Michele Hewitson interview: Gordon Harcourt

Fair Go's Gordon Harcourt. Photo / Greg Bowker
Fair Go's Gordon Harcourt. Photo / Greg Bowker

How boring is Gordon Harcourt? It depends whom you ask. If you ask him, the answer is quite boring. If you ask me, he's actually rather intriguing. He prefers his own answer. It's safer. So we had a bit of a battle because he has a horror of answering anything personal - he says he's a journalist because he likes telling other people's stories - to the extent that he wouldn't tell me, at first, his wife's name (it is Louise, but not Harcourt) and he most certainly wouldn't tell me any of the bad things he'd done.

Oh, there probably aren't any. He's a very decent sort, who does good work on Fair Go crusading against cowboys and scumbags and he's brainy, which is surely a good thing. But he's so buttoned-up and, what's more, he enjoys being that way. So he likes being boring but that's such an odd thing to like it has the opposite effect and makes him interesting, I think.

Getting biffed this year by a bloke who didn't appreciate him sticky-beaking around in his affairs didn't harm his profile (although it "munted" his specs.) He says he wasn't frightened because he didn't have time to be and that his first thought was, "Ow, that hurt," and his second was, "I hope we were filming."

I tried to sticky-beak around in his affairs. The result - as profitable as asking a tuatara about its sex life - made me feel, meanly, like resorting to a good thump on his conk to see if anything came tumbling out of his mouth. It wouldn't have.

He probably isn't terribly interested in himself. He turned up in response to what he gloomily called "the deathly" invitation because he said he once read that TV3's head of news, Mark Jennings, said he had to turn up because you couldn't have a go at other people for not being interviewed if you refused to be. He has always been a swot.

He suggested we meet at the pub over the road from the Herald because he said it was "equidistant" from the paper and TVNZ. It's not, I had only to walk over the road, but who says "equidistant"? I wondered whether Fair Go was brainy enough for him and he said he wasn't actually that brainy (I think he is) and that the journalism he does on it is the most rigorous of his career. He did seven years at the BBC World Service as a newsroom producer. Was he any good?

He was absolutely delighted to be asked this question because nobody has ever asked before and he had a prepared answer. "Oh, I have a formula for that! I'm very excited about this!" He has presumably been carrying this answer around in his head for years, just waiting to be asked. He is nothing if not prepared. Anyway, the answer is that he started at the BBC "as an anchovy and ended up a medium-size trout". I'm glad he's finally managed to get that off his chest.

Anyway, other than the pub being equidistant, which it wasn't, I have no idea why he chose it as a meeting place. Perhaps because he mistakenly thought it was a fair distance for both of us. He has terribly good manners, and he does fret about being fair. He had a lime and soda and a couple of chips. He wouldn't have a proper drink because he'd had three drinks at the Fair Go ad awards the night before and he knew the third was a mistake. He's never been able to drink much and when he was a student at Victoria University and there were parties, he used to worry about the noise disturbing the neighbours.

He did drama and I can't for the life of me work out why, except that it was, as he says, the family firm (his late father was an actor; his mother and sister are actors). He was no good at the family business and it came as a huge relief to him when he realised it and could go and do something else. Well, yes. He's the least theatrical person I've ever met and I agree with him about this: that he was born that way.

He has always been serious and once went on a kids' skiing camp when he was about 10, with The Encyclopaedia of the Battle of Waterloo. The other kids took comics. He still thinks this perfectly reasonable. And, really, do not ask him about the Battle of Waterloo. He can bang on about it for an encyclopaedic length of time.

Which is about when I asked: How boring are you? "Well, I'm a reporter. I don't regard myself as a personality," he said and he may well have prepared that answer in advance as well, because it was his fault I did ask. He's the one who says he's boring. He used to want to be cool and funny but as soon as he realised he never would be, he relaxed and began to enjoy being what he is: a serious person.

