Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

Poor health forces Holmes out

Paul Holmes will now focus on his health while living in retirement at his home in Poukawa, south of Hastings. Photo / Paul Taylor
Paul Holmes will now focus on his health while living in retirement at his home in Poukawa, south of Hastings. Photo / Paul Taylor

Paul Holmes is retiring from broadcasting because of poor health, bringing to a close an acclaimed career that spanned five decades.

This year, he anchored TVNZ's Sunday current affairs programme Q&A, but says he will not return as he makes his health his priority.

Last week, he announced he was also giving up his Saturday morning radio show on Newstalk ZB.

The demands of weekly travel between his Hawkes Bay home and Auckland are too much, the 62-year-old told the Weekend Herald.

He will continue to write his Weekend Herald column, which will resume in the New Year.

"The decision is still pending really but I think it is only fair to the television channel, to New Zealand On Air and to the team who produce Q&A that they have a host the frequency of whose appearance is at least consistent."

He didn't think he would be doing the right thing by lingering on. "The other thing is, I've done enough broadcasting. I'm happy." His health is not up to the demands of the travel, prep and performance. "I think people know, the game is up."

Holmes is affected by a heart condition, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, usually hereditary, which results in the heart muscle thickening, making it work harder to pump the blood, and by the return of prostate cancer for which he underwent intensive radiotherapy 13 years ago.

He has had surgery this year for both conditions - the prostate cancer in January and to remove a blockage to his heart in June.

"The prostate cancer is the worry at the moment," he said during a wide-ranging interview at his home.

His heart condition decreases options for treating his cancer. He suffers from the occasional sudden bout of dry retching and is on "heaps" of medication and under the eye of a district nurse and specialists.

"I hadn't been as watchful as I ought to have been on the cancer, and the ticker suddenly emerged as a looming and serious problem."

The disease can lead to a risk of stroke - and "we are a bit of a stroke family", he said. "I had a good run after the prostate cancer settled down (after 2000) ... Now I've had another bad run, a hell of a bad run. But again, I think we are through it."

The year of poor health had forced his hand, he said. "This one said: 'Slow down, boy, and reconcile yourself to the fact that you have probably done your biggest work'."

Holmes is renowned for his work ethic, for years starting early and finishing late anchoring top-rating morning radio and evening television current affairs shows and for being happiest when busy.

Months before these latest illnesses, he finished two years of passionate toil writing the work of which he says he is most proud Daughters of Erebus, a vindication of the pilots in the country's worst air disaster.

He hadn't found the decision to retire difficult, he said, because he is ready. "Busy is relative. And now if I can plant some red beet and some iceberg lettuce this afternoon, then I would have considered myself to have had a busy day, and I'm happy."

Holmes is satisfied more than disappointed. "I've done a lot of work and I'm proud of that because my father, he believed in hard work."

A stretcher-bearer in World War II, Henry Holmes built a market-gardening business. He died after suffering a stroke, but not before seeing his son get his own TV show, which ran for 15 years. Apparently he approved. "After six or eight months of the show, he said to me, 'Paul, your questioning is getting much better'."

Holmes moves slowly these days, his cheeks are flushed and on this warm Hawkes Bay day it takes little to make him breathless. But the Holmes charm and wit is undiminished.

During a tour of his sumptuous property, Mana Lodge, with its terraces, ponds, towering exotic trees, thicket of natives and the cash crop of 2700 olive trees, he told a funny story he made us swear was not for publication about the infamous "cheeky darkie" incident (his September 2003 attack on the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan - the only thing you suspect he may eternally regret).

At a majestic view of the property, he quipped, "That's where the money went". Of the homestead's long pergola-covered terrace along which Deborah Hamilton-Holmes walked on their wedding day, a rather pleased Holmes remarked: "Everybody says that's Paul's erection."

On the record? "Oh, yes!"

Holmes' broadcasting career hit an early speed bump which may have been its making. A prank call to the Archbishop of Canterbury while hosting the dead-zone overnight slot did not go down well at Radio NZ in 1976. But the framed letter of dismissal makes delightful reading in the small loo of the Holmes residence.

Not suitable for "air work", was its stinging refrain. "Although I have been told that your performance in the past has been satisfactory, you can regard your recent behaviour as having put an end to your usefulness to Radio New Zealand," wrote Director-General J.L. Hartstronge.

Holmes, it seems, was lucky to get away with mere dismissal RNZ had also considered demanding reimbursement of the cost of Holmes' unauthorised overseas phone call.

Sacked and free, Holmes set off on his OE: radio jobs in Australia, Holland, Austria and England, returning to set records in radio and TV and secure fame and fortune.

He reshaped his humour from the early prankster days, making it more kindly, often self-deprecating. "A sense of humour should never be a vehicle for belittlement," he said.

Holmes has had "not a boring life" and maybe a charmed one considering his scrapes. He survived a car accident, aged 23, in which he fractured his neck and lost the sight in his right eye, and later, a fatal helicopter accident, and a light aircraft crash. "That's why I've been keen to champion the Paralympics, because I know that I have got a bill to pay."

By being open about his and his family's battles, he helped to promote men's health and the fight against the methamphetamine trade, a drug his daughter Millie became addicted to. Holmes stood and spoke in court on his daughter's behalf.

"He is New Zealand's best-known broadcaster. Today he was just a Dad," said TVNZ reporter Haydn Jones. Said Holmes this week: "Oh, I love that line."

Millie survived and father and daughter reconciled. Holmes fetches a leather-bound book of photos and messages from a surprise party last month at the SkyCity Grand Hotel to applaud him for his charity work. Millie wrote: "To the most amazing Dad on the planet. You have always been in my corner."

Of work, Holmes said he played hard but straight. "I kept my word." He made few if any enemies and is proud of that. He is friends with both Mike Williams, a former Labour Party president, and Michelle Boag, National's former president, who together organised Holmes' party.

Should anyone think to remember him, he said, "I would like to be remembered as a decent bloke."

As the Herald prepared to leave, he told of a recent text from former colleague Cameron Bennett after TVNZ showed highlights from Holmes. "What great days those early days of Holmes were," it said.

"They were," said Holmes, "and I'm so grateful to have had them."

- NZ Herald

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