Being Billy: Te Legacy

The many faces of Billy T: A Maori guy walks into a bar  or a battlefield, a movie set, an ashram ...
The many faces of Billy T: A Maori guy walks into a bar or a battlefield, a movie set, an ashram ...

Twenty years after his death, Billy T James is huge again, with a movie, a TV drama and there's more on the way. Adam Dudding asks if Billy still matters.

Billy T James is everywhere. A big-screen documentary premieres tomorrow in Hamilton. Next Sunday TVNZ will screen a rather dour drama about his lovelife, death threats and financial problems. His comic sidekick, Peter Rowley, recently toured a stageshow of reminiscence and video clips, and Sky TV and DVD stores are about to be awash with re-releases of James' TV shows and movies.

The fact that William James Te Wehi Taitoko died 20 years ago last Sunday has something to do with it, but this isn't just an anniversary-driven marketing exercise.

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Fact is, the all-singing, all-giggling "part-Maori, part-Scottish" comedian, whose transplanted heart gave out on him when he just 42, can still lay claim to being our funniest person. Certainly that was the conclusion of a 2009 Listener poll in which 48% of people ranked him our greatest humorist, streets ahead of nearest contenders John Clarke and Flight of the Conchords.

But Billy didn't always get a laugh, says Phil Gifford, one of those who wrote material for James during the 1980s, when the multi-talented cabaret performer became a TV superstar.

James told Gifford about playing a gig in the South Island, soon after there'd been some "pseudo-KKK" activity in Timaru – burning crosses and suchlike. James held back until the MC had announced his arrival three times, then ran on, if he'd just escaped from something.

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Gifford: "Billy takes the mike and he's panting, and he says 'really sorry ladies and gentlemen, but it was very hard to get here. Some guys in white sheets were trying to keep me offstage'.

"There was deathly silence from the audience.

"And Billy goes, 'Rigggggghht. So anyway – there was a Scotsman, an Aussie and a Maori guy walk into a bar ..."'

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Getting a laugh was always the most important thing, says Gifford. If something controversial or significant flowed from that, fine, but consider that night: "He was trying to be cutting edge and fell on his bum," so he went back to something tried, true and unchallenging.

Talk about James and race is never far away. Arguably, his sketches portrayed Maori as work-shy (the How To skits); semi-literate (Te News) or crooked (How To skits again), but neither James nor his audience seemed concerned. The five-second "Lands for Bags" parody, where James plays a rough-looking bag-snatcher, may be his single best-loved gag.

There was some grumbling, a complaint to the Race Relations Conciliator. But a recent comment on a YouTube clip that's been viewed 190,000 times captures the sentiment: "Those who call this stuff racist miss the point. Billy was showing us we can laugh at ourselves and our differences." Or as James said in 1984: "I have been called a racist, but I don't think I am. If they listen to what I do, the character always comes out on top."

To a T: Tainui Tukiwaho says it was exciting filming a piece history.
To a T: Tainui Tukiwaho says it was exciting filming a piece history.

John Tamihere, later to be a Labour Cabinet minister, was in his 20s during the 1980s, a big decade for race politics. A Maori tolls operator lost her job for saying "kia ora" to callers, but Maori became an official language. In 1985 a Labour government opened the door to the modern Waitangi Treaty claims process by extending the timeframe back to 1840. Tamihere had taken part in the Bastion Point protests of the late 70s. The tour by rugby players from racist South Africa was 1981.

Tamihere loved James' comedy – this was a "heavy" time, and Billy lightened the load. Academics such as Syd Jackson might have seen James as a "house Maori", says Tamihere, "but I never saw him in that light.

"Maori and Pakeha could look at his skits and immediately claim them as our own humour for a change."

Opinions differ as to the point of that humour. Comic contemporary David McPhail says James' sketches confirmed in many Pakeha minds "a Maori stereotype that a lot of his colleagues in the political field were trying to shed". Yet leading Maori rights advocate Margaret Mutu says James was poking fun "at the racism of Pakeha. He'd turn it into a joke but underlying it he was deadly serious.

"Maori did own the whole country and in quite a short time they didn't own most of this country. He'd make quite stark comments along those lines, with skits."

Gifford doubts politics drove James.

