Stars? Heaven forbid

by andrew.mcnulty / 05 June, 2010
New Zealand celebrates 50 years of television this month. Alma Johnson was our first female presenter - what was then known as a continuity announcer.

That first night were you nervous? Were the hairdressers and make-up on standby? Well, I had a few butterflies, but I was not shaking. I didn't get my hair done especially. No, I just turned up. I did have a rather nice dress on though.

Did being on television, in people's living rooms each night, make you famous? No, not at all. Television announcing to me was never more than just a job. We were public servants and it never occurred to any of us at the time to think of ourselves as personalities or, heaven forbid, stars. There were, however, a lot of things we were asked to do - opening fairs and judging baby shows, which I enjoyed doing.

What about cruising the nightclubs after work? No, we didn't have any of that. We worked till late. In fact, one of the worst things was getting home. I didn't drive, so I had to walk down to the bus station and get the last bus home at 11.20pm and if Tim [husband Tim Evans-Freke] hadn't set the alarm for 12 o'clock to get out of bed and come up to Titirangi shops to meet me, I had to walk down this long dark road in my high-heeled shoes. It was rather scary.

I can't quite imagine Wendy Petrie catching the bus home. I can't either ... but I do admire Wendy; she is a sweetie.

Talking about Wendy, were there any fist-pumping blooper moments in your days? I am sure there were but I can't remember them.

So, any moments of technical crisis where you were just left there ad-libbing? Not exactly, but one of the most difficult nights was when we lost our newsreader and I had to fill in. The newsreader was Bob Horsley, who we knew had a heart problem. In the middle of the evening he said he had better go out and get some fresh air. So he went. He must have got a taxi home. Then it was coming up to news time and he hadn't come back, so I rang his home and Mrs Horsley said, 'Sorry, he has just died.' So that was very sad. But I had to be professional and just cope. So I had to read the news.

Those early television newsreaders sounded as if they had just come out of a BBC finishing school. Was that how you were asked to talk? Everything was live back then so nothing was recorded. So I am pretty thankful there were no recordings kept because we would have sounded rather too precious. We were told to speak rather nicely. I think probably we were a bit stiff.

I see Lindsay Perigo has been having a little dig at the standard of English of some current television reporters. You still teach drama and speech. What do you think of modern New Zealand speech? I am afraid to say New Zealand speech has deteriorated somewhat. The only criteria about speech is that it is clear and unambiguous - and that is not always the case now. It is important there be a distinct New Zealand speech; we are not trying to be another country.

Are we getting good tele­vision programming now? No. I am very disappointed. I don't think there are many to grab my interest. There is one good side to that, though. I am back to reading a lot more and I'm enjoying it.

So, do you watch anything? I tend to prefer to watch UKTV. With the news, I wish there was more in-depth news. There seems to be a preponderance of negative items. It is good for us to know what is going on in society, even the negative aspects, but I think news should be more balanced. I was very lucky. I was given six months and lasted 15 years.

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