly remembered by millennial New Zealanders for his impish on-screen antics and trademark denim bucket hat with inbuilt orange visor. He appeared on What Now during what many call its “glory years” in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but his involvement with the show goes back years earlier.
Before he became the character Props Boy, Props Boy was literally What Now’s props boy. He started working for the show’s art department, helping out with props and set dressing, as a 13-year-old in 1992.
“I was there when gunge was invented,” he told me. “I saw it happening.”
“I have memories of seeing them mixing it up,” he claimed. “There was chat of trying loads of different recipes before then they came up with the one we used. It was invented by a guy named Pat Walsh.”
Props Boy described Pat Walsh as a “props master legend”.
“He took a lot of us under his wing and taught us the way of the gunge.” For much of his What Now career, it was Props Boy’s responsibility to make the gunge.
“I made gunge every week for about nine years,” he explained. “Gunge was made weekly at first, then when What Now weekdays started and the show was on every day we started making it every few days. Gunge takes a good day to set properly so you need about two days to make it properly.”
Props Boy estimates he was gunged “at least twice a week” over these nine years, “sometimes more.” It was one of the highlights of his job. “Every year when we would get a new gunge machine or game that involved gunge I would get to test it out.”
Props Boy has a more intimate and detailed knowledge of gunge than perhaps any other New Zealander, but he refused to reveal the recipe.
“It has always been a secret and I have never told anyone,” he said. “I cannot break my promise to Pat Walsh.”
Chapter 5: Pat Walsh
If Props Boy wouldn’t tell me the recipe for gunge, maybe its inventor would.
When I asked if he was still in contact with his gunge mentor, Props Boy sent me a link to Pat Walsh’s Facebook page. All it contained was a solitary profile photo, showing a silver-haired gentleman with a tidy grey beard. It was unmistakably taken by a webcam, uploaded on 26 May 2012. I sent him a message:
It was futile. Pat Walsh, the inventor of gunge, does not check Facebook.
I did, however, notice a familiar name among his 57 friends: comedian Michele A’Court, who hosted What Now from 1987 to 1988. I emailed her to see if she could confirm Props Boy’s claims that Pat Walsh was the man who invented gunge.
“If [Props Boy] says Pat invented the recipe for gunge, I’d believe him,” she replied. “It certainly sounds like something Pat would do.”
Michele remembered Pat Walsh fondly: “He was everyone’s favourite Dad-figure – man of few words, always kind, approached everything with a ‘but of course’ attitude.”
“Pat was, I’m pretty sure, Set Design, and Tim [Stephenson] was Props, but they were joined at the hip, this great super-duo.”
“They would make anything happen,” Michele reminisced. “In my first year, Alasdair Kincaid (Frank Flash) and I, along with Danny Watson, would dream up ridiculous scenarios for the 17 comedy sketches we needed to write and perform for each episode.”
“Sometimes that would involve things like filling the whole studio with popcorn up to our necks, or baking five cakes in the shape of an “S” (no, I can’t remember why) and everyone else would look pale, and then Pat and Tim would go, ‘… OK’.”
Michele said she would try to find a current contact for Pat Walsh, but I never ended up talking the inventor of gunge.
Chapter 6: The answer
I had emailed my questions for What Now to the TVNZ publicist on Monday, and by Thursday morning I had yet to received any response. Then, this:
“What’s the best address for me to send the gunge to? Cheers.”
Hours later a parcel arrived at the Spinoff office via SUB60 courier. It contained four plastic bottles of bright blue What Now branded gunge.
I immediately unscrewed the cap on one of the bottles. My first instinct wasn’t to touch the gunge but instead to inhale deeply. The gunge smelled like cheap soap. It reminded me of primary school.
By this point several of my colleagues had gathered around my desk to see the gunge. Soon people were touching it. I poured some into a glass and dipped my fingers in it.
The gunge was much thinner than I expected it to be. On contact with the skin it just sort of dissolved like a disinfectant handwash. All my colleagues returned to their desks underwhelmed by the experience.
What could it be inside the bottle? I thought about contacting a scientist to see if they could do some kind of forensic analysis. Then I read the label:
Chapter 7: Fake gunge
There it was, the answer to my question: gunge is a mixture of soap and non-toxic poster paint.
This should have been the end of my investigation.
Before I closed the case, I emailed Props Boy to present him with my findings, hoping to force a confession.
“I know you said you would never reveal the recipe of gunge and I respect that,” I wrote. “But are you able to confirm whether or not these are the same ingredients you were taught to make gunge with by Pat Walsh back in the 90s?”
Props Boy’s reply changed everything.
“Is the gunge you got sent one they give out to kids?” he asked. “In a little bottle? If so we did the same back in the day and it was basically shampoo.”
The implication was clear: What Now had sent me fake gunge.
“Real gunge costs a lot to make,” Props Boy explained. “Giving it away as we used to make it would have been too expensive.”
He confirmed soap and non-toxic poster paint were not the original gunge ingredients.
“The original gunge was a soap-based product and water and food colouring. That was it. But the way you mixed these ingredients over a period of time made a difference!”
