"It was a lot of fun"

by Jane Bowron / 25 October, 2003
What was a talented guy such as playwright Ken Duncum doing writing for Willy Nilly?

Ken Duncum might just be New Zealand's best playwright. His new play at Wellington's Circa Theatre, Cherish, follows hits including Trick of the Light (named best New Zealand play at the 2002 Chapman Tripp Awards) Blue Sky Boys (named one of the 10 best New Zealand plays by the Listener), and Flipside, which won best production at the 2000 Chapman Tripps. Duncum has also managed to conduct a respectable career in television scriptwriting (Duggan and Cover Story). Or has he?

That Duncum is partly responsible for creating the eye-poppingly awful Willy Nilly, which ran to a staggering three series until recently and mercifully getting the chop, seems out of step for a serious playwright and the director of a scriptwriting programme at Victoria University's Institute of Modern Letters.

But one of the great mysteries of the giggle box is that Willy Nilly was a rock-steady rater - it far outstripped the Lexus Sunday Theatre slot. Duncum notes that the show's biggest fans are women over 60; there must be a hell of a lot of them.

Unashamedly proud of the comedy series that won best script and best director at this year's TV Guide NZ Television Awards, Duncum explains the strange secret of the show's success. "I know Willy Nilly isn't to everyone's taste. Anyone who likes anything stylish or cutting edge will not tend to like Willy Nilly. Your Seinfeld watcher wasn't naturally a Willy Nilly watcher, but at the same time my mum probably didn't want to watch Seinfeld.

"There are very few things that all people laugh at, so you tend to look at this part of the audience or that part of the audience, and Willy Nilly always worked for an older audience. Strangely enough, we picked up kids who liked it, too."

Going after a particular section seems to have paid off big time both in the ratings and for Willy Nilly's production house, Big House Ltd, which received $1,041,422 from NZ On Air in the last funding round.

Duncum isn't the only culprit responsible for the egregious comedy about a lost rural Kiwi arcadia peopled by two Fred Daggs sans bollocks. Cal Wilson, a stand-up comedian considered cutting edge a few years ago, was a writer, as was Paul Yates, and the show was directed by Mike Smith.

"It was a lot of fun," says Duncum. "We've only just heard it's been cut [TVNZ will not renew for a fourth series], and I think everyone's reaction of 'Oh, we won't be getting together any more' is the same, because we really enjoyed each other's company, and the process was an organic one.

"We'd have script meetings where the actors [Sean Duffy, Mark Hadlow] would come in and the writers were in on rehearsals and workshops and we'd all feed back together. There was such a good family feeling and support that went into that show."

Duncum admits that not every joke worked, but compares the show's resources with those of Friends; he'd watched a documentary about the making of the US comedy series, in which the enormous writing team were on set to cut and rewrite and each episode was shot in front of three different live audiences with four cameras shooting on film - as compared to Willy Nilly's one camera shooting on video.

Writing for the theatre with its "high-stakes gambling" gives Duncum the most creative satisfaction. Cherish, which has been two and a half years in the making, focuses on modern-day procreation rights.

Jess (played by The Strip's bug-eyed and perpetually grinning Luanne Gordon) and Maeve are a lesbian couple with two daughters fathered by Tom, a gay friend shacked up with boyfriend William. It has been long agreed that the sperm-donation payback is that Jess will have a baby for Tom and William to raise, but when the time comes to give the baby back to the unwicked fairies, Jess has second thoughts ...

Duncum: "I went to gay and lesbian characters because it seemed to illustrate best that when there weren't enough kids to go round, just who had what human rights. It was one of those neat situations where you could see where every character was coming from, both right and wrong, and I could see straight away that it was a drama.

"The show's for anyone who has kids or doesn't have kids, because it explores the relatively modern idea that adults have a right to have it all and how we deal with not getting it all. Now that we have to go to some trouble and plan to have children, it sharpens up that question of what you owe them; what do they owe you; can you talk about owning them; can you talk about them being yours; whose are they, really?"

But Cherish isn't a just a chatty polemic about parental rights. The baddie-free drama's characters undergo a complete 360? change while remaining true to their core; the play is serpentine in its twists. "As a writer," he says, "you're always trying to get the audience to slap their heads to say, 'Of course.' I defy anyone to predict what happens."

Cherish, Circa Theatre, Wellington (to November 15).

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