Yore call

by Diana Wichtel / 29 October, 2005
Prime's series that goes about finding our top 100 (nice) history makers is surprisingly watchable.

New Zealand didn't have any history to speak of when I was at school. Now we've got so much of it that when the latest book or television series comes out, I have to fight the urge to say, thanks, I'm all stocked up.

Still, we'll all be kicking ass on pub quiz night if we can only stay the distance. There's TV1's Frontier of Dreams. This epic endeavour is relentlessly informative in ways that have you fondly recalling James Belich's The New Zealand Wars, with its controversies and flailing, impassioned hand gestures. There's a sense that Frontier is pitched at a bright fourth-form class. Still, that's a lot better than what we usually get.

And the whole exercise is worthwhile if national treasures like Anne Salmond and Judith Binney can get on the box without having to audition for Sing Like a Cultural Historian or something.

TV2 has The Unauthorised History of New Zealand, proof that history really is dead, after all. Or it will be by the time Jeremy Wells gets finished deadpanning it into submission in retro Kenneth Cumberland mode. They really should get Wells in to replace Judy Bailey. So mesmerisingly authoritative was his description of the great sheep migration that someone at our place (who shall remain nameless to protect what's left of her professional credibility) was heard to quaver uncertainly, "Did they really get here first?" The accompanying "traditional" song, "O'er the Woolly Mariner", outdoes anything on folk mockumentary A Mighty Wind. The losing Idol should be forced to release it as a single.

Prime has clambered aboard the history gravy train, too, with New Zealand's Top 100 History Makers. Well, they had to find something for Allie Mau to do and the series has turned out to be surprisingly watchable. This is history as striptease, with the programme counting down over the weeks to the big winner. Punters at home can vote for a viewers' list, though no one gets voted off for being too fat for Howard Morrison.

According to Mau, the list could include "anyone who has achieved acclaim, fame or inspired us over the past 200 odd years". And very odd years they have been, too. By that reckoning, the "Bugger!" dog could be in with a shot.

The list of 100 was arrived at, via a suitably complicated procedure, by eight "eminent New Zealanders", including comedian Raybon Kan and professional dizzy blonde turned improbable public intellectual Kerre Woodham.

There's also sports columnist Joseph Romanos, long-distance magazine editor Robyn Langwell, design writer Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, television's Stacey Daniels, veteran producer/director Tainui Stephens and historian Melanie Nolan.

As a grouping, this lot make Helen Clark's new government seem perfectly plausible, but that's all part of the fun. History is up for grabs. Take Russell Crowe, who slipped in at 100, not far behind AJ Hackett, John Minto and Georgina Beyer. Robyn Langwell wasn't having a bar of Russell. "This man is an animal and that's an insult to dogs. I'm more than happy for the Australians to claim him and, even better, for al-Qaeda to take him away," she opined eminently. Goodness. So, only nice historical figures, then. That would certainly make for a much shorter series.

But as Raybon Kan pointed out, "Maximus speaks with a Kiwi accent!" Crowe was compulsory in the list, argued Kan, "because he's a Kiwi actor who won the Best Actor Oscar, which is one of the hardest things in the world that you can possibly win".

Indeed. Russell Coutts is on the list. Why not Russell Crowe?

Raybon is good value, making a lot of entertaining sense. He might not be up for a bungy himself - "a very avoidable way to die" - but he acknowledged AJ Hackett's contribution to our lucrative international image for being up for any mad thing. History as myth-making.

And here's a chance for programme-makers to run amok with the archival footage. Jonah Lomu's place in history was assured, and the exquisite peaks of pleasure the game of rugby can scale were illustrated by the try that reduced even Keith Quinn to speechless ecstasy: "Straight over the top! Lomu! ... Ah ... ! Ah ...!"

In other words, the series gets you thinking, arguing and, occasionally, shouting at the television. Stephens had the undoubtedly talented Dave Dobbyn at 85th. Robyn Langwell had him at 27th. He ended up at number 93. Fair enough. Though when Langwell insisted that "'Loyal' has become an anthem for everything that makes our hearts sing as New Zealanders!", I found myself shouting at the television again.

The best commentary avoids the grand, universal statement.

Raybon on Witi Ihimaera: "He was the daddy of the whale." Lloyd Jenkins on Frances Hodgkins: "She's the great groovy old lady."

Lloyd Jenkins can reject Charles F Goldie boldly (and somewhat tautologically) as "completely and totally redundant". Daniels has the same painter at number 57. Perhaps the most useful service The Top 100 performs is to reveal history for the slippery, highly subjective process it is.

So, well done Prime. Though if I had to rank the history shows, The Unauthorised History would rate most highly so far. The stuff they make up - Ellison's "Happy Hori", gorse as a contraceptive (!) - is hilarious, in a disturbing kind of way.

But it's unnerving to realise that many of the most insane and improbable things in the show - Sir Dove Meyer Robinson and the Beatles, Suzanne Paul - are more or less for real. In Jeremy Wells and producer Paul Casserly's increasingly precise dissection of the unique nature of our national pathology, we are seeing, I suspect, the beginnings of true local television comedy greatness. The worry is that they'll take it overseas. Close the borders now.

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