Paul Holmes: signing off

Last updated 21:48 20/12/2008
Holmes: New Zealand's most famous broadcaster.

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I ALREADY know how Paul Holmes expects this story to end.

It's late last Tuesday morning. He's been puffing out anecdotes and cigarette smoke in equal measure. The tape recorder is finally off. Anything he wants to add? "I don't want to tell you how to write this... Golden rule number five: never say anything more than you have to."

Two hours earlier, in a large Remuera home, behind a pin-coded security gate, he doused his first cigarette under a sink tap and led the reporter down the garden path.

"I can't stand journalists who aren't honest or hide agendas," he said. He stopped to show off his spectacular stand of tomatoes. Much later, I remembered he started life on a tomato farm near Hastings. Once, Holmes wanted to be an actor. It's fair to say he grew up to become a fine stage manager.

The reality, I suspect, is that a 58-year-old Holmes rarely says anything he doesn't want to; does little he hasn't thought through first. But I like him. Twenty years ago, I couldn't have typed that sentence. Not because I didn't have an opinion, but because two decades ago, journalists didn't use the "I" word. Back then, reporters were never bigger than their story. Personality and opinion were for the pub not the public. Paul Holmes changed that.

"I know this created incredible turbulence and frustration amongst the old hacks and journalism academia, but to me it was a no-brainer nobody is objective.

"And it wasn't the end of the world as we knew it. It wasn't something to be frightened of. The proof was in the fact that the people took it, and took to it. They liked the honesty, the transparent honesty."

HOLMES IS New Zealand's most famous broadcaster: 16 years on prime time television, nearly 22 years as NewstalkZB breakfast host and a personal life that has included admissions of alcoholism and affairs, a battle with prostate cancer and, most recently, drug charges against his adopted daughter Millie.

He has insulted the famous and the powerful. America's Cup campaigner Dennis Conner stormed out of the first Holmes show when the host accused him of cheating and requested an apology to the nation. The next item on the half-hour bulletin was about a woman from Napier with 30 cats.

"The programme really communicated. It said we're all right in this country and we're all in this together."

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Six months after that first television appearance, he received a letter from his father, Henry: "He said he believed my questioning was getting better."

Holmes says he went on television (TVNZ, followed by a short stint with Prime) to raise his radio profile.

But in November 1988, when North & South magazine was advertising Agfa film and Miami Wine Cooler, a pre-primetime Holmes said to Steven O'Meagher: "The only reason I can see for having the fame, having the profile, is to enjoy some financial remuneration for it."

Remind him of that and he counters: "These were high-profile jobs performed in front of hundreds of thousands of people. They were tight-wire acts. If you made a mistake you made that mistake in front of half a million people-plus."

He still won't talk about his salary. But "I would like to think that I delivered for the money."

It bought him a series of ever-flasher cars. A farm in Hawke's Bay. A Colin McCahon painting he thinks now belongs to Nicole Kidman. This nice house in Remuera where the mirror over the fireplace is three times bigger than the flat screen TV, where there's a half-eaten loaf of Vogel's bread on the bench and pretty white lilies on the table.

I walk around, and look at the art. "Is that...?" Yes, says Holmes. In 2003, he called then United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan a "cheeky darkie" on NewstalkZB. It cost the Holmes show its Mitsubishi Motors sponsorship. And it enraged artist Ralph Hotere so much, he made two black corrugated iron protest works. One, called White Drip and featuring the words "To Mister Paul Holmes", was publicly displayed in Wellington. Nobody knew where the companion piece had gone until now.

"It became available," says Holmes.

He won't talk about the Annan incident. "I've apologised, it was unfortunate, it is regretted, it's gone."

What else has he put in that file?

"I suppose a few things. A few things I'm not going to tell you. Or anyone. None of us live perfect lives. I would like to think I come down at the bottom of the page weighted on the good side of the ledger."

It's early in the interview. He's just pronounced his first "golden rule", borrowed, he says, from the public relations industry.

