Holmes on the range

by Jane Clifton / 08 April, 2006
Paul Holmes shows every sign of being in the thick of a mid-life anti-crisis.
Interview with Paul Holmes from 2012
Paul Holmes leaves TVNZ
Paul Holmes faces criticism after “cheeky darkie” comment
From our archive: Paul Holmes

I don't need to be on television. It was very nice not to be, frankly. Any regrets I had were sentimental ones, colleagues I still miss."

Coming from Paul Holmes, of all people, this might seem like a bad case of denial. But it's said sunnily, almost casually.

It helps that Holmes, after what he freely admits was a close-run thing, is back on television, his primary habitat for 16 years, in a new chat show on Prime.

It also helps that he is making this declaration from his rural fastness, a farm in Hawke's Bay, which he is landscaping into a park. Swathes of emerald lawn, fawn velveteen hills, ancient trees hiding secret gardens, gentle hummocks of lavender, a grandly restored farmhouse crinolined with brilliant autumnal Virginia creeper, and the silver lace of several thousand olive trees would blunt anyone's appetite for the brisk impersonality of a TV studio. "When I'm here, I never want to be anywhere else," he says mistily, trundling round the estate on an orange farm buggy with too much gee-whiz fervour ever to be mistaken for the country squire he self-parodyingly aspires to be.

Plus which, he still hosts the top-rating Newstalk ZB breakfast programme. He's hardly unloved and forgotten out there in media land.

And being a cancer survivor and a father of teenagers is good for one's sense of perspective, too.

Holmes, whose television heyday is over, according to some predictions, shows every sign of being in the thick of a mid-life anti-crisis. Normally a high-maintenance interview subject, he seems pretty relaxed about what's going into print this time. It takes a bit of wheedling to get him to discuss his tumultuous exit from TVNZ, and he is astonishingly supportive of Prime's decision to axe his nightly current-affairs show after seven months, despite the channel's public promise to give it three years.

And he's not making big claims for his new show - although as he speaks of it, he snaps automatically into his trademark "That was Our People tonight!" voice, with its accompanying slightly mushy smile.

"We're not expecting a huge audience. But we hope it will become appointment viewing."

The amiable megalomanic of old only peeps out when he's asked about persistent rumours that his palatability as new TVNZ chief executive was sounded out with senior staff. He doesn't deny this - but then he wouldn't, would he?

"It's not something that was advanced particularly seriously or methodically. It would be a good challenge to take on ..."

Holmes says that it's unlikely there's much appetite for another performer to take on TVNZ, after the tumultuous term of Ian Fraser. "I do not think the suggestion that I could take on the role at this time has legs ... at this time," he says, with great deliberation. "Mind you, that job's not that complicated. People in broadcasting are very self-motivated. They have the discipline of always having to think of an audience. What they need most from management is to feel valued."

Which, perversely, is what he very much feels now, despite being in a TV ratings backwater. He says Sky, new owners of Prime, are oblivious to the celebrity culture, and that's reassuring.

"Sky people underpromise and overperform. They do not look in worried desperation at the ratings every day. They measure success by a combination of subscriptions, audience numbers and costs of producing the programmes. This time, I don't have to carry, or be one of two or three people carrying the channel. We can start very low-key, and experiment and get our product right over time."

Has something happened to the legendary Holmes ego? The man whose television success helped pioneer celebrity culture in this country - notably the money-moving women's mags treadmill - cannot seriously have put his self-promotional drive into neutral. The way he explains it, his TVNZ self was another country he lived in happily, but finds he doesn't miss.

"See, TVNZ went on without Brian Edwards, it went on without Ian Fraser, it'll go on without Judy and Paul Holmes. Forever.

"How can I explain to someone who has not been on peak-time night after night how it starts to affect you? You see, I have my opinion of myself, and I lived for a decade and a half dismayed by other people's perceptions of me. And you can start to get a feeling that you are central to the national life. It can happen to you."

It did, rather. At times, Holmes over-complied with his noble philosophy of being available for frank interviews in good times as well as bad. Ask him what many, many people are dying to ask him - why, why, why did he write that tell-all memoir and issue a CD of ballads? Why, why, why didn't someone talk him out of it? - and you get something close to contrition.

