Sam Brooks continues his dig through the NZ on Screen archives and the history of New Zealand drama with 1978’s Radio Waves, a half-hour maybe-comedy about the travails of an Auckland radio station.
After watching Close to Home, I was struck by three things. One, how indebted New Zealand drama (and this also extends to our theatre) is to British drama and how awkward it is to see productions strive for the qualities of that drama without the resources to meet it. Two, how TV was still working through a lot of teething problems in its early days (but which seem to have been resolved remarkably quickly). And three, Jesus Christ we knew how to make twenty-two minutes feel like literal days.
These three themes run through Radio Waves, a one-season wonder that premiered a few years after Close to Home. Whereas Close to Home focused on the lives, loves and I’m assuming deaths within a Wellington family and was 100% percent sudsy soap opera, Radio Waves is staunchly a… Actually, it’s not staunchly any genre that I recognise, but at the very least it’s about a radio station in Auckland, and stars the Kiwi talents of Alan Dale at his most Michael Galvin-y. (You might remember Dale as the surly dad from The OC, the rich surly dad from Ugly Betty and the hot dad on Hot in Cleveland. He also appeared in a frankly incredible 1064 episodes of Neighbours between 1985 and 1993.)
The lack of genre is actually what is most striking about Radio Waves. I’ve got no goddamn idea what it is or what it’s trying to be. If it is a drama then it is ludicrously low stakes and almost blissfully free of any dilemmas to engage with; if it’s a comedy then it is so lackadaisically paced that any possible laugh-lines are drowned out by the eerie silence that follows. (If there’s one thing we’ve worked out in the decades since, it’s how to actually edit TV.)
But it’s a bit harsh, and not particularly fun, to criticise the show for these failings. That’s like ragging on The Great Train Robbery for not having believable special effects, Super Mario for not having photo-realistic graphics or The Merchant of Venice for being anti-Semitic (actually it’s not like that last one at all, please rag on The Merchant of Venice.) Radio Waves was made in the 70s, and has all the hallmarks of something that was made then: Big hair, ridiculous costumes, funky camera movements and silences that you could crash a train through.
Once you get past the craft of it – because we modern viewers are so accustomed to the fast-cutting and breakneck speed of something like The Crown – Radio Waves becomes a more interesting watch, at least from a historiographical viewpoint. Which is a fancy way of saying I like watching old shows to feel better about myself and the very modern world in which I live.
There are a few things that link Radio Waves to Close to Home, probably unintentionally. Firstly, there’s the number of characters. There are well over a dozen named characters in this episode alone, including the daffy old cleaning lady who I sorely wish had her own spinoff (and who leaves this episode with the iconic line, “I’m sure women tell fewer lies than men.”) There are so many characters in this show that three new ones are introduced in the last scene, which features none of the characters from the rest of the episode, which is a bold move indeed. Some might even call it audacious. I would not.
Then there are the accents, which firmly occupy that bizarre post-colonial territory of being recognisably British but just a little bit off – closer to Outlander than London. This is, of course, excluding the bizarre restaurant owner Miriana, who is revealed as being of Croatian-descent but has an accent that I would, charitably, say wanders from Mexico to Ireland before hopping on a quick boat to somewhere in Scandinavia.
And then, finally, there’s the sometimes-funny, sometimes-awful, always-uncomfortable morals of a show made in the 70s. As in Close to Home, there’s an acknowledgment of feminism but a very diplomatic decision to neither lean towards nor away from it. This is most obvious in the character of Jess, who is not explicitly referred to as a feminist, but is depicted as clearly feminist – as if you were making a film in the 50s and had a character whisper about a slightly effeminate man being a ‘confirmed bachelor’.
Jess is so clearly, to the point of hilarity, coded as feminist in her first scene where she’s interviewing for a job at the radio station and says these three lines in quick succession (emphasis is my own but is 100% implied):
“I’ve come about the JOURNALISM JOB.”
In response to being asked if she’s a Miss or a Mrs: “I’m neither, just Jess.”
“I prefer standing.”
Which is all great! Jess is a confident, self-possessed character. I would like to see a show based around Jess. It’s possible that the rest of Radio Waves focuses on Jess – I don’t know, NZ on Screen only has the one episode of this show on its site. I can make some assumptions though, and they’re not particularly optimistic.
And then you put it up against the fact that Jess spends about half of her time onscreen with a man condescending to her (and half of that half with Alan Dale’s arm unnecessarily around her, given that he’s interviewing her for a job) and just like with Close to Home‘s own quasi-feminist character, we’re never really sure whether the show wants us to agree with the man or agree with the woman.
In fairness, it can be hard to side with Jess when she describes Auckland as “so Pacific”. Come on, Jess. And it’s even harder to side with Jess when she, a journalist with apparently two years of experience at the DomPost, two years at the Herald and a year at Radio New Zealand says “I don’t hold people to their word”. Which is a pretty strange thing for a journalist to say, but you do you Jess.
You also put it up against the fact that one of the ‘wacky’ ‘loveable’ ‘heroes’ of the show, Paul Headley, utters the line “I’ve worked with you for six months but have I ever felt you? Reached out and touched you?” He says this to a woman, of course.
About five minutes later in show time (the episode appears to take over the place of one day, and miraculously makes that twenty two minutes feel longer than the twenty-four hours of an actual day), the married-with-kids Paul tries to convince his fellow newsreader Barbara to come out on a date with him.
She says, beautifully, in a line I will steal for all of my interpersonal relationships in the future, “Paul. I have no intention of fulfilling one of your needs.”
I walked away from that scene going, “Wow. That’s progressive. That’s great. Paul is a creep! People shouldn’t be enabling his behaviour–”
And then about ten seconds later she agrees to go on a date with him.
The 70s always were, always have been, and always will be the 70s. It was a decade when you could make a show about the radio and have the opening scene be a producer listening to his own show on the drive into work rather than you know, in the studio. It was the decade when every man looked like he was competing in his own personal loud t-shirt contest.
And most remarkably, it’s the decade when a tiny show in New Zealand could license the song ‘Stayin’ Alive’ and not have to pay millions for it. Or maybe they did pay millions for it, and that’s where all the money for post-production went.
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