Category Archives: TV

Thinking Inside the Box

I’m a little bit psychic. At least, that’s what I tell the girls when I see things before they’re revealed. And even though my daughters believe in magic 2-1, they don’t believe me. They understand the nature of the claim.

Lately, I’ve been showing visitors who stay overnight coloured boxes. Coloured boxes that portent the end of times. Green, blue, yellow, pink, orange and red; each opaque, with a dauntingly amorphous shadow. They stand in a crescent, filled with naked men and women hopeful of being chosen for a date.

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Actually, it was my partner who first showed them to her friend. Her guest was horrified, and intrigued. She had never seen so many penises at once. All lined up, eager to find favour; none the same as their neighbour. My mate, last Monday, was just as gob-smacked. He’d seen it all, but he had never seen that. Do guys all shave their pubes these days, he asked? Going by the other dating shows we’ve watched, appearance is much more important in England than in our rough-and-ready colonies.

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Naked Attraction turns dating on its head, getting contestants to choose a date based on physical appearance, bottom to top. The face and voice, those heavy carriers of personality, are the last things revealed. It is counter-intuitive; a counter-narrative that fascinates. It challenges assumptions we hear, repeat, and struggle to accept. Looks matter. And don’t. But do. Be-do.

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Male and female contestants have all rejected a person they clearly find physically attractive on hearing an unappealing accent. I mocked the Home Counties woman who didn’t want to date the naked Adonis she fancied on realising he was from the North. But I have done the same, losing all my desire for a woman I once lusted after on finally hearing how she spoke. Thankfully, you’re only young and dumb once.

Is it the answer to dating? No. Is it the end of civilisation? Many people clearly foresee that future.

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On the morning after we watched Naked Attraction with my friend a story appeared in the media detailing the record number of complaints about the show. Over 500+ people had taken the trouble to express their outrage to the authorities. The Family First Foundation had counted exactly 282 penises and 96 vulvas in one episode alone. They were so outraged at those numbers that they targeted advertising giants like Fonterra and Lotto, causing the gambling behemoth and industrial farming collective to pull their advertising from the show. According to Bob McCoskrie, the ‘state broadcaster’ was showing ‘animalistic’ porn.

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But it is not porn. There is no sex, only mildly titillating nudity. And TVNZ stopped being the state broadcaster many decades ago. I guess the complainers have been too busy counting genitalia to notice.

There is no shame in the human body. It is as beautiful, and awesome, as any other creature in the animal kingdom. Separating us from animals is unscientific, lacking in reason; a clear misreading of what we see before, and around, us. This wilful blindness is at the root of all kinds of abuse.

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I’ve only been to see a psychic once, after my parents died. She read me very well. At one point she opened her eyes, looked directly at me and said, you could do this, couldn’t you? I didn’t know how to respond. She repeated her statement, annoyed at my evasion, then she closed her eyes and continued.

We all see the unseen. Or think we can. Potential lovers, enemies, the future, the past. It sits before us, waiting to be seen, hidden in plain sight.

 

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To Think, to Speak

Last night I dreamed I slept with Ellen. We didn’t sleep. We were standing up, face-to-face. Her blue eyes were stunning, invitingly playful, and their beauty almost diverted me from the delicious sensation of how smooth and warm she felt. I was in heaven, I didn’t care that we were standing in the street, I just didn’t want it to end. But then a concern came into her eyes and she said, “I like girls.” I immediately withdrew, and began a flustered apology that ended as I woke.

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I’ve never had such thoughts about Ellen. I like her. She is engaging and full of play. The only reason she entered my dream was that she appeared briefly in The History of Comedy. The episode focused on female comics, more specifically, American comedians. It was typically chauvinistic, ignoring the rest of the world, and any form of comedy that isn’t stand-up, TV or film. There was no room for the world of comic literature or theatre. Or actual comics.

But that’s not the point. When you’re trying to sell something like an idea, always talk big; include little, exclude much.

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I thought about this the other day as I listened to my partner explain the persecution of witches to our three young daughters. They’re smart girls, but as with all broad subjects, things need to be simplified. However, when my partner said that the witch-craze happened because men were afraid of powerful women, I couldn’t hold my tongue. Yes, there was truth in the statement, a lot, but we had both recently listened to a podcast about witches where a telling point was made. The overwhelmingly majority of accusers were low-status women, and girls.

My partner looked at me with a little anger, and kept going. It was not the time to say that the persecution only took root because those in power (men), listened. And when they stopped listening, the wide-spread persecution of witches ended. Such accusations were once more viewed as vexatious, rather than the work of the devil. Europe had gone from the Early Modern period to the Enlightenment, and the brutal religious turmoil of the Reformation no-longer devastated economies, societies, and beliefs. People felt less disrupted and an accusation did not require a witch-hunt.

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Yesterday I read Margaret Atwood’s measured, and well-argued, reflections on the #MeToo movement. It lead to brutal attacks devoid of nuance and reflection. Some women felt betrayed. How could the writer of the Handmaid’s Tale ‘attack’ women in this way? Atwood had done none of the things she was accused of. As always, she was brilliant and insightful. But in the narrow minds of her accusers she was a traitor, siding with the inevitable back-lash.

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The world is not black and white. Nuance and shade are important. Questioning voices must be heard rather than dismissed. I learned this studying history where historians hardly ever agree on anything (the collective noun = an argumentation of historians). They constantly qualify every opinion (as I did when I added my voice about the witch-craze the other day).

Sometimes it’s best to say nothing if you want to be heard. As with comedy, timing (and delivery) is everything.

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I said this to my partner when she wanted to write an angry letter to the editor about a particularly opinionated, and ignorant, review of a book by a writer we both admire. Knausgaard thrills people because he gets at truth in a unique way. When I finally read the review I saw why it had angered my partner. It was badly argued and dismissive, both confident and clueless, with the self-assured tone of a narrowly clever young woman. Worst of all, the reviewer took pride in not having read his wildly successful, and much-loved, previous works. Just because she didn’t like the title. Sniff!

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I could see why my partner wanted to strike back. Ignorance is nothing to be proud of. But I’m a bit of a Stoic and I said whatever my partner wrote would be dismissed with a similar lack of comprehension. No actual communication would take place. She needed to turn her anger into something more creative. That is the point of Stoicism. It’s not about holding your tongue. It’s about not being beholden to pleasure or pain. Hard-felt emotions should be acknowledged, released and turned into gold. That way they cease to damage you, and others may enjoy your efforts.

It is important to speak up, to not be fearful. But it is just as important to measure your words, to make sure they address the whole palette, not just the shades you admire.

I have never lusted after Ellen. But I will remember the sensations I felt and the loving, troubled, look in her eye until my last breath. She didn’t need to say a word.

 

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Five Lions (and an almost King)

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The first time I saw the Lions was in a smoky little bar at Mt. Cook. I didn’t know it, but it’s where I was conceived. Presumably not at the bar (though people do funny things at high altitude). This humorous anecdote popped out at my mother’s funeral a few years ago. It got a big laugh.