"The CD might have been a mistake. Somebody offered me the chance to do it. I can't sing very well, really. God, I don't know why I did it, now." He is suddenly the picture of misery. Then it all comes out.

"See, I don't think anyone quite realises, except people very close to me, exactly how traumatised I was by the events of 1997-98."

He refers to his decision to leave his first wife, Hinemoa Elder, for journalist Fleur Revell, who then dumped him, all of which he chronicled in his book. "I was quite disturbed. I functioned. I worked myself extremely hard. But I think, probably, during that period I had some kind of breakdown. Some judgments might not have been as shrewd as they might have been.

"The book did well. It sold 22,000 copies. And some of it was driven by a desire to tell my side of a story, because, I suppose, you know, I felt the Holmes programme represented to me a special contact between me and the audience, so I wanted to explain things to people who watched me loyally every night."

He does not regret the book, he says; it was healing, writing it. And it was a damned good yarn. "It's an Everyman kind of story. It was a story middle-aged men understood. I felt very aggrieved at the time, and self-indulgent and self-pitying and all those lesser things. But that's done."

He looks back sadly at his post-Fleur self. "... some kind of creeping up or being overtaken by this creature that was Holmes. Who could very easily get the impression in those days that he had taken something of a central position in the national life!" He barks a laugh, but he's being serious. "I couldn't lie down without ghosts screaming at me. I couldn't stand to be alone at any time of the day or night. I couldn't sleep. There was a major malfunction in my ... personal systems."

He says that it took him two years to come right. Work gave him structure and enforced discipline on him. He's grateful friends and colleagues "listened to my shit", never being unkind enough to tell him he was bonkers.

But he's adamant it wasn't the money or fame that blighted him, but just the temporary madness to which all middle-aged men are prone.

"The work was so intense and time-consuming, there was no time for money to change me. It just meant I could have more treats! Fame, it's weird stuff. Wherever you go, you're the centre of attention. People want to know you. It must have an effect on you. It's ruined weaker people."

Not you? "No, because I'm a pretty normal sort of person."

Now it's the interviewer's turn to bark with laughter. "Well, what I mean is, by the time I got into it [success], I'd been in broadcasting a long time. I'd lived. I'd had out-of-work, bones-of-my-arse times. By the time I landed the job on Newstalk ZB Auckland, I was a month off 40. I'd seen things come and go and I never really believed I was that successful. I'd watched a lot of people, read a lot of history, I knew that things are transitory."

He quickly learnt not to read his clippings. "I found I was losing the will to live. I felt like going off to the dunny and doing myself in. But I got over myself."

He went on to get over prostate cancer, and remarry, and now has the teenage children of his first marriage living with him practically fulltime. They regularly commute to the farm, and although he says his wife Deborah is extremely long-suffering - "and only occasionally difficult!" - he is evangelical about family life.

He lost a previous family - TVNZ. "Bah! That's ancient history," he protests, but proceeds to discuss it as if it was a family breakup. Although seeming philosophical on the whole, he enjoys a gallows laugh about the fact that TV chiefs wouldn't let him shoot a live farewell handover to co-host Susan Wood on his last night. "It had to be a pre-record, because I couldn't be trusted!"

As is now legend, Prime Minister Helen Clark effectively did for Holmes's TVNZ career when, immediately upon taking office, she attacked state TV stars' salaries.

This touched off a series of leaks about presenter contracts and negotiations, as, under Labour-appointed chairman Ross Armstrong, TVNZ strove to contain salaries. The leaks had the spin-off effect of damaging some of TVNZ's top brands, Holmes included. His refusal to stomach the "death-signal" of a 12-month contract - his deal for the previous four years - was his last straw after a series of what he is certain were quite calculated humiliations of him and other stars, intended to appease the government.

Holmes says that the climate changed hideously at TVNZ under Labour. National had monstered and threatened TVNZ, but always through the official complaints channels. Muttered threats of privatisation never impacted on TVNZ management, he says. But under Labour and new chairman Ross Armstrong, "there was a climate of fear and loathing".

