Bluff guy

by Diana Wichtel / 06 May, 2006
Original, deeply indigenous, sometimes barking, Marcus Lush's surreal 7.00-10.00pm slot on Radio Live is appointment listening.

_"Feel free to ring me and ask me if you don't understand me."_ - Marcus Lush, talkback host, Radio Live.

It's quite late in our first chat that Marcus Lush, broadcasting veteran of more than 20 years, lets drop that the last three times he's been interviewed, the encounters ended ... before the end. What, he walked? "I did or they did." Goodness. Why? "I don't know," he says, searching for answers in the dregs of his second double-shot coffee of the afternoon. "I push some buttons."

Lush, host of the surreal 7.00-10.00pm slot on the year-old Radio Live, probably doesn't mean this as a warning. Though he's clearly spooked at finding himself caught again between a rock and a journalist brandishing a tape recorder. "I can't bear it. But if you say that you get one of those horrible interviews that start with 'notoriously difficult to interview'."

Which he isn't, really. It all started well enough with this reply to an emailed request for an audience: "gee you have no idea how many interviews i turn down - but no one has tried flattery like you - am living in bluff".

It wasn't really flattery. More a cry for help. Many's the evening, I had emailed him, that I'm forced to stop on my walk, doubled over with laughter, as my dog and passers-by eye me with alarm. Publicly undone by such talkback topics as "Biscuits You Don't Understand" and the inspired "Condensed Milk Thursdays".

On Lush's show you'll be reminded of the gastronomic abomination that was Chicken-in-a-Biscuit. You'll hear how Charles Upham's life was once saved by, yes, condensed milk.

There was the ambitious "English as a Second Language" night. Considering Lush's free-range approach to the mother tongue - "There might be something else that got your gander up" - you wonder how the audience could tell the difference.

Original, deeply indigenous, sometimes barking: it all adds up to a bizarre brand of social history, peppered with inscrutable Lush wisdom - "It's easy to like something if you don't know what it is"; "I think this year is going quite quickly. Except for January."

Callers range from the young, who get the show's satiric undertow, to the deadpan ("You could crack an egg on mine," one old gent phoned in to report when the topic was, wonderfully, sex and smoking), to the nearly dead. If Lush has a talkback modus operandi, it's to challenge callers to surprise and entertain him with their stories, their infinite oddness, their random information. Their reward will be his highest accolade: "Brilliant!"

Host: What's petrol costing you?

Caller from Great Barrier Island: $2.10.

Host: Brilliant!

One notorious night - this is the sort of sentence a journalist could never foresee having occasion to write - Lush Tasered himself, live from Invercargill.

Priceless. Pinning Lush down to talk about it all was another matter.

The Listener: When should we meet?

Lush: Oh, any time.

The Listener: How about 10.00am?

Lush: No, that's way too early.

The Listener: How about lunch-time?

Lush: I don't think so.

The Listener: Well, when would suit you?

Lush: Oh, any time ...

When we finally meet at Auckland's Cornwall Park Restaurant I don't know whether to order him lunch or throw it at him. But he soon disarms, partly just by appearing to be in need of care. The current look is intent on crossing the line between boho and hobo.

He proves undemanding - hair and makeup are not an issue - and remains stoically on the veranda like a born-again Southlander as Auckland does sun, black clouds, thunder, deluge, sun. Much the same range of weather as blows in over several encounters with the mercurial Lush. Ask him about the perception that he was a bit up himself in his days as co-host of TV2's late, lamented Newsnight and clouds roll in. Push too hard on the personal life and thunder claps.

His unease about interviews seems odd, given that he's conducted plenty himself. In his days at student Radio B (now bFM) - transcripts still circulate in cyberspace - he once discussed pubic hair with Bono on the breakfast show. He seemed so relaxed. "I normally hadn't gone home. It was the end of a long night out, that's the reality."

Right. The days of hard living. Lush did a spell at Hanmer Springs in 1998 when he gave up drinking. Was the need for a change after that why he moved south? "No, it was more that all these other people [in radio] had worked in different places and I'd never done that. I thought I'd see what it was like to go and live in a smaller place and do radio. I loved it."

That's all he'll say about the drinking. "Normally when I do interviews I say beforehand I won't talk about that. But when you say that you bring it up as well, so ..."

Fair enough. While we're getting the personal stuff out of the way, there is someone and she's hidden his Taser. End of subject.

