Matinee Idle - Phil O'Brien and Simon Morris

by Karl du Fresne / 04 June, 2011
How many songs have been written about wheelbarrows or willies? Radio’s anarchic Matinee Idle will give you the answer – and play them for you as well.
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Phil O’Brien and Simon Morris, the hosts of Radio New Zealand’s holiday music show Matinee Idle, are sitting in Scopa cafe in Wellington’s Cuba St. Morris has just realised the next Idle is rapidly approaching (it’s on Queen’s Birthday) and they haven’t got a theme.

“Spoons,” suggests O’Brien. “Rhymes with June. Yeah, we could do spoons.”

“What happens,” he explains, “is that people say to us, ‘How about doing a really dumb theme like wheelbarrows?’, and we go, ‘Yeah, okay.’ We can always come up with a couple of songs about wheelbarrows.” What they try to avoid, he adds, is drearily predictable themes like days of the week. (Monday Monday, Beautiful Sunday, Saturday Night at the Movies … yawn.)

“I went on our Facebook page one day,” O’Brien continues, “and asked if anyone had any ideas for themes, and all of a sudden there were pages and pages of them – really good ones. People come up with some truly bizarre stuff.”

O’Brien then remembers that a Facebook fan named Gretta has suggested that since the next Matinee Idle is going to be on Queen’s Birthday, the show should have a royal theme – willies, for example. “A whole hour of songs about willies? Where’s that going to lead?” O’Brien wonders. “But we can certainly do something with willies.”

Morris chimes in. “Yep, willies could work. I’ve got two already – I Will, by the Beatles, and My Ding-a-Ling, by Chuck Berry.” (Okay, Berry’s song doesn’t mention willies specifically, but you get his drift.) Then O’Brien comes up with Little Willy by the Sweet. “So we’ve got three songs already,” he pronounces. “All I need to do is go on Facebook and people will come up with another 800.”

This exchange illustrates several things about Matinee Idle. The first is its haphazard make-it-up-as-we-go quality. O’Brien and Morris are like slightly crazed sailors putting to sea in a boat with no chart, no compass and no sextant, frequently arguing about what course to take but both with a vague idea of where they want to be at the end of the voyage – and, miraculously, getting there.

Another is that Idle leans heavily on interaction with its audience. The Matinee Idle Facebook page, set up by a fan, is merely the tip of a large iceberg that reveals itself whenever the show goes to air.

Listeners are an integral part of the show, bombarding the hosts with wry, savvy and often wittily derisive emails and texts. When Helen Clark was a guest, she got into the spirit of the show by saying the reason she climbed mountains during the holidays was to get away from the radio. O’Brien says they then played a particularly atrocious song and within moments got an email from a listener saying: “Hang on, Helen, I’ll get my crampons.”

Running gags are a part of the show, too, many of them supplied by listeners – such as the cruel jokes about banjos. Morris says of their audience: “They’re madder than we are.”

O’Brien puts it like this: “The show is 30% Simon and me, 30% the music and 30% the audience reaction.” And the other 10%? “That’s Kelle,” says O’Brien – a reference to Kelle Howson, the show’s technical assistant, who has what O’Brien describes as her own hardcore fan club.

In another example of the show’s disregard for broadcasting orthodoxy, Howson was plucked from the control booth and given a starring role. Just 17 when she started on the show, she is the young ingenuous foil to the two grizzled and often cynical hosts. But you won’t hear Howson on Queen’s Birthday because, in Morris’s words, she’s “sorting out Africa” (in fact, working for the international volunteer organisation Lattitude at a remote school in Limpopo, South Africa).

How to describe Matinee Idle, for the benefit of those who haven’t heard it? Morris once defined it as two middle-aged men fighting for control of the CD player. O’Brien says: “Every­one tries to analyse what the show is about, but it’s just a couple of guys playing a bunch of songs they like. Sometimes we forget there are people listening.

“Before the show started we would go to each other’s places and play all this bizarre stuff that he and I both liked. Now we get to do it on the radio.”

Spike Jones

He neglects to add the obvious fact that the programme works because both he and Morris are music obsessives. O’Brien came to the show via a long career as a DJ on Wellington pop music stations, punctuated by stints on the TV shows Countdown (in Australia) and Radio with Pictures. He has done promotional work in Los Angeles for Elton John and Capitol Records, and played drums in pub bands. In his regular job, he manages Wellington Access Radio.

Morris’s CV includes Radio with Pictures, too (as a director and producer), but he’s also a musician of note, having played guitar and bass in 1970s bands Mammal, Blerta, Tamburlaine and the Heartbreakers. Now he reviews films for Radio NZ and co-produces The Arts on Sunday.

The musical preferences of the two hosts can only be described as idio­syncratic. They share a love of madcap 1940s bandleader Spike Jones and 1960s British art-school eccentrics the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, but after that their tastes tend to diverge. Morris famously loathes Burton Cummings and idolises Jeff Beck, while O’Brien keeps the flame burning for Harry Nilsson and Mike Nesmith. Their sometimes edgy sniping at each other’s tastes is a defining feature of the show.

O’Brien: “People think we’re kidding when we say we don’t know what’s going to happen till we get into the studio. I say to Simon, ‘What are you going to play next?’ and he says, ‘That depends on what you play.’ So I play a song and he says, ‘I’ve got something that will work with that.’” There’s usually a loose theme (Morris’s favourite was songs about crumbling empires, inspired by Australian Crawl’s Fall of Rome), but it always has the potential to veer off in unforeseen directions.

They’re sometimes surprised at who’s listening. They once played a James Reyne cover version of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights and received an email from Bush herself, who was holidaying in the Coromandel. On another occasion they played a recording of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen in concert and got a call from George Frayne (aka Commander Cody) in New York, wondering if they could help him organise a New Zealand tour.

And what does the traditionally very proper Radio New Zealand make of this anarchic intruder?

RNZ communications manager John Barr admits that when Idle started in 2004 (originally with O’Brien alone as host), it was the state broadcaster’s most polarising programme ever. “People either loved it or hated it – there was no middle ground.” But he says the fan club has grown to the point where the show has acquired a virtual cult following. “People have come to understand what the ­programme is trying to do.”

So, where to from here – Matinee Idle: The Movie, perhaps? O’Brien has more modest aspirations. He likes doing outside broadcasts (there have been several, sometimes with riotous results) and thinks it would be nice to broadcast from a motor camp next summer.

Morris: “Or Rio. Rio would be good.”

MATINEE IDLE, Radio New Zealand National, Monday, June 6, 12.12pm.
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