Starting 1989, primetime show Holmes helped usher in a new style of broadcasting — one where the presenter was opinionated, passionate and as much of a drawcard as those he was interviewing. The show ran five nights a week for 15 years before Paul Holmes moved to Prime Television, helping turn the radio veteran into one of the most recognisable faces — and voices — in New Zealand television.
Holmes described himself as a lifelong rebel against the side of New Zealand culture frightened of openness, colour, and "expressions of passion and individuality." He intended the Holmes show to celebrate the flipside, and uncover New Zealanders who had the capacity to be expressive, emotional and eloquent.
Holmes was the first son of a mechanic who had little time for the pompous. Growing up in 50s era Hawkes Bay, Paul fell in love with radio, from serials and songs, to the voices of Parliament. By the sixth form he was practicing announcing into the family tape recorder, auditioning at the local radio station, and acting on stage.
At Victoria University Holmes studied law, then switched to arts. He got his first professional acting job on a radio production of Antony and Cleopatra. In his second year he was elected president of the University Drama Society, where he acted alongside Sam Neill, Ginette McDonald and his mate John Clarke. As part of the ambitious Brian Edwards Travelling Road Show, actor/writer Roger Hall recalls Holmes getting the biggest laughs of the night.
Between stints at a Hawkes Bay freezing works, he won a place on an announcer training course at the NZ Broadcasting Corporation. In 1972 he began announcing on Christchurch radio station 3ZM. That year a freak car accident resulted in a brain haemorrhage, leaving him permanently blinded in one eye.
On-screen, Holmes appeared in science fiction tale An Awful Silence, and played the boyfriend in award-winning Paul Maunder docu-drama Gone up North for a While. In 1974 he won a major part in Buck House, New Zealand TV's first situation comedy. He played Reg, one of a group of university students living in a run-down flat (later he played saxophone in this one-off play).
Holmes can be seen DJing in this 1975 episode of Grunt Machine, the music show he would later host. In this period Holmes flew to Los Angeles, where the antics of a local radio DJ inspired him with a plan to ring famous people like Idi Amin and the Archbishop of Canterbury on air. The Archbishop interview would get Holmes banned from Radio New Zealand the following year.
A tape of Holmes' most spectacular calls and radio hoaxes became an overseas calling card, winning him radio work in Brisbane and Swansea (in Wales). Holmes found himself presenting breakfast radio in Vienna, and working for the Dutch World Service. While in Holland he flirted once again with television, after being hired to narrate video highlights packages for the 1980 Olympiad for the Disabled (he would later present two documentaries about Kiwi paralympians).
After eight years in Europe, Holmes began doing morning talkback at Wellington radio station 2ZB in 1985. For the longtime lover of "the drama, the danger" of radio, the new job taught him about "the political interview and the confrontational interview, the serious interview where lawyers are listening and the subject will fight to the death".
Two years later Brent Harman invited Holmes to Auckland to replace broadcasting legend Merv Smith, and introduce a news and interview format to 1ZB. As this documentary shows, Holmes saw the new Newstalk ZB format as a chance to cross traditional broadcasting lines between information and entertainment. In three months, the station fell from the top of the Auckland ratings to ninth, before edged upwards. By late 1988, the Paul Holmes Breakfast Show sat at second.
That year both TVNZ and TV3 approached Holmes about the possibility of a nightly current affairs programme. After testing the market with summer show Midweek with Holmes, the first nightly Holmes show went to air on TV One in April 1989 in the slot it would occupy for another 15 years, straight after the primetime news bulletin. Holmes won instant fame thanks to a controversial interview with American sailor Dennis Conner, in which Conner departed early, followed by a cameraman, after Holmes accused him of cheating in the America's Cup.
By 10.30 the morning after the interview aired, TVNZ's Auckland switchboard had taken more than 1200 phone calls, only a minority supportive. Holmes reporter Jim Mora has argued it was "a measure of how sedate" NZ's media and society then were, that the interview got such a reaction. The show had achieved spectacular lift-off. Three months later Holmes was in a helicopter crash in the ocean near Gisborne, while reporting for the show. Cameraman Joe Von Dinklage died. Holmes would have further close calls, including crashing his 40s-era biplane twice in 2004.
Rod Vaughan, who joined the Holmes reporting team in 1990, argues the infamous first episode "ushered in a new and exciting era in televison current affairs". He wrote that Holmes was the first New Zealand show to embrace campaign style journalism, winning popularity as it "relentlessly pursued" those with something to hide. Holmes himself has argued that the show frustrated "the old hacks and journalism academia" for abandoning old traditions of the journalist as objective and often invisible. Audiences "liked the honesty, the transparent honesty".
