The end of TV3's Nightline

By Ali Ikram

Sacha McNeil might have expected to host the 25th anniversary bulletin. Ali Ikram could have been thrown out of a few prime ministerial press conferences. David Farrier could have leered from a lift like some latterday Dylan Taite. Instead, TV3 will shelve the long-running and sometimes irreverent Nightline to make way for a new Paul Henry show. Before the last bulletin airs this week, Ali Ikram reflects on the way they were . . .
Nightline reporter Ali Ikram says his television-watching days preceded adolescence. Photo / Bradley Ambrose
Nightline reporter Ali Ikram says his television-watching days preceded adolescence. Photo / Bradley Ambrose

Quite by chance, the same day television was deregulated in New Zealand, I went into puberty. As the flower of my adulthood began to open, billboards of the holy trinity of Richard, Judy and Paul were unfurled on street corners, and sparkling newcomer TV3 bade viewers to "come home to the feeling".

I was eager to do just that, and was not alone. The whole third form at St Andrews College was energised too. The morning the revolution came, it did so-as it always does-in the form of a talking chicken. But, we thought, dismissing him, Russell Rooster was for kids. No, there was a more entrancing presence waking us up that morning. Her name was Joanna Paul.

The newsreader was so exotic, something few of us at the private single sex school in Christchurch had seen before, but would later learn about in social studies. Something called a"Maori".

In truth, my television-watching days preceded adolescence. From when I was a kid, I was calmed by the box and consequently spent far too much time in front of it.

I could recite the day's programme listings by heart. I could recognise every reporter - Penny Deans or Spiro Anastasiou - solely by the cadence and timbre of their voices. I could tell whether a story had come from Britain or the US based on the slightly milky look NTSC footage gets when it is converted.

Dire predictions that watching hours of the goggle box was a titanic waste of time and might injure my future prospects were ignored. When the fateful day came on which to answer the question "what do you want to be when you grow up?" I simply got off the couch, crawled across the living room and fought my way inside the wondrous box.

So here I sit atTV3, almost a quarter century later, bald, writing an obituary for Nightline - a show that came to define the excesses that were once possible within news and current affairs.

Watch Nightline's - 20th Anniversary Episode courtesy NZ On Screen:

Television is not always made in places as glamorous and bracing as the finished product. The Flower St studios once housed a cheese factory; unkind critics might suggest they still do. All square-eyed kids get a sense of deja vu at the cheese factory. Before I'd entered the building I had seen it hundreds of times before. I felt I knew every wall, every door, every shelf.

Over in the corner by Campbell Live is the out-of-service lift the late Dylan Taite would leer out of on a Friday night, hissing "See ya, wouldn't want to be ya!" Witness the unevenly poured concrete of the forecourt where Belinda Todd greeted the Grim Reaper in the timeless sketch "Receiverthon", after the company went into receivership for the first time. These are the ghosts you work with on Nightline. There is no history on TV, nothing is in the past, you are marooned in the permanent present.

The medium has no physical form and is therefore less substantial than the ring left by a coffee cup or a ripple on a pool. So everything is as real and as current as everything else. Like a casino gambling hall, there are no clocks; only hairstyles and shoulder pads mark the passing of time.

Earlier this year when Mediaworks went into receivership, we played "Receiverthon" again. It was still funny, because it was still true. The sight of Death stalking the halls while Belinda pirouetted around the station trying to flog off anything not bolted down ushered in a unique "end of days" approach to broadcasting at TV3, according to its star. "That sketch was pivotal-until that point we had been thought of as a news show," says La Todd from LA, where she works as a screenwriter. "In many ways receivership was the best thing that could have happened, because it forced people to care and Producer Mark Everton agrees that receivership added a frisson of urgency to daily business. "I used to ask the team every day what they really wanted to do, and how they really wanted to do it - then I'd say, 'go for it - because if you don't do it today, you may not get a chance tomorrow - we might be all down the road'."

Nightline staff took that brief and ran with it, The apocalyptic revels are still the stuff of legend. Bob McNeil presented the show with a chimpanzee for a co-host. Ian Wishart, best known now for his work on the Winebox inquiry and Investigate magazine, filed a story on a family of ducks bravely attempting to cross a busy Auckland road. Political editor Bill Ralston was barred from Jim Bolger's press conferences for his persistent piss-taking. And so on. But all of those pale into insignificance compared to the infamous "69 positions in 60 seconds" clip.

The sight of a naked couple copulating at high speed to the strains of the William Tell Overture gave new meaning to seizing the day. Fantastic in retrospect, for sure. But at the time, the Nightline team were considered "the red-haired bastard stepchildren of the newsroom", says Todd. Also, I'm told, every time Dylan menaced the audience with his nocturnal ramblings in the elevator, the chief executive of the day would call for him to be sacked.