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Back in 1977 I was 10. Unaware. I didn’t really know who the Lions were, I was a soccer player. However I liked the name and loved the animal, which I got to cuddle at Barrington Mall that same year. It was a promotion for Orana Park where you could drive through the lion enclosure and watch as they ate chunks of meat on your car. Even though I was 10 I knew that the All Blacks were better than everyone else. It was a great source of pride in our tiny nation.

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I was staying at Mt. Cook with family, and family friends, in a little A-frame chalet with no TV. So Dad and me, ‘Uncle’ John and his son, Michael, left the girls in the chalet while we males sloped off to watch the game. It was exciting being a kid in a bar. Against the law! But it was a Test. A very rare Lions Test, as my English dad, Dennis, explained. The four great Home nations against our little one. The dads drank beer (Lion or DB; the only choices back then) while Michael and me ate chips and drank Coke, talked quietly and messed about, watching little rugby.

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1983

The next tour took place in the aftermath of the civil unrest of the1981 Springbok Tour. Dad had taken me to the 2nd Test at Lancaster Park. It was the last rugby game I ever went to (unless paid to go). Riot police jogging in formation. Barbed wire and pitch invasions. Broken glass. Baton charges. People baying for blood. A shared bag of Mackintosh’s toffees with Dad.

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Like a lot of New Zealanders, my opinion of rugby was poisoned by the national trauma of 1981. Families split, flour bombs and beatings, teachers ranting at you to support! Oppose! All took a toll. So I watched none of the 1983 Lions Tour. Rugby culture turned me off. It seemed braying, violent. Ignorant. Racist. I found a welcoming counter-culture in music. It was years before rugby rehabilitated itself in the eyes of many NZers by winning the inaugural World Cup in 1987 (everyone loves a winner).

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1993

With the next Lions tour I was immersed in theatre, acting in shows up and down the country. Touring, touring, performing, writing, learning about the great diversity that plays into our complex national identity. I watched no games. It wasn’t something anyone I knew did.

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2005

By 2005 the world had ‘changed’. And so had rugby. It was now a professional package. It was hustled into professionalism when I started working in TV in 1995. I hid outside hotels with TV crews as the highly sensitive negotiations took place spending long hours talking shit, doing nothing, which is the nature of stake-outs.

At the 2005 game I was working on the ref communication system the officials now use to make decisions. The Lions Tour was the biggest rugby event the country had ever seen. Prince William was there listening to my mix. I was a little nervous.

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Half an hour before kick-off the police let us know that a bomb threat had been phoned in. Evacuation was being considered. 9/11 and the invasion of Iraqi still filled the news and the 2nd in line to the British throne was there. With 45,000 people in the stadium eagerly anticipating a rugby game full evacuation would disrupt the match, and international broadcasting. Satellite bookings and advertising windows would be sent into disarray. The police decided the threat was a hoax.

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2017

Tonight I’m working on the 2nd Lions Test in Wellington. Packs of Lions supporters have been roaming the streets all week. They seem a good-natured bunch. It’s hard to reflect in anticipation. While I am the same person who watched games in 1977 and 2005 (and ignored them in 1983 and 1993), I’ve viewed each one quite differently. The same eyes see both less and more.

 

 

I expect to stay wrapped–up high in the media box I work in, with heaters and Wi-Fi cranked, doing my job and keeping warm. Trying not to scoff my stash of liquorice allsorts too quickly.

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No one expects the Lions to win, not even them. The All Blacks are 5-1 favourites. All I can say for certain is that I (probably) won’t be watching the next tour in 2029. And the British (probably) will have a new king.

 

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At Sea

It’s a strange feeling pretending that you are invisible in the middle of a celebration, silently observing, placidly staring in the opposite direction.

My work life has been peppered with such moments. Some came back to me as I watched Team New Zealand win the America’s Cup on the telly this morning. The moments are fresh, but a lifetime ago.

Like a lot of my scruffy South Island peers I grew up writing off the America’s Cup as an elitist rich man’s game. It’s how I felt when Team NZ won the cup in San Diego in 1995 in my first months of working in TV up in Auckland. There was champagne to celebrate at the rugby game I was covering at Eden Park but I didn’t partake.

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Victory Parade 1995

 

The following week I worked on the parade down Queen St to welcome home the team and the cup. It all seemed a bit rah-rah to me. Not rock ‘n roll. Sharing a success you yourself hadn’t earned. But that’s sport.

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Mayor, PM and Peter Blake, Victory Parade 2000

 

When the defence took place in Auckland in 1999 I got a lot closer, spending every race day on the water chasing the yachts on a camera boat. There were many rough, lumpy days. A lot of hot, becalmed weeks. I read dozens of books and watched people amuse themselves with surfing dogs, dolphins and women in bikinis clambering aboard to say hello to the sailors.

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There were parties. Lots of parties. Prada. Team NZ. Louis Vuitton. Free Moet by the bucket.

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On lay days from racing I did field sound for the billionaire, Bill Koch (youngest of the infamous Koch brothers, shapers of American politics with deep, shady pockets). Bill was great. A big kid. He had won the America’s Cup with America3 and just wanted to interview all his friends for fun. He put on a bbq to thank everyone at the end of the event. It was a little bit Great Gatsby. White linen tables in front of a cliff-top mansion over-looking Rangitoto and the Hauraki Gulf. Silver service and a famous band playing on the rolling lawn. He sat with me to eat his dinner; a nice touch when so many rich and important people in need of schmoozing.

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I wish I had pictures of that night, but all the spectacle became so normal and every day, and, unlike now, everything didn’t need a digital record to exist.

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Victory Parade 2000

 

 

On the day Team NZ successfully defended the cup I was deployed on land, so to speak, bobbing about in the centre of the Viaduct on a pontoon awaiting the arrival of the winners and the presentation of the world’s oldest sporting trophy. I had rigged a radio mic on the podium earlier in the day and had a wired backup concealed within reach.

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As Russell Coutts lifted the Auld Mug with his young apprentice Dean Barker the confetti bombs exploded and thousands cheered. It was deafening. I looked behind me to the camera people held back by security, took a photo of the drunk and excited crowd, and wondered how invisible I could be.

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In shorts, bottom right, taking first photo in this post

 

 

3 Days in Samoa (part 1)

I’m flying to Samoa. The last time I went there it was last century, the end of the millennium. To a thirty-something New Zealander Samoa was the island of the day before. Since then the world has changed. More than once. It was 1999. We partied like it was and tried not to fret about Y2K and planes falling from the sky. Now I am 50 and Samoa has jumped the international dateline from yesterday to today. The past is here.

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I’m off for work rather than pleasure. Like the winter of 1999, it’s rugby. There are worse ways to earn a buck.

