The unmistakable voice of Neighbours at War, Bill Kerton tells Calum Henderson about making his new show Gutsful and how he cut his TV teeth directing Havoc and Newsboy at the height of their infamy.
“I’ve sort of only really got one setting,” Bill Kerton admits. He is talking about Gutsful, the new TV show he directed and narrated, and how people will inevitably compare it to Neighbours at War, the old TV show he directed (for the first four series) and narrated from 2006 to 2016.
He is right in that both shows share the same key Kerton characteristics: the wry, deadpan narration, the eagle eye for a funny or absurd detail, the genuine warmth and affection for his often quite eccentric subjects.
When I turned up to interview him at the Greenstone TV office last week I was greeted by Gutsful producer Tash Christie. She kindly handed me a takeaway cup of coffee and requested I drink it out of an incongruously large, bowl-shaped mug. “We decided it would be funny if you were drinking out of this when Bill gets here,” she said. I didn’t understand why.
“It’s the nipple mug,” she explained. Sure enough, the side of the cup facing away from me had a kind of grotesque, superfluous ceramic nub. “You’ll understand when you see episode two.”
Episode two is about rubbish being dumped outside charity shops in Cambridge, Kerton told me when he arrived a couple of minutes later. He was wearing shorts, even though it was quite cold, and a green pullover hoodie. “They get a lot of stuff that’s not appropriate for a church organisation – sex toys and blow up dolls and that sort of thing,” he said as I gingerly decanted my flat white into the bawdy mug.
Like its predecessor, Gutsful is a slice of Kiwi life in which the main protagonists are severely fed up about something. From charity shop shenanigans in Cambridge to freedom campers shitting at a Taranaki surf spot, no one is better equipped to bring these everyday grievances to the small screen than Bill Kerton.
Can you talk me through how an episode gets made? For a start how do you find your subjects?
For Gutsful the researchers will look on Facebook and all the different newspapers and other media because there’s always stuff that comes up every day. I suppose they just go and ask them, if there’s a Facebook group they might jump on and say do you want us to come and do a story on it. Then I’ll research it as thoroughly as I can. With any show I do I’ll always look at it and think have I got enough beats in there – do I have enough material to make it fly for 22-and-a-half minutes. So then I’ll go on the road with a few pages of notes of what I want to try and get people to do, what I want to get out of them. But when we get there it’s pretty haphazard because you’ve usually never met them before and you’re basically just making it up as you go along.
Is there a trick to getting people to let their guard down and talk as candidly as they do?
The first thing I do is tell them I’m not a journalist [laughs]. People are often quite nervous once we’re there with the cameras, so you’ve got to make them feel comfortable and obviously be genuinely interested in what they’re doing. You get a bit of a knack for it I suppose – you can tell when people are getting a bit sick of it or if there’s something that they want to tell you that they’re not telling you. I’ll just sort of get there and look around and I’ll see visual cues that I know I can write voiceover to. In the field you have to get people to do stuff, you can’t just sit them down do an interview and then shoot a whole lot of GVs [general vision]. You’ve got to get them to do things.
What kind of things do you look for?
So for example in [the first episode of Gutsful] there’s lots of visual cues in there where you can see who Chris is: he’s a surfer, he’s got his little car, he’s got his tattoo. All those things tell me who he is. It’s quite laborious, you have to work quite quickly, but you’ve got to have all those things in place because when people watch on television you don’t get enough information just from two heads sitting there talking and shots of their house. You want to see them in their environment and see how they walk, or if they have a funny thing on the wall or anything like that. So your magpie’s eye goes into play when you’re in the field, you’re constantly looking for stuff that illustrates who they are to flesh out the story.
How long do you usually spend with someone for an episode?
Two days. It depends, but these days you have to be quite economical with your shoot days. You can’t fuck around, you’ve got to really think about it. So generally two days to shoot a story, maybe three, and then you’ve got a contingency if you need to do pickups or anything extra.
