Paul Holmes: the running man

By Diana Wichtel In From Our Archive

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NZ LISTENER #2582, SEPTEMBER 2, 1989, p16

More on Paul Holmes
The Listener’s very first Paul Holmes interview
Interview with Paul Holmes from 2012
Interview with Paul Holmes from 2006 Subscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content
Paul Holmes leaves TVNZ Subscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content
Paul Holmes faces criticism after “cheeky darkie” comment Subscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content
Kim Dotcom goes to Sir Paul’s place – in pictures
Paul Holmes: A terrific vulnerability

YOU HAVE TO get up pretty early in the morning, say 4.00am, to keep up with our media-generated version of the Running Man. Today, not content with putting out, 1ZB’s brekkie show and TVNZ’s Holmes show, he is also doing a radio late-night guest spot with George Balani. He starts work at 4.45am. He’ll be lucky if he’s finished before 10.30pm.

Paul Holmes has been credited with single-handedly introducing the cult of personality, trash television and ritualised rudeness to local news and current affairs. A tough job, ‘really terrible hours, but someone had to do it. Our mission is to stay with Holmes through his working day. There’s a certain glee in his voice over the phone as he sets out the schedule we will have to follow if we want to get a story out of him.

The day starts at 5.00am on a foggy, freezing morning. Inside Auckland’s decayed art deco Broadcasting House, a nattily dressed Holmes is already hard at work scanning the papers, listening to the news, banging out copy on an ancient typewriter and smoking not the first cigarette of the day. Nothing to do but keep out of the way while Holmes and morning producer Phil Armstrong exchange bits of paper and phatic grunts.

Tapes are chosen from where they have been filed on the floor next to the corpses of typewriters than can no longer hack the pace. Other members of the team drift in. More grunts, more cigarettes. To the untrained eye, it seems impossible that this is how three-and-a-half hours of radio are put together, but somehow at 5.30 Holmes is in the studio, playing it fairly straight. At this hour, they advertise things like plant plasma and fish fertiliser. No need to waste good jokes.

Six is when things begin to hot up. Phil Armstrong, in the next studio, is setting up the interviews -“I’ll just put you on hold and pass you through to the wee gnome”. Behind the glass, the wee gnome is rolling up his sleeves, having cleared us out for the duration. Even a reporter and a photographer are an audience to a true performer and he needs to be sure he’s playing exclusively to the unseen one out there. He likes, he says in a break, to think of his listeners as a room where a few friends have gathered. In these high-rating days, he feels that’s a safe assumption.

It wasn’t always so. When Holmes took over from the brekkie king, Merv Smith, early in 1987, he “took the show on a toboggan ride to oblivion.“ 1ZB was the bloody cornerstone on “which the corporation spread its wings and financed itself and everything,” he points out later, metaphors jostling for a place in the flow. “Then we took it down to number seven.” Pause for dramatic effect. “Breakfast went to number seven. It was a shock, all right. And then to see no movement no matter how much we tried. I don’t think there was panic, but there were some serious frights. We had to maintain our belief in the newstalk format, our conviction that we were good, and our patience.”

Patience? Not, Holmes agrees, one of his more obvious virtues. “I want more everything forever, as some famous vamp once said.” That’s why he came to Auckland from his highly successful nine to noon show with Wellington’s 2ZB. No one expected the transition to be so hard.

“Auckland is as tough as anywhere as far as this business goes. It’s hard yakker city, Auckland, isn’t it?” Certainly, at the speed he travels. Can he keep it up, morning and night, radio and TV? “Yes, of course I can, I’ve signed contracts. I have to.” And can he keep the edge? “There’s the daily, vivid fear of plunging down to number seven again. It’s called the ratings game. It’s an excellent generator of ideas.”

Trish Carter came in as executive producer five depressing months into Holmes’s run. There were problems. “When Paul came to do brekkie, I don’t think anyone had told him the difference between news and current affairs. He was trying to cram a 20-minute interview into five minutes.” As a personality, she says, he’s had it sussed for some time. As an interviewer, “he’s still developing”. Carter is in her late 20s, young to be managing a 39-year-old superstar known for his ego. So how is Holmes with women? “Active,” says Carter. Um . . . no, professionally. “Paul is the hardest working frontperson I’ve ever worked with. He’s forgiven a lot of tantrums. But sometimes I have to say, ‘Tough, you have to do it my way’. He likes to have the last word. Say no and he wants it more. There’s still something of the child left. A naivety.”

And an unpredictability. “He gets way more editorial licence than anyone else in Radio New Zealand. He knows he can’t abuse it but I admit there have been times when I have wanted to crawl into the foetal position.” It’s all, she says brightly, part of the charisma.

