Back to reality

Series one of The X Factor New Zealand was simultaneously the best and worst television show ever. Series two is on its way and all going well, it will be even better and worse.

It’s not due to screen until 2015, but I’m so excited that I’ve written a preview for The Spinoff and you should go and read it right now. It includes this masterfully constructed infographic:


The piece starts off with a gag where I pretend I can’t remember who won series one. After the article was linked on the official X Factor NZ Facebook page, all these people commented like, “Duh, it was Jackie Thomas!!!!” Oh, of course.

There are a lot of major reality shows coming to New Zealand television in 2015. As well as The X Factor, TV3 is also making local versions of The Bachelor and Grand Designs, and no doubt TVNZ will have some more to add to the mix.

A lot of people lament the golden days of the TVNZ charter in the ’00s, and remember all the quality programming on TVNZ7 (especially the book show). But guys, it wasn’t all like that.

Mostly, TVNZ fulfilled its charter obligations by making lots of cheap fly-on-the-wall half-hour reality TV shows. Some of them, like Neighbours at War and Piha Rescue, were successes (and let’s not forget the enduring legacy of Popstars), but there was so much crap in there as well.

I watched a lot of shows like this when I was making closed captions for TVNZ in that period. As well as property shows galore, there were series about health inspectors, the SPCA, dog shows, navy recruits, and troubled youth. Some of these might sound vaguely familiar, but others won’t because they were dumped in graveyard time slots, like 2 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. The series about the naval recruits, which was one of the most painfully boring shows to caption, ended up being canned after a couple of episodes, no doubt because it was so boring.

When National removed the TVNZ charter, all those crappy shows stopped being produced and TVNZ switched to making local versions of big-deal reality shows. Yeah, the My Kitchen Rules format comes from Australia, but as Morrissey once sang, this one is different because it’s ours.

And frankly, I would rather see a local version of The X Factor or My Kitchen Rules than watch a series featuring a council worker inspecting the grease trap of a Chinese takeaway.

Now there just needs to be a New Zealand version of Big Brother and I’ll be happy.

Things I learned from working in morning television

I worked in morning television for three years. It was intense but the people I worked with were really smart, creative and cool, and I had a lot of fun times. These are the key things I learned from working in morning television:

The art of being calm around famous people

On my first day of work, I was introduced to the show’s presenters and really had to rein myself in. I wanted to spazz out and go “OMG! You are that guy on the TV!!!!” But I’d never have got any work done if I’d been like that all the time. After a few weeks, proper famous people would come on the show and I’d barely remember that they were famous. But it helps when the celeb is just sitting on a couch, flicking through a Women’s Day, nibbling on a Shrewsbury.

However, I was not immune from having proper fangirl moments:

1. Savage and Alphrisk

Hanging out with Savage and Alphrisk

I loved the Deceptikonz’s first album and much of the work from the Dawn Raid family in the early 2000s, so I was super excited to meet Savage and Alphrisk. They were both really nice and friendly. Alphrisk was just being professionally staunch.

2. Dr Alan Bollard

The two Dr Bollards

Yep, I’m a total fangirl of the governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand. I took along David Hay’s “New Zealand Reserve Bank Annual”, written by a fictional Alan Bollard. The real one cheerfully signed it and posed for a photo.

3. Nik from NZ Idol

I didn’t get a photo with Nik, but I was so excited to meet him. He was the runner-up of the second series of NZ Idol, but he was always my fave, right from the auditions. I think he was just on the show to promote some gigs he was doing. He still managed to be ultra cool and amazing and fully reduced me to a squeeing fangirl.

And then there were inanimate objects:

1. The Ranfurly Shield

I don’t even know how rugby works, but one day the Ranfurly Shield showed up and I ended up posing with it. I wasn’t smiling in a “Woohoo! Wellington have the Log o’ Wood!” way, but more like “This is insane and it’s so heavy I can’t hold it much longer.”

The shield

2. Thingee

A few times New Zealand children’s television icon Thingee would appear on the show. For some staff of a certain age, who’d grown up watching “The Son of a Gunn Show”, this was the first time in their life that they’d considered that Thingee wasn’t actually an alien and was just a puppet. As they realised this, they’d all get the same look in their eyes, as part of their childhood died.

Other important lessons:

1. Too much cake is a bad thing

Via the show’s cooking segments, I had the opportunity to sample a lot of fancy cooking from New Zealand’s top chefs. And all that lovely baking, well, it left me with a jaded palate. Since then, home baking never quite measures up. While I always appreciate the effort the baker has made, it can never live up to the stuff the patisserie chefs made. I’ve pretty much given up on civilian baking now.

2. People are snobs about morning television

I was at a Girl Geek Dinner event, sat at a table with a random selection of women in tech. As I introduced myself and my job, my tablemates reacted with comments like, “I’ve never seen it” or “Oh, I don’t watch television.” As if somehow a show that broadcast during the day, aimed at stay-at-home mums and retirees was a failure for not being on the radar of IT professional and academics.

