Sunday, August 30, 2009

The man who eats guests for Breakfast

August 30, 2009

CHRIS SKELTON/Sunday Star-Times
TOP RATER: Paul Henry and Alison Mau's Breakfast has out-rated the competition but drawn numerous complaints.

It's 7.45am last Wednesday, and a dishevelled stranger sits in TVNZ reception, staring at two giant flat screens.

He mutters something about catching a bus. Then wanders out, aimlessly.

"Haven't had one of those in a while," says the receptionist. "Weirdos." He laughs. "Must be a fan of Paul Henry's."

The Breakfast presenter the country loves to loathe couldn't have ad-libbed it better.

Paul Henry would deny that, of course. Because Paul Henry does everything better than anyone else. Listening to Paul Henry on Paul Henry is like going to the toilet in a stranger's house and stumbling on a list of self-improvement affirmations taped to the bathroom mirror.

"I must be enormously clever to have got to where I am now," he says.

"How do I judge myself at the moment? I'm not operating on my full level. I'm not as good as I could be. But I'm better than anyone else.

"Actually, it's funny when I say I'm not as good as I could be, because it's a lot of television, two- and-a-half hours a day, five days a week, at those hours. So, maybe actually, I am as good as I could be."

If success is measured by Broadcasting Standards Authority complaints, then Henry is a media superstar.

The Sunday Star-Times had exclusive access to the Breakfast studio on Wednesday last week when the Authority released the findings of the furore the media dubbed "moustache-gate".

Back in March, Greenpeace's Stephanie Mills appeared on the show to discuss compensation for people suffering the health effects of nuclear testing. In a viewer feedback segment, Henry read out emails commenting on the guest's facial hair.

"There's people noticing things," said Henry. "I noticed as well, and thought, that is a moustache on a lady."

In its decision, the Authority found Henry had breached fairness standards, but believed subsequent action by TVNZ, including an apology to Mills, was appropriate and it did not uphold the formal complaint.

Henry would just like to clarify something. "I didn't apologise for saying it. And I wouldn't want anyone to think that I did ... I would never apologise for that comment, because at the end of the day, I was saying what my eyes were seeing. And if the TV audience is sitting at home saying, 'my God, there's a woman with a moustache' - you know, why should I be too frightened, too paralysed with fear, to say 'oh my God, there is a woman with a moustache'?"

Err - because it was rude and insulting? "There was no intention to cause personal offence. So I'm more than happy to say sorry for causing personal offence, and indeed I did. I phoned her up. Her, personally, is the only thing that's important.

"These wowsers that complain are just people who have too much time on their hands, and who have the very fortunate lives that the biggest thing for them to worry about is something I've said about facial hair on a woman in the morning. To those people, I have nothing to say."

Which might be a first. Because Henry, 49, is not usually short on words.

"I have opinions on everything," he agrees. "I've had people say to me in the past, 'Paul, do you have an opinion on everything?' Well, yes. People should have opinions on everything. I'm not dead yet."
The problem, he says, is that when people ask questions, he answers them. Really answers them.

"You think, do I have the heartbeats to answer it? Is there enough room in my life for the answer to this question? And if the answer to that is yes, then you should answer it properly."
It's no secret that when Paul Holmes left the TVNZ 7pm slot, Henry thought he should get the Close Up job that went to Mark Sainsbury. Does he still want it?

"To be honest, less now than I once did. The fact is, I really wanted it. I know I am the best person for the job. But you can't hold onto something like that. So I fill in. I've been filling in for years, since before Mark Sainsbury got the job. I should have got the job when he wanted the job. I firmly believe that."

If the spot became vacant, "I would expect to get it. Do I want the job? I suppose I'm just being overly generous with the truth. I could have just said yes, because yes I do. The full answer is yes, I do. But I'm not as hungry for it as I was."

There is more. Much more. This is, perhaps, what television reviewer Jane Bowron means when she refers to Henry as "TV One's petrol-headed motormouth perpetually in top gear ... well known for his outrage-isms, Henry is like the little boy who has no filter and delights in loudly mentioning any elephant unfortunate enough to wander into his room".

Nothing is sacred. The morning we visit the studio, he uses the expression "donkey deep" on air. A viewer wonders about the etymology. Maybe, muses Henry, it is derived from the days when donkeys pulled carts through muddy roads. "Did you just make that up?" asks co-host Alison Mau. "Because it's brilliant."

Unfortunately for Mau, during the break, Henry is handed an actual definition from the urban dictionary. He is gleeful, delighted, like a small boy who has just discovered the word "poo". He faces the camera and tells his audience the expression refers to (drum roll) a donkey's HUGE member.

Later, seconds before Paula Ryan goes live to tell viewers what not to wear while holidaying in Muslim countries, Henry leans across to the fashion doyenne: "Did you know that? About a donkey's cock?"

PAUL HENRY WAS born in 1960. He grew up in Howick, but moved to England with his English-born mother when he was 11.