AFTER the show Holmes does some preparation for tomorrow, opens the mail. Cards and letters about the recent helicopter crash — “Thank God you survived the recent horrific accident” — are still pouring in. Except for the nutters, he answers them all.

At 10.00am Holmes heads off for a rest. Today we all climb into the new silver Saab convertible. “Do you have to mention the car?” groans Holmes, anticipating another Felicity Ferret raid on his lifestyle. Fame he likes. Fortune (somewhere around $270,000 a year) he views as just one of destiny’s pleasant side effects. “What do I do? Get a place with a swimming pool? I hate swimming. Tennis court? I don’t play. I just like to have a nice car. Fortune has bestowed upon me the ability to have it.”

Home, via” the local dairy where the superstar stocks up on tins of Jellimeat, is a modest, half-renovated villa in Grey Lynn. While Holmes makes coffee and feeds the cats, Joan, his person-who-does, is working her way through a pile of shirts. He goes through 14 a week. Puts them in the drier so they come out nice and crumpled. Joan hates ironing. She wouldn’t, she says, do it for anyone else.

Holmes is looking to move to a townhouse. Freeman’s Bay, perhaps. No, not for the lifestyle. More for security. He isn’t home much and now there’s the Saab to think of. It’s all still a bit of a novelty, all this disposable income.

Holmes in 1983

Before 2ZB in 1985, the boy from a Hawke’s Bay tomato farm went to university, did some highly forgettable early television — The Grunt Machine, Buck House —and spent a lot of time knocking about in acting and radio in Britain and Europe. “Getting life experience was something I deliberately set out to do. I read books about Eugene O’Neill and I read all his plays. I wanted that enriching life experience. I wanted to meet everyone in the world and that took a lot of years. So there’s a lot to make up.”

Yes, it makes for an unbalanced life right now but you only get so long at the top. “I’m not going to waste it. I’m 39. I’m not getting any younger.” And the life he’s lived has prepared him for this moment, this success. “I’ve been up and I’ve been down. I know that you can enjoy great popularity and largesse from everyone around you one minute and the next you can be struggling to find someone at home when you make a phone call.”

He was banned for life from Radio New Zealand back in 1976, for being outrageous to the Archbishop of Canterbury, but he doesn’t count it as a formative low point. “Ooh, I’ve been fired worse than that. Brisbane [breakfast radio] was a bad firing. It was humiliating. I’d failed. I’ve never minded being in trouble for being outrageous. All you have to do then is keep the faith. In Brisbane, I just wasn’t up to the job.”

A bad car smash early on was more instructive. “I learned a lot about people. And I still have memories of what a coma is like. Things get very dark and you cease to care. That’s not a frightening way to die.”

It will be a while before he can make much sense of his most recent brush with death. “It was a bit busy to encourage much reflection. I kept my shoes on. I don’t know why I did that. They were so heavy. I thought they’d be handy later. I have them, you know. They are finished but I can’t somehow throw them out.”

Of course something like that changes a person. “I realised that I am a New Zealander, for the first time since I came home. It was the way the Maori people of the East Coast swung into action when we needed help. They threw life at us. I decided quite simply that never again on any programme that I broadcast will Maori people be denigrated, that we will look for positive developments in the Maori world and if Maori insist on various things, they will be listened to.”

That time also strengthened his belief in his own ferocious will. “Mind is everything. Attitude is everything. If you want to charm someone, you’ve just got to decide to charm them. If you want to get through an experience, you’ve just got to grit your teeth and get through it. People say how can you continue to work morning and night? It’s just a matter of not allowing defeat. Of not allowing weakness. That business of swimming and staying afloat, fighting to get back above the water sometimes, affirmed that reality.”

WHEN WE meet up again, after a brief hiatus, at TVNZ’s newsroom, Holmes is banging out copy, this time in a nice, big office all to himself with a place to hang the Armani jackets and silk ties. Coffee. Smokes.

So how’s the show going? Holmes’s editor Hunter Wells passes over a letter he received from an ex-colleague the other day. Hunter, Hunter, you disappoint me, old chap. Why not toss that job in and go back to being an ethical journalist? Leave the Holmes show for the shit-mongers and do yourself a favour while you can.

“My mother wouldn’t speak to me for two weeks after that first show,” sighs Wells. “New Zealand wasn’t ready for Holmes. It’s coping much better now.”
Holmes wasn’t entirely prepared for hard-core television either, Wells recalls. “He wasn’t sure of his acceptability here. In radio he can stand up and shout. Here, he’s one of the troupe.” He had to learn to give up some control, trust a team. A team that cares little about star status. “Nothing is spared. His shortness, his glasses, his lifestyle. He’s a constant source of piss-taking.”