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Back then I was with a TV crew doing the first live broadcast of a big event from the islands. There was bit of pressure. We came over on the Saturday, did the game between Manu Samoa and USA on the Sunday, and then flew back to Auckland on the Monday. We stayed at Aggie Grey’s in Apia and drank cocktails in the pool. I got the Marlon Brando fale. As a one-time actor I imagined he had once been in the same room and busted out a Stanley Kowalski ‘Stella!” in tribute.

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18 years ago the plane was small. I watched ‘Shakespeare In Love’ and ‘My Favourite Martian”; the best of the few films on offer. This time the entertainment selection is huge, but not enough to drag me off my own devices… tablet, phone, journal.

Last time I took about 6 photos on the whole trip. This time I’d taken twice that before we left the runway.

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To be fair, in 1999 I also shot a 3 minute reel on my vintage 1970s Super 8mm camera. The travelogue was wholly edited in-camera, with titles and funny gags. I dug it out and watched it yesterday. The USA was led out by a man in combat gear jumping up and down, waving the stars and stripes. At the time I couldn’t work out if it was naïve or on point, and wondered what the Americans thought about being represented by this. Were they proud or dismayed? Or just indifferent? Manu Samoa had an oiled-up man carrying two flaming torches. It looked great in the tropical sun.

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That night, after a reception at the embassy, I had a beer on the town with some of the American players. They were just happy to be there; proud of their amateur status against a team full of professionals. ‘We’re builders, and teachers, that’s amazing, ain’t it?’

It is less than an hour until we land. Outside it is dark. No longer the island of the day before, Samoa is now an hour ahead of New Zealand. A balmy 28 degree evening awaits our arrival. It was 12 degrees when I left Wellington this morning. Cold. Windy. Autumn. It’s going to be an interesting few days.

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Unmovie

Thanks to a sudden operation on my knee I’ve been laid up for the last week, seeking distraction. I’ve needed an arthroscopy on my right knee for most of the year but the hoops I’ve had to jump through (assessment, diagnosis, then rejection by ACC, blood tests to discount arthritis and gout, my first ever MRI and ECG) all showed I had great health, for my age, and a perfect knee. Except for a ‘complex’ tear in my meniscus.

This time last Sunday I was waiting for a letter to either 1. Offer me an operation date sometime next year, or 2. Inform me I could not go on the waiting list as others had a greater need than me. I experienced the latter when I needed a bigger operation three years ago to correct Haglund’s deformity (heel spurs… the chronic condition that deferred Trump from defending democracy in Vietnam). See Post-Op Blog Couched In Cast Away etc

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So it was a total shock to get a call at work last Monday offering me surgery the following day. Somehow I manged to clear the decks and make it happen. Early the next morning I was climbing onto the operating table in a backless gown, talking to the local surgery team about how house prices in Titahi Bay had gone nuts, awaiting my third general anaesthetic. I distinctly remember the process. When I was six I woke in the night to wander the dark wards looking for my mother. Last time I woke to the rhythmic squeeze and hiss of a cuff on my leg guarding against blood clots. This time I took a groggy selfie to post on Facebook while Harry Nilsson’s ‘Spaceman’ ran through my head.

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It was only a 15 minute key-hole procedure and I was out for about an hour. Much quicker than the other times when I had to stay overnight. The lemonade ice-block to sooth my raw throat (breathing tubes) was delicious… I hadn’t eaten since the night before. Then it was on to crutches (easier with a bandage than with a cast) and I was free to go. Just before I left the friendly nurse asked if I wanted something ‘for the road’. I said yes. She smiled, poked her tongue out the side of her mouth, and returned with a little blue pill that, according to my partner, made me a lot of fun for the rest of the day.

Since then it’s been a lot of sitting with my leg up, trying to do nothing. I’m not very good at it. Especially as I’m surrounded by three small children and have no Christmas shopping done.

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Between reading and writing I’ve attempted to make the time between meds and leg exercises disappear by watching movies. It’s something I haven’t done in years. Not since I fell for the general trend towards the elongated 10 hour tales of ‘golden age’ television where, like a novel, you can get to love characters and spend time with them night after night.

Until this week the only movie I’ve watched this year (apart from kids’ movies) was ‘Swiss Army Man’ where Daniel Radcliffe played a dead body washed up on a desert island. What’s not to like? It was a lot of fun. Less one-dimensional than you would imagine.

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On Thursday I watched ‘Hell or High Water’. It’s as good as the reviews say. A pretty-as contemporary bank-robber/western. Languid and laugh-out-loud with wry comments on the post-GFC/Iraq War world. Jeff Bridges is a treat.

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On Friday I watched ‘Green Room’. The most suspenseful thriller I can imagine. A crap punk band gets trapped in a room after playing a dodgy White Power gig. There is violence, but it is sudden and real. A very compelling, fresh blast of the thriller genre. It also has the added fun of watching Capt. Picard and Mr. Chekov trying to outsmart each other (along with John Shelby, from ‘Peaky Blinders’, one of my fav binge-worthy TV shows). That Capt. Kirk is also in ‘Hell or High Water’ suggests a possible theme to my movie choices, but I am resistant to ‘re-boots’ and ‘franchises’, no matter how good they are meant to be. I love movies too much to be tempted by the lurch towards Tim Tam flavoured Capt. Disney-fried Star Wars sausage candy that has attempted to kill-off the strong, original story-telling movies used to glory in.

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Last night I watched the most original of the three films I chose from a list of the best of 2016. ‘The Lobster’ has Colin Farrrell as a bland pudgy single man who must find a partner within 45 days or be turned into a lobster. It feels like early 70s European sci-fi dystopia but is a lot funnier. The cast is great and the humour comes from the mundane way the situation is treated. It makes you laugh and think about the endless pressure to change or justify your ‘status.’

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So, what to watch tonight? I could finish off ‘Westworld’ or continue through ‘The Crown’ or ‘Vikings’ (loving these TV shows) but I’m going to keep with the movie kick. ‘The Invitation’ looks good. A man goes to a dinner party at his ex-wife’s and begins to believe something sinister is planned.

Seems like a good distraction from the endless cycle of ibuprofen, paracetamol, aspirin and leg raises while waiting to be able to move again.

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Love Is

What is love? It is an English word. A very old, Old English word. So how is French the language of love? These are things I have thinking about lately thanks to some of my favourite podcasts and a bit of reality TV.

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The TV show I’ve become addicted to is First Dates, where people with similar interests meet for the first time on a discretely filmed dinner-date. It makes me smile and feel good about life. These people often have very certain ideas about what love is. They just haven’t found it yet.

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So what is love? That is a question that can be answered in any number of ways, in film, story, song or life. But what it wasn’t when love (lufu) was used in Old English was romantic. It was a feeling of wanting, lusting for food or hunting. It wasn’t applied to romance in English until Eleanor of Aquitaine married the English king Henry II in the 1100s, bringing her favoured troubadours over to entertain her court with songs of devotion and unrequited love (themes that define our idea of love to this day).

