OPINION: Pip Keane, Paul Holmes' longtime producer, reflects on a life well lived.
A few weeks ago I sent Sir Paul Holmes a bunch of flowers.
"They have to be white," I told the Hawke's Bay florist.
"Peonies are his favourite. So if there are no peonies, can you make up a bunch of white flowers. A big bunch. It doesn't matter what the flowers are so long as they're all white."
"He's a lovely man. I'll deliver them myself, " she said.
"Do you need the address?" I asked. "Everyone knows where Paul Holmes lives," she replied.
"A few weeks ago he opened his home up for a hospice fundraiser. The place was beautiful. It was such a wonderful gesture from a generous man."
There were freshly planted white flowers in the garden at the Ofafonua's new home in Otahuhu too. During my decade or so working alongside Paul Holmes across two television networks, one of the highlights was building a new home for Tevita and Salaita Ofafonua. We told the story of how they were paying a mortgage on a house with major structural damage, raw sewage under the floorboards, dodgy drainage, dampness and mould.
Master builders saw the story and came to the party. Between the Holmes programme and some incredible generosity from our viewers, we took four months to demolish and build a new home for the family. I still remember the awestruck faces of Mele, Sofia and Pomale Ofafonua as Paul took them through their new home on live TV for the first time.
In the weeks afterwards, Paul would pop out in his own time to see how they were going. He would pull up in a flash car and the kids and their neighbourhood friends would come out, climb in and have a poke around. Paul didn't mind. He loved people and he loved showing off. I don't know if he ever took them for a drive. He wasn't a good driver. Of cars or planes.
He loved cars. Once he made me go with him to collect his brand new red Bentley. It was the only red Bentley in the country and he drove off down Great North Rd as proud as punch. Long story short, a couple of hours later he was driving it back to the showroom with a massive ding in the back.
I think I can say this now, because he won't get a chance to read it, but he wasn't a very good singer either. I remember the hubbub in the Holmes office when his album was released. It was awful, just like a hideous long green leather jacket he used to wear, but nobody could tell him so. We hosted a live show from a backyard with Jimmy Barnes not long after. We had a barbecue, Jimmy sang, and then after we'd gone off air Paul insisted on playing his album to Jimmy. We all danced to Wichita Lineman and he was chuffed.
Over the years, Paul taught me about hard work, commitment and sacrifice. You can't be devoted to the 7pm television current affairs slot for so many years without sacrifice. Living life in the public eye is relentless. He couldn't go anywhere with or without his kids without being stopped in the street. He never dropped off Reuben and Millie to school and he was seldom there when they came home. I know he regretted that but he loved them both and would do anything for them, and they knew it. That's all that mattered.
Paul was a perfectionist. He was well-read and liked to be well researched before an interview. Actually, he always wanted to be right and he would often go berserk if he hadn't been briefed properly. As producers we had to have our wits about us.
We had our run-ins over the years. From debating the pros and cons of chasing particular talent, what his first question should be in a hard-hitting interview to how we were going to handle Winston Peters. Then there was: "Do you seriously think anyone is going to watch a live show where we shear a f...ing sheep?"
Doors would bang. Phones would slam. I'd give him six minutes for a live interview. He'd say he couldn't do an interview in six minutes, ignore my wrap and run for 10. I'd threaten to deadroll him (run the closing titles while he was still speaking) if he didn't wind up. He'd call me a bitch and I would call him an asshole. I'd tell him if he didn't like it he could produce his own show and 10 minutes later he'd apologise.
Paul was an actor as much as an interviewer and presenter. We made him do some ridiculous things: dress up as an Orc for a Lord of the Rings audition (he didn't make the movie's final cut), swimming, dancing, doing the tango in red lipstick. Usually he didn't see the story until it went to air, so I would always watch him carefully from the control room to gauge whether he was going to go ballistic for making him look like "a "f...ing idiot on national TV".
One of the most important things I learnt from Paul was to back myself. He also taught me loyalty to your host is precious. One of his biggest regrets was taking me with him to Prime TV. I remember walking into the office in December 2004 and wondering what the hell we'd done. There wasn't even a stationery drawer and we had eight weeks to get a show up and running.
And then suddenly with Close Up and then the launch of Campbell Live it became a three-horse race and despite our huge ratings at TVNZ, Holmes on Prime was a distant third.
Looking back, it was the best thing that could have happened. Paul had given his all to TVNZ for more than 15 years, so in 2004 when they offered him a six-month contract, he felt insulted.
Prime came along with a better offer, I supported him and went too and that decision ultimately changed the face of 7pm current affairs in New Zealand. While TVNZ took him back, I'm at TV3 producing Campbell Live. How ironic. I never had a chance to tell him but I can't thank Paul enough. I couldn't be happier. From time to time he'd call to congratulate us on a good story or to tell me Campbell had done a great interview. He'd never call John himself; they never met. Paul would be desperate to know how we'd got the interview. We'd joke, I'd say a combination of a great team, a committed and hard-working host (not him) and me. He'd laugh.
One of the last times we spoke was when Paul rang to thank me for the white flowers. He was overcome with emotion and that I'd remembered they were his favourites.
I know he would have loved to have had the TV on for one last time tomorrow night to see the two 7pm horses go head-to-head once again. It's the end of an era and the beginning of another and I hope he'll be as proud of me as I was to work with him.
* Pip Keane was executive producer on Holmes and went with him to Prime when he made his celebrated break from TVNZ.
- © Fairfax NZ News