Back Benches is back on the box

by Fiona Rae / 17 May, 2017
Back Benches, Wednesday.

Back Benches, Wednesday.

Unruly pollies will be point-scoring in the election-year Back Benches. 

Remember the days when an interview with the Prime Minister of New Zealand was prime-time viewing? When a testy exchange between Rob Muldoon and a young Simon Walker, in which Muldoon described Walker as a smart-alec interviewer, was big news? Good times.

Welcome back, then, Back Benches (Prime, Wednesday, 9.35pm), the show that separates the charismatic from the pedestrian, the quick-witted from the dull, the pompous from the unpretentious. Where politicians must think on their feet in the court of public opinion: a pub.

Well, that’s the theory, anyway. Back Benches, which has been on air since 2008, is frequently chaotic and often raucous. Filming in a bar – the iconic Backbencher in Wellington – may seem like a good idea, but the way the noise can build makes it perhaps one of the trickiest live presenting environments on New Zealand television. New presenter Charlotte Ryan, who joins old hand Wallace Chapman, relishes walking into the fire.

“I’m looking forward to it,” she says. Really? “I love wrangling people. I’m a mother; you kind of learn to deal with chaos.”

Ryan’s career began in radio, but she made the switch to television as Paul Henry’s social-media maven. After stepping back from breakfast television’s family-unfriendly hours, she can be heard on RNZ National talking about music on Nine to Noon, but that experience on Paul Henry is a good foundation for what’s to come.

“Paul Henry really liked me being one side of the fence so he could be the other and we could argue,” she says. “I like debating, so I really enjoyed that sort of discussion, especially live on air.”

Like Damian Christie and Hayley Holt before her, Ryan will be out among the hoi polloi, asking opinions and gauging reactions, while Chapman conducts the interviews.

“I represent the public, in a sense. I’ll be asking what the people want to hear and talking to people in the audience.” It’s a good year to be making a political TV show, that’s for sure: election year and John Key’s gone.

“There are also interesting things going on within all the political parties at the moment,” she says. Besides housing, immigration and the environment, there are bound to be “interesting scenarios popping up daily”, not all of them serious. “We definitely would have featured Bill English’s spaghetti on the pizza.”

This article was first published in the May 13, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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