• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Wallace Chapman interview

As TV series Back Benches rolls into Rotorua tonight on its summer tour, its host looks back on an eclectic career.

In his mid-twenties, Wallace Chapman existed in “a no man’s land … in a dark, dank flat in Dundas St, Dunedin, on a sickness benefit – getting up at midday, watching Emmerdale Farm, thinking ‘this is my life’.” He had done a degree in English and educational psychology. But he had Gaucher’s disease, a hereditary metabolic disorder whose major symptom is the wearing away of the bones. He was barely able to walk.

Finally his flatmate, Richard Wain, who was working for student station Radio One, confronted him. “He said, ‘Okay mate, enough’s enough. I’m going to bring home some briefs and you can have a go at them.’ I wrote these ads, and he said, ‘The clients loved them. Do you want to do more?’ I said, ‘I’d love to.’ When Wain left the job, he asked Chapman to apply for it. “‘An actual job in radio? I’d love to.’ So I hobbled into Radio One, and stayed six years.”

Chapman says “I’d love to” a lot. “I’d love to audition for it,” he told TVNZ executives when they called him to a meeting in 2008 to discuss what would become TVNZ 7’s Back Benches. But there was no audition. The job was his – even though he had done only three small things on television, two of them for Eating Media Lunch – and didn’t even have a TV set. There was a “who is this guy?” reaction from those who thought the host for a political show should come from someone who’d at least set foot in the parliamentary Press Gallery. But the executives told him they liked his “ad lib” style.

He had started developing his novel approach when, as well as working as Radio One’s creative director, he did an arts and culture show. “I developed a broadcasting voice just being myself. My shtick was getting these voices you’d never hear – the viola player who’d never had an interview, the person with a ghost in the house.” He extended it on 95bFM as breakfast host after a stint as the Auckland student station’s creative director. The planned television show might be a bit too ad lib, a friend warned him. “He said, ‘Think about it: in a pub, with MPs, live – you’ve got no control.’”

Back Benches takes place in the Backbencher Pub opposite Parliament Buildings. Chapman fires questions at a panel of MPs while Damian Christie covers audience participation and the special guest, usually an expert in a subject under discussion. “The first few shows were really ropey,” says Chapman. “No one really knew what it was – a comedy show or a serious show. My goal was to be none of the above – not comedy, satire or serious panel show, but just what Damian and I do.”

Chapman and Christie are perfect foils for each other. Says Christie, “A good-cop, bad-cop thing has developed between us. He’s an enthusiastic, charming person – and I try to be his opposite, really.” Part of the reason the show works so well is that Chapman doesn’t have the trappings of the trained television interviewer. His presence is engaging, educated, energetic and earnest. Meet him off screen and you might add elegant and a little eccentric. He’d be one of the few New Zealand men who could carry off wearing yellow shoes and writing his own fashion blog.

The best bits of Back Benches are when an MP gives a witty answer, the meaning suddenly hits Chapman and his face expands into a huge grin. When someone makes a good point, he’ll congratulate them: “very good”, “well done”. If he’s not sincere, he certainly has the knack of faking it. But then he did have a role model in public performance – his father, a Methodist minister, who died aged just 48. “Dad made his sermons real. Even as a grumpy 17-year-old sitting in the back of the church, I used to think, ‘I can relate to that.’ I did pick up an inkling of the way to make issues real, part of an everyday conversation.

That’s what I try to do on Back Benches. Maryanne Ahern, the producer, always says, ‘Remember, Wallace, you’re in a pub – it’s real.” That propensity for “keeping it real” is Chapman’s biggest plus, says Ahern. “He’s fascinated by politics but he’s not frightened to ask the very simple questions we sometimes forget to ask. He’s disarming because he asks that very hard question in a very simple, direct way. And he’s not mean, so his questions don’t upset people.

“People warm to him. People in the pub say things like, ‘I’m a truck driver from Whangarei and I’ve organised my holiday so that I can bring my girlfriend to the Backbencher for the show. I didn’t think politics was anything to do with me till I saw Back Benches.’ That’s who he is.”

Chapman was born in 1969 in Manurewa. “I loved the ’Rewa. I was deeply upset when we moved” – to Nelson when he was 10. He did not set foot in Auckland again until 2001 when flown up for an interview for 95bFM’s creative director role.