You’ve worked on quite a lot of other things over the years – can we take a quick sort of guided tour of your career? Where did you start out and how did you end up here?
I left school in ‘84 and got a job at a radio station in Whangarei … that was around the time FM was popping up all over New Zealand so I got in on a new station that was starting. I spent 15 years in radio all up – a couple of years [in Whangarei], moved to Hamilton and did a couple of years there, went to the UK and spent about three years on the radio in Ireland, briefly went to Monaco and did radio there … then I came home and delivered chicken because I couldn’t get a job. But after about six months doing that I got into bFM, and I was there from about ‘93 to ‘99 as a production manager making commercials then as program director.
Did you invent the classic bFM funny ads?
Nah. That was a very collaborative process. We used to have a really clever copywriter called Bob Kerrigan – two guys, Bob Kerrigan and Scott Kelly – who were very good at writing commercials. I was operating the recording studio, and there was always a revolving list of people coming through helping us make the ads, making them up as we went along. They were really part of the sound. I’ve always thought if you can make it so people almost look forward to the ads then you’re onto a winner because they’re not going to switch off. So that was what we did. But nah, that was due to a lot of different people. Mikey Havoc was there and Joel Tobeck and a whole bunch of people like that. It was good fun, good times.
Is that how you ended up directing Havoc’s TV show?
Yeah, that’s where I met Mike and Jeremy, and then when their director Paul Casserly left the show in about 1999 I think, that’s when I got shoulder-tapped and that’s when I started in TV. After that show ended I found myself in a bit of a weird position because I knew how to make that kind of television but I had no idea – and I still don’t really – how to make proper TV. So after [Havoc] I did a few pieces here and there, then I came here [Greenstone TV] about 8 or 9 years ago to do Neighbours at War.
Do you reckon a show like Havoc & Newsboy could still get made today?
I really don’t know. Mike and Jeremy had an ability to cut straight to their audience that was so rare, there was nothing else like it. The thing is, making television, the best thing you can have isn’t a really flash camera or a really good sound recordist. The best thing you can have is an executive producer or a network commissioner who opens a path for you to go straight to your audience. That’s the most important thing as far as I’m concerned. If you don’t have that, if you have someone in that line that dilutes your message then it’s really hard to get it through. So we had a direct line to our audience almost. We had commissioners and executive producers who would look at what we were doing and go ‘I have no idea why that’s funny or why you wanna do that, but off you go.’
What were some of the controversial moments you were involved in? Did you direct the “greedy old gay man’s Gore” episode?
That was just before me, that was Dave Slade directed that series. That was the first series of Sellout Tour – I did the second and third. But there were a couple of quite controversial things…
One of them was when we went to the spy base in Blenheim. That was all kinds of fucked up that was. That was… borderline [laughs]. [Havoc and Newsboy] went across the wire, I stayed outside the perimeter with [cameraman] Clint Bruce and we filmed the shenanigans. They just basically wanted to do it because they wanted to do it. There was nothing political about it, they just wanted to go inside to see if they could, so they did. But I suspect that when that was broadcast somebody was probably called into a meeting at some level. It was all pretty harmless but you’re not supposed to do that sort of stuff.
Another thing that happened was we got involved with some animal rights activists down in Canterbury who took us to a chicken battery farm. We went and filmed in there and apparently there was hell to pay with Tegel or somebody threatening to pull their advertising. We had to have a couple of things modified in that piece, but it went to air.
Oh, what about the one… did you see the one where they had the guy from Christchurch who stapled his cock and balls to a big wooden crucifix?
