Michele Hewitson: Pick of the bunch for 2012

By Michele Hewitson

The funny, the mad, the silly, the reflective, the defensive ... it's been a great year for interviews

Sam Neill ... shy and charming, with a piglet. Picture / NZPA
Sam Neill ... shy and charming, with a piglet. Picture / NZPA

What a funny old year of interviewing people. They usually are. A very serious chap, an esteemed QC, said he was going to tell people I kissed his dog - on the mouth. A rather famous telly celebrity and socialite appeared in a dressing gown a little too small for him, waving an even smaller paper thong. I was having my toenails painted a fetching shade of shrimp pink at the time. A Maori Dame told me she believed God sent things by courier; she was hoping for a fabulous frock, preferably in her favourite shade of purple, for her investiture. That was Dame June Mariu. She was wearing purple, of course, and silver slippers and her sunnies which she had to be sweet-talked into taking off to have her picture taken. She had just been awarded her gong. You have to agree to keep your gong a secret. She may have told a few people. She said to the few: "Can you keep a secret? 'What's the secret?' I'm pregnant! But I didn't tell anyone else." I had this confirmed: "She didn't tell us who the father was!"

The thong waver was Colin Mathura-Jeffree who had arranged for us to go to a spa. I hate spas. He's a practical joker. People also think, he said, that he's a "vacuous airhead". As if he cares. "I read." He has always been very career-minded and sensible. He's financially canny; he has a healthy retirement fund, he has saved his money. "I'm Indian."

He's a happy narcissist, but he says all men are. I think he means all beautiful men, although he doesn't think he's beautiful. He has never been in love - not even with himself, no matter what people might think. Is that sad? He has a very good time, so, no, probably not. He sent me an email this week to say he was sending me a Christmas card, with a picture of snow on it, but I could pretend it was cocaine. A few people emailed to say: Why did you talk to that silly creature? Is he silly? See above. He's a fabulous creature and any city that can't cope with a fabulous creature should shut up shop now.

The QC was Michael Reed. Our interview came about in a funny way. I was supposed to be seeing the bird artist Raymond Ching, but he couldn't be persuaded to come out of his hotel room. His long-suffering dealer, Jonathan Grant, was mortified and, later that day, was telling his good friend the QC about the saga and the QC said: "I'll talk to her." And so, a couple of weeks later, there I was at his amazing house (The Gibbs House) being accused of French-kissing his enormous and terrifying German Shepherd which goes by the name of Lord Admiral Nelson of Trafalgar. Why? "Well, he's so grand and important." And a big softy, allegedly. I wouldn't know.

I do know that a chap called Tony Herlihy, who in January was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to harness racing, really is a big softy. He wore his socks, which didn't owe him anything, for the interview. I called the sulky a buggy. I noticed he was laughing his head off. Wasn't it called a buggy? "Not since the 1800s, Michele."

He said, about horses: "I like their faces. And their noses. Have you ever rubbed a horse's nose with your hands? I don't think there's any other feeling like it." He smelt of dust and horses. He is a lovely man.

I had a lovely lunch with Tina Grenville, the former model, who wrote a book about her life. What a life! Read it and reel. I said of her mother: "What a ghastly woman." Her daughter was horrified and said: "No! She wasn't a ghastly woman. She was a woman in many ways ahead of her time." She had what her daughter calls a "dalliance" with two of her daughter's husbands, which, I wrote, would certainly make her ahead of most normal people's times. One would be bad enough but two! "Well, there might have been more." Let us just say that most people's mothers are not quite so ahead of their times.

She had and still has, at 72, a face like a very beautiful pixie. And she was gentle and funny and lovely and we laughed and laughed - until she cried from laughing. I do love a person who laughs until they cry.

I had lunch with Helen Clark. She was in a jolly mood. I was somewhat less jolly. Even though she's no longer the PM she remains inscrutable, intriguing and terrifying. She doesn't try to be; she just is. It's all of that self-belief. I asked if she ever got nervous and she laughed her head off at the very idea. Not even for her job interview at the UN? What a silly question. I like her and admire her and never want to have lunch with her again, at least not without the aid of stiff drink.