For the next 15 years Holmes worked two jobs, one feeding into the other — starting at 4.45am to work at Newstalk ZB, and then preparing for the TV show, which initially screened at 6.30pm, before moving to 7pm after the news was extended to an hour. On television, he was interviewing a wide range of people: politicians (including this extended interview with Margaret Thatcher), visiting celebrities, Kiri Te Kanawa, the Ingham Twins, Jonah Lomu after his 1996 wedding, and many less famous Kiwis besides. He also took a financial stake in Neil Roberts' production house Communicado, and in 1999 published an autobiography, followed by a poorly received CD (where Holmes turned crooner and covered 13 pop songs).
In September 2003, not for the first time, Holmes courted controversy after labelling United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan a "cheeky darkie" on his radio show. An open letter calling for Holmes' resignation was signed by Ralph Hotere, Witi Ihimaera, and historian Anne Salmond. The Holmes show lost a major sponsor, and Holmes sent an apology letter to the UN. Later he quietly purchased one of the artworks Hotere had created in protest.
In November 2004 he left TVNZ, holding a three-year contract with fledgling network Prime Television. "Holmes the man and Holmes the TV show needed some freshening up," he told journalist Kim Triegaardt, "and it couldn't and wouldn't have happened if I had stayed there". The new show, Paul Holmes, debuted in February 2005, with Holmes planting a pohutukawa on One Tree Hill. Viewers largely failed to switch channels. A move from a 7pm timeslot to 6pm halved already low ratings, and the show was cancelled in August. Reviewing the last show in the Sunday Star-Times, David McPhail called Holmes "the most diverting, irritating and hypnotic personality of the decade", who happened "to be in the wrong place at the wrong time". Later that year Holmes returned to Prime in a weekly format, before fronting hour-long chat show Holmes from April 2006.
The following year he returned to TVNZ to survive the first four rounds of Dancing with the Stars. By 2009 he had begun four years helping host TVNZ current affairs talk show Q+A. By now he had handed his daily radio talkback slot to "obvious successor" Mike Hosking, and moved to Saturday mornings. At that point Holmes' show still had three times as many listeners of its nearest competitor.
Bestseller Daughters of Erebus, his book on the tragic 1979 crash of flight TE901 in Antarctica, hit stores in 2011. Listener reviewer Matthew Wright called it nuanced, well-crafted and "a compelling picture of real people".
Paul Holmes was awarded for his work in radio, television, newspapers — and for his brand of olive oil. At the close of 2012 he became Sir Paul Homes, after being named a Knights Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (he had been named a Companion of the order back in 2003). In an interview with One News he called it "a hell of a Christmas present".
Holmes died on the morning of 1 February 2013, two weeks after a specially arranged ceremony to mark his knighthood. He had been in poor health since undergoing open heart surgery the previous June, and was also battling a resurgence of prostate cancer. His funeral on 8 February saw around 1000 people packing Auckland's Holy Trinity Cathedral.
Profile written by Ian Pryor
Paul Holmes, Holmes (Auckland: Hodder Moa Beckett Publishers, 1999)
Anna Chalmers, 'Reality hits Holmes as Prime pulls plug' - The Dominion Post, 9 August 2005, page A3
Carroll du Chateau, 'Paul Homes looks back' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 13 December 2008
John Drinnan and Edward Gay, 'Shove this job up your a***s - Paul Holmes exits breakfast' - The NZ Herald, 19 December 2008
Roger Hall, Bums on Seats (Auckland: Penguin Books, 1999)
David McPhail, 'Inside the Box' (Review of Holmes) - The Sunday Star-Times, 14 August 2005, page 3
'Jim Mora: Wonder Dogs, Rolling Rs, Mucking In, and more...' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 12 July 2012. Accessed 19 May 2015
Amanda Spratt, 'Homes decides to stay grounded for now' - The NZ Herald (Herald on Sunday), 2 January 2005, page 13
Kim Triegaardt, 'in his prime' (Interview) - Businessman Today, March 2005, page 3 (Issue 14)
Rod Vaughan, 'Paul Holmes - a legend in his lifetime' - The National Business Review, 16 January 2013
Matthew Wright, 'Daughters of Erebus review' The Listener, 20 October 2011
'Paul Holmes: signing off' (Interview) - The Sunday Star-Times, 20 December 2008
'Sir Paul Holmes tells of Knighthood call from PM' TVNZ website. Loaded 31 December 2012. Accessed 31 December 2012
'Broadcaster Sir Paul Holmes dies at 62' - The NZ Herald, 1 February 2013