A lot of British migrants are making the move to New Zealand – so why shouldn’t there be a TV show documenting the process? Elle Hunt watches BBC reality show Wanted Down Under.
A family of four wheels a trolley through an airport’s arrival hall. Far away from home, they look tired but hopeful. Today they begin the rest of their lives.
“After a long journey lasting nearly 30 hours,” says the presenter by voiceover, “the clan have finally landed in Hamilton.”
Wanted Down Under is a long-running BBC One series that follows Britons as they debate a move to the other side of the world, “for a better life”. Each episode a different family spends a week in New Zealand or Australia, shadowed by a film crew as they get to know the country and explore their options for jobs and housing. At the end of the hour, they decide whether to stay put in the UK, or throw it all in to pursue their Antipodean dream.
True to the tradition of British factual programming, Wanted Down Under is mild-mannered, low stakes and low budget. (It is also predominantly white, and presents migration as a purely personal choice.) It is also hugely popular, in that unobtrusive way where it is always on but never talked about. With production of its 13th season under way, the show has helped thousands of people move to Australia and New Zealand.
The only criteria to take part is that the main visa applicant is under 55 years old (45 for Australia), works a job on the skills shortage list (that is, one that is Wanted, Down Under), and is “genuinely considering emigrating” (“Please note this is not a free holiday”). Many who take part in the show seem to be doctors: underslept, overworked and grasping at any straw that may lead them out of 16-hour days. You get the sense it’s not that they want to live in New Zealand, exactly. It’s that they don’t want to work in the NHS any more.
New Zealand is presented on the programme as though seen from a distance, through a sleep-deprived, post-Brexit haze. It is paradise, but it is also not entirely real, like a mirage promising work-life balance and an “outdoorsy lifestyle”. “It feels like what you’d like England to be,” is one potential expat’s observation of Tauranga. Mount Maunganui is presented as a “magnet for active families” – a selling point for Dad, who says confidently that healthy living, “considered a lifestyle choice” in the UK, is the default in New Zealand. Never mind the 32% obesity rate.
Most of the people who appear on Wanted Down Under have never been to New Zealand before, and know no one there. It is the promised land, the beautiful blank slate on which to project their perfect future lives and best selves. They arrive desperate to love it, down to the local fruit.
“Our first taste of feijoa is pretty terrible,” says one woman, laughing disbelievingly through a mouth of green flesh.
“You’re going for more?” says her partner.
“Yeah, I am, she says defiantly. “Because I’m not a quitter.”
There is work, these potential émigrés are told, but not so much of it that it will keep you from the beach. As they understand it, “work-life balance” was enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi. “There’s more of a feeling of ‘you’ve finished your shift, now go home and see your family’,” explains one mother of two of her reasons for wanting to relocate.
Another, concerned about being able to find work as an academic, is reassured on two fronts by the chief executive of Wintec: firstly that “there’s an appetite for people who know what they’re talking about”, and then “it’s just not a crowded country”.
But every reality-television promise of paradise needs its rub, its grit in the oyster, and in this case it is New Zealand’s geographic remoteness. Everything is better in New Zealand, agree the families on Wanted Down Under after one BBQ-cooked lamb steak or white-water rapids ride – if only it weren’t so far away from Britain.
Just before they cast their final vote, the family sit down together to watch videos of their friends and family sharing their thoughts about their potential move. Sometimes these resemble eulogies. “I couldn’t wish for a better son-in-law,” says Grandpa of the man who is threatening to take his daughter 11,000 miles away. (The 11,000 miles figure is cited often.) “It would be such a shame if they were to disappear.”
Others are masterclasses in passive aggression, like Grandma voicing concern that her relationship with her grandchildren will be lost to the distance: “It’s something Freddy and Arabella will miss, and possibly regret, later in life – but it’s your choice, not mine.”
“I miss everything,” says little Freddy or Arabella plaintively, marking the episode’s nadir.
This is the real test of the family’s convictions: can they look their young children or elderly parents in their eyes and tell them they are moving to the other side of the world? Some find that they cannot, the prospect of social death trumping the promise of 40-hour work weeks. (The possibility of making new friends in New Zealand, or relatives moving out to join them, is hardly ever raised.)
“I have been trying to weigh it up with each experience,” says one woman who, back in the UK, had had her heart on a beachfront property. “Is this experience good enough to give up friends and family?” She’d led her family’s charge to relocate to New Zealand, but changes her mind after visiting a few open homes in Tauranga and finding them both old and wildly expensive. But by then, her husband has fallen for the place.
“You want to stick us out in the middle of nowhere!” she says in an accusatory tone. It is unclear whether she is talking about New Zealand, or a house three streets back from the beach.
Many try to displace the guilt they feel about being negligent sons or daughters by claiming to be dutiful mums and dads. The move to New Zealand is often held up as doing “what’s best for our kids”. Children are forced to grow up too fast in the UK, says the doctor in love with Mount Maunganui: “Hopefully they can be younger for longer out there.”
The final vote on whether to stay or go is cast with a solemnity not matched by production values as Mum, Dad and the kids stand shoulder to shoulder, wearing fixed expressions and very concentratedly spinning a laminated A4 card. Printed on one side is the Union Jack; on the other, the Southern Cross. And so, by the same means by which Red Tomato triumphs over Green Pepper on Ready Steady Cook, destinies are set in motion, and dreams become reality.
In most cases, families vote to move to New Zealand, with visible trepidation and excitement. (If a young child votes to stay in the UK or that they are “undecided”, as sometimes happens, they are kindly overruled.) In one week they’ve seen a lot of what the country has to offer: dolphin watching, beachside fish and chips, single-glazed windows. But what the programme rarely acknowledges is that their enthusiasm to move often has more to do with their lives in the UK than the possibilities of a future in New Zealand.
The family just landed at Hamilton airport are disillusioned with modern British society, the viewer is told, and think it may be best to get out while they are still ahead. The mother leading the charge to move says she wants to be set up in New Zealand by Christmas. They have not even left the airport yet.