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A blog about television and radio with Paul Casserly

Paul Casserly: WKRP in Piha

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A web-only comedy about a DJ in a caravan is an unexpected pleasure, say’s TV Blogger Paul Casserly

Actor  Mark Mitchinson.
Actor Mark Mitchinson.

The spirit of Dr Johnny Fever is alive and well and living in Piha. Fever was one of the wonderful characters from that wonderful sitcom, WKRP in Cincinnati. Like the Dalai Lama, he is reincarnated every generation, this time round it's as Terry Huffer in High Road, a new web series.

The protagonist, Terry Huffer, is having some sort of mid-life crisis and has found himself living in a caravan at the Piha camp ground. His caravan doubles as a radio station as Terry plays his beloved 'album oriented rock' to a handful of people living around the beach. Cue a radio inspector, a woman he's been stalking, the husband of the woman he's stalking and an awful ex wife. There is drinking, substance abuse, and French-kissing - as befits an outing to Piha. It's a great watch and it all was all done without any kind of funding.

But while High Road is a labour of love, and a creation of cashed in favours, it sure doesn't look like it.

It's an oft-heard cliché that you no longer need the networks to make TV. You can just make it yourself and put it on YouTube. The reality is more real. It takes time and money to make good quality telly, even if it's played out online. You still need good writing, acting, directing and editing. Technology means that it's way cheaper to get a great look than it was even 10 years ago, but the hard graft of story and production remains. So, sure you can 'just make a series' and put it up on line, but few do. Fewer still are worth watching.

What makes High Road worth the effort, aside from the cracking soundtrack and the top-notch cinematography, is the acting. Justin Harwood, the director and creator of the series, runs a small production company in the city by day and lives at Piha the rest of the time. He wrote a script for a TV series years ago but had no luck getting it made.

He showed it to his neighbour who kept hounding him to make it. Luckily he was living next door to one of our leading actors.

"I let Mark Mitchinson, my neighbour in Piha, read it. So from that day on, he nagged me about making it. But getting a TV show made in NZ is harder than it looks. Then along came the Web Series format and suddenly I had a way of making something without finding funding. And of course, Mark being an actor was all "don't bother about the other characters and stories, it's all about me!" So I pulled the Terry Huffer scenes out of the full script, added a couple of episodes and we had a web series."

Mitchinson can be currently seen in Nothing Trivial but is best known for award winning performances portraying bad buggers,(Bloodlines, Siege). Here he nails the character of the washed up ex-muso turned DJ. (Harwood too has a musical past as a member of The Chills and Luna.) Terry is on the run from his money hungry ex-wife who also happens to be played by another of the country's top actors, Luanne Gordon. Peter Muller, who also features, happens to live across the road from Harwood so he was an easy get, but Gordon isn't a local. "I cold-called Luanne because I was fan and turned out she had a spare day. I told her we were shooting the cafe scene starting at 9am and she should be done by 1pm. She was concerned and asked, "Is that enough time to get coverage?" and I wasn't sure what coverage was. I said yeah sure, and we finished the scene by 10:30."

Harwood has turned out a rather pro looking comedy despite the laidback west-coast approach to production. In fact it looks slicker than a lot of shows that make it to TV.

"When I finally decided to make it, it was a Friday and I organised the crew for Monday morning. Then Saturday night I suddenly realised it was set in a caravan and I didn't have a caravan. So on Sunday morning, I went down to the Piha Camp Ground and begged Fiona if she had a caravan we could hire. She let us use a caravan that the owners never use."

It was just as well they shot the show when they did as the owners of the caravan turned up to collect their pride and joy the very next day. But shooting on the cheap always means that there are other obstacles that can't be avoided.

"We would have to finish shooting by 3pm every day because the school bus would arrive and the set would be overrun by children."

You've probably guessed this all means that High Road isn't exactly like a highly polished HBO series. But its charms are many. Mitchinson holds it all together. There are also some star-turns from the supporting actors, especially Andre King and Danielle Mason. I was - as is often the case when people recommend a 'web series' - a little dubious when a friend suggested I watch it, but it easily sucked me in for the 6 short episodes, which I wolfed down in one sitting.

High Road. See the episodes here.

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