Bitchin' Channels

A blog about television and radio with Paul Casserly

Paul Casserly: Heartland with heart

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Many thought The Ridges was the end of TV in New Zealand, but Paul Casserly has found a local-made gem that's given him hope for the future.

Robert Long aka Bean Sprout hermit resident of Gorge River Haast from 'This Town'.
Robert Long aka Bean Sprout hermit resident of Gorge River Haast from 'This Town'.

It was a year ago that The Ridges graced our screens and many predicted the end had finally come for television in New Zealand, some even expected the rapture to follow. But here we are 12 months on, the horsemen have not appeared, and Sally is no longer "the most hated woman in New Zealand" as she once described herself.

There's a popular saying in the blood-splattered hallways of television, If you ask people what they want to see more of they say things like "quality documentaries" but given the chance the buggers will actually watch the reality show that's on the other channel.

Exceptions to this rule are few and far between, but one began its run last Saturday on TV1. This Town is a beautifully crafted ode to the way we think TV should be made and it's getting the kind of viewing numbers that you'd expect from a popular reality series. That's music to my ears, and the show, made by Jam TV - the people behind Intrepid Journeys and Marcus Lush's various shows - is a symphony of the everyday.

Episode one, which featured towns in the South Island's West Coast started with the country's most media friendly recluse, Gorge River resident and 'off the grid' enthusiast Bean Sprout. Mr Sprout has already be the focus of an Inside New Zealand Documentary and has been on Coasters, (something I suspect he didn't let on to this production about) but his outing This Town is by far the best. Bean was born in Tauranga but fell in love with the rugged spot in Westland when he was tramping there 30 years ago. He met his wife after living the life of a hermit for 10 years, a family followed. In a rather sweet moment Bean recounted the birth of his son, now 17, "I started grieving that day because I knew he'd leave one day." That day has come and gone.

It's an idyllic existence - ramshackle house covered in solar panels, beach just metres away, no berms - but as Bean points out "it's really hard, it's character building". You can say that again, the nuggety rooster has to catch pretty much every living beast he can lay his hands on, then skin it and whittle his way through all manner of bone just to get by. His wife Catherine found it hard at first but seems a resilient type, although "a washing machine would be pretty high up the list."

There's a lot to be said for the other way of making these types of shows, with a host like Marcus Lush putting his stamp on things and adding a cohesive charm no matter how lacking the talent might be. But the upside on display here has a lot to do with the amount of time this approach allows, and it's obvious how many hours have been spent with each of the subjects. Time is always the problem with production on a kiwi sized budget and yet time is the one thing that really makes the wine.

At times it's reminiscent of the old National History Unit films about "New Zealanders", and yes there is a whiff of nationalist propaganda in the air. We are a country of good down to earth folk who get on and do things. Coasters are indeed "the best people in the world", even if they say so themselves. But it's also lyrical, poetic even, and it looks stunning.

Christie is a dump truck driver at a mine in Westport. "Mining is the coast", she says as we see her guiding a behemoth across the damp surface of an opencast operation under a grim grey sky. It's the stuff of Green Party nightmares. Ok, so tourist propaganda this is not. She also breeds and races Huskies, her husband is a fisherman but he's taken to the dogs too, "before we had a dog he never had a hobby." Huskies make good TV, especially when you tie a trike behind 6 of them and go for a blast.

It's not a new idea, ordinary people telling their stories in their own words. Although 'ordinary' is misleading, these folk are carefully selected, because as we all know, not everyone is interesting.

Jaqui who lives in Hokitika, certainly is. "I was born in Melbourne to a 14 year old unwed mother, ended up Kings Cross when I was 13."

She fled to NZ in 1965, along with some other transgender mates. "Drag Queens as we were called then" were illegal in Australia at time. She had gender reassignment surgery in the early 1970's in Rotorua. "The surgeon's name was Mr Hacket, go figure! I love telling people that."

She ended up in West Coast where she ran a dairy farm with her partner for 20 years.

Jaqui joined sewing and knitting circles and ended up with a fully blown obsession with knitting machines that make socks which in turn lead to the purchase of a shop and museum. Now she even builds the contraptions that make socks and exports them around the world.

"Jacqui's got a heart of gold" a friend offers in Jaqui's earshot, "No I don't, I don't want my reputation ruined" she corrects, the friend, playing along "and she can be an absolute bitch", which pleases Jaqui. "That's better."

For Les Lyle, the grizzled publican from the Mahinapua Hotel, the show was something more than promotion. It was a eulogy. As the credits close we see that he's since passed away and gone to the great public bar in the sky. I hope he's gone to heaven and is watching this show as he sips his pint. If he's in the other place I fear he may be watching reruns of The Ridges. If that's the case I hope at least it's the episode with mouse.

This Town. TV1, 7.30pm, Saturday.

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