Michele Hewitson Interview: Neil Grimstone

The man known in the police force and media as Grim always had a nose for drama. Now he is a co-writer and technical advisor for the new TV cop show Harry

Old school copper Neil Grimstone is helping to bring police drama to the small screen. Photo / Dean Purcell.
Old school copper Neil Grimstone is helping to bring police drama to the small screen. Photo / Dean Purcell.

I can't believe we're doing this again," said Neil Grimstone, who is of course always known as Grim because he used to be a top cop and so that nickname was always going to be irresistible.

He said: "Is there no one else of interest?" He said this in a mildly grumpy way which was entirely put on and fooled neither of us. Had he become an actor?

Not exactly, although he has always had a nose for drama. His press conferences had an element of the theatrical. On the big occasions, after he and his team had nabbed a really nasty crim, he'd put on Scales of Justice cufflinks and wear them to the press conference.

He has always been good with the media and got on well with us lot as long as we toed the line and didn't, as he put it back then, "piss him off".

I saw him in 2006, at the Counties Manukau station, after a press conference where he announced the nabbing of a crim who had been described as a "filthy savage".

This was unattributed but I'd put money on it having come from Grim. In his office he showed me the cufflinks. He said: "I catch crooks."

He was a terrific character. I had a terrific idea which was to follow him through a big case - it'd have been like something off the telly. So I phoned him and he was all for it and then I got roundly and officiously ticked off by the media person for approaching him directly and that was the end of that. He said: "I do remember that. That was unfortunate because I thought your idea had quite a bit of merit and would only have shown the police in a good light."

What was he doing talking like a copper? Quite a bit of merit? He was all for it! Which might have been part of the problem. I wondered whether there was an idea about him which was that he liked the limelight a little too much. "Look, there are always going to be people who have that sort of opinion and in any job there's a degree of perhaps professional jealousy. If that was the case, I don't know." He did know how to put on a good press conference though. "I think to a certain extent, Michele, you had to make it a little bit like that because if you weren't giving the media something, a one-liner or a grab, you were going to be on about page eight of the newspaper or after the second news break on the six o'clock news. If I was holding a media conference, I didn't want to be there. I wanted to be top of the news story and I wanted to get as much exposure as possible so that that people would know what was going on as a result - and hopefully make the phone call that we needed to get the break-through that we were looking for in the case. And that's purely and simply what it was about."

He was good all right. You couldn't make him up. Actually, maybe you could. He was just like a copper off the telly.

I'd have put some more of my money on him being a copper until they day they had to carry him out of his office - which would have still had a bottle of rum and quite possibly a half-eaten doughnut or two in his bottom desk drawer. He said then that he was a dinosaur but he said this proudly. He believed and believes in dinosaurs. They are synonymous with "old-school values". Which are: "You know, loyalty is a big thing for me. To your mates, to your staff the troops, that sort of thing. But perhaps also the way I speak. You know, the language."

I do know and I could hear the language in Harry, TV3's new cop show which began on Wednesday. He is a co-writer and a technical adviser and it stars Oscar Kightley and Sam Neill and I'd better mention that because they are in a way Grim's new troops and I don't want him ringing me up and growling at me for failing to mention them. Even though he's no longer a big scary copper, he still has the aura of one. He said, of the actors and the crew: "They were a bloody good bunch of people." Does he like actors? I asked because I was finding the idea of him hanging out with actors a bit hard to get my head around. He said: "They're an unusual bunch, compared to detectives." Now that was funny because I imagine a bunch of detectives to be a fairly unusual bunch but I suppose it depends somewhat on whether you have met more detectives or more actors. We agreed that they are equally foul-mouthed. He said: "They've got a particular way about them. You know, they're sort of creative. They dance around things sometimes. They're not as direct and forthright as detectives can be. But each to their own, you know."

God knows what they made of him. He's a National-voting old-school ex-copper. He told me a funny story about going to a play with Harry's producer, Steven O'Meagher, who is married to Theresa Healey who was in this play. "And he said: 'Jeez, Grim, you have to be careful here because they're all bloody Labour Party lefties' and all this sort of a carry-on. And I said: 'I'm not going to change the way I am and I'll still call it the way I see it and if they don't like it, well, tough'."

