Reflecting on morning glory

Geoff Robinson reflects on morning glory

NIKKI MACDONALD
Last updated 10:51 05/04/2014
Geoff Robinson
KENT BLECHYNDEN/Fairfax NZ
RADIO SILENCE: Geoff Robinson at home on the first day of the rest of his life. One female fan emailed him to say: "You're the only bloke who has been in my room for as long as I can remember."

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His first thought was "What the hell is the time?".

When Geoff Robinson finally emerged from an uncommonly long sleep-in he caught only the last two minutes of his Morning Report successors before the time pips sounded nine o'clock.

The sun hasn't yet reached the deck of Robinson's Eastern Bays home, but he's relaxed in shirt, denim shorts and sandals.

The harbour is unusually calm; Robinson is as calm as usual. But there's a relief in his body language, a lightness that wasn't there yesterday, when he stared glazed-eyed at the studio glass, furiously concentrating on avoiding the multiple cameras trained on his every move.

Tuesday - the 70-year-old's last day presenting Morning Report - was momentous for both Robinson and Radio New Zealand listeners, signalling the end of 35 years of broadcasting history. In good Sir Peter Blake tradition he wore red socks for the occasion. At least he thinks they were red - he's colour blind.

The following morning he's been diligently trying to answer some of the hundreds of emails from distraught listeners. "You're the only bloke who has been in my bedroom for as long as I can remember," one woman declared.

The adulation sits uncomfortably with a gentleman broadcaster who has little time for the growing culture of presenters as celebrities, of ego before expertise.

"I think I will walk across the harbour on the way home," he joked on air, after a string of hero- worshipping emails. And "enough, enough" he commanded the newsroom heaving with applauding journos serenading their man with For He's A Jolly Good Fellow.

But that was yesterday. Today is the first day of the rest of his life.

Downstairs is the study Robinson used as a studio for pre- recorded interviews. The two walls of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, stacked with Robinson's detective novel collections, provided the perfect echo dampener. The books remain, but the room has already been stripped of its recording equipment.

The only remaining proof of a lifetime of broadcasting is that unmistakable, unflappable voice that has been the soundtrack to New Zealand's past four decades of history.

When Robinson joined the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation in 1970, John Rowles' single Cheryl Moana Marie topped the charts, National Radio was more like a wire copy- rewriting service than a reporting network and Norman Kirk was prime minister.

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Kirk died before Robinson joined the Morning Report team in Wellington in 1976, having filled-in briefly in 1975, the programme's first year. But he has interviewed every prime minister since.

He wasn't passionately interested in politics, and he's ecstatic to be missing this year's election machinations. But having interviewed politicians for almost four decades he has a unique insight into the processes and personalities that have shaped this country.

Interviews with the prime minister of the day were always among the most nerve-racking, and with some you never quite knew what to expect, Robinson reflects.

Bill Rowling once complained that an interview was too soft, because he wanted to come across as tough. Sir Rob Muldoon always did interviews over the phone, which suited Robinson.

"You had the advantage then of not seeing him face-to-face glowering at you. The telephone was quite a useful shield. He had an ability to project this malevolence. I did meet him once or twice face-to-face and did a couple of interviews with him and it was fine, a perfectly normal interaction.

"But somehow, there was just something in the tone of voice, the snarl, the way he went about things, that frightened people."

David Lange was a born storyteller, coming straight to the studio from the airport after being the first foreign leader to visit the Philippines after the fall of the Marcoses. Even on the day he resigned, in 1989, after refusing to come in for an interview until after his morning swim and then presenting a steely face, he couldn't help but perform for the audience.

Robinson recalls the marked change in Lange after his stomach-stapling operation.

"He was always ebullient and jokey and on top of things but you sensed that the fat person was doing it defensively, whereas the thinner person, the man was coming through."

Speaking to Helen Clark, Robinson would be puzzled that she would always use the phone rather than the broadcast-quality line they had installed specially at Premier House.

"Her response was 'I'm not going to get out of my nice warm bed to talk to you'."

Sir Geoffrey Palmer was affronted that his interviewers weren't dolled up in jacket and tie. And then there was Mike Moore: "Fascinating man. Sometimes you knew when he started a sentence that he had no idea where it was going to end. He'd get this slightly pleading look coming into his eyes: 'Please interrupt me, I don't know where I'm going'."

So which of the prime ministers of his tenure would he have run the country? Robinson laughs that wheezy laugh, thinks hard, then thinks better of it.

"No, I'm not going to answer that. That's been important to me - that my politics are my own secret and I've tried very hard not to let my politics intrude into my work."

He doesn't mind revealing, however, that when he first arrived in New Zealand from Britain it was just in time for the referendum on ending 6 o'clock closing and extending the political cycle. He voted yes to both and he still thinks three years between elections is too short.

When Morning Report first started in 1975 it was revolutionary - National Radio barely had any reporters and the station would run mostly rewritten wire copy and BBC feeds.

As politicians began to be interviewed on air they quickly wised up.

"Down the telephone there was a big issue of sound quality. We noticed that in the year before the election the opposition politicians twigged that they got better sound quality by coming in to the studio."

Ironically some of the most difficult interviews he can recall were with Don Brash, in his early days in politics, before he was media-managed.

"You'd ask him a question and he'd answer it. I think that threw a lot of journalists, because they were used to politicians dancing around rather than answering the question. You had to think of the next question quickly."

