by SUSAN FOGARTY
There are a couple of channels we’ve started watching that are showing old TV programmes — ones we used to watch way back when.
Some of them are funny; the reruns of Shortland Street give a fantastic insight into the upskilling of our actors and writers — the first episode is now hilarious — but also the developing sophistication of the industry as a whole. But back in the 1980s and 1990s, it was scary — frightening even.
Sure, back in the day, Kiwis were not big producers of telly, so it was obvious the standard of acting, writing, directing and producing was probably not going to hit great heights. But some of it, including programmes we’ve been watching of late, are awful, and that’s taking into account that “terrible” was once our high standard.
One sitcom starring Billy T James and some of New Zealand’s most iconic actors is still one of the worst pieces of telly a person could be subjected to. Even my children can’t be persuaded to watch it. It could be used to punish criminals.
Shortland Street is a little different, because, as we’ve watched the reruns, we’ve also been able to see how it’s improved, from very shaky beginnings through to the slick show it is today.
So how do such terrible shows get made? And just to be clear, terrible things are still happening; think Sean Fitzpatrick in that appalling ad telling us to “abstain for the game” debacle prior to the Rugby World Cup. Who in heaven’s name thought that was a good idea?
I worked in telly for a few years, and let me tell you making television is not a simple business; quite the opposite, and it’s not complicated because it’s hard to do, or hard for people to come up with great ideas. It’s complicated because of the people behind-the-scenes and the politics that can go on. I worked on one particular comedy show that didn’t succeed and it wasn’t because the idea itself wasn’t good; it was because the “producers behind-the-scenes” kept changing the goal posts. The network representative would turn up every three days with “ideas” that had to be incorporated into the show.
These ideas came from a person who had no background in the industry, but had a big salary. Consequently, a show that began as amusing, became “comedy by committee” as the producers, the executives, writers, actors — anyone really — put in their 10 cents worth. Telly by committee is dangerous.
Another show I worked on had script readings once a week. We all sat around a table and read any scripts that had been approved, but we all added what we thought at the time were “improvements”. So our initial reactions of enjoyment were clouded by our subsequent intellectual genius of how they could be made better.
This, however, was not the case. They were not made better. It was, in fact, another instance of “comedy by committee” going very wrong.
So who told Billy T to make that appalling show? Well, who knows. Billy T was riding high on a wave from his skit comedy show and some producer somewhere or other would have seen him as a great vehicle for a TV show. But, and I’m only surmising from my own experiences, they probably didn’t let him write the show. He was simply the star.
Yes, hard as it is to believe, they probably employed him for his comedy genius and then got someone else to write the show.
But we live and learn, and now we can see the funny side to shows that used to simply make us cringe.