“I remember landing in Auckland going, ‘I am home. This is my turangawaewae.’ I am often interested in where a person’s turangawaewae is.” His father’s was Levuka, the old capital of Fiji. Wallace Chapman snr had been listening to a Methodist preacher woman when he decided to train for the ministry. That meant coming to New Zealand to study at St John’s Theological College in Auckland. He and Fay Newman “met at the lights”, as the eldest of their three sons puts it. She was a nurse working at Auckland Hospital, and they struck up a conversation while waiting to cross Grafton Rd.

“I asked Mum about it recently – because it was not common for a Pakeha girl to date an Island man then. She said, ‘I could tell from the moment I met him that he was a good man.’ And he was. He was one of those rare gentlemen. It took a while for the family to get used to having Wallace from Levuka in the family circle. When Mum said, ‘We are going back to Levuka to get married in the village – in the village, not in the Sheraton – my grandfather went and sat in the car for a couple of hours. He couldn’t get his head around it.

“Even my step-grandmother – from Kohimarama, blue rinse and gorgeous with it – said to me once at Christmas dinner, “You know, Wallace, your father is such a wonderful class of Islander.’ Dad smiled and winked at me and said, ‘I am a good class, aren’t I, Wallace?’ The move south came after a conversation in the car park of the Manurewa Methodist Church. “Dad told the next-door pub owner, ‘Don’t use this car park, please, for your pub. It’s a church car park.’ And the man said, ‘You and your sort are not to tell me what to do.’

“My mother says he lay on the bed and said, ‘I’m tired of all the little put-downs.’ After eight years, South Auckland did get on top of him, the burden of those everyday put-downs. He wanted to go somewhere that was the complete opposite. And where would that be? Sunny, conservative Nelson. And amazingly he shone there.

“Dad always had this social justice thing about him. During the Homosexual Law Reform debate, he got up in the pulpit and spoke for it. Unbelievable! He was interviewed for the local paper and on National Radio. I got it at Nelson College. ‘Hey, mate, is your dad a homosexual?’ I said, ‘No – and what if he is?’ They said, ‘Do you mean that?’ He was light years ahead of his time – because that conversation wasn’t being had.”

It’s “having the conversation” that Chapman likes best about Back Benches. “The thing I am most proud of is having young people coming along. A guy said to me, ‘I’ve seen more young people at Back Benches than I ever have in my whole life at candidates’ meetings.’”

For Christie the best part is “that we are seeing a side of politicians you don’t see anywhere else. One MP told me he found the prospect of an hour of live television absolutely terrifying.” Just who the Back Benches audience would be was tricky to work out in the beginning. Says Chapman, “There’s a rather sophisticated Wellington Central audience in the pub and there’s the audience at home – in the Waitakeres, Rotorua and Dunedin. You can’t alienate them.”

The pub audience obviously engages, but so does the home one. “They email – about which MPs impress them and who don’t. I’ve had more feedback from Back Benches than anything I’ve ever done. Maryanne and I share this thing about making it accessible and real but not dumbing it down. She’ll say at air check, ‘Hegemony? What does that mean? Do you understand that word properly? No one understands that word.’”

“Air check” is where you watch the programme critically afterwards. Most people don’t bother – because it’s excruciating to see yourself and it’s the television equivalent of newspapers having become fish and chip wrapping. It’s ironic that Ahern and Chapman carefully mull over the most off-the-cuff programme on television, but it shows just how serious they are about it.

Ahern has produced Maggie Barry and Kim Hill on radio and Paul Holmes on television, but when asked mentions no names and waves questions aside, emphasising her determinedly backroom stance. Says Chapman, “Maryanne’s very direct and honest and gives you a lot of confidence to do your thing but tells you straight up if something’s wrong. I’m naturally unconfident. I’m the person at the back of the party just listening.” (And writing it down; he’s kept a diary since age eight.)

He quotes Ahern as saying to him before a show, “Wallace, it’s all about you”, and says that when his fiancée, Tabitha Bryan, is facing a tough meeting, he’ll buttonhole her with the same words. The meaning may be “you are the star”, but it is also that you carry the responsibility for success.

