By FRANCES GRANT
Producing a successful Kiwi television comedy has proved a tricky area in recent times but, hey, look at this ...
Spin Doctors, TV One's latest venture into local telly's most challenging genre, promises to be "a new and original satirical comedy-drama series, hot on the heels of topical issues of the moment".
Sounds great. And that's just the coverline on the show's glowing and comprehensive press kit. But hang on a moment: this is a show that is aiming to take the mickey out of both the week's current events and the business of public relations, the field that lives to spin.
The new telly satire is "designed to deliver an ironic, amusing and thought-provoking view of real events grabbing the headlines" and will be "a thinking person's piss-take", the press kits tells us. Are we going to believe everything we read?
Journalists are tainted by association to the spinners, the show's creator-
producer Tony Holden cheerfully opines. While Spin Doctors will sport a few jokes at the public relations industry's expense, "there is this unholy alliance between PR and the media outlets because a lot [of PR consultants] were journalists".
What's an honest reporter to do in the face of such cynicism but go in with the hard questions?
Holden answers even before it's asked: "Obviously doing comedy or satire in this country is a licence to get your head knocked off," says the man whose credentials include Funny Business, A Week Of It, Billy T James Show and McPhail & Gadsby. "But TVNZ has been wanting to do some satire for some time."
While Spin Doctors' core business will be to send up three of the week's news events, the format is completely different from the traditional sketch show, Holden says. "It's in the comedy-drama mould with the same characters every week — almost a sitcom."
The characters all work for PR firm O'Connor & Associates, a company with an astounding range of clients. In fact, these spinners will have clients involved wherever there's a news item worthy of a dig.
Not everything will be up for satirical grabs, however. The satire will steer away from human tragedy such as the terrorist attacks on America, says Holden. "There is nothing much funny about what happened in America, so I don't think we'd go anywhere near that. Our judgment will be what do most Kiwis feel about a certain issue.
"Also, we want it to be accessible, we don't want to be playing only to a few elite, media-savvy people. I want to make shows that a lot of people watch."
Sagas such as the teetering Air New Zealand affair will be ripe for the taking, however. And a Maori partner will join the firm so the show can tackle "the bizarre PC-ness that exists in New Zealand now".
On a slow news week, the writers can fall back on the characters' personal lives and the firm's office
Holden, who is also part of the writing team, says the show's closest predecessors are comedies such as the Australian spoof on TV current affairs shows, Frontline, or John Clarke's deadpan send-up of the Sydney Olympics preparations, The Games. "Those are very much the comparisons. I hope we could be as good as that."
Spin Doctors, however, will have to be produced at far greater speed than those shows. The comedy is aiming to be a feat of fast-turnaround television.
The challenge for the writers, who include comedy-playwrights Roger Hall, James Griffen and satirist Tom Scott, will be producing a half-hour episode in two days instead of the usual five. And each episode will be shot — on location, not on a studio set — in just one to one-and-a-half days.
"I've never done anything like it in my life," says actress Elizabeth Hawthorne, who's been in the business for 24 years. "There will be a great sense of pressure because it'll be really fast."
Hawthorne plays senior partner Liz, a brassy 40-something with a keen sense of the putdown and formidable appetite for doing lunch.
For the show's cast, the challenge will be getting their characters in place and developing the rapport needed for close ensemble work. "And being snappy, really getting those scripts down fast. The technical side will be a challenge, too."
Like Holden, Hawthorne is well aware of the pressures of having another go at local telly comedy but says there's no point in feeling daunted. "There's always pressure [in any acting roles] because you're given such a responsibility to fulfil a certain function, you do your utmost to do that.
"In this particular case, I think it's a very good cast, and a very good team of writers — also, what's the use of being negative, darling? It's just no use at all. So it hasn't worked in the past? We've got to say, 'We're going to give this a good kick and let's get going'."
Hopes are high, of course, that the show — there will be seven episodes in the first instance — will take off. "It would be good,
wouldn't it?" says Hawthorne.
Holden points to the amount of local humour on television, in the form of Havoc, Back of the Y and Willy Nilly, and says Spin Doctors won't have the weight of industry hopes on its shoulders. "It is part of New Zealand comedy on the box, not a singularity."
Anything else a journalist needs to know about his satire on the mad, bad world of damage control? wonders Holden. "Anyway, there is a very good press handout, just top and tail that." •
By FRANCES GRANT