Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Erik Thompson in 800 words

Heading home for a surf appealed to Kiwi actor Erik Thomson for more than one reason, discovers Lydia Jenkin
Erik Thomson. Photo / Supplied
Erik Thomson. Photo / Supplied

Erik Thomson's character in the new Aussie-Kiwi TV series 800 Words, George Turner, is a keen surfer. Not a supremely accomplished one - in fact the waves at Muriwai on the particular afternoon TimeOut visited were probably too big for George - but there are a fair few scenes in the show which involve dudes bobbing in the water and having a bit of a chat, or testing their talents and trying to fulfil long-held surfing dreams, so Thomson and the crew were grabbing every decent wave they could get.

Good thing the 48-year-old Kiwi ex-pat who's become one of Australia's best loved TV actors, is a surfer himself. He was even waxing up his own board, enjoying any excuse to grab a few rides at his favourite New Zealand surf breaks, particularly with a man on hand to tow him into the waves, and another guy to catch his best moves.

"Our safety officer is a professional surf life saver out at Muriwai, and he does a lot of tow-in surfing, and goes off and does stuff with the international surf community. And our surf photographer was a very well known guy who goes out at Mavericks, and big breaks all around the world, so working with those guys was a buzz.

A little bit of pressure for me, but I came good," he laughs.

The surfing was only a small part of what attracted Thomson to 800 Words though. He might've left New Zealand more than 20 years ago, but he'd been hoping to come back and work with South Pacific Pictures for a few years, and when the script from James Griffin (Outrageous Fortune, The Almighty Johnsons) came through, he couldn't resist.

"I just loved it. I loved the idea, it resonated with me from a dramatic point of view, it had a big strong heart, but also because I'm an ex-pat New Zealander, and it was about a man coming home, that really resonated with me, and that was how it got into my head."

The series follows Australian family George Turner and his two teenage kids, Shay and Arlo. They've recently, tragically lost their wife and mother, and to try to give them all a fresh start, George decides to sell their house, and move to Weld - a fictional, small coastal town in New Zealand where George spent his summers as a kid. He was a lifestyle columnist for a Sydney newspaper before the death of his wife, and the move prompts him to start writing again - hence the title, and the structural thread of a weekly column which, despite being published on the other side of the Tasman, occasionally gets George into hot water with the locals.

"I loved the idea of a show about Australians coming to New Zealand. But it's written by New Zealanders, so it's got a weird little thing going on there. And I think it was great to be showing a part of New Zealand that's not traditionally what people think of. Australians think of the Southern Alps and Mount Doom, and the Desert Road, and Hobbiton. So it's a whole different idea to present these volcanic coastlines and lush rainforests, toi toi, and nikau, and dramatic west coast surf beaches."

With Thomson being involved in the show from very early in development, and a key player in getting Australia's Channel Seven on board with the series, it made sense that he also became an associate producer, and he found himself very much enjoying the experience.

"This is my silver jubilee year in the business" he laughs, "25 years since I graduated from Toi Whakaari, and you know, I don't want to make a big deal about it, but it's really nice to be coming back to New Zealand and working here in this year, and it's really nice to have something to do with putting it together, and helping with the casting and locations and so on.

"There comes a time where you want to feed back in some of those skills that you've learnt doing hundreds of hours of television, all the different things I've absorbed to do with structure and story and seeing how television works, so it's nice to have much more invested in this show - it's a little bit scary too."

It turns out he needn't be scared though. It's been screening in Australia for five weeks, and viewers over there have given their resounding approval - it's been the top ranking Thursday night show for five weeks running, with an average of 1.35 million viewers per week, and it's been renewed for a second season.

Clearly the picturesque small town of Weld (which is a combination of Piha, Karekare, Muriwai, Huia, and Helensville) has been catching Australia's collective eye, but the actors (which include Anna Julienne, Michelle Langstone, and Bridie Carter), and the storylines have got their attention too.

"I don't know about the audience, but I think the grief aspect was a big part of what I pulled me in [to the story]. Having had such a traumatic thing happen to George, and how you start again, it's a very vulnerable time in anyone's life, but he's a father so he has to be strong and have a sense of purpose.

"It's a starting over story, and it's a fish out of water story. It's a nice combination of the two."

Plus it taps into that balance of drama and comedy which has been very popular in other Australian shows like Rafters, Always Greener, Offspring, and Seachange.

"You're watching something which is fun and energetic, and even belly-laugh funny in places, and then suddenly you get pulled back into the tragedy of what happened, and suddenly the whole show can tip on its axis slightly, and you're really engaged and wondering how they're going to keep themselves together, and how this town is going to help them.

"800 Words is a different show, but if the audience liked Packed to the Rafters, then they will find this appeals too. There's a nice intergenerational feel to it, a mix of comedy and drama, and I don't think there's anything quite like it on telly just at the moment."

Lowdown
Who: Erik Thomson
What: New TV series 800 Words
Where and when: TV One, Thursday, 8.30pm

- TimeOut

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