Another little-known fact: when Belinda auditioned for the role of the new channel's first weather presenter, so did a model/actress called Lucy Lawless. Despite Xena: Warrior Princess going on to unimaginable global success, no one has ever had cause to revisit the original hiring decision.

That is how singular and defining the flame-haired presenter's relatively brief turn on our screens was.

Nightline presenter Sacha McNeil. Photo / Bradley Ambrose
Nightline presenter Sacha McNeil. Photo / Bradley Ambrose

Todd is strikingly unsentimental about the demise of the show she helped bake into the TV landscape: "It's complicated- in a way I'm amazed it's lasted this long," she says. "We don't hold on to stuff too long in New Zealand. It's a young country and we don't like institutions, we move through things quickly."

So it's goodnight from us.There is no correct etiquette for mourning a TV show. When we gave "Receiverthon" its second airing, the Reaper did not grant a new lease of life. Nightline had lost its "mojo", we were told, and the absence was terminal.

In these politically correct times, had we become too staid, too boring? Had we failed to push the envelope, to give the viewer the side-order of zany he or she was longing for? Let's have a look at some of the supposedly timid stories covered by Nightline in recent years. I met a lovely man called Buck Angel, who to this day remains the only male adult entertainer with a vagina.

There was the American guru Baba Dez Nicholls who claimed to have slept with well over a thousand woman and to have cured them of their ills in doing so. Last year in the name of art, I was compelled to watch a film of a gentleman inserting a rather large beer bottle where the sun refuses to shine. In other news, Dave Farrier interviewed a man who had enjoyed a carnal relationship with a dolphin. What this says to me, is not that Nightline became bland and tedious; instead, we played in front of an audience with no morals or qualms whatsoever.

An increasingly narrow set of offences cause complaint. Race is a big one. Less obvious is the huge upset engendered by any sort of profanity in the music played over the weather at the end of the show, no matter what scenes of utter depravity preceded it.

Those are the stories that linger in the mind. But there are countless others that pass through. You could form a sizeable and quite colourful army with all the artists, bands, comedians and buskers who Nightline has given their two and a half minutes of fame. On Tuesday, I interviewed Eve Gordon of circus theatre company, The Dust Palace, at the Herald Theatre. Her job is doing highly dangerous things on stage and making them look effortless and beautiful. I wondered, in a year in which the success of New Zealanders in the arts has been conspicuous - where would we see all these people for the first time in TV? It is fair to say that everyone and everything grows up eventually.

When your time comes to move on, it is best to realise it and take the cue. Nothing brought that home for me more than meeting Jackass stunt man Steve O. He had been through a lot. Drugs had almost destroyed him. During the narcotic twilight Steve says he heard voices of the animals he had devoured as chops and sausages.

That explained why the now sober comedian insisted we meet at a vegan cafe. He ate a hearty lunch of chickpeas and explained that, despite being older, wiser and putting the days of craziness behind him, it was important to prove he still had "it". In order to fulfil such a remit, Steve, a publicist and I retired to a side chamber of the Town Hall to watch him staple his testicles to his chest.

The poor comedy festival publicist had stood that morning in the stationery section at Whitcoulls, gazing at the staplers, wondering which one was hefty enough to perforate both a man's scrotum and his chest in a single blow. I had run through the situation in my mind several times in preparation, but strangely in none of my imaginings was there any blood. Steve gushed like a geyser. "People come up to me after the show and say "your comedy is really good, you don't have to hurt yourself anymore," the cheerful stuntman recounted. "But most of my fans come along to see this." And off he went, to repeat the stunt for the next weak-stomached reporter.

A year on Nightline is like a year at sea. No castaway gets to choose who they are set adrift with or when.

As the tide of traffic sweeps commuters back home to the warmth of family, the skeleton crew negotiates the evening. Twenty years ago, no one on the programme was married with kids. On Tuesday nights it was off to Belinda's to watch Twin Peaks where each shot would be dissected for later use. On Wednesday it would be off to Belinda's for beverages and Budapest pickles while watching Alexei Sayle. It sounds like a party at which great television would be made.

In putting this article together I spoke to a lot of people who were at that party. They all agreed it was a time and place and you really had to be there. High on these tales of their dance of youth, I strenuously attempted to get my producer, Paul Mayow, to a soiree on Friday night. After much badgering he relented.

So there we were, both children of deregulation, now grown men with kids of our own going to a gathering thrown by a young colleague. Paul's car is something called a Toyota Wish, a vehicle with no fewer than seven serviceable seats. We were leaving the cheese factory and the show that had been a beacon drawing us in like moths. It was now an imperilled flame. Off we drove in our people mover; off, off and into the night.

- Herald on Sunday

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