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But where did Eleanor’s entertainers get this new-fangled idea of love? From her grandfather, William IX of Aquitaine, who loved to pursue women, married or not, and wrote verse about it (his most famous love was Dangereuse… pronounced “Danger-Rosa”!)Dangerosa

Aquitaine, being in the warm south of France, was free of constant fighting so they had time to contemplate love while the cold war-like north (like England) favoured heroic tales of battle and sacrifice.

Romantic literature was around before this, of course, just not in Western Europe. The Ancient Greeks wrote extensively about erotic love, as did the Roman poet Ovid (Shakespeare’s favourite), but it was banned by the time of Caesar c.60BC as people feared it promoted adultery and loose morals. So for 1000 years it was absent from Western culture.

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The south of France was also close to Muslim Andalusia where the great princess and poet, Wallada, held poetry salons in the early 11th century. gran_wallada2ce3She had a long, famously tortured romance with Spanish poet-philosopher Ibn Zaydun. After they met she wrote, “Wait for darkness, then visit me, for I believe that night is the best keeper of secrets”. From rival families, the Muslim Romeo and Juliet exchanged long love letters written in verse, where the gallant suitor humbled himself before his superior lover. Their poems were loved in Aquitaine influencing the idea of ‘courtly love’.

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This is the concept of love we inherited from Eleanor. An instant attraction. The fear of rejection. Longing. Unrequited lust. Devotion.

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These ideas permeate pop songs, rock songs, country music, opera, movies, television, books, blogs, our minds and hearts to this day. It’s certainly what the would-be suitors talk of in First Dates. How they decide if they want to see each other again. But what are they looking for? Big shoulders, nice teeth, blonde hair, a bald head? These are merely initial visual preferences based on what they have liked before. But what drives what they are feeling?

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We are visual creatures with huge visual cortices. When you see someone and go “wow, who’s that?” your brain has a massive hit of oxytocin, the drug of attraction. If you then talk to them you are rewarded with a blast of dopamine, which makes you feel pretty darn good. If you kiss technique is involved, but you are also tasting their MHC (major histocompatibility complex) which indicates if their genetic make-up is the same, or different, to yours. The more different the genes, the better they taste, indicating any ensuing offspring will be stronger with better immunity than if your genes are similar.

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But oxytocin degrades fast and those first hours/days/months of “wow!” do not last. At its max you have 18 months, probably less, to step up to beta endorphins, the natural opiates that take over in long-term relationships where you miss each other when apart and feel better in one another’s company.

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So which of these things is love? The wow of lust or comfort of companionship? The blind-daters, young and old, gay and straight, all seem to be looking for the later while gauging it by the former. They seem beholden to ideas of love born 1,000 years ago that make wonderful entertainment but often lead to poor choices.

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I’m no expert. But watching First Dates (while listening to podcasts about attraction and the history of love) has made me suspect that I have employed medieval ideas of love while holding tight to the original Old English idea of love as lust/desire, loving the thrill and excitement of a successful hunt.

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Once, in my 20s and working in television, a well-known TV presenter asked me if I was in love. We were alone in a rose garden, shooting a segment for Valentine’s Day. It was a sharp question. I had been in a relationship for 6 months but that thought had never occurred to me. I realised the answer was no. She then told me that her friends talked about “boing” (that moment of wow), and how it is not really love. It’s taken me decades to understand what that meant, to realise that entertainment may reflect life but it should not lead it.

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Finally I can recognise, and find, true love.

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So, what is love?

It is for you to decide.

Enamorados

 

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3 Days in Auckland (part 1)

In the air

I first visited Auckland nearly 30 years ago. It was a different city, I was a different person. A fresh-faced 20-year old on the road (in a plane) with the band I had played bass with since I was 16. I wasn’t a great bass player, we weren’t a great band, but we had something; energy, attitude, good tunes and a freshly-pressed EP to promote and sell.

Like a lot of people who had grown up in Christchurch, I was pretty dubious about Auckland, the brash, domineering big brother in the national media and consciousness. The largest city in the North Island, it was a natural rival for the biggest city in the South Island.

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But that wasn’t on my mind so much when I flew in with my four bandmates, it was the gigs and interviews we had lined-up. The boxes of records we hoped to sell, and the crucial uncertainty of whether or not Radio With Pictures would play our video before we left town.

30 years in a long time in the life of any city. It’s the life of a human generation (although desperate marketeers and journalists have been shortening that natural span in the last few decades). Pressed-vinyl EPs are no longer the best way to get music to punters and music videos are available at the swipe of a device (as opposed to being confined to a single showing in a dedicated TV show once or twice a week. Miss the show or fail to programme your VCR correctly and you would have to imagine it from the descriptions of your friends).

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Our first gig was a daytime performance on a stage set up in the grassy quad at Auckland University. We banged and strummed away. The students ate their lunch. Maybe we drank beer. Afterwards we did an interview on BFM, the student radio station, promoting the EP and the pub gigs we were doing with The Letter 5 (was it? was it?! Or the Battling Strings?)

Then it was off to walk into the record shops dotted along Queen Street, trying to sell our wares at $6.99, sale or return. I think we got rid of a pitiful 1 or 2 in a couple of shops.

Queen Street was long, wide and steep to me. Chch is a flat city. I headed off up to explore the famous/infamous K’ Road at the top of Queen Street by myself, fuelled by one or two beers (and the Valium one of the singers had scored from a friendly doctor to calm our nerves).

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Why am I reminiscing about my first visit to Auckland? Because I am flying there now. At the moment we are passing over Kapiti Island, having taken off from Wellington into 120km winds. The take-off was as bumpy as it was sitting on the tarmac, buffeted and battered , waiting to taxi. But I’m a pretty solid traveller, I never feel queasy. Plus I was distracted by being allowed to write this while we were taking off…a first for me as I have been used to the ‘switch off all electronic devices’ rule that has only just been relaxed.

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It’s 3 years since I was last in Auckland. That time I spent little time in the city, heading straight to the ferry and 2 nights on Waiheke, my island home in the Hauraki Gulf I left 8 years ago. I spent that visit swimming at Palm Beach, my favourite bit of paradise. I had hoped to squeak in a visit this time, but I am only in Auckland for a little over 48 hours so it looks a bit tight. Plus I have been alerted by a friend to the fact that Waiheke is experiencing an outbreak of sea lice due to the exceptional, record-breaking summer. I ache to re-visit paradise and swim in the eternity of summers past. But sea lice?! Hmm.

The volcanic rump of Mt. Ruapehu has disappeared from my window and the plane has started to descend. I’m being offered sweets (hooray for the traditions of Air New Zealand which also gave me a snack and a drink without asking for payment).

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What will these (nearly) 3 days in Auckland hold? Memories and observations by the bucket load, I imagine. I lived there for 13 years. Flew into the watery isthmus countless times. As I am travelling alone my only plan is to write and reflect. Walk the old paths. Seek the old favourite eats. I may try and meet friends, I may not. I would be nice but time is short. We are all older with commitments of time and responsibility of all sorts.