Host: I'm not sure if this is one man thinking alone ... I've always wanted to get my scaffolding ticket.

Until recently, Lush seemed to be on the perfect slacker career trajectory. "Look, I was 33 and didn't drive and I was living at home."

At bFM he worked with such pivotal figures in the evolution of television comedy as Eating Media Lunch's Paul Casserly and Sports Cafe's Graeme Hill, honing the vernacular, vaguely retro style - "Hooroo!" he farewells callers. "Oh Hector!" he exclaims - that plays as both authentic and ironic. "We always used to do Dad's Tips, humour based on the archetypal talkback caller." On Newsnight he was sent to do stories on guinea-pig shows and lawnmower collectors.

It's really only since he transformed the deficiencies of the New Zealand rail system into art in Off the Rails: A Love Story that he's become a bit of a player, fielding plenty of job offers for more of the same. "Oh yeah, by every other means of transport you could possibly imagine. Three-seater push bikes, pedal boats ... I could see the reviews in my head. 'It was all right with the trains but Off the Rails with a bus ...'"

He hasn't decided what he's going to do next. He says. But he has been popping in to TVNZ a bit. It's complicated. He works for Radio Live, which is CanWest. As in TV3. "It's just about working with the many-headed beast. There will be a way to do it. It's probably taken a year longer than the programmers would have liked." There are three or four possibilities he'd rather not talk about. "They mightn't come off and I'd feel like an idiot."

He will say that he'll only work with Jam TV's Melanie Rakena, who produced Rails and Intrepid Journeys. And he won't be just anybody's presenter. "It's not a very safe or enjoyable position for me because you're someone else's puppet."

The downside is the pressure to strike gold again. "The difficult second album, as [TVNZ's] Tony Manson calls it." All this has to be orchestrated from, of all places, Bluff.

Host: What are you doing in Oamaru.

Caller: F--- all.

Off the Rails meant the end of the job that took Lush to Southland in the first place - his spell as breakfast-show host on what was then Foveaux Radio in Invercargill. A bold, some would say insane, move. And they didn't even seem to want him at first. "If a person from Invercargill got a big job in Auckland, they'd be beside themselves. But to move from Auckland you're greeted with suspicion. You can't be any good. They thought maybe I was down there to make fun of them."

The locals weren't friendly? "They're Scottish Presbyterian." Not that he'll hear a word against them. "They're fantastic. They're not gushy. They weren't high-fiving me on the street, but they'd make me fruit loaves."

In the end the town got a hold of him. "Someone told me there comes a time when you know a lot more people than you realise and it's too late. It's become home." Now he owns a couple of houses down there, one with harbour views that he bought for $30,000. "Less than $30,000," he gloats.

There's a rented house on Waiheke Island, where his parents have a place, but he has no desire to return to Auckland, even after the success of Rails. Which took everyone by surprise. "It's almost a psychological affliction, being into trains. No one wanted to be too closely associated with it."

As he sees it, the show is not just about trains. "That's why we subtitled it 'A Love Story'. It was really a love story about New Zealand."

New Zealand returned the compliment, bringing attention that Lush found excruciating. "It just terrifies me. I can't bear anyone approaching me. I'm not the king of eye contact. People were really positive, but, because they've made the effort, they expect a conversation and I don't know what to say after that."

So he grew a beard. But disguise was only part of it. "I stopped shaving when I turned 40," muses Lush. "My father's always had a good beard. I don't think it's a homage to him. He's still alive and he's still got a good beard, but not as good as mine. Maybe it's an alpha male thing ..."

It somehow comes as no surprise to find that Lush is the youngest of four sons. And that he was given a fair amount of freedom of self-expression by his bearded, printer dad and speech therapist mum. Who apparently took exception, Lush teases, to a certain television critic's harping on about Lush's "duction".

But we have to agree to disagree that there has always been something eccentric about the boy. "I don't perceive myself to be as different as you perceive me to be. I had a family where you could do what you want. But that doesn't mean I'm weird or had no boundaries at home."

No, but they didn't call it Off the Rails for nothing. And Lush has a sort of hippie philosophy of talkback to match his new look. "I have an attitude of: I do absolutely no preparation and I try not to think about it all day."

Caller: We should pack up all the Muslims and send them back.

Host: We should pack up all the Americans and send them back.

Caller: beep beep beep ...

