James Nesbitt telling us how great we are could have been cringeworthy, but Irish actor's charm saves day.

An embarrassing thing about living in a small country is that awful need to know what visitors think of us and our place. Famously, the first question often put to visiting celebs as they put foot to tarmac in the olden days was, "So, how do you like New Zealand so far?"

These days the hunger for approval is sometimes even less subtle - especially when the celebs are encouraged to make television programmes telling how wonderful we are.

Which brings me to James Nesbitt in New Zealand (Prime, Sunday, 8.30pm), an hour-long ode to us presented by the Irish actor of the same name and made after he'd spent a couple of years living here while starring as a major dwarf in the new trilogy of Hobbit movies.

Needless to say, Nesbitt loves us almost to death, though in a way that was strangely hard not to love a little too, even if I had approached the show with a bit of a cynical sneer.


The sneer didn't immediately melt, I must say, as Nesbitt opened the show babbling about us being "a country of contrasts", apparently, the world's third most peaceful nation and that he'd be exploring us from north to south to find out "what makes us tick".

I'd normally run away from ticking, but not Nesbitt, who went on to tick most of the boxes, visiting the usual places and doing many of the usual things as well as two unusual things.

One was being filmed turning over a pile of steaming compost in Queenstown with famous actor Sam Neill. The other was getting an actual interview with our most famous director - and Nesbitt's boss on those Hobbit movies - Sir Peter Jackson.

Elsewhere, Nesbitt's sheer Irish charm and the programme's gorgeous pictures made the parade of the familiar easy to take - enjoy, even. And sometimes the way outsiders see us is interesting.

Nesbitt thought Auckland "spacious", an effect you can get standing on a North Shore beach with Rangitoto behind you. And, of course, he had to do a few things that made him scream - jumping off the Sky Tower and doing loops in a small fast plane far above Nelson.

But in Christchurch, weaving in some very effective - and affecting - before and after-the-quake footage, Nesbitt managed to be moving.

Then, in Queenstown, after helping Neill with that compost, Nesbitt beat the pinot noir-loving Neill at a wine tasting contest, which was a nice touch, as was the discovery of Billy Black, a Waitomo sheep farmer with a fierce thing about wool. Determined to demonstrate the fibre's amazing fire-resisting qualities, the crazy farmer had Nesbitt turn a flamethrower on him and his woolly singlet. "Feel it," he said afterwards, dripping sweat, "it's only warm."

In Wanaka, Nesbitt attended the Perfect Kiwi Woman Contest - as you do - and caught one practical sheila flicking the top of a beer bottle with her large chainsaw.

Earlier, bobbing on a yacht in the Waitemata Harbour with Jonah Lomu, Nesbitt listened to the rugby great expounding on the link between All Blacks wins and the state of the New Zealand economy.

And I almost believed him.