The excuse for this trip (taken on a whim and Airpoints) is an old TV colleague’s 50th. I’ve never been to a 50th. It makes me feel old. A bit excited. Curious. Nervous. I hope I don’t bottle out. I’m terrible for that sort of thing.

There will be people there from all those years I worked in telly, including a few who I trained with at the NZ Broadcasting School in Chch 22 years ago. A small reunion of sorts. How did we get this old? What is everyone doing now? Why did we create a dormant group on Facebook?

Questions never end. Nor should they.

How have 30 years passed since I first flew into Auckland?

We are landing. Auckland is here.

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Random Norwegians

On Saturday night I found myself at a party talking to a woman from Norway. As we chatted I had to restrain myself from randomly asking her about every tiny thing I knew about Norway.

I don’t know a lot, but ever since I had a ‘thing’ with a woman who went there as an exchange student I have learned how to flirt in Norse (badly), and noticed all things Norge in the media.

The Daily Show knowingly used the Swedish Chef to illustrate a story about Norway (archly pointing out that it would annoy any Norwegians watching).

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Peggy Olsen in Mad Men told a prospective 1960’s New York flatmate that she was Norwegian, rather than Swedish (the startled young woman replied “Well… we won’t tell my mother.”) Love Peggy so much.

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The arch baddie in Hell on Wheels, known as The Swede, comically protests “but I am Norvegian!” Hate the Swede.

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Van Alden’s babysitter, Sigrid, in Boardwalk Empire showed shocking enterprise by becoming his wife. And a murderer. And a boot-legger, brewing her national drink, Aquavit, to sell to Norwegian immigrants. Really love Sigrid (even though the actress is Danish).

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I first became aware of the Sweden/Norway relationship/history/gag in the film Kitchen Stories from 2003. It illustrates the patronising relationship of Sweden towards Norway through a (real) 1950s study of the kitchen habits of single Norwegian men, where Swedish researchers would silently sit on a high chair in the corner of the room watching the Norwegian bachelor’s every move. It’s a very funny film.

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Growing up in Christchurch, New Zealand, I was very aware of the role winning the race to the South Pole played in the burgeoning Norwegian national consciousness. Scott left on his ill-fated journey from Chch in 1912, 7 years after Norway broke away from Sweden. The statue Scott’s wife made of him sat by the Avon until the 2011 earthquake.

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But even though NZ was a British colony, and there are many artefacts from Scott’s attempt in Canterbury museum, the bust of Amundsen seems better loved (going by the way everyone touches his nose, polishing the proud bronze beak).

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I have written about how much I enjoy the TV show Vikings. How I regularly travel to NZ’s own ‘Viking’ settlements of Dannevirke and Norsewood (One day I shall take a hacksaw and free the giant Vikings that adorn Dannevirke from the anachronistic horns sprouting from their helmets).

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I also own a lovely old 2nd-hand book picked up on Waiheke Island 10 years ago. Published in 1949, West Ward Bound is a piece of pure Cold War propaganda that celebrates Norway joining the ‘ring of iron’ surrounding the Atlantic i.e. NATO. I didn’t buy it because of this aspect (ring of iron vs. iron curtain… hilarious!) I wanted the wonderful colour plates that illustrate the mythical/historic Viking past.

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Norway looks like Canterbury High Country

Amongst many cheesy 1950s/Medieval images is the taking of Paris in 885 AD by 700 long-ships (Vikings featured it at the climax of season 3, anticipating the settlement of Normandy by Norsemen).

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I have always wondered how these Vikings became the French Normans who conquered England in 1066, a few generations later. The History of the English Language podcast I listen to recently filled in a lot of the blanks for me. The Norsemen/Normans quickly switched to speaking French. But they also brought some Norman Norse into English. Creek for a small winding stream (crook and crooked have the same root). Wicket for a small gate (now used in cricket). And the name Gary.

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But I didn’t gush any of this  when speaking to the Norwegian woman on Saturday night. Instead, I told her that I was reading the Norwegian publishing sensation, Karl Ove Knausgaard. I am thoroughly enjoying his memoir of being a disaffected teenager in the ‘80s. Playing in shit bands. Pining after the music the English music press wrote about while surrounded by folk and metal. Fumbling encounters with girls. Trying to smuggle beer to a party. Becoming a parent at the same time you lose your own. Struggling to put your art ahead of being a parent/person in the world. His books shouldn’t work. It’s about nothing astounding. But it’s mesmerising. Astounding. Something he wrote while not writing a novel. He has provocatively titled the multi-volume series My Struggle (a knowing echo of Hitler’s Mein Kampf). It has sold so many copies 1 in 10 Norwegians owns it. I’m loving it. Memoir as art. Non-fiction as fiction. The old rules don’t exist. And the reading public approves.

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But the Norse woman had not heard of Knausgaard, that rock star of writing. Which disappointed me, slightly.

 

Nevermind. It was a wonderful evening. One conversation among many.

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It was a friend’s 40th, and as the sun went down we gathered around one of the gifts, a Viking log candle: a 6 foot log cut long-ways several times and rammed into the earth, allowing it to burn down from the top leaving large charcoal spikes pointing at the night while the fire consumed its heart.

 

 

 

The Americans

jYQdyGu9tl75VThe Americans is an unusual type of period drama. It takes place c.1980, a time that may seem too close to now to be ‘historical’. But 35 years is a lifetime ago and The Americans is an engrossing Cold War drama that follows a pair of Russian spies embedded in Washington DC at the start of Reagan’s reign. He may be about to (arguably) take out the ‘Evil Empire’ but no one knew it at the time.

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Not your usual kitchen-sink drama

The CIA is funding the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan (thereby turning them into Al Qaeda) and the KGB is tasked to stop them. Who do you back? There are no cell-phones or internet, computers are rudimentary and wigs, alcohol and sex are as important as guns. Like a lot of American drama, it has family at its core albeit a marriage where the couple put on disguises to get close to targets, have sex with them, manipulate/blackmail and/or kill them. They then go home to look after their oblivious teenage children (who become less clueless as the story develops).

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The All-American family. Kind of…

This may seem too unreal to take, but the conceit works. This is down to very good acting and storytelling that doesn’t play it for big drama or simple laugh-at-the-‘80s-clothes/hair yuks. It is restrained and dark, shot in a beautiful palette of browns and muted colours that somehow suggests the era while keeping a contemporary coolness. The fact that it is created and produced by an ex-CIA officer probably helps, too.

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Adding to the drama, their neighbour is an FBI agent. But instead of the obvious tension this could create, it is played more like the Walter/Hank Breaking Bad dynamic where keeping enemies close is an opportunity to exploit them. Do you want the Ruskies to triumph? Well, no, they can’t… but you don’t want Stan the FBI guy to win or be humiliated, either. And by series three the KGB are trying to take down the racist South African regime that Reagan and Thatcher supports. Um…

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One of my favourite aspects is the Russian embassy controlling the spies. These parts are in Russian with English subtitles, and it’s a treat to listen to. The actors are so stylish and no one trusts anyone. For good reason. A gulag in Siberia is hanging over all their heads. Nina, the young manipulated-by-both-sides double agent, is outstandingly; hard and heart-breaking. (As a counter-point, it’s good to see Richard ‘John-Boy Walton’ Thomas as the head of the FBI… but his strength seems to be in marching from A to B barking orders).