"What matters is your heart. The camera sees a person's heart. You cannot lie to a television camera."

It must have been hard then, in the months following his break-up with his first wife, Hinemoa Elder, when details of his affair with Fleur Revell were splashed in Sunday newspapers?

"Some of those days, and during some of those periods, it was excruciating. It's terribly invasive, because it was so terribly public. It wasn't, shall we say, a good look."

But he survived. Among the photographs on the sideboard (Kiri Te Kanawa, Bill Clinton, family, family, family) is a picture of a dark-suited Holmes with an old woman with wild white hair. Janet Frame approached the broadcaster at a CD signing session in Dunedin. He says she told him they were both survivors (about that CD: "I can listen to a few tracks and think `that's quite nice but you ain't no singer'.").

Holmes' golden rule number three: "If you are generous-hearted and open to opportunities and seize that opportunity, you will succeed in whatever you want to do. And when you take that opportunity, by Christ, you commit to it, and you work every hour God gives you and you will succeed."

He loves radio "the drama, the danger, the intellectual battle". At his final breakfast show on Friday, Prime Minister John Key thanked him for his "sheer brilliance". Commentator Wendyl Nissen spoke of the day he hugged and kissed young Aids sufferer "Angel" Eve Van Grafhorst. His 84-year-old mum Chrissie said her son had written a book, sung a song and danced with the stars, and "I'm afraid to think what's coming next". His ego may be notorious, his bad days the stuff of legend but the accolades that poured in on Friday reminded me that on his good days, Holmes could make us proud we lived in New Zealand.

HE WAS raised Presbyterian. These days his faith tends Anglican. "I have a sense of there being a higher, greater order. I remind myself of it sometimes driving into work. It's kind of a surrender process if things are getting on top of me."

Last week, the New Zealand Herald reported Holmes' son Reuben had forbade mention of him. He says Reuben (Holmes' father's middle name) was "10 or 11" when he issued the edict.

"He said, `Dad, we've grown up with your name everywhere and your job and people knowing who you are,' and I said `Well, you haven't done too badly out of it. You appeared in prime television, number one in the ratings the day you were born'."

Perhaps he realises how appalling that sounds.

"The programme wanted it and you know, you know..." he trails off. "It's a wonderful day. If I had my way I'd have simply stayed home with Hinemoa, but the programme started calling relentlessly.

"The programme and, I suppose, by then me too, had become part of people's lives."

Am I starting to feel sorry for Holmes, the man who must have lived in constant fear of consumption by the beast he had to feed daily? No. He tells me there are three people in any interview situation: the interviewer, the subject, and the audience. Last Tuesday, I was unsure who was who.

Another golden rule: "You can ask anyone in the world anything you want as long as your tone is right... I think it's a sense of good manners, of understanding how to penetrate something, how to get inside them. Perhaps I have a skill for that. I think I do."

I, clearly, do not.

Millie? "No."

Drinking? "I talked about that stuff in those days. I don't now." And then: "How much do you want? How much blood do you want?"

But it's theatrical. And funny. "Humour is the best medicine," he says. I don't think that's original. "No but I don't think I've said it before either."

He'd like to talk about his work now, thank you. Credits a long list of reporters, producers and managers for making him the name he is today. His number one achievement: taking the NewstalkZB news and current affairs format to number one in a crowded radio market.

"You know, there are people who speak very highly of my work and I'm pleased to say some of those people are some of my closest colleagues.

"But I'm just an ambitious person of some intelligence who is prepared to do very hard work and try to learn from experience and to get better with the doing."

From January 17, he'll host NewstalkZB's Saturday morning show. It's a three-year contract, exclusive and "very generous".

Was he pushed? "I can honestly say it wasn't like that. I was starting to think about how many more years did I want to get up at 4am... I'm one of several senior people in that very successful company who are coming to the end of their full-on working life and it was management's desire that before any of us crashed out that we leave the company in good hands. We had the man who had emerged as my obvious successor sitting in the wings. He had to be kept."