Yeah I vaguely remember that being talked about at school the next day…
I had rung up a friend in Christchurch and asked if there was anything happening down there that we could do a story on. And he said well, there is this. This guy who’d won a $100 bar tab by doing the most outrageous thing. What he’d done is he’d got this heavy wooden crucifix and a heavy duty stapler and stapled his cock and balls to it and then put lighter fluid on it and lit it. And this is all on reasonable high quality camera. We got that footage and I looked at it and thought Jesus Christ, I suppose we have to put this on TV. So we did, we cut it, and the network people looked at it and modified it slightly. But that really upset people. And with good reason. I guess the idea was it’s something that should probably not go on television, so let’s put it on television.
As the director were you egging Mike and Jeremy on or trying to rein them in a bit?
I have a suspicion I was given that job because they knew that I was, y’know… I am a pretty boring family man. Because I had no experience in television at all, I just knew them both quite well. So I suspect that [executive producer] Irene Gardiner gave me that job because she knew that I’d be able to sort of… control them… a little bit. But by and large I just sort of hung on and went for the ride. They just did what they did and I just made sure that it got finished in time.
How did Neighbours at War come about?
A lot of stuff was being commissioned at that time and I think they were probably scraping the bottom of the barrel. Greenstone had done a series called Love Thy Neighbour? which was quite good, a bit hokey but y’know. They’d also given me a copy of a British show that was a sort of ‘Neighbour v Neighbour’ thing, but it had this little quirk in it where you could tell that the production company was just slightly taking the mickey. I basically watched those two things and thought alright I’ll do it and signed on. I remember going and doing a couple of stories and thinking oh god, what has my career come to? Because I was making a reality show about neighbours, which is just something I didn’t really think I wanted to be doing.
Was there a moment you realised it might actually be quite good?
I went to Mangere and met this lovely couple who thought their neighbours, because they were Fijian Indians, were eating the cats that were going missing. And I remember sitting there with them talking to them and thinking on the way back ‘this is freakin’ gold.’ This is where I want to be, y’know, just talking to ordinary people and finding out what makes them tick and… not lampooning them but just, why not put that on television? They weren’t mentally ill or anything, it’s just what they thought. So that’s what I love is just doing that really. Any opportunity to get out there with real New Zealanders, to see what they do and how they do it.
How did you find people for that? Did they come to you wanting to be on the show?
It started out like that but eventually people thought I’m not going on that show because that’s the show with crazy people on it. Which is a bit uncharitable. Because even though I presented it in a mildly entertaining way I don’t think it belittled their argument or their story. That’s the last thing I’d want to do, for people to see a show I’ve made and think that I’ve jerked their chain. That’s a line I just would never cross with people. You can have fun without standing on people’s dignity or integrity. If somebody did a Neighbours at War story on me there’d be all sorts of stuff that I could look at and go well that is me, I am weird like that, you know. But that’s telly.
Did you get many people coming back to you after their episode had aired feeling like they’d been stitched up?
Never. One lady, one lady in eight seasons. She was really unhappy. But I didn’t add anything to her story; she told it. She was annoyed because she felt the sound from the school and other areas was bouncing down her driveway and bouncing off the walls and going into her house or something. We had an acoustic expert who came to do some sound readings and he said to her that he thought perhaps she had an aversion to noise because there was no physics that could explain what was happening. She wasn’t happy with that at all. I felt a little bit bad for her but yeah.
What’s the single greatest episode of television you’ve had a hand in making?
Hmm. I’ve got a soft spot for some of the Havoc shows. The one that Mike and I did in Ibiza was a really good one. That was an eye-opener [laughs]. I can’t tell you much about that.
My favourite episode of Neighbours at War was one about a fella called Peter Morgan. I really liked that because it followed him from house to house to house, and it was a Neighbours at War story but you never met any of his neighbours because none of them wanted to talk to us. It was just all about him and how he went from place to place and always had problems with his neighbours. He said it was because his father was cursed by someone in Egypt many years ago. I loved that guy, I loved Peter.
But I don’t think I’ve made any shows that are gonna be really remembered for posterity or anything. The place I occupy is very much… Yeah…
Gutsful starts Thursday 8.30pm on TVNZ 2
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