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The FBI guys

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Philip seducing a stoned minor

With the third series it has really developed into something special. There are some outstanding scenes. It’s one thing seducing the hapless secretary of the FBI boss chasing you. It’s something else to be told to seduce and smoke pot with the wayward 15 year-old daughter of a CIA operative (especially when you have a daughter the same age). The moral complexities are delicious. There are no laughs, which is often a negative for me, but the conflicted and twisted beauty of the story has the series win awards for writing, best drama series and acting.

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The pretend couple don’t always have to pretend

For those used to traditional Tudor/Victorian/Regency historical ‘frock’ drama, this may not suit. But if you like tight, gripping storytelling and tasteful period recreation (as I do) The Americans is a must. I can’t wait for the next series.

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Vikings

I’m a bit in love with Vikings. No, not the cuddly trainers of dragons or opera-hatted anachronisms used to promote small New Zealand Scandi-towns; I’m referring to the History channel series that has just started its third season. It’s pretty darn good.

vikings_season3_castOf course, it depends what you’re looking for. Me, I have a particular love for what I call period drama, that is, drama set some time in the past. Now, just playing dress ups and talking funny doesn’t do it for me, there is plenty of awful period drama (no need to list them). In order to win my heart it has to be great as a story/show, too (see my Peaky Blinders and Boardwalk Empire raves). And going by these first 2 seasons I would say Vikings looks likely to fit into the pantheon of great TV being produced in this so-called ‘Golden-Age’ of television.

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The Pilgrimage to Uppsala. A stunning episode

It certainly ticks most of the boxes of GA: gorgeous to look it, outstanding sets and costumes, intriguing and strong acting (except for 2 who let the side down), storylines that crack along and don’t wallow in melodrama or soap. It even has that great hallmark of the GA, cracking opening titles which even when you are bingeing (as I do) you have to watch all the way through to enter the world (the sawing cello, pitch-shifted vocals, the undersea shots of the longboats, waves crashing, bodies and loot sinking into the abyss… as tightly edited as a music video).

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Ragnar casually leads another raid

The story centres on Ragnar Lothbrok, a Viking celebrated in Norse sagas, and his rise from farmer (who does a bit of raiding on the side) to king leading the historical raids on Lindisfarne, Paris and so on.

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Lagertha in action

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The wonderful Sigi

To be honest, while I have binged both series twice, it took me a couple of attempts to watch the first episode as I’m not so keen on watching a whole lot of action fighting and gore. But that is not the core of Vikings. Like every other good GA show, it is about negotiating family relationships, and Ragnar’s wife, shield-maiden Lagertha, is as kick-arse a character (and actor) as Ragnar. As in the real world, there are strong women involved both fighting at the shield wall and plotting behind it.

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King Ecbert of Wessex. Wonderful character (and actor)

From a historical perspective, it is fantastic to see the interactions with the various English kings like Ecbert of Wessex, Aella of Northumbria and the nasty Mercians. None of it is straightforward; everyone is plotting, making alliances and breaking them. It creates a dramatic tension of a good ‘page-turner’ where you want to flip ahead to see what happens (or just watch one more episode even though you really need to go to bed).

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Sneaky Jarl Borg

It also portrays the Vikings as they probably were, united in convenience, treacherous and jealous when looking for advantage. It is refreshing to see this reality rather than a Hollywood simplicity of goodies versus baddies.

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Rollo leaps the shield wall

And the battles are some of the most realistic I have seen, you get to know what is happening, not just close-ups of grunting men and gore. The geography and narrative of what is happening is never lost and, most of all, there are consequences to action. Hands down, some of the best medieval fighting I have seen filmed.

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Athelstan: Northumbrian monk/Viking slave/Pagan Viking/Priest

It is also very clever in the way it portrays and negotiates the various languages that are spoken. We switch effortlessly from Old Norse to Old English and back via occasional sub-titles and convenient translators in a seamless and entertaining way.

So why do I qualify my love for this series? Because it lacks the sparkling, brilliant dialogue of other GA TV. And, at times, it seems full of explanation. Yes, it is needed to a degree (and the character of the captured priest is a great vehicle for this) but I can’t help but groan when, yet again, I hear someone say “that is a…. we Vikings do that because…”

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Floki the Boatbuilder (and lover of Loki)

It is also somewhat lacking in humour. I don’t expect lots of jokes, but these are meant to be real people, albeit seriously tough nuts. Humour makes us human and even shows as dark as Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men or Game of Thrones, manage to throw in gems of dialogue and regularly unexpected belly laughs.

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Young Bjorn. Outstanding wee actor (unlike the walking abs that replace him)

There are also some historical howlers which, in their way, are as laughable as opera-inspired Viking hats (I won’t mention them. Like cow horns on a helmet, once you know, it’s impossible to un-see them).how_to_train_your_dragon_2_banner-wide

But, overall, these are minor quibbles. As I said, I am transfixed. The characters are lovable, the story grabs you, it has spectacle, excitement and tenderness.

And maybe like all new loves, it is good to be a little unsettled, to hold something back in reserve.

I can’t wait to see what happens in the third series.

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Farvel Dannevirke!

Flashes of the Past as Time Flies

Tomorrow my daughter turns 7. She is, of course, very excited. The time has flown since I shifted to Wellington 3 months before her birth with no job and no place to live, in the clutches of an unformed relationship which would survive the birth of my wonderful daughter, but not last through the months that followed.

These things can make you reflect, if you have a mind to, and it’s made me realise that last week marked 20 years since I left my hometown of Christchurch to join the ever-increasing pull of New Zealand’s biggest city, Auckland.

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The so-called Death Star

I was taking up a 6 month internship in sound at the country’s biggest media organisation, TVNZ. Fresh off a year studying broadcasting, I didn’t expect to spend much time at what I soon learned to call the Death Star. I was just having a look on a path to a more cutting edge employer. But I liked it, staying there, one way or another, for the next 13 years.

If you had told me that back in 1995 I would have run screaming back to Christchurch.

That February was spent on the edge of Auckland’s downtown red-light district, on a couch in the photographic studio of someone I barely knew, looking for somewhere to live. In the pre-internet world of 1995 it meant calling flatmate ads in the Saturday Herald to be told, “it’s gone, mate”, no matter how early I called. It was very frustrating (hooray for the 21st century and online life). My host was very relaxed and welcoming, but the studio was pretty basic with a sink and a fridge, a cat, toilet down the hall, plus the two couches we slept on. It’s where I saw my first cockroach.

