A rich slice of cheesy, sleazy '80s TV

TOM HUNT
Last updated 13:16 09/08/2014

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Think Auckland in the 1980s. Big hair, framed by big shoulder pads, sports cars and parties and cellphones the size of a brick.

Think success of the methode champenoise variety.

It is all true and was sexily summed up in the "glitter soap", Gloss, which hit New Zealand screens in August, 1987.

The sharemarket crash was still to come.

These days, Miranda Harcourt is New Zealand acting royalty. In the 1980s, she was a young actor in Dunedin.

Her "most recent achievement" before landing the role as hated young journalist Gemma in Gloss was protesting against the Miss New Zealand show in Dunedin - and throwing meat at contestants.

Suddenly she was in Auckland, starring in a racy series about hedonism, glamour and wealth.

There was the drama on screen, then there was the excess in Auckland in real life.

"It was Auckland in the late 1980s - wild, outrageous parties constantly. Any historic account of that time is all true," Harcourt said this week.

Gloss, says NZ on Screen's Paul Stanley Ward, was initiated "against the backdrop of a bull market and America's Cup boosterism".

"It was the '80s and New Zealand had swapped agriculture for aspirational living."

With a hat-tip to US soap Dynasty, it was based around the wealthy Redferns and their Auckland magazine empire. From the opening credits, with a saucy theme song provided by singer Beaver, the show was sexually charged and the public loved it.

Harcourt remembers people hosting "Gloss parties" - dressing up in glam clothes and cheap jewellery to invite friends around to watch the show.

In a world before most people had video recorders, they would stay home to watch Gloss.

Restaurants, feeling the slump in customers, started rolling in televisions so punters could watch Gloss while they ate.

People, unable to differentiate between Gemma the fiction and Harcourt the actress, would spit on her at the beach. (Incidentally, similar things still happen to Shortland Street baddies and, famously, actress Anna Gunn was threatened for the character she played in US series Breaking Bad.)

For Lisa Chappell, who played rich brat Chelsea Redfern in Gloss, the sudden fame "went over my head a little" - even if she would have bunches of schoolgirls following her down the street.

"When I did Telethon I was mobbed and asked to sign fans' body parts but other than that I developed a great skill at not seeing people recognising me, which I still have to this day."

Chappell was 17 and performing in a Christchurch fringe festival when she landed an audition. It didn't hurt that she was billeted with respected actress Michele Hine, who helped her with her scenes.

She returned to Auckland and quit her job in an accounting firm after auditioning.

"Luckily I got the part," she said this week.

It has been 27 years since - a time in which she has had a long and successful career, including starring in Australian drama McLeod's Daughters - but she still considers Gloss her best job.

"I have never worked with such a close, kind, inclusive bunch of actors. As the 'youngy' they all took me under their wing, Ilona [Rodgers who played Maxine Redfern] in particular, and made my first professional acting job an absolute dream.

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"I loved doing this show so much that I hated weekends."

A recurring theme for those who remember the show were the Liz Mitchell-designed, quintessentially 1980s, high- fashion costumes, "in that mad fashion era".

"My favourite moment was Ilona trying to get through a door with an enormous hat on, and shouting, 'get me double doors'."

As a teenager, with a teenage appetite, she would eat the food props. The crew would try spraying the food to stop her. "They said it was for the lights and to make it look good but I know it was to stop me from eating it all."

Gloss screened for the final time in 1990. It has been 24 years and Harcourt and Chappell still get recognised as Gemma and Chelsea. The other day, Chappell was in her local bookshop in Sydney when two Kiwi women barrelled up to her. "Chelsea. It's so good to meet you," they exclaimed. "I loved that show! Why don't they bring it back?"

Chappell reckons it's a good question. "We could all have Gloss parties and dress up to watch the show, how much fun would that be?"

Watch the first episode of Gloss here.

- The Dominion Post

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