Chapman doesn’t have a problem with that – which can be seen in the way he has handled his illness. He had been a long-distance runner before he started having trouble with one of his hips. Six months of pointless physio­therapy later he had blood tests – and a diagnosis of Gaucher’s disease. His brother Isoa had the same condition, and their mother was instrumental in lobbying for public funding of the expensive drug Ceredase.

In 1997 Chapman started going to the hospital three times a week for infusions of the drug – which took two-and-a-half hours each time. He and one of the 20 or so other New Zealanders with the disease, Neville Wolfenbuttel, did this together. Wolfenbuttel was in a wheelchair, in great pain and in need of a hip operation the doctors were not prepared to do in case this affected other bones.

“I thought, ‘There’s no way he can just be left like this’,” Chapman remembers. He got on to the new research tool, the internet, and found the world expert, Dr Ari Zimran, in Israel. Chapman emailed and received not only a reply but a draft of his upcoming book on hip replacements in Gaucher’s patients. Zimran later came to New Zealand, and met both patients and clinicians. Says Wolfenbuttel, “I wouldn’t have got out of that wheelchair without Dr Ari Zimran. He said to the doctors, ‘What right have you got to deny this guy? You’ve cost him two years of his life?’” Chapman goes to the hospital once a fortnight for the one- to two-hour long infusions without which he would not have a career.

That career almost came to an end five years ago when 95bFM dropped him as breakfast host. He had got the gig nine months previously when the sales managers suggested instead of searching for a new breakfast host, they should move Chapman into the role from advertising. Then after he’d been doing the show for just nine months, he was told Mikey Havoc would replace him. “I was gutted,” says Chapman, who had put a lot of effort into making a more deep and meaningful programme. He said he would leave in four weeks – and was out the door, despite a bringbackwallace.com petition site that attracted 1300 emails, many from well-known Aucklanders.

After his final show he went out and drank all night. He had been told of an archives clipping job at the city council, and as he was a great clipper of articles, he thought he would be a fit. He was saved by a phone call from Karyn Hay offering him a Sunday magazine show on Kiwi FM. Eighteen months later TVNZ rang.

His career is now burgeoning in a number of directions. Back Benches is having a four-gig regional summer series, before returning to its local on February 15. Chapman is also working on what will be the final documentary series on TVNZ 7 – The Old New – about old trends that are reappearing, such as bespoke tailoring, slow food, and craft brewing. “I’m something of an everyman,” says Chapman. “I’m a true Aquarian. It’s not just politics for me.” Other production companies are on the phone asking what he’d like to do, and he has signed a book contract with Penguin.

Suzanne McNicol – who as 95bFM’s general manager hired him to be creative director despite concerns his Dunedin-ness might not be a good fit in Auckland – says he could do almost anything in the media. “He’s one of those people – if I read that Wallace had produced an album or got his own cooking show, none of that would surprise me. He has the will to learn something new and the ability to make something meaningful from it. I always think of that referee question, ‘Would you hire him again?’ I’d hire Wallace even if I didn’t have a job for him. He could be our Rove in that way he can get away with asking questions other people can’t.”

Last year, he did a midweek current affairs slot with Pam Corkery on TV1’s Good Morning. Says Corkery: “It was a bold pairing – different gender, different age. We met for coffee – and it was love. The man is so authentic. He’s the most exciting thing to happen in broadcasting since possibly Paul Holmes – because he’s fearless, but never mean. He doesn’t mind backing down from a point. We clashed often, but that was fine because he’s principles before personality.” Such plaudits are good news as Chapman faces the demise this year of his main gig, which will die, along with its host channel, in June.

He is proud of the role he has played in TVNZ 7 and what the channel has achieved. “A three and a half year start-up, with no advertising, but a million people watching! The success is extraordinary. Imagine what that channel could do in 15 years,” says Chapman – and then thoughtfully, “The thing is that the conversation will come up yet again. This conversation will never be lost.” And that’s what really matters to Chapman – having the conversation.


ROTORUA, Wednesday, January 25, 9.00pm (live), venue: The Shed, 1166 Amohau St

TAUPO, Thursday, January 26, 8.00pm (on air February 1), venue: The Shed, 18 Tuwharetoa St

WANGANUI, Wednesday, February 8, 9.00pm (live), venue: Stellar, 2 Victoria Ave