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It’s been done-up since I stayed there

As no one was supposed to be living there there was no shower. Actually, there was a shower but it was down 5 flights of stairs at the back of a Chinese takeaways. There were mushrooms growing on the walls I presumed were not being cultivated deliberately.

But I didn’t think too much about all that as I was farmed around all the different areas of TV. My first night was a baptism of fire, sitting in the sound room of the nation’s most-watched programme, the 6pm news. My senior, a classic grumpy old bitter-seen-it-all and not-afraid-to-show-it soundie put the show to air after putting tape over the smoke alarm so he could puff sneaky fags while hitting carts and foot pedals, setting off stings, pre-fading tape sources and mics while telling me only an idiot would get into TV and how he had placed radio mics around his house to catch his crazy wife poisoning the minds of his children.

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Wrong era, wrong control room, but you get the picture

Given what was to come it was an appropriate baptism.

By the end of the month I had found a place to live in Kingsland, heavily motivated by both my living conditions and visitors like the former male model who turned up straight out of prison to raid the fridge and eat the cat’s food from the can. “Ever had to do this, mate?” Or the persistent whining of my host’s school-girl-model girlfriend saying things like, “you don’t have do anything, just stick it in and I’ll do the rest”.

Over the next 13 years working as a soundie in studio, field and outside broadcast, I saw a lot, did a lot, always with the eye of a writer squirreling away every experience.

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One of my 1st jobs. Standing in the middle of this historic sporting moment

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Not all glamour. You have to learn your colour codes

But this is not the time for a tell-all memoir of bright lights and name dropping. That is to come (so I tell myself). When I want to clear my head of the celebrities, politicians and royalty, or the look on the face of the well-loved presenter as I was forced to unzip her cat suit, or the Christmas party where another whispered in my ear, “you are the 2nd best-looking man in the room” only to drunkenly claim an hour later “you are now the best looking man in the room”…he was quite the entertainer, mixing compliment with insult. The summer I spent with a billionaire which culminated in giving him a leg-up over the wall into the best party in town. The joints (and other things) guiltily shared on the way to shoot something important or innocuous. The police detective surrounded by laughing colleagues, tied naked to a tree in the red-light district with a branch sticking out his arse. The netballers sprung using the male showers as I entered, who grabbed too-short towels to (sort of) cover their modesty. The terrifying moment I stumbled into the most powerful (and charismatic) man in the world, despite the world’s tightest security.

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New to his job in 1999, I felt sorry for Putin next to ‘Elvis’. How little we knew

The day I was evacuated from a blizzard on a mountain which had claimed many lives. The rocks thrown at the back of my head in a dodgy school. Being driven through the balmy night air of a South Pacific paradise by a sporting hero with an impossible amount of booze. Having a lunchtime beer forced on me by the wife of the 2nd richest man in New Zealand while my superiors looked conflicted. Parents telling stories of loss while the news media was held at bay. The sight of a large un-cleaned clot of blood on a suburban street after a man had lain there all night after being shot by police. The Queens. The Kings. The Dalai Llama. Having a cup of tea in the poorest street in the country.

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Soundies are always close to the action

The beautiful women. The ugly beautiful women. The powerful men. The powerless broken men. The tigers, the giraffes, the ostriches fucking on a frosty morning. The smell of dead whales being carved up. The dolphins swimming just out of reach of my hand.

The past, indeed, is another world. The land of February 1995 is so foreign I struggle to remember how they did things there. The cell phones were certainly bigger and life was much trickier without things like the internet (wasn’t it?)

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The first cell phone I held in Feb 1995

7 years ago my life was about to become both trickier and more straight forward with the birth of a beautiful daughter, (unknowingly) conceived in the midst of a world I had no idea was coming to an end. The Global Crash was about to hit and my life in TV would soon become a melange of distant memories.

My girl is growing fast. Her big parties full of friends and food have been replaced by a small select sleep-over of young girls at her mother’s place. It feels strange to miss this transition in her life.

But life is about transitions. New things to experience and remember, old lives lost forever. Paths stepped off and others unwittingly pursued.

What is life if not a story to be lived and recounted with an ever-evolving mix of acceptance and disquiet?

It is time to pick up my daughter from school. I have bought her too many presents, intending to spoil my growing girl and salve my disquiet about tomorrow.

I think we can both be happy with that.

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She’s ultra-excited about Season 2 Shopkins

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We’ve been listening to the How To Train Your Dragon books…I think she’ll love Hiccup & Toothless

Peaky Blinders

This is a rave (no spoilers) about Peaky Blinders, the BBC period drama set in post-WW1 Birmingham. It’s a beautiful, brain-tinglingly fresh historical recreation of an over-looked part of history (one which I especially love as it’s the time my grandparents were teenagers).

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The Shelby Brothers

Set around a street gang on the up, it pulls a world of travellers/Gypsies/Tinkers, Fennians/IRA/Loyalists, Anarchists/Communists, London Italian/Jewish underworld (and post-War gender politics) into a strong narrative that is compelling and exciting.

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The family discuss business around the beer bucket

It pits Cillian Murphy as the leader of the Peaky Blinder’s against Sam Neill’s weirdly sinister Ulster copper (complete with weirder accent) who has been sent by Churchill to sort him out (and what a great Churchill, always sitting in a chair and still talking down to everyone).

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Battle of the film actors

It’s part of the BBC’s stated intent to resist continually humping the corpse of Jane Austen (no matter how productive she continues to be), and it works so well as costume drama.

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Illegal bookshop at work

The clothes are just amazing, the sets (virtual and actual) rich and gorgeous, even when they are showing grinding industrial poverty. And the hair cuts… I want one!

As for the soundtrack… wow. Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, The White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys, Johnny Cash, while anachronistic, all fit perfectly (I believe PJ Harvey and Flood are in charge) both adding to and opening up the story, showing Baz Luhrman how it should be done (his unforgivably ham-fisted butchering of the 1920s classic The Great Gatsby has earned him a special place in period drama hell).

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Industrial horseflesh

The theme song, Red Right Hand by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, fits the story/themes/feel in ways which continually unfold as the series progresses, with lyrics and instrumentation that seem to have foreseen the story even though the song is from the 1990s (that the song references Milton’s Paradise Lost is perfect for post-Apocalypse 1919).

With only six episodes per season (there have been two with another coming next year) it cracks along but never feels rushed, and the acting and characters are outstanding.

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Aunt Pol on the pull

As Thomas Shelby, the always wonderful Cillian Murphy leads the show with an impenetrable calm, while Helen McCrory as Aunt Polly (who ran the gang while the boys were at war) is more than a match for his acting chops (and may surpass him).

Tom Hardy as Jewish gangster Alfie Solomons also stands out on the intriguing filmic acting front. I could watch all of the scenes between Aflie and Tommy again and again.

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Alfie Solomons, scary London ‘baker’

And while Sam Neill is mad fun, that accent… I just can’t be sure if it adds or detracts (I suspect it adds).

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Sam cleans up the mean streets

There’s so much more I could rave about/discuss (the love interests are great actors, too) but best you enjoy it yourself.