3. The shadow of Paul Henry is long and dark

Paul Henry did not work on the show I worked on, but a lot of people thought he did. “What’s Paul Henry like?” they’d breathlessly ask. It was always a let-down when I said he’d only been on the show a couple of times and that I’d never met him.

4. That thing about never working with children is true

I thought the adage “Never work with children and animals” was because of their unpredictability. But there’s a different issue with children – they clam up. Most kids get overwhelmed with all the stuff going on in a TV studio and can’t manage to say anything other than a shy yes or no.

5. Being able to put things together is a useful skill

I assembled a Thomas the Tank Engine train set, with a drive-by Fat Controller activation; I clicked together a Lightsaber kit; I set up an eco baby cot and changing table twice, even though I’d forgotten everything by the second year; I changed the hinge side on the fridge; and I screwed together a flatpack cupboard. None of this was in my job description. I just did it because it was fun.

6. The art of applying false eyelashes

The boss was away so the stylist organised a demonstration of how to apply false eyelashes using the $2 shop kits. The trick – apply regular eye makeup first, cut the lashes in half and wait till the glue is tacky before sticking the half-lash to the outer half of your eyelashes. It’s great – fab lashes without looking like a drag queen.

7. And then there was this

Stand around with a cup of coffee, they said. You’ll be on the telly, they said. It will be fun, they said. It will only be for a couple of minutes, they said. But some comedians got up to hilarious comedy antics in the background and so it ended up in the paper:

Worst day at work ever

Current Obsessions

UK Celebrity Big Brother

Regular readers will know of my weakness for the televisual delights of Brother who is Big. Currently screening on Channel 4 in the UK is series six of Celebrity Big Brother, but those of us who don’t live in the UK can stay up-to-date with it via the medium of YouTube.

The series only runs for a manageable three weeks, so every day I delight in the everyday goings-on of the house filled with such people as LaToya Jackson, Coolio and Mutya From Sugababes.

I can’t quite explain the appeal of it, but I suspect it’s the fact that what happens to the house of celebrities is exactly the same as what happens to the house of wannabes in the regular version of BB: after a few days everyone get tired and emotional and starts yelling at each other, little groups form and there’s always some guy who tries to hook up with all the women. Of course, it’s just that extra bit entertaining when the sleazy guy is the performer of “Gangsta’s Paradise”.

The Twilight Zone

I acquired the season four DVD of the original Twilight Zone series, from 1963, and after watching that, moved on to series one.

I like the science fiction/fantasy stories, and it’s interesting to see the obvious reaction to World War II and the scary new world of technology. But what interested me the most was the style of television back in those days.

The acting is kind of stiff and very formal and almost feels melodramatic, which I believe is what was considered good acting back then. People spoke with very clipped, precise language. The only contemporary thing I can think of comparing it to is the scripts of David Mamet, but without all the swearing.

There’s a very slow pace to the way stories are told. I’m all for establishing character, letting tension build up, but there just seem to be so many unnecessary shots of people doing nothing that advances the plot. I started to make mental edit notes of how I’d cut things down. (This reminds me of the chapter about television in “Everything Bad Is Good For You, about how plots of modern television programmes are much more sophisticated compared to the TV of old).

Smoking is all over the Twilight Zone, in a way that makes the smoking in Mad Men look positively moderate. Even Rod Serling can sometimes be seen holding a fag, with smoking curling around him as he delivers his end monologue.

And the one thing that’s always stood out for me in both film and television from this era is the kissing: pashing is forbidden! As well as the Hays Code for film, it appears that television also couldn’t show open-mouth kissing. So if a couple need to do a passionate kiss, they sort of violently press their lips together, creating many double chins. It’s entirely unsexy and seems more painful than passionate.

Walking down the street

As a sort of New Year’s resolution, I’m vowing to walk more. Previously I’d catch a bus down to the train station every morning, but now I’m making the effort and walking.

But it’s not exactly as if it is an effort. I’ve always liked walking. It might have to do with having grown up in a rural area with no footpaths, there was nowhere to walk. I used to dream of living in a place with footpaths that I could blissfully stroll along in sneakers, not trudging along in gumboots.

In fact, even when I’m not walking to work, I rather like just going for a walk around wherever. I don’t want to evoke the F word, but for me there’s a real pleasure in walking around a city. There’s so much detail and history and humanity that can be experienced just by the simple act of walking down the street.

Laundry day

One laundry day, a few months ago, I was wearing the polarfleece with my employer’s logo on it. The lady at the Chinese laundry saw it and got rather excited.

She asked me if I was on television or… you know, the other sort of television job. I think I disappointed her when I revealed that I was not a glamorous TV star.

But since then, she’s sort of eager to talk with me about the telly.

Today she told me that she’d seen the John man at Mt Roskill interviewing Don Brash. The John man is taller and much more handsome in person than he is on the telly. I said that once I saw him at the supermarket pushing a trolley around.

She also said that about a year ago, she’d seen the lady who sits with John sometimes (the Carol), and that this lady was much slimmer and more beautiful than she looked on TV.

“Aye,” I said, in my head. “Television is a cruel mistress.”