His parents had separated, "but it was one of those bizarre ones where if you asked me to pin down exactly when the separation happened, it would be hard to know".

"It was just one of those things where he was at home less and less and less. And then he had another partner and then he was never at home. His work was very important to him, and it worries me, you know, that aspects of my life have reflected that."

Henry has three daughters: "They have never ever had a period in their life where they haven't known that I painfully love them and would do anything for them and would absolutely die for them."

Gossip columns have devoted inches to an alleged relationship with businesswoman Diane Foreman and an alleged engagement to Linzi Dryburgh.

He won't talk about either. "Because it is none of anyone's business."

A screed of press clippings and women's magazine articles fill in the blanks about life, post-New Zealand childhood. His mother was poor. She worked treble shifts in a plastic bag factory, they lived in a dreadful council flat in Bristol, he wanted to be an actor and won a scholarship to study drama: "But I couldn't, I needed money, I didn't want my mother ... she'd done enough in her life to battle for me."

A studio assistant's job at BBC radio led to a mail room job at BBC TV. "That was brilliant. That's like the actor who works in the right restaurant, because the right people are coming in. I was visiting every single office, three times a day, I was getting to know the people, finding out where were the vacancies, where were the openings."

He worked as a projectionist in the natural history unit. David Attenborough would come in and Henry would play the rushes. "It was very cool."

He came back to New Zealand for the proverbial better life, aged 19. He worked for Radio New Zealand, briefly owned his own commercial radio station out of Carterton and stood for parliament on the National Party ticket, losing to Georgina Beyer. He worked for Radio Pacific, where he became a foreign correspondent.

There is probably a book in those years. Here's a 1998 North & South summary: "He's been detained in Iraq, shot at in Cambodia, nearly lynched in the slums of Calcutta, threatened by the French navy at Mururoa and shelled in Bosnia."

Last week, in the lobby of the SkyCity Grand Hotel, sipping spirulina under Karl Maughan's hyper-real garden paintings, he says: "Some of the things I did were very dangerous and that's why I stopped."

In Cambodia, down a muddy track, "in front of the cannons and heading towards the most heinous killers" he met another journalist. "He knelt down in front of me and felt my legs and said 'I will be the last person to ever feel your legs'."

The area, says Henry, was heavily mined. "I went round a few extra corners. What actually happened was I saved the lives of 21 people, because I went further than him and there was a gathering of people who were definitely going to be killed, women and children . . . "

Ahead of Henry, the jungle was crawling with fighters. "It became obvious the opportunity to get to whoever was running the show was not going to exist. That the people surrounding that person would kill you first. So we got out, and on the way back, we took all those people we found on the back of our ute with us."

Those moments, says Henry, "You die for them sometimes, but to live them ... "

HENRY HAS been with the Breakfast programme for five years, consistently out-rating TV3's Sunrise. He's in contention for the Qantas Film and Television Awards best news or current affairs presenter, against Fair Go's Kevin Milne and One News' Andrew Saville, announced on Saturday.

"I should win, shouldn't I? There's something wrong if I don't. It'll be political if I don't."
Last week, the Broadcasting Standards Authority confirmed that in the past two years, it has dealt with 13 complaints involving Paul Henry.

"Good broadcasting is on the edge," says Henry. "If you're not receiving complaints, you're not on the edge . . . all right, so that [figure] is probably knocking on the high side. I don't know if anyone else has achieved that, but I'll tell you what, I wear that as a badge of honour."

He was surprised, he admits, that Mills was "cool" on the phone, when he called about the facial hair comment. "And I wonder, actually, you know, here's the interesting thing. How much of her angst over it was as a result of what I said, or as a result of the reaction to what I said?"

Does anyone hold Paul Henry, self- described "famous A-lister", in check?

"No one really. And perhaps ... that is where I come perilously close to a lack of professionalism. It's that whole taking guidance thing. I think I know better than the people that guide me.
Actually, if I was entirely honest with you, I know I know better than the people that guide me."
Henry doesn't think he has an ego.

"And when I say that, everyone must have an ego. It's like everyone is a racist. It's just a question of degrees. It's like everyone can play the piano."

Everyone is racist? "Well, name someone who isn't ... you walk on a bus, there are three seats available next to three different kinds of people. How do you make your choice?"

It's no use asking Henry what he'd do, because this is a hypothetical rant, and "I don't know who those three people are". Also, it's unlikely he'd be on a bus. "I hate buses. Hate public transport. I hate taxis. I hate thinking that other people's arses have slid over the seat that I'm about to slide on. I hate so many things."

Top five? "They would rotate." And then, "I hate crowds." And stupid people. And sameness and tedium.

"I like things that are interesting and people that are interesting or even people that think interesting thoughts. The worst thing in the world would be to have a long, boring life. That would be much worse than a short boring life.

"I've moved past the ability to have a short life."

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