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Waimate-born Jim Hopkins spent much of his youth around Saint Mary’s Anglican Church in Christchurch, as “the fruit of clerical loins” (his father was the vicar). At Christchurch Boys’ High, he recalls occasional “mad impromptu performances” from future television names David McPhail, Ken Ellis and Peter Sharp in the library on Friday afternoons.
At high school Hopkins first discovered a lifelong love of debating. As a self-professed “owlish lad” with “glasses that looked like milk bottle bottoms” Hopkins joined the debating team, and never looked back. After leaving school a year early to attend Canterbury University (“there was no career path for the media then”), Hopkins joined the university debating team. He was later chosen to be a part of the New Zealand universities debating team.
Hopkins travelled to Melbourne for debating competitions. As he explains in this extended Funny As interview, it was in Melbourne that Hopkins was first exposed to the looser, more comedic debating style then associated with England's Oxford Union. Hopkins found it a refreshing contrast to Kiwi traditions of "poker faced serious talks to empty rooms".
"It was like discovering a new world where you debated for laughs ...so we brought some comic debating here and it blossomed." He invited famous names to join debates at Canterbury University, which helped draw in crowds. With the debates growing in popularity, Hopkins organised a debate for the 1972 Christchurch Arts Festival which filled the 2000+ seats of the town hall, and “brought the house down”. Hopkins feels that the explosion of debating in this period "helped create the comic culture we have now", and was one of the parents of Kiwi stand-up comedy.
In 1972 he worked on his first TV show. Kids series It's a Weird World was built around radio personality Dick Weir. Hopkins operated a puppet called Grabble; he remembers one time when a storyline proved so terrifying that some of the young audience made a dash for the door. "It was some time before calm — and taping — resumed."
It was a busy few years for Hopkins. Alongside Weird World, Hopkins was approached by TV producer Peter Muxlow to help develop a comedy show, which ultimately never got made. Hopkins recalls scripts travelling between Christchurch and Wellington, as executives asked "what is the reference to cabbage? Wouldn’t it be better if it was a pumpkin?". A year or more was spent "vetting scripts” and receiving feedback. The experience may have inspired a comment Hopkins made years later in The Listener, on the value of treating comedy writers with respect. "Otherwise you have a terrible feeling you're belting out endless scripts and dropping them down a bottomless well".
When Radio Avon started in Christchurch in 1973, Hopkins and some of his Canterbury University friends wrote a script for comedy show The Lumpy Pudding Show. Unfortunately it was shot down by the station's manager, who had a different format in mind and told the group he could “lend them a few books on creativity”.
In the mid 70s Hopkins did time as a reporter in TV One's Christchurch newsroom. He also reported for the channel's companion current affairs shows Dateline Monday and Prime Time, spending time as a presenter on the later.
Hopkins was also busy with public debates around the country. While debating in Dunedin in the 1980s, he was approached by Michael Laws to be a part of the televised BNZ Festival Debates. Hopkins still gets recognised for them, and asked when they will return. After the success of the BNZ debates, Hopkins was invited to do a half hour debate show, XXXXXXX (1980). Hopkins voiced concerns over the “impossible” length of the episodes — roughly 22 minutes — but ultimately agreed to join David Lange as his opposing team captain.
Hopkins also has a number of other television credits (alongside his extensive work in radio). He did a number of seasons as a reporter on 1980s show Fast Forward, which showcased how science was changing everyday New Zealand life. He filed reports for archival show Then Again and Weekend, and hosted 1983 TV series UDC Inventors — in which Kiwis competed for a prize — and occasionally presented media analysis show Media Matters.
After the launch of regional station Canterbury Television in 1991, Hopkins was front and centre on current affairs show Jim Hopkins Live!, which aired five nights a week. A decade later he came up with the idea for CTV show The Knackered Chef. The show mixed cooking and interviews. Over two seasons the guests included The Topp Twins, Mike King, Don Brash and Michael Palin.
Hopkins is also an author. Two of his five books were later turned into documentaries which he presented. Blokes ‘n’ Sheds was based on his 1998 bestseller, with Hopkins playing tour guide through Kiwi sheds containing everything from old paddle boats to self-designed planes. Follow-up book Inventions from the Shed was turned into this documentary, with Hopkins looking at interesting inventions from backyard inventors.
He has written sketches for Public Eye, a sketch comedy show featuring outlandish puppets. He also turned up on childrens show What Now? as the grumpy Clive Grumble, and was one of the writers and presenters of 1983's Cancerline, a live show promoting early detection of cancer.
Hopkins has presenting extensively off-screen as well. He hosted the Young Farmer of the Year Awards for 21 years, from 1991 to 2011. Hopkins has also been a columnist for The NZ Herald, a popular after dinner speaker, and a district councillor in Waitaki.
Profile written by Sarah Baker; published on 18 October 2019
'Jim Hopkins - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 17 October 2019. Accessed 18 October 2019
'Jim Hopkins' SpeakerLink website. Accessed 18 October 2019
Graham Ford, 'Getting laughs the hard way' - The Listener, 17 August 1985, page 18
Unknown writer, 'Hopkins retiring as Young Farmer host' - The Manawatu Standard, 9 April 2011
Blokes ‘n’ Sheds (Television Documentary) Director Allan Baddock (Taylormade Productions, 1999)
Inventions from the Shed (Television Documentary) Director Peter Barrett (Frame Up Films, 2000)
Knackered Chef (Press release)