TV review: Flights of fancy

By Frances Grant

Marcus Lush couldn't say enough good things about Southland in his now-finished series, South. Photo / Supplied
Marcus Lush couldn't say enough good things about Southland in his now-finished series, South. Photo / Supplied

We New Zealanders have a complex relationship with the feathered inhabitants of our land. On the one hand we've succeeded in wiping out most native species, on the other we worship the remainder to the point where we cover our currency in their images and even call ourselves after the shy, flightless bird we've done so much to endanger.

So it's no surprise that Jeremy Wells, master of the deadpan, ironic expose of Kiwi foibles, is making the most of this national schizophrenia in his new TV One series, Birdland.

The most interesting question, however, is whether Wells, usually found lurking in the wilds of deepest, darkest nocturnal television, will feel obliged to exercise the family-friendly restraints expected of prime time telly on Saturday night.

The answer, judging from his opening sortie, is not much. All the signs are that the man who brought us The Unauthorised History of New Zealand has now turned his talents to an unnatural history of the nation's birdlife bound to rattle the dags of the fans of the genteel Country Calendar, which his show replaces.

His trip to the Tiritiri Matangi bird sanctuary quickly turned shady: "There's something oddly sensual about standing in the forest listening to birdsong with a bunch of consenting adults." There are kinkier facts than you would get, say, on a Sir David Attenborough outing, such as the prodigious length of takahe poo. There are flights of fancy: "The kereru is as stately as its operatic patron, Kiri Te Kereru."

Where Wells goes, the cheesy archival footage is never far away. And even the birds, subjected enough to human depredations, don't escape the barbs of his tongue, the poor takahe being noted as a "plus-sized model". And sure enough, he adopts the Kiwi penchant for turning birds into national symbols: "Being true New Zealanders, many of the birds on Tiri rely on a daily handout from the government."

But bird people are an amazingly resilient lot, seemingly immune to Wells' specialty, the disconcerting question. His query to the curator of Peacock Springs bird breeding sanctuary - "do these birds like copulating in front of humans?" - was met with an enthusiastic "definitely!" and description of mating behaviour.

And, of course, when the subject of Southland came up, the Aucklander despised in Gore couldn't resist another shot: "It's ironic really, isn't it, that they [the stitchbirds] go down to Southland to become less inbred."

No such disrespect from Marcus Lush, whose rapturous journey around the broad-beamed southern reaches of the country ended on Sunday night. Lush has been proud to wear his heart on his polyprops, declaring his love for the region at the start of every instalment of South and extending his ardour in the finale to the "most significant relationship of his life".

But despite his fascinations for the stunning landscape, it was the people he will remember most and indeed, who could forget the show's confirmation that the south harbours the most impressive collection of mad collectors - paua shells, buoys, space junk - in the country.

Another aspect explored in depth is Lush's state of anachronism as an enthusiast for things whose time has gone: steam trains, lighthouses and folding wooden rulers.

And he couldn't sign off without one grumpy comment about tourist-trap Queenstown types and their "hideous Tuscan manors".

As for the South, he'd do it again in a heartbeat. But I think for the next round of Heartland-style shows, they should shake things up a bit. Send Wells round the south to make his comments in person. Lush, meanwhile, could take a long overdue tour excoriating modern excrescences like, say, the country's most pretentious wineries. I have a few nominations.

- NZ Herald

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