Before there was Shortland Street, there was Close to Home. Sam Brooks dug through the NZ on Screen archives and found the first episode of New Zealand’s first soap opera.
It’s 1975 in New Zealand. Imagine the climate. Robert Muldoon is about to become prime minister, the population has just cracked three million and television has not just one but two channels, imaginatively named Television One and Television Two.
On one of these channels, New Zealand’s first soap opera, Close to Home is born. Written by Michael Anthony Noonan, it revolves around the trials and tribulations of the Hearte Family. The Hearte Family is a vaguely middle-class, or potentially upper middle-class, or even lower middle-class family, it’s very hard to tell because everybody in the 70s seems to dress the same miserable way and look uniformly dour. The Heartes have all the problems that you’d expect a family in Wellington suburbia to have in the 70s: they’re very cold, probably low-key alcoholics, and very white.
The first and final episodes of the show are available to watch on NZ On Screen, but having only watched the first episode (I don’t want to spoil myself, you understand) I found it to be a bizarre piece of our history, and a fascinating precursor to Shortland Street.
It is more than just New Zealand’s first soap opera. It’s also a show that is influenced, and I’d say infected, by our British colonial past.
For one, this show is about as white as it gets. If you made Close to Home with this cast now, it would get raked over the coals in thinkpiece after thinkpiece and tweet thread after tweet thread, and rightly so. To make matters worse, everybody speaks in accents that hew so much closer to The Crown than our own gravel-and-beer accent. You can tell this came from a period when we were still dealing with a self-imposed cultural cringe; it was still considered so much more desirable to look, sound and be British onscreen than it was to be an actual average New Zealander. Hell, in Mr. Telly you can still read letters from people who wish we would return to British accents on the news (although most of those letters are probably coming from people who were on the boat with Captain James Cook himself).
Close to Home is trying so hard to be Coronation Street that the only hint this is set in New Zealand is the brief exterior shot clearly taken somewhere in the haunted depths of Aro Valley. This is a show where someone says the line “You’re not too old to get clipped on the earhole” with zero irony. It’s one Deidre away and tens of thousands of miles away from being a spinoff of Coro – so a Kiwi Eastenders, I guess.
And two, holy shit is this a show that was made in the 70s, in every way. Not only does it look like it was shot on a blurry cracked-camera iPhone, the morals are perfectly nestled in post-60s conservatism.
One plotline revolves around one of the Heartes (they all have interchangeable names like Liddy, Olivia, Sally, and I’m sure there’s about five women named Sarah; I will refer to this particular Hearte as Hearte #3) who is counselling a woman trying to retain custody of her three children. Specifically she’s a child psychologist trying to determine if this woman is a fit mother. For some reason, that woman is visiting her in her home, probably due to set limitations.
The woman’s ex-husband has evidence that she’s been a bit of a strumpet (my word, not theirs, but probably theirs too), and when Hearte #3’s husband comes home, he openly judges this poor woman to her face after she says that she’s ‘had a few boyfriends’. He does this while drinking cooking sherry from the cabinet above the sink. When Hearte #3, quite rightly, tells her husband he’s being an absolute dick, she comes off like the villain. Even though he does this, in the middle of the day:
This is a man who also says the sadly not iconic line:
“I’ve had a hell of a day and I can’t even get to my hot drink cabinet.” (I assume hot drink is code for alcohol.)
Another one of the plotlines follows an older Hearte, let’s call her Hearte #7, who has been promoted to the lofty title of ‘manager’ by her father-in-law, and her husband objects to this promotion. When she says she’ll think about it, he assumes that she’s joking. The 70s, you guys! What a time it was! If anything, Close to Home is accurately portraying how it was a pretty bleak time for women, or at least white women in Wellington, and also a questionable time for fashion.
The sad thing about this is that we’re not supposed to automatically side with the women here, even though in the year of our lord 2018 we do because we’re better people now, or at least pretending to be. Both of these events are set up as a ‘both sides have a point’ kind of deal, and it makes me a little happy to see how far we’ve come that this kind of crap wouldn’t happen in TV now without getting a deserved clapback. But it also makes me sad to think that you could put these plotlines in a TV show now and, even though the men would obviously be villains, it wouldn’t be outrageous. It’s believable that this is happening to women today (because people still judge women’s choices, because people are the worst).
I mean, would you listen to anything this man has to say, unless it was his sideburn recommendations?
Does Close to Home hold up? I mean no, not really. It’s a soap opera from 1975 and I don’t think anybody out there is arguing that television drama peaked in the mid-70s, for good reason. Even for a 22 minute long pilot, it moves along with all the pace of a Marvel show with 13 hour-long episodes to burn, and a scene towards the end of the episode where all thirty billion Heartes are in the same room seems to have come from a time before sound mixing was possible or even thought about.
In saying that, there are some pretty savage burns, which I have outlined below, and encourage you to use in your own life with your loved ones:
“What do they teach girls these days in school, apart from sex?” (Probably don’t use this one with your loved ones.)
“Go electrocute yourself with your guitar.” (Or this!)
“You’re employed as a child psychologist, not a feminist advice bureau for middle aged tarts.” (Maybe don’t use any of these with your loved ones, in fact. Or do! Only God can judge your immortal soul.)
But also, I don’t think we’d have something like Shortland Street without this show. Even from one episode, and even with the flaws of being a show that came out 40 years ago, you can see how a nation would find it compelling. There’s something fascinating about seeing ‘real life’ New Zealanders on screen – a certain kind of very British, very white, very suburban New Zealander, to be sure, but a New Zealander nonetheless. You don’t get to Chris Warner without Hearthe Family Member #1.
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And ultimately, we should remember that there’s only 46 years between the lines, “So, we have the house to ourselves. Ought to have an orgy.” (yes this is an actual line on a show from 1975 in this country) and “Please tell me that is not your penis.”
We’ve only come so far, y’all.
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