Holmes will contribute a one-minute daily editorial to the new Mike Hosking breakfast show. He'll keep selling his own-brand olive oil and he'd like to produce wine and expand into the manuka honey business. He would quite like to write an international best-selling thriller. He is looking forward to dressing himself in daylight hours.

"Look at the state of me," he says, proclaiming his socks are mismatched. "I haven't even gone to get my jeans shortened."

He will not, is not, does not ever plan to retire.

"It's a very convenient word, but it's just not true. One door closes, another door opens. You never know what's around the corner."

 

LIFE AND TIMES OF PAUL SCOTT HOLMES

1950: Born April 29, raised on a tomato farm, Haumoana, Hawke's Bay.

1967: Post-high school job cutting penises off wet lambs at Whakatu Freezing Works.

1968: Begins law degree at Victoria, transfers to arts degree the following year.

1970s: Begins broadcasting career in Christchurch radio then works overseas.

1973: Car accident causes permanent loss of sight in right eye.

January 1976: The 25-year-old 2ZB radio host earns a lifetime ban from Radio New Zealand for asking the Archbishop of Canterbury to put down his sherry glass for a chat.

June 1976: Moves to Brisbane after disagreeing over format of TV2 rock show, Grunt Machine.

March 1987: Takes over Merv Smith's radio show on 1ZB.

April 1987: Wins Air Personality of the Year for second successive year.

March 1988: Asks on air if PM David Lange has lost his marbles. 1ZB apologises and pays money to charity.

April 1989: Dennis Conner walks off debut show after Holmes asks him to apologise to the country.

June 1989: Survives helicopter crash that kills cameraman Joe Von Dinklage.

February 1992: Sells rights to wedding to Hine Elder for $5000.

August 1996: Accused by police of playing the hero after arranging to meet fugitive gunman Grant Fagan.

August 1999: Leaves Elder for 25-year-old Fleur Revell. Relationship lasts a few months.

June 1999: Wins Qantas columnist of the year.

August 1999: Publishes his autobiography, for which he was reportedly paid $200,000, and a year later releases a covers album.

November 1999: Diagnosed with prostate cancer.

January 2003: Marries Deborah Hamilton.

June 2003: Refers to UN head Kofi Annan as a "cheeky darkie" on air.

November 2004: Resigns from TVNZ, and shortly after signs for Prime. Show is axed as a daily show after six months then canned.

March 2007: Says he will finish up ZB mornings by end of 2008, swapping with Mike Hosking to do his Saturday morning show.

 

QUOTE UNQUOTE  

"It's a teenager's job to push you away. It is your job to try to make sure they don't get too far away." On his relationship with daughter Millie in 2006

"I think I may have gone a little mad, it was kind of a breakdown. I had this huge hole in my soul, an emptiness that made me think my life was over." On life and prostate cancer in the late 1990s, in 2006

"He can dive into more manure than an A&P show and come up smelling of roses. He's such a grand performer." Pam Corkery on Holmes, 2004

"It wasn't too bad. People said they'd heard him sing a lot worse." A guest at Paul and Deborah's wedding, when he sang Wonderful Tonight to his bride, 2003

"I'm not the only person in the country to have experienced a problem with the drink, to have had a speeding fine, to have had a marriage break up." 1999

"Oh Mr Holmes, I have no drinking problem and you personally should not be asking that question of me." Winston Peters on Holmes TV show, 1997

"Yes, I want to be number one in Auckland. That's what I came here to do. I didn't come here to grow camellias. I didn't come here to wear flash clothes and ponce around all the restaurants. I can't be bothered. I'm very private. I like peace." 1988

"Really, if I ran unchecked I could be the Pomposity King." 1988

"Those were our people today, that's Holmes tonight" Every night on television for 15 years

Sources: Sunday Star-Times, Dominion, North & South, NZ Woman's Weekly, New Idea, Woman's Day, NZ Herald, NZ Listener, Holmes (Hodder Moa Beckett)

- Sunday Star Times

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