I pressed Props Boy to identify the soap-based product but he wouldn’t tell me. I asked if it was a thickening agent called Natrosol, cited on Wikipedia as the key ingredient in “authentic gunge.” He replied: “Nope I have never heard of that. Sounds dangerous.”
The soap-based product remains a secret.
Chapter 8: A conspiracy
Props Boy’s shocking revelation had drastically changed the parameters of my investigation.
I was faced with two possibilities, and both of them were scandalous: either What Now had sent me fake gunge, or the recipe for gunge had been changed.
I put the possibility of the first scenario to What Now via the TVNZ publicist. I emailed: “Can you confirm the gunge sent to us is the same as the gunge used on the show?”
Days later the publicist sent a statement from Morgan Williams, the current producer of What Now:
“I can confirm the gunge I sent is the very same as the stuff we use on the show,” the statement read. “No idea about the fake gunge you mention sorry.”
I believed Morgan Williams when he said the gunge on my desk was the same gunge currently used on the show. It had long been my suspicion that the original recipe for gunge had been changed.
While I had been waiting for Williams’ response I started reading back over all the testimonies people had sent me about their gunge experiences. It struck me just how consistent all the descriptions of the texture and scent were.
There was one exception: Ashok.
Ashok was gunged in 2006, a few years later than any of the others. While everyone else described the gunge as cold and thick, he said “I don’t think it was that cold.” While the others uniformly described the smell as soapy, he said “it smelled like off custard.”
The explanation is simple: it was not the same gunge.
What Now has undergone three major location changes in its lifetime. From 1981 to 1999 the show was filmed at TVNZ Studios in Christchurch; in 1999 filming moved to Avalon Studios in Wellington, before returning to Christchurch in 2004 to be produced by Whitebait Media, a production company headed by Jason Gunn and his wife, Janine Morrell-Gunn.
When the show moved back to Christchurch in 2004 Props Boy stayed in Wellington. “I wasn’t even asked [to continue as Props Boy],” he told me. “They replaced me with [Camilla The Gorilla].”
Props Boy confirmed some other members the props department did go with the show to Christchurch, and that they knew the original secret gunge recipe – “how to mix it, how long to let it set, what temperature to leave it all at and for how long.”
But it would seem the original gunge recipe was lost around the same time Props Boy left the show. By the time Ashok was gunged in 2006 What Now was already using a new formula.
Chapter 9: A theory
Since gunge was introduced in the early-mid 1990s, the quantities used on What Now have increased year-on-year. Where originally the show would have only gone through a few buckets of gunge a week, new games introduced in the 2000s such as ‘Slippery Pole’ and ‘Walk The Plank’ required large pools to be filled with gunge.
My theory is simple: as the demand for gunge grew, the show was forced to adopt a more cost-effective recipe.
In her email Michele told me about one of the precursors to gunge from back when she hosted What Now: the classic pie in the face.
“They were thick custard pies covered in cream and [very] delicious,” she drooled. “[We] bought them from Loef’s Bakery in Manchester Street.”
“They felt great on your face, and tasted even better. We would write cream pies into sketches as often as possible just so we could eat them.”
At one point in 1987 the show’s producers tried to save money by replacing Loef’s custard pies with shaving foam on a tinfoil plate. “They hurt your face and stung your eyes,” Michele remembered of the fake pies.
“Al and I complained, and Pat was entirely supportive. He thought fake pies were unprofessional.” Loef’s custard pies were reinstated, but with a strict limit on how many could be used.
Michele thinks this may be part of the reason gunge was eventually invented. It is the eternal struggle faced by What Now producers across the show’s 35-year history: “the need to smear someone in something without it costing so much.”
Chapter 10: Epilogue / Key findings
I did eventually get some answers to the questions I put to What Now via the TVNZ publicist right at the start of the investigation.
The response from current producer Morgan Williams and former producer Tony Palmer sidestepped my main question of “what is gunge?” Instead it focused on strongly refuting Ashok’s claim that his shoes were ruined by gunge.
“The stories of it ruining shoes, t-shirts and Sunday Best clothes have always been unlikely,” their message read. “You just have to rinse clothing / shoes and it comes out.”
The following are some of the key findings from the investigation:
– The original recipe for What Now gunge was invented by a set designer called Pat Walsh sometime around 1993.
– The original What Now gunge ingredients, according to a man responsible for making it, were “a soap-based product”, water and food colouring.
– This man, Props Boy, claims to have been gunged an estimate of 1000 times while working for the show.
– The most famous person Props Boy can remember gunging is “probably Cuba Gooding Junior”.
– In the late 1990s and early 2000s What Now gave away souvenir bottles of ‘fake gunge’ to children. Props Boy claims this was because real gunge was too expensive to produce in large quantities.
– Some time after What Now’s relocation to Christchurch in 2004 the show appears to have deviated from the original gunge recipe.
– The current gunge ingredients are soap and non-toxic poster paint.
– Popular New Zealand broadcaster Simon Barnett has never been gunged.