I had a very long and - for him, not me - abstemious lunch with that complicated fellow, Mikey Havoc. He doesn't drink, which came as a bit of a surprise. He's supposed to be a wildman, but I suppose everyone has to calm down eventually. He is also supposed to be, I wrote, "belligerent and petulant and noisy and annoying". He can be. He is also rather sweet. He wears his prickles and his hurts on his sleeve. At 42 he was living with his mum. I wondered what that might be like for her. He said: "I'm not the burden I might seem. You'd be surprised."

He likes dressing up in strange masks, and fireworks, and the stars in the night sky. I liked him. I like complicated people.

You don't get much more complicated than the kayaker and Olympic silver medallist, Ben Fouhy, who said: "It's hard to watch yourself in ink ... I hurt to this day. I'm very sad and hurt."

He said, later: 'Have you decided that I'm difficult?" He'd already said: "Absolutely, I find myself difficult." I had no choice but to believe him. "Yes, I did say that. I think you can also go on your experience of me." He is supposed to be beyond difficult, a tantrum-thrower, a hot head. He is fiercely, introspectively intense. He was a fiercely introspectively intense interviewee. I wrote that I needed a drink after seeing him and that one wouldn't have gone amiss at the time. He sent a really sweet note and a very good bottle of wine. He wrote that if he'd known I was gagging for a drink, he'd have poured me one. He really is a funny fellow - in both senses of the word. He is oddly likeable but you wouldn't like to be him.

I had coffee with Sam Neill and he said: "What do you want to talk to me about?" I thought we could talk about his pig. He turned his laptop on and showed me a video clip of him holding a wriggling, squealing piglet. "How good is that pig?" he said. I had never before thought of him as a comic actor. What a very good actor he is. He is shy and charming and a very nice man.

Musician Shona Laing said: "I've actually become a bit of a comic!" Who'd have thought? I thought she'd become a recluse (and a lesbian, but she says she's over all of that and is now celibate and plans to stay that way). She said she did lead a quiet lifestyle for many years, the non-drinking ones, but "not in the Howard Hughes way. I do cut my toenails! Often!"

She has had her troubles with the demon drink and gave it up, quite publicly and severely. She said things like: "Alcohol is an instrument of exploitation, a conspiratorial weapon of oppression." Now that she's become a bit of a comic, she has the odd drink. "I keep practising! Ha, ha. I suppose everybody's going to be just so disappointed that Shona's drinking again." Not me. I think she deserves the odd drink. She's had an odd life - with many of the usual disappointments and hardships people who become famous at an early age experience. She's been knocked around a bit and has knocked around a bit, but you have to admire her resilience, and talent.

Michael Palin, whose great talent might be for being the nicest chap in Britain - you can make him groan by saying so - popped in for a visit. What I really wanted to know was how silly he really was. He was reassuring on this matter. He was very silly. "On the inside. I behave perfectly normally; the right shoes are on the right feet. I don't dress up as mad carrots." He said: "I do appreciate silliness."

So do I. It was a very silly year but not, on reflection, much sillier than most. Are people funny? Thankfully, the answer is yes. Thanks, as always, to the funny, the mad, the silly, the reflective, the defensive, and everyone who was generous enough to appear on this page in 2012.

And that includes the clever, complex, courageous Greg King. He was a brilliant lawyer. Sadly, I can say that now without him contradicting me as he did at the lunch we had together. He said that he wasn't "stupid enough to believe the hyperbole". But he was brilliant and I was very glad to have met him and I hope he rests in peace. And goodbye dear Bob Scott, the old All Black, who started out as an interview and became a friend - despite him kicking me, hard, in the shin because I asked to see his famous kicking foot, a terrible gnarled old thing.

"Served you right. You wanted to see my foot. You saw it." What great fun he was. He will be greatly missed.


The Michele Hewitson Interview returns in a month.

- NZ Herald

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