Politicians and government departments have, Robinson believes, become more manipulative and evasive. He attempted to counter that by "gently putting in front of the public" that this is a bit of spin - you make your own decisions.

That softly, softly style has been Robinson's hallmark and has attracted both criticism and congratulations. It's one of the things that's set to change about Report, with new presenter Guyon Espiner promising a more combative style.

Robinson says the changes at Radio New Zealand are "fine", and part of an ongoing evolution. He just hopes that radio, and public broadcasting, will endure. But he does fear that turning interviews into a battle signals egos getting in the way.

"There's an element of a gladiatorial contest when you set up a big interview. I personally find boxing appalling, but people like it. They like to go and watch people smashing each other. I think there's perhaps something visceral there."

Robinson has presented Morning Report since 1976, apart from three brain-numbing years working on Radio New Zealand's commercial stations.

Getting up at 3.30 every morning, Robinson never joined his son Ben and daughter Holly for breakfast, never saw them off to school.

The first thing he said to Simon Mercep when he started as Morning Report co-host was "These hours will change your life". He and wife Liz could never go to a weekday movie. For 35 years, curfew has been 9.30pm.

But there were upsides - he would be home when the children returned, allowing Liz to go back to university and work. He was the one who got up for the babies, and he would also cook and put out the washing.

Having grown up in Hampton, west London, Robinson came to New Zealand as an assisted migrant in 1965 - a 21-year-old bank clerk looking for a change of scene. His father Robbie, who worked for Booth's Gin, teed up a job at ANZ.

But Robinson showed early on that he wasn't afraid to ask tough questions. Though he could see a career path in banking, the prospect bored him. So when he saw an advertisement for the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation within three weeks of arriving, he applied and was accepted.

He asked the Labour Department if he could switch jobs. Sure, they said, if you repay the more than [PndStlg]100 assisted passage (more than $4000 in today's money). "So I went to the NZBC and said 'You offered me a job, will you advance me [PndStlg]100?'."

The answer was a gruff "No", so it wasn't until 1970 that he finally became a trainee announcer in Dunedin, where he worked before moving to Wellington and Morning Report.

Asked to compile a one-hour programme representing his 44-year career, Robinson picks out the obvious - 9/11, the Christchurch earthquake, the first Fiji coup. But also some that only he would remember - such as a Dunedin interview with conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy.

"All I knew about this man was he made records and I had one or two of them. He was a brilliant pianist. We had a really nice conversation - we related."

Then there was comedian Spike Milligan refusing to leave the studio and mumbling over Robinson's subsequent story, with Robinson trying desperately not to laugh; being exposed as a pretend cricket expert by Glenn Turner; crawling out from hooking up a lead under a hotel room table to encounter the Dalai Lama. And the nerve-jangling 2am interview with Princess Anne when she was named Save the Children patron.

"I asked her why, of all the organisations, she had chosen Save the Children, expecting a parental response. The reply I got was 'They were the first ones to ask'."

Possibly not on the list would be the interviews that Robinson counts as his most difficult - asking victims and families of victims how they feel.

"There was one just the other morning with a woman who lost a daughter in the CTV Building. I'm sitting here in my home talking down a microphone and a pair of headphones to somebody in Australia who has read the coroner's report, it brought everything back for her, but she wanted to say something.

"Your heart goes out to them. You hate doing them, but at the same time they're part of what we do and they want a chance to say something.

"It's interesting the email responses you get to those. You'll get some that say 'What a wonderfully sensitive interview you did with that person', another one will say 'What a totally insensitive interview you did with that person - leave them alone in their grief'. You can't win in that sense."

The man dubbed "the voice of death" by his daughter because he's continually asked to narrate state funerals has an extraordinary ability to suppress emotion. But it did sometimes get to him. After the adrenaline of covering 9/11 he came down hard. And there was a quiver in his voice as he presented the Christchurch earthquake memorial service. "You're human so sometimes it gets to you. There is a tear in your eye and a catch in your throat and there's nothing you can do about it. You've just got to do your job."

When he lived in Wadestown he would walk home to clear his head. Later the drive home around Wellington harbour was enough.

But he doesn't have to worry about any of that any more. No more arranged marriages. Ever the diplomat, he still won't say which of his 40-odd presenter partnerships were the most harmonious, or which nearly ended in divorce.

But there was no warm embrace when Robinson emerged into the control room on his last day to find former co-presenter Sean Plunket slumped in an armchair. No more 3.30am starts. The real question, he says, will be not whether he still wakes up before the birds, but whether he can go back to sleep.

And there's plenty to be done - mid-week golf at Ohariu's hilly nine-hole course; digging out and insulating under the floor; travel; reading The Luminaries. He might even go back to singing in choirs.

Whether or not he'll listen to Morning Report is still undecided, as he never used to listen outside work.

Robinson once considered giving up the Morning Report role about 15 years into the job, but a friend told him he would be an idiot to throw it away. So what was it that finally pushed him? "Since I turned 65 I have given myself little deadlines and I've asked myself two questions every time I've got there: Are you still enjoying it and are you still operating at a level that you are happy with. That particular deadline came up last October and I found I answered 'No' to one of them. So I thought OK, right, that's the time."

Which one was it? "Never you mind. It was that old showbiz thing - leave them wanting more."

- The Dominion Post

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