They did like him, of course, because it's hard not to and who better than actors to appreciate a character like Grim?

He got on side with the lighting crew after getting "slabbed" for telling the head lighting guy the lights were facing the wrong way when of course they weren't. "Who says?" said the lighting guy. "I said, 'Grim says'," said Grim. "Tell Grim to stick to his knitting," said the lighting guy. Getting slabbed is the penalty for making a cock up and means you are supposed to pay up with a slab of beer. Nobody pays these fines, but he did. He turned up at the lighting truck the next day with two slabs of beer. He was always welcome in the lighting truck after that. That is a very Grim story.

But hang on a minute. He went to a play?

"Yeah, absolutely. Don't you worry. You'd be quite surprised, Michele. I'm very versatile."
I was typecasting him. I thought being a policeman was his life and it was, until it wasn't. He'd done his time, he says. I tried to claim that he even looks a bit arty now, with his brainy specs and his coloured shirt. It must have been the lack of tie that fooled me. He said: "I always made a reasonable statement in the way I dressed."

He is married to Tanya now but was married to Michelle (they have two boys of 16 and 18.) He showed me a photo of wife number one and wife number two at his police farewell and they look as though they are having a jolly good time together I said they both looked lovely and he said, enjoying himself: "Are you surprised Michele?" They all get on well. Do the wives talk about him? "It's not a particularly interesting subject but I'm sure they do. They've probably both complained about me at various times as well." He says he is probably easier to be married to now he's not a cop, but that even when he was, he had always done the cooking. That was a surprise. What does he cook?

"Whatever's going. I can make a meatloaf. I can do a chicken casserole. I can do your Weber barbecue. Spag bol. Bacon and egg pie. I found it quite a good distraction from the police." I would never have dared ask about his domestic skills when he was in the police.

What came first: The character Grim or the detective who seemed like a character? He was probably born to be a detective and that is obviously why the Harry people wanted him. He's authentic. And Harry, I think, also stars Grim, or at least Grim's language. Neill's character, Jim "Stocks" (of course) Stockton is loosely based on Grim. "If I'm anything, I'm Stocks. Stocks has my old-school values and loyalties." And toughness, I'd have said. "And rough exterior, perhaps. Ha!" That he ended up becoming a TV writer is a rather amazing turn of events, I reckon, and the reason for doing this again.

He left the force in 2007 after 27 years so, so much for my predicting he'd have to be carried out. After he left, he was head of security at Matrix Security, then he worked on Harry, now he does the compliance managing for the Film and Video Labelling Body.

He wasn't even gently nudged out of the force: "Not at all." He did see that there might be fewer places in the future for an old-school copper. It is also fair to say that he'd got into a few scrapes with his higher-ups, but that's called doing your job, he says. He had between the time I saw him and his retirement got into a bit of probably predictable public trouble. You don't mince your words with Grim so: Had he been a***-holed out?

"Ha, ha! Hell no!" That is the sort of question which would have got you arse-holed out of his detective senior sergeant's office because back then it would quite likely have counted as the media pissing him off. The bit of trouble he got into involved an entirely idiotic throw-away line involving blindfolds and Asians and a shoe lace. At a conference about Asian crime. Was he drunk? "No! I was stone cold sober." Was he showing off? "Oh, look, perhaps ... I'd done a pretty good presentation, I thought, and was maybe in the swing of things a little. But then I said something that I regretted as soon as I said it."
I gave him a bit more stick about this and at the end he said: "Hopefully this will be about more than the shoelace, Michele." Same old Grim, then. He hasn't got any less bossy with the media. "Hopefully! Hopefully this will be about some ground-breaking television, Michele. You being a television critic."

I'd suggested when I phoned to arrange to do this again, that if Harry got a bad review (from me, say) he could go around with a phone book and do that old police trick and give the reviewer a kick in the rear end. He said he thought he was capable of being a bit more subtle than that. Subtle is not the word I'd have used back in 2006 to describe him and I'm very glad to say that seven years on, that much hasn't changed. He's still a terrific character.

- NZ Herald

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