Reality queen

by Diana Wichtel / 10 June, 2006
Julie Christie's latest "unscripted" television show is the local version of Dragons' Den.

Julie Christie will admit to some things, such as as taking her eye off the ball on the odd failed project and owning 14 pairs of cowboy boots. But no, she doesn't regret making any of her often-controversial shows. "I don't have anything to apologise for," she declares blithely. Yet at the mention of You Be the Judge, with its paternity case involving a bewildered-looking six-year-old, Christie's smooth flow of words slows to slightly defensive shorthand: "Happening on Oprah every day. The child's got a father now. Didn't have one before."

But she soon brightens. It seems that most Christie clouds come with a solid gold lining. When You Be the Judge was canned, she took the show's lawyer, Robert Harte, and made him star of My House, My Castle. "We're up to series nine of that. Out of the ashes ..."

What about celebrity detox series Shock Treatment, which turned Louise Wallace having an enema into primetime entertainment? "Dominic Bowden drinking his urine!" Christie reminisces fondly. "Even I was shocked!" Whatever next? "This time they think they're going to rehab, but ..." she pitches happily. It's very possible she isn't joking.

If Christie's upbeat, it's no wonder. She recently sold her company of nearly 15 years to a Dutch media group for an undisclosed but no doubt dizzy sum. The day we meet, Christie, who stayed on as managing director, bustles into Eyeworks Touchdown's fashionably distressed inner-city offices late, having phoned in a progress report from outside, just like Eddie from Ab Fab. Plenty of time to catch the company skite reel, a reminder of just how much TV she has made over the years, from the useful (DIY Rescue, Game of Two Halves) to the oh-my-god (just about everything else).

When she arrives, the queen of reality TV - Christie prefers the term "unscripted" - comes wrapped in jeans, sparkly Dolce & Gabbana belt and lethal-looking boots. She's very hospitable, considering the things this publication has had to say about some of her avalanche of output. "I forgive," she says with a slightly carnivorous smile, "but I never forget."

She could talk all day about TV, the chaotic medium she has loved with an unguilty passion as she has set about colonising primetime.

Sample soundbites: "Content is king"; "Talent is everything"; "Casting, casting, casting".

She has advocated for her brand of television on the government's screen taskforce and on the Screen Council. Along the way, the woman whose hardboiled mantra is "Television is a business, not an art" has taken some heavy hits from the critics. "Crap TV, Thy Name Is Julie Christie" went a television review headline long ago. The memory still has her emitting a small, strangled cry of distress. "I remember being devastated by it. So devastated it changed the way I thought about a lot of things. I changed the way I do business." No, she didn't see the light and start making Praise Be. Quite the contrary. "I pretty much decided that I was going to become a major commercial success so I didn't have to be a critical success."

Most attempts to bitch-slap Christie into submission have had the effect of simply egging her on. Ask her about what career epiphanies she's had over the years and they nearly all involve insult and/or injury. "Having a new programmer at TVNZ take all your shows away [to be made in-house], which happened to me with Mike Lattin in 1994, was one. It was then I realised I would never sign another contract where I didn't own the IP [intellectual property]."

Another pivotal moment involves what she calls "ritual humiliation at NZ On Air" as she was pitching Colonial House. "Only about the most successful show they ever funded!" she bristles. "It was having personal jibes at you - 'What would you know about being deprived?' The process was so humiliating I decided I was going to create a business that would never rely on public funding." She didn't go back for years. "Being made to feel so ... useless I decided, that's it, the cultural dollar is not for me."

Making high-rating reality shows was the best revenge. Her hit rate has been impressive. She picked up overseas formats like Changing Rooms and made the shows here. Bypassing that most treacherous of genres in this country, comedy, she lucratively mined the absurdness of local sports jocks (Matthew and Marc!). She's sold formats and even finished shows overseas: Miss Popularity and Treasure Island are playing in the US. Her gameshow, The Chair, was the subject of a now-settled legal action when American network Fox made something oddly similar.

There have been plenty of other dust-ups. For a former girl reporter, Christie has a reputation for being a little prickly with the media. "Oh, I wonder why?" she muses innocently. If she has forgiven, she certainly hasn't forgotten the fracas with TVNZ news head Bill Ralston when she and Marc Ellis were chased around the corridors of TVNZ by news cameras during the celebrity drug business. "TVNZ upheld my complaint against themselves on that!"