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The curious Grace

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Horsey-girl Toff and Bit of Rough

Anyways, if, like me, you’re a history buff, love period/costume drama (and great storytelling) then give Peaky Blinders a try.

It’s great fun and you’ll get a killer Brummie accent to boot (probably best to avoid the haircuts).

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Real Peaky Blinders

The End of a Story

I see it is 6 weeks since my last post. That’s way too long. I have composed many in my head but as spring has kicked into gear life has become way too hectic to find time to explore my thoughts. I guess I’m still too much of a writer to just bash something out and post it. It must be more than mere typing or letting off steam to warrant the effort of crafting something worth reading.

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Life’s a beach, dress appropriately

Everyone has a life to live so what have I been doing that has sucked up my time? Basically, the spare time I would have devoted to writing has been…

1. pushed into a gym membership to take up aqua-jogging and gentle treadmill running as I work on a slow recovery from an operation I had on my heel to correct my Haglund’s Deformity in November last year. The results are very encouraging but if I don’t go a few times a week my recovering fitness drops off fast… a sign I’m a lot older than I think I am. Still, must be patient, it’s a 2 year road back to being 100%, so I’m told.

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Looking forward to getting my dancing shoes back on

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My living room

2. prepping the house for major renovations that started 3 weeks ago. As I write this interior and exterior walls are out, ceilings gone, there’s a giant hole in the floor, and I am protected from a near gale and heavy rain by some impressive looking building paper. It’s not as dire a picture as those words may paint. I actually find the sound of loud rain on a tin roof cosy and reassuring. But there are piles of crap everywhere that need sorting, shifting and resorting.

3. after over 3 years of estrangement from serious engagement with writing fiction, I have started an online course, going deeper than just banging out partial first drafts (I started blogging a year ago to try and find a path back to fiction). In fact, the momentum has allowed me to delve into unfinished stories untouched since I lost the heart for fiction when my mother got sick in May 2011.

But the actual reason I’ve been motivated to write this is that a story I dearly love is about to end tonight. I’m referring to Boardwalk Empire, the HBO costume drama set during the US Prohibition.2926045-boardwalk_empire_season_2_sezonul_2_wallpaper_cast

In case you watch the show, let me reassure you that I will not be giving away any of the story, but I will be referring to aspects of it.

I credit my mother with giving me a love of costume drama. Yes, my fascination with history plays into it. I find it physically thrilling to see the unseen recreated. I vividly remember my excitement at being allowed to stay up late to watch BBC period dramas with exotic clothes and adult themes like Therese Raquin, I, Claudius, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or the Australian Against the Wind, For The Term of His Natural Life, and the US mini-series Roots and Shogun. (Not forgetting New Zealand’s, The Governor). So much to marvel at, learn and enjoy. And BE excels in that it recreates a time much overlooked by television, the 1920s. The obvious reason for this neglect is that it costs a lot more to make a drama that needs all its sets and costumes made from scratch. Of course, product placement, that major funder of TV drama has no obvious place in the past, making it yet more expensive to produce.

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Margaret and Nucky ruling the Empire

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Naughty old 1931 Margaret

I watched the Martin Scorsese-directed first episode when visiting my mother in Ashburton in 2010. Despite my love of the genre, I hadn’t been intending to watch it, but my mother was keen so I watched it with her. To be honest, I was kind of bored by the brooding slowness but in her quietly perceptive way Mum unpicked the story and guessed what was happening from the first shot of Margaret Shroeder.

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Miss Lucy Danziger takes the cake (and has some of the best lines)

When I returned to Wellington, I kept up with the show, slowly becoming a major fan of so many aspects of the production. The stories, the acting, the music, the recreations of real people (Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Myer Lansky, Jack Dempsey, Eddie Cantor, Joe Kennedy etc etc). It is full of what my mother called ‘character actors’ i.e. not the best looking actors. It’s something she always admired about English drama, which avoided the commercial pressure to to turn everything into a love story between beautiful people (or a battle between goodies and baddies). And the casting of non-leading man Steve Buscemi as the protagonist, Nucky Thompson (a good-ish baddie), shows that the US has finally caught up during this so-called ‘Golden Age’ of TV drama (Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones etc).

Now, during the 5th and final season, I have gone back to the start and watched every episode again as the final (short season of) 8 episodes play, and I am loving it even more. Like a great novel, it rewards repeated engagement. The layers of each season all relate to each other and nothing is out of place. It’s all about lost boys and naughty girls, powerful women and powerless tough guys. Broken families and the power of family.

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Van Alden and Sigrid, comedy gold

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Gillian and Jimmy. Ever-loving mother and son

At the same time I have been following the fan reaction on the BE Facebook page and it has been totally intriguing. Like 90% of the internet, there are a lot of grumpy people totally missing the point.

A great bug-bear seems to be the heavy use of flash-backs in this final season. People keep saying that they should have been at the start, that they are boring. That the writers don’t know what they are doing. I couldn’t disagree more.

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Nucky and Eli in 1884

I’m with the 10% who believe the flashbacks are sublime, opening up the story in a way that is both hugely entertaining and rewarding.

Not only have all the previous story-lines taken on a richer tone, but it has been simply astounding to see how well the young actors inhabit Nucky, Gillian, the Commodore et al, going beyond simple mimicry to adding unexpected understanding to the story.

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Richard and Emma. Some of the most intriguing acting I have ever seen

I could rave on and on, how I loved all the music, Chalky White and his night club. The laugh-out-loud deadpan comedy of Van Alden (and wife). Half-faced WWI veteran Richard Harrow and his stunningly weird twin sister…

The thing is, all good things must end and nothing worthwhile goes on forever. The characters look old and tired. The perky optimism of the early 1920s has given way to the the darkness of the early ’30s.

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Van Alden, funniest deadpan since Buster Keaton

Mirroring the fate of many viewer’s favourite character, Jimmy (the broken, impatient lost boy), my mother died at the end of series 2. My father joined her 4 months later. That 1-2 punch, so close together, has made the last few years a time of constant reevaluation of my life. There has been no room for writing fiction when all I do is question life. Like Nucky in this final season, everything plays through a lens of constant flashbacks and reassessment.

On the last night I spent with my mother we watched a costume drama, Reese Witherspoon’s Vanity Fair. It was lush, sumptuous with a lot of money on the screen. There was a heap of great acting but everything good came from the novel and we both agreed it wasn’t a patch on the BBC adaptation. They had gone too Hollywood, attempting to make the awful protagonist Becky Sharpe (Reese) a misunderstood American striver. It killed the story.

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Corrupt ‘family man’ Eli makes a point

As I anticipate the final show I can’t help wishing my mother was here to watch it with me, so I could have the benefit of her opinion.

In a way, I believe she will be in the form of the love she gave me for wonderful drama.

Like all the fans, I don’t want BE to end. But the story has played out. It remains beautiful and clever. Rich and deep, funny and perceptive.

And that will never change.

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