The reported star temperament? Not so, says Wells. “He’s a delight to work with — warm, understanding, cares intensely. He can be a pain in the arse. We indulge him. But he’s the hottest property in television.”

You won’t hear a bad word said about Holmes by his closer colleagues. Except about him being a paranoid short arse, which is meant affectionately, That’s very important to Holmes. “The one thing that finishes people with me is the merest whiff of disloyalty. It’s not megalomania or paranoia. There’s just no time for that. I give totally. I expect others to. If anyone is not totally committed, I’m no longer interested in them.” There are a number of critics in whom Holmes is no longer interested. And quite a few journalists. For someone who believes there is no such thing as the clobbering machine, he has been pretty comprehensively clobbered. He says he doesn’t care, but he can list the enemies by name and he has their worst insults by heart.

“People who have never met me describe me as ‘a man of legendary self-absorption’. What crap is that? This is a job where you have to be very aware at all times of how you sound and look. That requires a certain level of self-examination. So people like you come and ask me questions and I give honest answers. These are printed up and Paul Holmes is an egomaniac.”

These days he directs all detractors to the ratings. “You see, I laugh at people who deplore the surrender of television to the ratings. I detest them, actually, because it is the only democracy, the ratings. The idea that certain highly educated people should feel that they are called on by some greater power to broadcast educative material to the masses makes me puke.”

He’s aware there are shortcomings. “There have been times when I haven’t been that incisive an interviewer. Plenty of times. But if you are determined and if you work at anything at the level of determination at which I do .. . I will become very good. I won’t rest until I do.”

As for that presenting style, delivered complete with Pinteresque pauses in a voice that has been likened to Nicol Williamson doing Richard III . .. The photographer hazards the opinion that Holmes sometimes sounds a little ungrammatical. “Listen, you are drawn into the sentence because of your excruciating terror that I don’t know where I’m going. You stay there and I get an extra tick in the ratings book.” All part of the game plan.
AS FOR life beyond work, what there is of it, Holmes sighs heavily. “You are getting into the area where my friends say, “Paul, why don’t you shut up when they get to those questions?” These days, he’s inclined to take that advice.

The press has had a field day speculating about his drinking, past love affairs, sexuality. “Sometimes I have said too much. But I’m not bloody silly. In my first 18 months in Auckland, my brief was to take my radio show to number one. You can’t do that unless the public know something about you.”

Now, there’s no need to perform in that particular way. There does seem to be a young woman on the scene and no, it’s not Anita McNaught. Beyond that, no comment. The drinking?“I woke up one Sunday morning feeling ghastly, going through the usual wonderings about the trip home and decided that I loved my job too much to beggar it up. Life’s infinitely more fun without it. It doesn’t have so many wild reaches into hedonism, but it’s infinitely richer if only because you remember more.”

And who needs parties when you’ve got primetime. “I’ve got access to the largest city in New Zealand for three hours every morning and access to the entire country every night.” That, too, can be a hard high to come down from. “To tell the truth, sometimes Friday night comes and I’m home by about 7.30 or 8.00 and I think, ‘Now what?’ ”

It’s getting on for 6.00pm and the entire country awaits. Holmes goes off to do a taped insert, slap on some makeup and wolf down a couple of toasted sandwiches. Then it’s showtime.

Tonight the main interview is with film censor Arthur Everard. Holmes fixes his guest with a beady eye and demands his thoughts on “urination, Mr Everard”. In the control room, Wells groans. “Will someone call the operators and tell them my mother will be calling? Again.”

Holmes emerges after the show looking fresh as a daisy, on enough of an adrenalin high to carry him through Balani. He kindly notes that we, on the other hand, look exhausted and should go home. We are and we do.

Earlier on I asked him why he does it. “I have always known,” he says, “that I have a place in the history of New Zealand broadcasting. I plan to take it. That’s why I keep running.” Yes, yes, he says, he knows that makes him sound like an egomaniac, a megalomaniac, every other kind of maniac. He’d worry about it if he had a moment.

More on Paul Holmes
The Listener’s very first Paul Holmes interview
Interview with Paul Holmes from 2012
Interview with Paul Holmes from 2006 Subscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content
Paul Holmes leaves TVNZ Subscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content
Paul Holmes faces criticism after “cheeky darkie” comment Subscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content
Kim Dotcom goes to Sir Paul’s place – in pictures
Paul Holmes: A terrific vulnerability

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