He likes facts. He is "an extremely good speller ... apostrophising is important to me". He enjoys writing "a good letter". He said, "I'm self-contained" and "I'm not an open person. I don't share my emotions." These were the facts.

The really annoying thing about trying to interview him is that he can be jolly good company. I met him once at a media do and he was an interesting person to have a chat to, I thought. Although I now remember that we talked about the possibility of me interviewing his mother, Dame Kate Harcourt, which I now know is pretty typical of his conversational ploys. He said: "My life is a closed book." He'd no doubt say that it's also a rather dull book, which is the way he likes it.

He rarely goes out because he has three children under 6 and rushes home after to do "more than his fair share", no, he corrected this to his "fair share" of the housework. He is a very tidy cook (he's just full of surprises!) and cuts things up and puts them on little plates, all lined up in rows, no doubt.

I thought that when he did go out he might mind being bailed up and told stories, about naughty tradesmen. But no. He loves it. He might get a story! He was amazed at the idea that he might mind. And, I said, more than a bit snippily, it was a convenient way to avoid having a personal conversation. "Oh, Michele!" he said, pretending to be genuinely aggrieved. "No, it's a story lead. I'm always on the lookout for a story lead. But, yeah, if it's a way to avoid having a personal conversation ... !"

He can be bouncy, about his work; he gets up every morning fizzing away at the thought of catching scumbags. He did use the word "scumbags", but then said, "No, delete that." He is so cautious that he edits himself in conversation.

Another interesting thing about him is that family: the famous Wellington thespian Harcourt family (a great-grandfather set up the real estate company which was inherited by two sons who then fell out and the company was lost). I suggested that he'd gone to London to get away from being Dame Kate Harcourt's son and actress Miranda's brother and he does concede that there may have been something of that: "Subconsciously. I couldn't categorically rule that out!"

He mock-complains that when he was growing up he never got a word in edgeways. His sister, in particular, is amazingly frank about her life, and once toured a show about her marriage; and another, with Dame Kate, about their relationship. He somehow managed to miss seeing his mother in The Vagina Monologues.

He said, of Miranda, whom he loves and admires: "She is extraordinarily open to an extent that makes me uncomfortable." She might do a play about their relationship, I suggested, to tease him. "No." He couldn't stop her. "I'd try bloody hard to." He is probably more like his father Peter, who died in 1995 and was also an actor, but was a "reserved" man, although that could have been comparatively speaking.

I had an idea - overstated, he thinks; he believes in nature over nurture - that his own reserve is a reaction to all this frankness.

His parents once assured their then 6-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter that they didn't mind if, when they grew up, they were homosexual or heterosexual. He doesn't remember this, but he believes it. He is not much given to navel-gazing (another reaction to his family, I'd say).

When he was 19 he had a picture of Miranda, then famous because of her role in Gloss, on his bedroom wall. I think that is peculiar and he says his flatmate certainly did, but he still doesn't. "She was a star," he said as though that explains everything.

The Fair Go ad awards call for tomfoolery from its reporting crew. If you saw the show, you would have seen him dancing, in what was supposed to be a flash mob dance at the airport. At one point he was playing air trombone. It is fair to say that playing the fool, in public at least, but I bet in private, does not sit easily with him. But he said he loved it. Really? Really, he insists, but he really hated the rehearsals. "It was horrendous ... The rehearsals I found painful and actually quite unpleasant." So perhaps he does have some flair for melodrama.

He said, to state the obvious, "I'm a terrible dancer. So I found the rehearsals ... I mean, I didn't have the moves!" And hang on a minute: rehearsals? I thought a flash mob was supposed to be a spontaneous gathering. "Well, careful spontaneity. Prepared spontaneity."

He says he doesn't do jokes, but that is a very funny definition of spontaneity and one that only he could come up with. It might also be a definition of his style.

He was hell to interview, but - and this is the intriguing bit - as much as he tries, he's not the least bit boring.

- NZ Herald

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