"There was a feeling inside the Beehive that we [TVNZ] had cost Labour the 1996 election, and Ross was sent in there to give us a good thumping. He was absolutely running the place. The divide between board and management ceased to exist."

Holmes outlasted Armstrong, who went after an expenses scandal. But does Holmes think he himself was deliberately run off because he was seen as too right-wing? "Nnnnooooh," he says hesitantly. "I'm not particularly right-wing. I prefer the word robust. I like to think after 15 or 16 years on that programme, no one would know who I voted for.

"I think my face didn't fit, my free-ranging views may no longer have fitted. I made no secret of the fact that we didn't need a [public broadcasting] charter. People in that business do not need politicians telling them how to do their job. Holmes was pure charter. We were all about our people. People who work in television understand their responsibility to their audience.

"And everyone has views. There is no objectivity. I say it's more honest not to hide your views, but to do a fair examination with the opponent of that view. I say it's better and more honest for the audience to know what is the view of the person telling the story. I never needed a charter or a politically sympathetic [to the government of the day] board to tell me how to do my job."

Prime, although it was always going to be an adventure and an act of bravery, was also a gamble. And till recently, it seemed he had lost. Had Sky not taken it over, he is quite sure it would have folded. Prime's former Australian owner, Channel Nine management, chose the worst possible time to take on TVNZ and TV3 at news and current affairs. For the first time, TVNZ had began to face a serious challenge from TV3's audience growth, and went all-out to nuke it, spending, Holmes understands, $1.8 million promoting Holmes' replacement Close Up. TV3 put up the much-admired John Campbell and did well. Prime's small promotional budget ran out in a few weeks, and after a modest but valiant start, Holmes' audience sank to a few thousand a night. Concurrently, Channel Nine had an unexpected ratings shock at home, and Prime went from being an exciting new diversification to a peripheral organ wasting valuable blood and oxygen. The big, swaggering promises that Prime's gung-ho local management had made simply couldn't be kept.

Holmes says that he supported the decision to pull the plug. "You'd have had to be blind not to see the writing on the wall." He felt let down by circumstances rather than Prime management.

Although he then ran a weekly interview and panel show, he spent several months enforcedly savouring the advice Prime executive Andrew Shaw had once given him. "He said, if you want to know how much you're missed when you stop being on television, stick your hand in a bucket of water, and the hole that's left when you pull your hand out - that's how much you'll be missed."

After years of every weekday evening being consumed with work, he was initially at a bit of a loss.

"For the first couple of nights, I said to Deborah, 'I'm sorry, but I have no idea what to say to you at this time of night.'

"I also had to learn some new disciplines," he adds ruefully. "The workload I had was a great discipline. No shagging about reading a book for four hours when you get home. You have to get straight to bed." The temptations to self-indulge were harder to resist, but more time for family, farm and reading were "restorative".

"I'm reluctant to say I had a lovely time doing not very much because I'm being paid quite a bit of money [still under contract to Prime]. Given the opportunity, I would have turned up every night and continued with the programme.

"But [without television], I can still keep my bum up and my head down, and it's quite a peaceful way of life."

He says the new show will require a new skill - the long interview, after decades of lightning-fast radio interviews, and the 7.00pm conveyor-belt on Holmes, which left him "unable to concentrate on anything for more than six minutes before my mind explodes with relief that it's over". The prospect daunts him a little, but he's thoroughly enjoying himself. "I think the key to this is less about the questions you ask than the relationship you form [with the subject]. I think I'm good at forming those relationships, but it's certainly a new challenge."

Sure, he's not Mr Primetime any more. But, in the happily qualified sense that Winston Peters was "just happy to be the Member for Tauranga", Paul Holmes is happy to be the guy tootling through autumn leaves in his little orange truck.

Holmes, Prime, Wednesday, 7.30pm.

Interview with Paul Holmes from 2012
Paul Holmes leaves TVNZ
Paul Holmes faces criticism after “cheeky darkie” comment
From our archive: Paul Holmes
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