I have always known that I have a place in the history of New Zealand broadcasting,” announced Paul Holmes in 1989. “I plan to take it.” And, by hook or by crook, he has.
Back then I tried, and failed miserably, to keep up with him on a normal day as he incinerated both ends of the candle, frantically working at morphing commercial radio and state television’s current affairs into a place safe for Holmes, if not always for everyone else. He had raw talent to burn, and as various debacles over the years have demonstrated, that’s what he sometimes did with it. He said then that he knew his theatrical sense of destiny made him sound like some sort of megalomaniac. So be it. He had run away to join the media circus. There was no plan B.
Now, like others with show business in their DNA, from Peter Sinclair to Christopher Hitchens, he has been eyeballing mortal illness in public and keeping busy. He got himself a knighthood and Kim Dotcom, both delivered to the door. And he did an extraordinary primetime interview with TVNZ veteran Janet McIntyre – part confession, part, even in extremity, PR.
“I’m Sir Paul,” he reminded her as they kicked off. He wore the honour proudly on his chest if not, quite, his heart on his sleeve. It was McIntyre who seemed close to tears – Holmes was always good at getting the waterworks going in a commercial half-hour.
She probed a little but possibly missed an opportunity or two. “I upset some good people, I think, and that bothers me,” said Holmes. He seemed to want to get some things off his chest.
She turned the talk to times he had faced death. “Well, I’m staring it in the face now,” he said. “I think there’s a sense that things have gone beyond possibility,” he said.
“Yeah, I get a bit scared.” These were the moments that demonstrated why Holmes has, almost always, got away with murder. He doesn’t mind putting out there everything he’s got, including, should the occasion demand, a terrific vulnerability. “I wondered last night how long it will be before I can’t get out of the bath myself,” he mused.
There was also time for some myth-polishing. “It’s very good,” he said, of the infamous Dennis Conner interview that kicked off TV1’s Holmes in 1989. Recounting that night, some of the old fire was back in the eyes. “I’ll admit it. Mea culpa,” he said, of the plan to make Conner walk out. “I wanted some theatre on that first night.” There was the much-documented hard living: “Too much booze, too many beautiful women …” Regrets? Too few to mention, it seems.
McIntyre raised the impact of such a driven life on his children. His reply ran a touching gamut from official version to self-doubt to painful reality: “They were always first. I like to think. But that’s not true,” he said. “Everything was so public,” observed McIntyre. “Gruesomely so,” agreed Holmes. But it went with the territory. “I think the public have a right to know who is doing that.” Yes, but who?
In that sort of hall of mirrors, it must be hard to get an undistorted look at yourself. He spoke of a meeting with his ex, Hinemoa Elder, who had come for a few minutes to “pay her respects to the old bugger”. That seemed to mean a lot to him. “Peace was made.”
But there was a growing sense, as the conversation went on, of needing still to make peace with himself. He’s had all the public honours and accolades lately that a person could hope to acquire in a lifetime, but the roar of the crowd is a notably imperfect instrument for gauging one’s own worth.
The heartbreaking thing is that, after all, he seems so unsure whether he’s okay. “Have you accepted, then, that death is coming?” asked McIntyre gently. “I suppose I have … I plan to increase my peace with God,” said Holmes. “Do you believe in God?” asked McIntyre, sounding a little startled. “Well, I’m worried about what’s over the hill. Far away and over the hill.” For all the bravado, it seems he’s been doing some moral arithmetic. “I hope the Lord decides I’m on the right side of the ledger, that’s all.”
He had a plan: “I will give my life now to some contemplation,” he said, as the interview drew to a close. “I’ll walk here and contemplate and pray for God’s mercy.” Of course it wasn’t long before Kim Dotcom choppered in and there were more headlines, more pictures in the papers. That’s Holmes. But surely there’s room in anyone’s definition of mercy for a life lived live and lived large. The show must go on, without a safety net, right down to the wire.
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
From our achive: Paul Holmes: the running man