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John Campbell sits down for Breakfast, with nothing to eat

Breakfast‘s Daniel Faitaua, Hayley Holt, John Campbell and Matty McLean: not a lot of intellectual sustenance. Photo/Supplied
John Campbell on TVNZ’s Breakfast. There was a time when the idea would have seemed preposterous. John, hand-on-heart, heart-on-sleeve current-affairs man of the people, who once annoyed Prime Minister Helen Clark so much she called him a “little creep”, on the show that gave us Mike Hosking and Paul Henry? His Breakfast predecessor, Jack Tame, has gone to Q+A. Corin Dann has gone to RNZ’s Morning Report. It’s the swings and roundabouts that are the only means of survival for the long-distance television current-affairs presenter in this land. Or, more like one of those giddy, emetic spinning rides where you get flung into oblivion if you don’t hang on tight.

Campbell has hung on tight. And if we can get used to Seven Sharp being hosted by odd couple Hilary Barry and Jeremy Wells, we can get used to anything. Campbell seems happy enough, though his new gig doesn’t provide a lot of intellectual sustenance. On a show that clearly answers the hard questions, we have so far learnt that Campbell would not pay $200 a night to stay in a giant potato. Breakfast apparently fails when it comes to other forms of sustenance, too, forcing Campbell to go Awol live on air. “The thing about this show,” he complained as he wandered back to his spot at the desk in an unrepentantly leisurely fashion, “is it’s called Breakfast, and there isn’t any.” Not even a giant potato.

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See him disappear again to return with the remains of something horribly congealed on the bottom of a bowl. He turned the bowl upside down to demonstrate that he eats food with the consistency of the fossilised droppings of some extinct mammal. A glob fell on to the desk. Co-host Hayley Holt looked as if she was getting a migraine.

Still, the team can see the benefit of having a media legend on board. Someone suggested he throw his weight around and get them better catering. “Throw my weight around? Yeah, just like I did at TV3 – that went well, didn’t it?” he said, a touch ruefully. There was a second or two’s silence in memory of the peak, barnstorming Campbell – “We’re live from a fish-and-chip shop in Mangonui!” – that was Campbell Live.

Campbell constantly sells himself as an uptight white guy in a suit and it would be churlish not to take his word on that. As with many born broadcasters – Paul Holmes, Paul Henry – he is possibly an odd fish who feels most at home in his own overly formally attired skin when the camera is rolling. This makes for paradoxically relaxed television and it makes a change for TVNZ, where the fun has traditionally always felt a little forced.

Now, even banter fails are entertaining. “Has anyone heard the new Aldous Harding album?” Campbell carolled happily. Hayley Holt stared silently ahead and tumbleweeds all but blew through the studio. “My goodness, she’s a cool, groovy, extraordinary woman!” he cried, apropos of musician Chaka Khan. Weather-guy Matty McLean smirked in the manner of someone whose grandma just said something elderly and cute.

Not everyone has been immediately won over by Campbell’s volcanic effusions. “His loud breaths and sighs in between his phrases … He’s beginning to get on my nerves,” complained someone on social media.

But the new line-up got off to strong start in the ratings, apparently, and there was room for some actual current affairs as Campbell revealed an Australia-funded big class action alleging the Southern Response insurance company has underpaid the people of Canterbury by about $300 million. Happy memories of the Caravan of Complaint and Campbell Live’s staunch and stubborn efforts on behalf of post-quake Christchurch.

“They’re going to regret letting you back on the telly lol,” tweeted someone. They may not have noticed, but he’s never really left.

BREAKFAST, TVNZ 1, weekdays, 6.00am.

This article was first published in the May 18, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.