The golden age of Avalon studios

Last updated 09:21 04/01/2014
Top Town illustration
COLIN KALDENBACH/Fairfax NZ

Doug Coutts recalls working in the golden era at Avalon.

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Being a good kiwi is not as easy as it looks, writes Doug Coutts.

I was one of the lucky ones. I got a job in television just as the Avalon Centre opened, meaning all the hard work with old equipment had been done, and I left before the place started suffering the death of a thousand cuts, at the end of 1987.

Many people, mostly those who worked there at the time, will say that the first 10 years or so of Avalon were the golden days of television, and I'm one of them. That's not to say TV before 1975 wasn't good, it's just that gold is hard to make out when everything's in black and white. There had been some colour telly before Avalon but the TV Centre was dedicated to colour through and through, from the cramped news studio Suite Four (where I spent most of my early days taping captions to the wall) to the spacious Suite 8, still the largest broadcast TV studio in the country, if not Australasia.

In those heady days when everything was brand-new, including most of the staff, it seemed that nothing was impossible. Budgets were huge, egos huger and the thought that making television should be confined to the studios, as sumptuously equipped as they were, didn't occur to anyone. Television was utterly democratic - of the people, for the people and by the people.

So they took to the road. Outside broadcasts had been around for some time but now there were new colour vans, dotted around the country. Rugby, racing, cricket and other sports were the mainstays, with crews going on safari for weeks on end, often with non-sporting OBs sandwiched in between.

It's in the Bag toured that way. Selwyn and Heather, then Selwyn and Tineke, took telly to the provinces, offering the chance of fame and home appliances, or embarrassment and booby prizes, to anyone brave enough and smart enough to make it through the elimination process.

Top Town was another Avalon production getting out among the people, pitting towns against each other in a series of obstacle courses involving Para pools, slippery slopes and too-tight stubbie shorts. I was too new to the system to work on the first series, in 1976, but travelled with the second a year later as a props assistant. The work was varied - from inflating and painting inner tubes to mixing the goop for the slippery parts of the course, as well as erecting the scoreboard.

That had been designed to resemble the Soundshell at Timaru's Caroline Bay, the first venue of that tour. Built in the scenic workshop at Avalon, it was broken down and packed in one of the several large trucks hauling the tonnes of gear. The one thing they didn't pack was a plan of how it went together. We had two days to set the show, and the scoreboard took almost the whole of the first day with much head- scratching and tea-drinking.

There was no third series, at least not for a while. Hosts Paddy O'Donnell and Howard Morrison went back to their day jobs.

In 1986, just 10 years after it first hit the screens, the show returned, this time with a sponsor. L&P Top Town was now hosted by Mark Leishman and Barry Holland, but otherwise the premise was the same - touring the country, putting the locals in improbable and unsafe positions and even tighter shorts. I was one of the floor managers this time and the first venue was Alexandra.

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Alexandra is famous for its blossom festival and the local organiser had come up with a great idea for a show opening - a helicopter would sprinkle blossoms on to the crowd below. On the day, the chopper went up, with bags of blossom and several helpers ready to sprinkle. We gave them the cue and they tipped the blossoms out. Sadly the petals had been sitting in the bags for a few days by this stage - instead of wafting clouds, soggy clumps rained from the skies.

The show came back for a second series the next summer and I was back with it. The TVNZ mascot, TV Kiwi, was again part of the show with one of TVNZ's Auckland staffers stuck inside the heavy suit prancing up and down the sideline each Saturday show day. He wasn't available for the Friday night parade through each town so I volunteered. Emily, the other floor manager, clambered into the TV Cat suit (nowhere near as svelte as it sounds) and Jeff, the sponsor's rep, tagged along in a Cookie Bear costume.

The usual parade involved teams and supporters marching along the main street with the Kiwi and Cat on the back of a truck, waving with one wing, or paw, and trying to hold on with the other.

At one stage the local team led us through one of the pubs. There was such a good response I decided we should go into the next one. As soon as we were inside, I realised my mistake. The atmosphere was a lot heavier, no one was smiling, so I guided us towards the exit.

Near the door, Emily the Cat had been tripped up and was about to be molested. Cookie Bear and the Kiwi wobbled in, helped the Cat up, straightened her head and raced out with huge, fixed, furry smiles.

It was to be my last work as an Avalon staffer, however - even though I'd always thought there could be no better job in the world, I was thinking perhaps there might be. So I left. I didn't resign, though - hedging my bets, I took leave without pay. I'm still on it. The accumulated sick leave alone must be worth millions.

IENDED up working in the television unit at Massey University in Palmerston North. But the lure of fake fur had lingered and since things would be quiet over the 88/89 Christmas break, I made inquiries about reprising my role for the upcoming series of Top Town, this time sponsored by Griffin's. A deal was struck and the job, suit included, was mine.

We were to travel to venues in both islands, starting in Oamaru with the final set for Kawerau, as they were Top Town champions two years running. I was to do the Friday night street parades and Saturday afternoon recordings in each place.

By Rotorua I was feeling the pain. The suit was made of a heavy synthetic furry substance with little ventilation and the head was built around a wire frame attached to a builder's safety helmet. I'd lost at least 50 kilograms and had a crick in my neck.

That afternoon was stinking hot. During a lull in the proceedings, I was standing in the shade, well away from the action. I was holding the wire frame in my teeth in a vain attempt to stop the helmet rubbing my bald spot when some local kids came up for a chat. I did the standard kiwi shuffle and dance, hoping they'd go away, but one of them grabbed my beak and gave it a twist.

The wire frame cut into my lip and I could taste blood - in more ways than one. The wing part of the suit had openings at the end allowing you to get your hands out if need be. I did. I grabbed the kid's arm and was set to clout him with the other wing before I wondered what it might look like to the casual observer, or how it might go down in court. I leant forward and suggested, in an Anglo-Saxon bird-cally manner, that he go away, along with his chums. He did, they did, and I fluffed my feathers and went back to waddling along the sideline.

Top Town only ran one more season after that, without me. Not that my absence was to blame - sponsors were hard to come by and the cost of transporting sets, crew, equipment and teams around the country was prohibitive.

It's in the Bag was also on the way out, as the state broadcaster was seemingly losing interest in involving its viewers in programmes, unless they paid for the privilege through 0900 numbers and texting.

Top Town resurfaced briefly a few years back but was a shadow of its former self. There was no touring - the set was based in Timaru - and the games were all based around a swimming pool, due to more stringent health and safety regulations.

And It's In The Bag has come back, again as a touring show, this time on Maori Television. Hosted by Pio Terei and Stacey Morrison, the show has stayed true to the original concept - getting out to the regions and giving back to the people.

The prizes aren't huge, there are no flash sets but it's good honest telly like we used to make. All they need is a sweaty bloke in a kiwi suit.

- The Dominion Post

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