They don’t call Julie Christie the queen of reality TV for nothing. The recently-appointed Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit has presided over literally thousands of hours of what she prefers to call ‘unscripted’ television as the head of Touchdown Productions, the company she formed in 1991. Touchdown shows have brought us countless moments of national historical significance, like the rise of New Zealand’s first celebrity builder in Cocksy or the time Lana Coc-Kroft nearly died from an infected coral cut on Celebrity Treasure Island.
Christie’s approach to making reality shows has been characterised by a seemingly extreme willingness to throw a lot of muck at the TV drawing board and see what sticks. Plenty of it has – shows like Game of Two Halves, My House My Castle and a slew of other DIY shows became long-running and much-loved staples – but just as many have slid right off the drawing board and indelibly stained the carpet below.
Make no mistake, we are talking some of the most dire and inappropriate television ever made in New Zealand. But as weird, fascinating windows into our very dodgy past, they deserve to be remembered. Here’s to their creator, Dame Julie Christie, for bringing us these unasked-for gifts like a maniacal reality TV Santa Claus.
Hosted by Nicky Watson, 2004’s The Player screened on sleazy old Sky 1 and featured ten horny kiwi blokes competing to prove themselves as New Zealand’s biggest ladies man. Challenges in the first episode included pestering women on the street to model lingerie for them and a prolonged segment in which they had to make themselves underwear out of assorted fruit. At the end of the episode Watson pushed the failed contestants into a swimming pool a la classic Aussie game show Man O Man. A very strong contender for the worst reality show ever made in New Zealand or for that matter the world.
A high-concept meta reality show heavily inspired by Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show, 2004’s Living the Dream featured eight very obvious actors and one simple kiwi bloke who everyone was trying to trick into thinking it was all real. The real-life Truman was a young Hawkes Bay vineyard worker called Sam Chambers who responded to every contrived scenario with a circumspect “crikey.” In the first episode he observed “the weirdest things happen, it always seems to be full-on drama.” Executive producer Julie Christie said: “We did not realise how smart he was.” At the end of the first episode, the next instalment was teased with the question “Will Sam find out? And how will he react if he does?” Probably, he just said “crikey.”
Treasure Island was an unqualified success for Touchdown Productions, lasting a surprising nine seasons on TV2 from 1997 to 2007. The proto-Survivor desert island show produced one genuine celebrity in ex-SAS hard man ‘Horse’ (now a New Plymouth city councillor) and helped further the legends of countless kiwi stars. Likeable builder Cocksy won the first edition of Celebrity Treasure Island in 2001 in a field which also included the likes of Nicky Watson, Sally Ridge and rival celebrity tradesman ‘Handy’ Andy Dye. The next Celebrity Treasure Island, in 2004, was marred by the near-death of Lana Coc-Kroft, who suffered toxic shock syndrome from an infected coral cut.
About as close as we got to a New Zealand Big Brother, 2004’s (what was going on with TV that year?) Captive was a convoluted hybrid of reality and quiz show. Five strangers lived in a drab open-plan living area where every night one of the walls would open up and reveal a quizmaster (Married at First Sight’s John Aiken) who asked them a series of questions for the chance to win cold hard cash. Daily challenges were delivered via a note left Bain-style on an ancient PC, and the winner of the challenge (in the first episode, a game of Twister) got luxury items (a Hayley Westenra CD and a newspaper) to help them study for the quiz. Of all Christie’s weird reality inventions, this one was surely the most low-budget.
An early precursor to The Bachelor NZ, 2005’s Miss Popularity whisked a group of glamorous kiwi women off to the outback under the ruse of a bikini photoshoot and left them there to compete for the respect of the rural townsfolk, including the briefly famous ‘Outback Jack’ Vadim Dale. The weekly challenges covered everything it took to be the “ultimate kiwi chick” from stock wrangling to baking. The challenge winners were dubbed “boomerang babes” by Outback Jack because they were the only ones guaranteed to be back the next week.
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