"Billy was well read and a very intelligent man ... He'd grown up with casual racism and he was aware of that. But I don't think that was the driving force ... As with any great comedian, everything Billy saw and heard was grist to the mill. As a Maori guy in the 1980s he had an awful lot of material in that area. But it would be wrong to think of him as a crusading comedian."

There is a political legacy all the same.

"Billy helped make discussion about the Treaty of Waitangi mainstream," says Gifford. "If you were a Maori in New Zealand in the mid-80s and you got up and said we should honour the treaty, there were a lot of people in this country, sadly, who'd have said `shit-stirrer'.

"Whereas Billy could make remarks about it, jokes about it, talk about it. Because he was such a revered and liked figure he was able to put the Treaty into mainstream New Zealand."

But those clicking on the YouTube clips, many of them born since James died, are there for giggles not subtext.James always said he'd honed his craft abroad, watching British comics in the working-class mould, such as gloomy Les Dawson, giggly Tommy Cooper and foul-mouthed Jim Davidson.

Margaret Mutu reckons there was a local component: "The sort of humour Billy had is the sort of humour we had on our marae. I'd heard our kaumatua talking the way Billy used to talk – [but] they didn't do it with the panache."

According to McPhail, "there are certain performers who have an ability to actually look through the camera and look straight into the audiences' face, so they're looking at you in your sitting room. When he looked at you and began to grin you'd find yourself grinning too. That's a rare talent."

Gifford has a simpler theory.

"One of the reasons he was so massive was he was so likeable. He was one those people you were incredibly grateful to be in his company. And he loved, just in a quiet way, amusing people. He always saw the ridiculousness, and the humour."

BEING  BILLY

Kate Mead talks to actor Tainui Tukiwaho about the challenges of playing a New Zealand comedy legend.

There's a man on screen wearing a black singlet and a yellow towel, but it's not Billy T James.

Tainui Tukiwaho is donning the gear and 80s moustache to play the much-loved comedian in Billy. The Sunday Theatre drama was filmed in April and Culture joined Tukiwaho in his caravan in between takes.

This is the 30-year-old's biggest role and he is relishing it. "We did the Captain Cook scene with [Kelson Henderson] who plays Peter Rowley ... and we got a little shiver of excitement at the fact that we're filming a piece of history," he says.

It's clear Tukiwaho feels privileged stepping into James' shoes. "My parents' generation love Billy T, so that [love] just came down to us ... I was 10 when he died, so I don't really know if I really understood what his career was until I got older. He was just real funny and he was Maori as well, so that was awesome," says Tukiwaho. "I've now got a better understanding of what his entertainment was and the impact it had."

This production, directed by Peter Burger and based on Matt Elliot's biography, Billy T, spends a lot of time on James as an entertainer but at its heart it's a tale of love, exploring the relationship between James and his wife, Lynn Matthews (played by Morgana O'Reilly).

For Tukiwaho, finding out the intricacies of James' personal life proved difficult. "Billy – from the conversations I've had with people – was such a private and shy guy," he says. "Any research that wasn't [from] his performances didn't really exist. People didn't really have video footage of him being at home by himself and so all we had was anecdotes about Billy, and normally the anecdotes were about how funny he was. But surely he wasn't a guy who was always `on'. There must have been a guy who was off at some point and trying to find that specific stuff was hard."

Another challenge was the task of mispronouncing Maori words. "Everyone says `whanau', so when we hear one of us – either Morgana or myself – saying `far-now', everyone says `oh, that sounds a bit weird'. But that's great because at the time it was so common, so it just shows how far we have progressed," says Tukiwaho. "I find it terrible because it's my first language, so it's really hard unlearning because I say `mau [rhymes with cow] ree' a lot in this film and it's hard."

Tukiwaho has had television roles in Shortland Street, Super City, and more recently, Tangiwai, tonight's Sunday Theatre, but it's theatre that really lights his fire. "That may be because that's where I've got most of my work," he says, "but I actively search for it."

He is a director of company Smackbang Theatre, whose play Raising the Titanics, about Maori showbands, will open at Q Theatre in Auckland on September 1, after touring New Zealand.

After a hectic schedule with Billy, Tukiwaho comes out of the production with even more respect for James. "We did a week of Billy's performances, so his stand-up comedy, the jokes, all that sort of stuff, and it's so tiring," says Tukiwaho. "My understanding is that at one point he was filming during the day and doing live gigs at night. I just don't know how he did it ... I only pretended to do it and I was exhausted!"

Sunday Star Times