"I always say the first casualty of talkback is the truth," declares Lush happily. He sees no reason to bang on about politics or third-party insurance. "[Former Radio Pacific host] Chris Carter was always saying parliamentarians are our employees. If we talk enough we can roll them. Well, that never happened. The reality of talkback is just to keep the listeners entertained between the commercial breaks."

Not that he takes it lightly. "I sometimes worry that I need to be good on it. That I can't just take a day off. I couldn't bear it if I had a bad day."

He frets, too, about the future of his underappreciated art, what with the closing down of community radio stations. As for student radio, "There's always some hot new person on bFM, whether it be Camilla or Natasha or whatever her name is. They get a job and the first thing they do is get a clothing label to sponsor them. 'Dad didn't give me enough attention so I'm going to get on the radio and wear Zambesi frocks and everyone is going to tell me how fantastic I am.' There's a lot of that."

He's happiest, he finds, away from all this. The gossip, the media chatter. He took the job on Radio Live on the condition that he could do it from Bluff, which means a 20-minute drive to Invercargill to sit in an empty studio while his producer and the newsreader run things in Auckland. "I haven't even got any buttons."

Host [on his mayoralty bid]: I don't want to look like a clown.

Caller: If Lawsy can do it, you can do it.

At the studio off Ponsonby Rd that Lush uses when he's in Auckland, it's easy to see why the Radio Live culture suits him. The basement premises are cave-like and cosy. Newsreader Bridget Burke has cooked a delicious dinner: organic roast chicken, kumara, salad. She's wearing a sort of violent-green mu-mu and has curlers in her hair. Some sort of fancy-dress party later? I ask Lush. "No."

Gary Dooley is Lush's producer and, he informs me, his campaign manager. His what? It seems Lush is considering running for Mayor of Oamaru. Or, actually, Waitaki District. The campaign song will be "Cool Change". Nice. "That was mine," says Dooley.

So far the platform is pro-penguin, trains, running Super 14 warm-up games, and involves Marcus Lush with a handlebar moustache riding around on a penny-farthing.

Is this a prank? No. Someone approached him. Is this some competitive thing with fellow Radio Live host and Mayor of Wanganui, Michael Laws? No. Though it should be noted that when Lush Tasered himself he said, after a yelp of pain, "Take that, Lawsy."

Someone calls in from Oamaru to report that Lush's bid for power has made the front page of the local rag, alongside a story about a Grecian urn donated to the museum by a nun. "Brilliant!" In an ad break, Lush threatens that there might just be a reality show in the build-up.

It's the Thursday before Easter so the night's other topics include Easter eggs - "A giant football egg - what has that got to do with the baby Jesus?" And the advisability of opening a milk-token museum. Possibly in Oamaru.

Lord knows what they made of the Taser business down there. "The police were getting them into the country," explains Lush. "We always talked about what it would feel like ..."

What did it feel like? "Pretty unpleasant. Especially when you're in a room on your own Tasering yourself."

Indeed. Whatever will he get up to next? "That was literally being a shock jock. That's not really my shtick so I'll leave it for the chicken-suit radio to do that sort of stuff," he says a little snippily. Any dwelling on the show's more Jackass aspects has the storm clouds gathering again. "I hope the show is more dignified than that."

Perhaps, like a true Southlander confronted by a stray JAFA, he's worried we might be there to make fun. We are, a little. It's irresistible when you're talking about a show where the stand-by topic is "Georgie Pie: what happened?"

Lush will tackle the bigger issues when it's called for. "When something comes along like Graham Capill's conviction, you can't say, 'That's all very well, but what about the Krispie? The Krispie or the Gingernut?"

And the show wouldn't be as good as it is - wouldn't be possible at all - if Lush didn't have a genuine, barmy rapport with his listeners, who happily put up with the finger drumming, the tea slurping, the pauses loud with dead air ...

"Brechtian, is it?" he says of his unorthodox radio style. More like Samuel Beckett. Lush, completely alone in a room at the end of the Earth - well, Invercargill - doing his human best to communicate while waiting for Godot. Or Tasering himself.

But tonight he's in Auckland, which means as the show ends he's tucking his cords into his socks, grabbing one of his 10 bikes and sprinting for the 10.15 boat to Waiheke. He pedals off, flinging a final communication over his shoulder into the night. Hooroo? Nice to meet you? No. "Feel free to call and check anything you think might upset me." Brilliant.

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