Interview: Wallace Chapman

by Fiona Rae / 11 April, 2013
The Back Benches host discusses the return of the show, the puppets, and the advice he got from Paul Holmes.
Wallace Chapman, photo David White

You must be pretty pleased that Back Benches has been resurrected from the ashes of TVNZ7? I’m rapt. I’m really, really excited, because it was no given by any stretch of the imagination that a show made specifically for public television would go on. But I thought, blimmin’ heck, this format and this style is quite unique and it would be a shame to see it drop from the landscape, so I’m just so happy that Prime has come on board and been able to support it with NZ On Air.

Is it being made by TVNZ's current affairs department? It’s quite a unique relationship, maybe even historic really. Yes, it is being made by a TVNZ production company, because in the final instance they owned it, and I think that was TVNZ, but there was no room in that schedule there and Prime really saw an opportunity. They said, “this show is popular, it is watched and it would be great to have it as part of our platform”. I’m not sure if it’s even been done before, but you know, relationships are blurry in the media across both Sky and TVNZ now, so that’s no surprise.

It does seem odd that a commercial TV provider is making a public service television show. But my thing is that it’s a fantastic thing, because Prime was the one to put their hand up and say, this will suit our schedule. The fact that TVNZ didn’t do that, I can’t comment on that.

Will there be any changes to the show? No. No there aren’t. There have been whispers and rumours, but the show by the end was really humming as it was and we have a great relationship with our producers, and I do with Damian. What will change is by accident, and that is that the Backbencher [pub] that we know and love is no more, and I’m a bit sad about that, because I loved the way the Backbencher looked with that bench and that wood and that naturel sort-of look. Apparently, it’s all now black and silver and very flash.

How bad was the damage? Very very bad. I had an opportunity to look around it, to go in towards the end of the show there when the news came through that, dude, you won’t believe it, three shows out from the final-ever show, the Backbencher’s been destroyed. And I said, “how bad? Let’s go down and have a look.” I was stunned, I was just blown away, it was very, very damaged and that wasn’t the first fire. All those great puppets that I used to look at, the ones like Ruth Richardson, Mike Moore, David Lange, all gone. It’s going to look different.

Puppet Peter Dunne at the Backbencher, 2003

You’re still filming there? Yes, yes. We’ve had offers from other pubs in Wellington. The pub that we did the last three shows in was the old Speight’s Alehouse on Thorndon, a very historic Wellington pub, and they said, please, please have it here. I said, “We’re Back Benches, that’s our turangawaewae.” For me to step in on that first night, it’s going to be quite emotional really.

There are new puppets though aren’t there? There are new puppets.

Who makes them? I don’t know, but I know that Peter Dunne was very, very disappointed and I think that disappointment was actually real, he’s that type of man. The thing about politicians that I’ve known, they may hate cartoons, they may hate satire when they see it on the day in the paper, but they really absolutely love it. The first thing you see in MPs’ offices is all their framed cartoons, and that extends to the puppets as well. Metiria Turei is one of the puppets that is new, but all the grand, classic old ones which I thought they should have reinstated, like the Ruth Richardsons, the Jenny Shipleys, the Jeffrey Palmers, the Mike Moores, they were legendary puppets. They were made for a satire show in the 80s.

Who of the modern era would you have liked to have seen made into a puppet? I actually think the people that are not the big names. I definitely think, because he brought a new voice to politics, and was the one person who would often go off course and say something completely different about issues that no-one else talked about, and that’s Keith Locke. I think he had quite an effect in parliament, I think that he should be memorialised as a puppet.

What do you think that Back Benches does for the New Zealand political scene? The overriding thing that people have said to me about Back Benches is that it’s an authentic voice in politics. It’s got a certain authenticity that you might not get from another show, and that’s because it’s unedited and unguarded, it’s in a pub, so you often get these real statements and real responses from these back bench MPs, so there’s not that level of research or rigour that might go into a Q+A interview. Senior ministers have told me that it’s quite a scary show to go on, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, and all credit to the MPs who front up to it, because it isn’t easy. And I know that some people we’ve tried to get for a while are uneasy about the format.

Are there people who won’t come on? I’ve always wanted to have John Banks come on the show. As much as anything else, whether you like it or not, he’s a strong voice in parliament. I think in terms of his style he would be a star on the show, I think that Back Benches is crying out for John Banks. Other people who don’t necessarily shine in other formats, for example Peter Dunne, he’s very good on the show. You see a real personality through him, ready to do things. He runs with the format.

Was Dunne a bit of a surprise? Yes. The one thing that I have got from the show over the last four-and-half years is seeing, perhaps ahead anybody else, those new stars coming through. I remember saying to the producer when Hekia Parata was first on the show, she’s going to go far. Another one being Amy Adams; another one being David Shearer. This was way before anyone … he was just a back bencher doing his thing, and my feeling was that he had this reality and authenticity in that environment that was quite unique, because the conversation at the time was who would be the next Labour leader – David Parker or David Cunliffe? Louise Upston was another one, very strong in that format, a great performer. That’s what I get out of the show, who are the new coming up through the ranks and I get to share that with viewers. You don’t get that anywhere else.

Wallace Chapman and Damian Christie

It’s quite a raucous show, with the crowd in the background – do you have a bit of trouble controlling everything? About 2009 there was quite a jump in the audience and it was getting hard to control. I had a bit of a sit-down, because it was just totally unique and there was no-one to ask for help, because I had to satisfy a pub full of Wellington people and get that message across to an audience at home. Over time, I’ve learned techniques to do that, even those huge shows we did. Someone who gave me a bit of advice was Paul Holmes – he came up to me at the show and said, “No 1, don’t shout into your microphone, let the microphone do the work mate.” He gave me good advice, how to work the audience, that type of thing. Then the producer comes along and says, “Don’t listen to him, he’s never done this type of show!”

Did you take his advice and it worked? No, I didn’t! It was alright advice, but the show is so unique. The one thing I did take from Paul Holmes is make information accessible – don’t use words that you and your friends might use. At the beginning, I was using words like “the pedagogic equation”, and Paul said, “Who the fuck knows that?”

I see that your book is Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There, and I’m thinking that making a TV show is the opposite of your own advice … Yeah, I do have a book about slow living, but it’s a bit wider than making a TV show, it’s about how to extract the best out of life. It was a response to my colleagues saying, “I’m really stressed out, I’m just tired and I don’t know how to make my life better.” I’m actually a really busy guy, but I always focus on what’s important, that’s me being at home with my partner, and just advice and techniques to make life a little bit slower, a little bit simpler. The background of that is being a very, very sick person in my 20s. There are ways I cope, like being Mr Routine. My co-host Damian Christie always teases me about my ridiculously tidy routines – I’m all about routine, and I love it, I’m proud of it.

BACK BENCHES, Prime, Wednesdays, 10.30pm.

Internaut February 2013: In pictures: seven new puppets as The Backbencher reopens
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