She took thrashings, too, when Lana Coc-Kroft became seriously ill during the filming of Celebrity Treasure Island and a contestant was burnt on Going Straight. You wouldn't have known it from her stony-faced public responses at the time, but she was badly shaken by the fallout. "TVNZ had to talk me into making another series of Celebrity Treasure Island. I mean I have been completely devastated to the point of ill health by the way I've been treated. I don't usually answer back because what's that going to earn me? What was answering back in the Lana Coc-Kroft situation going to get me? Nothing. I tend to say, just get over it."

After all, she points out, the celebrities get paid. "Everybody wants to present it. I'm always being badgered by Louise Wallace or April Bruce. You know what? If you're not tough, you shouldn't be on Treasure Island. That's my attitude now. I've got over my navel-gazing." As for the real punters, "People don't come out of nowhere, never having seen reality television. They know."

But ... they cry a lot. "They cry because it's based around simple things - jeopardy and conflict," explains Christie patiently. "You add a bit of starvation and people cry more."

Righto. Some of this pull-your-socks-up attitude is down to a no-nonsense Greymouth upbringing as one of seven children raised by a mother who was widowed when Christie was five. "I've always been a bit of a loner so I'm quite good at being my own therapist."

"I had a huge run-in with Paul Holmes. Now he's downstairs doing one of my shows. It wasn't the grilling he gave her on his show about the Lana Coc-Kroft business. "The interview was fine - I stood up for myself." But when the show aired, TVNZ spent three nights trying to create a big story that wasn't there.

But she's not one to hold grudges. Slows you down. "I'm quite forgiving. If they're talented, I'm very forgiving. I have to be. God! I've got all the bad boys in my stable now. TVNZ calls it Touchdown Rehab!"

As we speak, Holmes, Hosking, Havoc, Kerre Woodham etc are having pre-Out of the Question refreshments downstairs. She will soon join them to oversee things. Though she no longer writes, directs and produces everything, the way she did in the early days, getting her first few documentaries (Rachel Hunter: Cover Girl) off the ground. "When I first went to Communicado, everyone was like, 'Neil Roberts expects you to work 24-hour days.' I thought we all did that."

Raise the spectre of the dreaded work/life balance and she laughs like a drain. "I don't think I even considered it in my first marriage, which is probably why it fell apart." These days she's juggling a second marriage and two children, Timothy, nearly 12, and Lexi, 10. "I have an incredibly ordered life. I've had the same nanny who has lived with us for 12 years. My kids think they've got three parents." She'll never be the mum on the school camp. "Just not me. In many ways I'm like the dad in the family." But she loves travelling with her children, who are old enough now to critique her work. "They often watch rough cuts of new shows with me and I observe whether they keep watching or drift away as to how the show is maintaining their interest." Her own little focus group - which is not above also critiquing her mothering. "They say, 'Is quality time over yet?'"

She has them in mind when she makes her shows, most of which, she insists, are family entertainment. "Maybe it's my prudish, Catholic upbringing but I feel uncomfortable with some forms of tele-vision." She doesn't like the voyeuristic stuff. "I'm quite straight, which is surprising, maybe."

But she's still operating like any three other mad workaholics. "Making science sexy, making history sexy: there's still a whole bunch of stuff I'm going to solve one day," she threatens.

However, she does seem to have mellowed. Perhaps selling the business is a sign that she feels she has nothing more to prove? Forget that. "I sold because I want to be part of a global television industry." And she most certainly does have more to prove, with the company branching out into television drama - something called Burying Brian, in which a woman knocks off her husband and her three friends help her cover it up. A feature film - a psychological thriller called The Tattooist - is up and running. "That's got Film Commission funding. I was terrified. It reminded me of NZ on Air!"

This new territory has Christie sounding uncharacteristically uncertain. "I think I know about audience, but drama in this country ... Whether my perceived know-ledge of audience can transfer over ..."

But there's also a sense of liberation -- "I'm part of a network now that really respects the sort of television I make and the sort of business we run. That's been like a big weight off my shoulders."

As for TV, she has big hopes for Eyeworks Touchdown's version of Dragons' Den, the so-you-wanna-be-an-entrepreneur show that apparently has local business types gagging to be reality stars. The normally camera-shy Christie may appear herself. "I have to audition like everyone else," she insists. So far, she says, the names are all good. "They have half a billion dollars' wealth between them."

It's all go. But surely handing over her baby, Touchdown, to Eyeworks was traumatic. "Not in the least," chirps Christie. On her own in Holland when the deal was done, she went shopping. "I bought seven leather jackets and four pairs of boots!" Julie Christie unscripted. Impressive, girly, smart, scary: she can violently polarise opinion, even during the time it takes to interview her. Whatever you make of her, she's one successful docusoap that's going to run and irrepressibly run. "It's just finding that next big idea," she says. "I just want to have some fun."

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