Influentials: The greatest Kiwis who never lived

by The Listener / 17 September, 2013
They influence us in many ways. We cheer for them, laugh at their jokes, tut-tut their faults. Yet some of the greatest New Zealanders never existed.
The fictional characters that have the most impact on us may well be imported (Homer Simpson) or foreigners created by New Zealand authors (Mr Watts in Mister Pip), but Kiwis created by Kiwis best reflect and reinforce our ideas of ourselves.

Fred Dagg. Photo/TVNZ


If you are old enough, you may remember John Clarke’s 1970s Fred Dagg, a rural bloke navigating a confusing world in his own way with the help of his many sons, all called Trevor, and the sheila.

Roger Hall’s 1980s TV comedy Glide Time, set in a 1970s government department, shone a television-sized headlamp onto our regular workday foibles and quibbles – along with John, Hugh, Jim and Beryl.

Foreskin’s Lament, by Greg McGee, perfectly realised our divided nation around the time of the 1981 Springbok Tour – split over whether the rugby team of a racially separatist nation should tour. But how many also felt the internal struggle of Foreskin himself to reconcile his educated liberal views with those of his conservative teammates?

Jemaine Clements and Bret McKenzie – the TV characters, that is (and not the actual people of the same names) – proved socially hopeless, unable to get gigs and obsessed with threesomes (and stuff like that).

Then there was Cheryl West, the décolletage-forward, leopard-pattern enthusiast matriarch of a boisterous westy clan in Outrageous Fortune, most of whose put-downs can’t be quoted in a family magazine.

Our flattened vowels and higher frequency of browner characters – from Shortland Street, bro’Town, Sione’s Wedding and No. 2 – made for a welcome respite from the white-bread, Skippy-voiced casts in soaps and movies from across the Tasman.

Footrot Flats’ Wal, who wouldn’t let us forget the black singlet, was joined by girlfriend Cheeky, his faithful Dog, Horse, Cooch and Rangi. And many will have fond memories of the Listener’s Bogor, existential wanderer of forests and smoker of illegal substances.

Flight of the Conchords.


In the commercial world, we’ve had ASB’s love-him-or-hate-him Ira Goldstein; Ches and Dale; the Ghost Chips boys; the Countdown family; the Anchor Butter family; Spot the dog, which flogged Telecom products to us so cutely; the Lotto dog, which flogs gambling so cutely; and the Toyota bugger dog, which spoke a single word and made it part of the acceptable vernacular.

Migrating to the big screen, we dreamt big with Keisha Castle-Hughes’s Paikea in Whale Rider and her stubborn grandfather Koro. We flinched at Jake and Beth Heke and their benighted family in Once Were Warriors. More recently, Taika Waititi brought us a sensitive son and his delusional, often absent father in Boy.

In literature, Norris Davey created his alter ego, Frank Sargeson, and along the way pioneered stories written in demotic New Zealand English. Sargeson’s sometime boarder Janet Frame created a fictional world, including her somewhat autobiographical counterpart Daphne Withers – confined to an asylum and the victim of electric-shock treatment – in Owls Do Cry and wrote such lines as: “You are now standing between the South Pole and the equator.”

Then there are Barry Crump’s good keen man, Sam Cash, a jack of all trades at home in a male back-country world; Maurice Gee’s George Plumb, whose early life followed closely that of Gee’s grandfather, including his trials for heresy and seditious utterance; Katherine Mansfield’s kind and courageous girl Kezia; and John Mulgan’s Johnson in Man Alone, which described, in spare and unsentimental language, the story of a man returning from World War I to Auckland in the Depression and struggling to make a go of it in farming and life.

Tessa Duder wrote a much-loved quartet of books about champion swimmer Alex. And many young women have taken solace and strength from teen Ruth in Jack Lasenby’s 1987 tale The Lake.

And still no mention of characters from The Piano, Goodbye Pork Pie, Smash Palace and Utu. Readers also suggested Hairy Maclary, Billy T James’s Used Car Buyer, James K Baxter’s Horse and, how could we forget, the Goodnight Kiwi.

Click here to read more from our Influentials series.
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