The Ralston Group on: Ralston

By Julie Middleton

By JULIE MIDDLETON

It was like the best sort of dinner party: noisy and gossipy, the guests well informed, well lubricated with lots of opinions and zero inhibition.

The Ralston Group, an anarchic chat-and-comment television show that ran on TV3 from 1991 to 1994, gathered around host Bill Ralston articulate media insiders with plenty to say about current affairs - and no hang-ups about having a few drinks before saying it in front of a television camera.

As one reviewer described it, the show was "endearingly rough around the edges, often shouty, often entertaining. Sometimes its guests even had interesting points to make."

Afterwards, and famously, Ralston and company would repair to Ramses, the Newmarket restaurant of high-profile foodie Judith Tabron. Arms and ears would be bent until well into the small hours.

In the week that he has become the head of news and current affairs at Television New Zealand, the long-term members of The Ralston Group make the subject Ralston himself.

So who is Bill Ralston?

Derek Fox, Maori broadcaster: He is a very mercurial character who I first met as a relatively witless youth about 20 years ago.

We were probably all a bit witless then. He was refreshing in that he came with a free spirit, and he tried some - for those times - unconventional ways of making television.

He had a great sense of humour and a face that was best suited to radio, but we all got used to it.

Richard Griffin, TVNZ communications manager: Bill is an archetypal, intellectual New Zealand baby-boomer who is well educated, highly independent and driven to right the wrongs. If he can't find the wrongs he'll conjure up a few.

He is fast, furious and, on odd occasions, out of control. Former Prime Minister David Lange once described former MP Mike Moore as a pinball machine designed by a deranged electrician and, while comparisons are odious, I leave you with that thought.

Jane Clifton, Wellington writer: He's one of very few journalists with a naughty, rock-star sort of appeal.

His strengths?

Clifton: Compulsively well read. Utterly unembarrassable. Unsentimental. Extravagantly funny raconteur. Heroic drinker and smoker.

Most enviably, a sickeningly quick column-writer. Hung-over, fag in mouth and late for an epic lunch, he can bash out sparkling, irreverent but researched and polished-looking stuff, when by rights he should be having trouble typing his own name.

Jenni McManus, business editor of The Independent: News sense. He can spot a story at 50 paces and will persist until he gets it.

He sees news-gathering as a combat sport, unlike too many of today's journos who see it as processing public relations handouts.

Fox: One of his great strengths is the scant hold he has on sanity, which is one of the best ways of getting creative juices running. He's a pretty good mixer, which at least gives him a chance of understanding that there are views other than those from within the narrow set that most mainstream journos keep.

Peter Williams, QC: He is a motivator, and in The Ralston Group I likened him to the ringmaster in a circus. He cracks the whip and urges the animals to perform.

Griffin: But he is something of an imposter. He does little to disavow the sometimes-bordering-on-larrikin profile he has cultivated when he is, in fact, a charming intellectual who loves good music and his mum.

Weaknesses?

Griffin: Myriad. And that is why most folk empathise with Bill - he's just like us. The night after the announcement, the spontaneous visit to his door by John Campbell and Carol Hirschfeld, who were wielding a bottle of champagne, tells you a good deal about the TV3 duo and a lot about Bill.

I would hope that, under similar circumstances, TVNZ would be as gracious. I know Bill would like it to be so.

Clifton: Very easily bored and petulant. Horribly impatient with pedestrian or insignificant people. Bill's legend is that he just biffs people when irritated, but this is actually quite rare. Most often, he has a sort of out-of-body reaction.

He gets this particular sweet look and honeyed tone, which the uninitiated will interpret as his being nice and taking a kindly interest, but which really signals that he's humouring the person till he can find someone more interesting to talk to. Which he manages to do quickly. One of his favourite sayings is "Oh dear, how sad, never mind."

Williams: He is capable of being arrogant and condescending, and when crossed can be petulant and sulky. He is not an idealist, and could be described as a populist.

McManus: Weaknesses? Maybe administration. I can't see him counting paper clips or checking taxi chits. He's rude to fools and bores - but is this really a weakness?

Tabron: Bill has a complex DNA problem. He lacks the going-home gene and is always the last to leave the party.

What do you think his first priority will be at TVNZ?

Clifton: Gloating.

Fox: Getting in the door. There are - I would think - many people inside who are not relishing the thought of Bill having the news and current affairs job.

McManus: Putting a rocket under his news team, and building a power base to withstand the Machiavellian politics at TVNZ.

Griffin: Finding a park for the new, second-hand Range Rover. Bill just loves those big cars.

Williams: With a bit of luck he will improve the local political programmes, hopefully getting away from the present hackneyed group of perennials and looking to people with erudition and experience. He may disintegrate the Hollywood status of our news readers and introduce more investigative journalism.

What should TVNZ staff be worried about?

McManus: Their jobs, if they are time-servers rather than newshounds.

Fox: Many of them will be shaken out of their comfort zone and will find, or believe, that Bill is a bit wild and woolly for them. And he might well be.

Clifton: Being too earnest, not being able to tell when they're boring him, and not being able to duck quickly enough. Especially if they're an accountant or financial controller.

Griffin: How to attach the chain to his desk and Bill's ankle without him noticing.

Who will be the first person he takes to lunch?

Fox: If he's got any sense, whoever signs off his expenses.

Griffin: If Bill had his way it would probably be Bertrand Russell. But the much-revered philosopher is not with us anymore, so it will have to be Paul Holmes.

Tabron: If [late, key TV3 executive] Rod Pederson were alive he'd have been first. [Beaumont St, Auckland, restaurant] Headquarters would be the venue. Steak, eggs and chips would be the food and Martinborough pinot noir the wine of choice (magnums, preferably).

If you were on The Ralston Group today and Bill was the subject, what would you be saying?

Fox: We'd be having a bit of fun pulling out some old footage or old pictures and talking about poachers becoming gamekeepers and reminiscing on some of the silly things we once did. Which, of course, we wouldn't do now because we're senior and more responsible citizens.

Griffin: Bill has joined [TVNZ boss] Ian Fraser at the adults' table now, and there are going to be some good times coming, with the two of them revelling in a TVNZ remake.

McManus: Can an honest, hard-working journo survive the toxic office politics at TVNZ?

Tabron: How did the lunatic take over the asylum?

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