Newspaper columnists


Gullible viewers caught up in act

By Val Smith
     I have always prided myself as being reasonably intelligent.
     Not really clever, and certainly gullible, always the last to realise someone is pulling my leg, but not totally dumb.
     Why, I can do the Listener crosswords and change a wheel, bake a cake when I have run out of butter and flour and play two versions of Chopsticks.
     But after a recent television programme, real edge-of-the-chair stuff, I question not only my gullibility but also my brain.
     The programme was called Forgotten Silver the story of a brilliant early New Zealand photographer Colin McKenzie, with fascinating film footage and riveting interviews with learned people.
     I went happily to bed filled with admiration for this brave young movie pioneer and deeply grateful to TVNZ for showing for once something really inspiring instead of rubbish.
     I even mentally wrote letters of congratulations to the producers for their devotion and research - and to tv bosses too for forgetting the ratings mania and sports addicts and being brave enough to screen a programme for the intelligentsia.
     I also mentally planned a visit to the bush near Hokitika to stand in awe at the ancient film set and to sit at the feet of McKenzie's poor little widow.
     It was just as well I didn't start a pilgrimage or letter.
     Next morning, of course, all was revealed in a small item in The Dominion, saying most people realised the programme was a hoax. In other words, the really intelligent people.
     To say I was shattered was an understatement! Not only because I was bitterly disappointed that there was no handsome young hero at all, or a grieving widow, but because I had been completely sucked in.
     True, I did wonder about the 200 dozen eggs, and the fact that none of the descendants of the massive army of film extras ever claimed that grandma was once a seductive dancer and grandpa a Roman soldier. There was also the fact that no tramper or hunter had ever stumbled upon the impressive set for Salome.
      But I wanted to believe this marvelous story of ingenuity, courage and tragedy so much that I pushed such churlish ideas away.
     I was later immensely cheered to find I was not the only so-called intelligent victim of this cruel hoax. My daughter and son-in-law, with four degrees and highly responsible positions between them, a high-ranking retired police officer, a deputy headmistress and an ex-hospital matron puffing next to me at the heated pool all believed it was true.
     In fact, they were sore at me for shattering their fond memories of the best local programme they had seen for ages. But we were all man enough to laugh at our gullibility.
     Okay, Peter Jackson and your mates.
     Once I had recovered from my bitter disappointment that Colin McKenzie was no heroic tragic young prodigy, but merely a figment of someone's fertile and quirky imagination, and from my acute embarrassment at being sucked ill, I must admit your programme was absolutely brilliant.
     I don't mind in the least if you laughed all the way to the bank, for you all richly deserve it for giving romantic viewers an hour or so of nostalgia and pure escapism, plus a chance to acclaim an unsung hero.
     This programme matched the gems from usually correct Country Calendar - the famous radio -controlled dogs, turkeys in gumboots, day and night sheep grazing and alternative sheep shearing with blowwaves and soft music - that I would love to see repeated. New Zealand comedy and spoof at its best, their serious well-researched script and footage the reason so many otherwise intelligent people believe them, for a while anyway.
      Please do it again.
     But next time, instead of inveigling the Listener and making oaths of secrecy for all concerned with the production, could you please drop a line in my letterbox if I promise not to let on, so that I call be spared shattered dreams and acute embarrassment on finding I am, after all, not only gullible but thick...
(Taupo Times, 30 November 1995)

Forgotten Silver a delicious hoax

by Dave Mahoney
     After getting over the initial annoyance of being had, duped, deceived, fooled, hoodwinked and taken for a ride by the "documentary", Forgotten Silver, on Sunday night, I'm delighted I was and look forward to the promised rescreening of this delicious hoax.
     I was annoyed because there were so many episodes in the show that made me think, "This can't be right, I'm sure I would've heard or read of this before."
     Checking with others who viewed the work of the "forgotten genius", early New Zealand film maker Colin McKenzie, many were of the same mind. There is only one person I know who very quickly twigged to the fraud when he asked his wife if it was April 1st? (I won't mention his name for fear his wig won't fit when he goes to court.)
     I didn't see the first part of the programme which, among other wondrous cinemagraphic things, showed McKenzie's footage of the first powered flight by Richard Pierce in South Canterbury, but caught up with his insane Candid Camera bites, where an idiot Stan the Man kept heaving custard pies into the faces of unsuspecting victims.
     When he unleashed his pies into the faces of then Prime Minister Joseph Gordon Coates and his wife while they were standing in their finery on the platform at the Buller Railway Station in 1926 and was bludgeoned to the deck and brutally assaulted by baton wielding police, I wondered why I had never heard or read of the event?
     As McKenzie's amazing story unraveled. I kept thinking that I was watching the most exciting piece of New Zealand television ever made and upon reflection, maybe I am near right.
     Our resident film expert, Bob Williams, told me he had returned home, socially excited after a day on the bowling green, and collapsed on the couch to watch the "documentary". The activities of his day kept putting him into a slight coma, (how could we tell the difference?), and he didn't see all of the hour-long spoof, but what he did see fooled him.
     However, Mr Williams did say that at one stage when he was fully conscious he thought that the bra worn by the actress playing Salome was a little too modern for the day. And he, of course, would know.
     Our chief photographer, Maurice Costello, a man who was at the side of Joseph Niepce in 1826 when the first photograph was taken, was so taken by the saga of uncovering the giant film set in Westland that he mentally planned to take a tramping trip to the region over the Christmas holidays.
     The creators, Peter Jackson and Costa Botes, no doubt are still rolling about in uncontrollable mirth at the results of their masterpiece, which was in its own way a splendid salute to 100 years of moving pictures. Forgotten Silver will never achieve that "forgotten" status with me and if you missed it, don't when it rescreens.
     The only drawback was calling it a documentary, which places TVNZ's credibility in jeopardy. How can we believe anything screened in the future or in the past? I think I'll stick with TV3 for news just to be safe.
(Evening Standard, 3 November 1995)

Forgotten Silver found to be fools gold

By Joanne McNeill
     Everyone was raving on Monday morning about the "documentary" Forgotten Silver which screened in the Montana Sunday Theatre slot.
     There were enthralled accounts of lost film sets in the bush, of pioneering Kiwi film maker Colin McKenzie filming his own death in the Spanish Civil War, of Tahitian berries used in a groundbreaking colour film process, of high drama and of footage of Pierce's first flight, with definitive dating at last, from a computer enhanced newspaper in someones pocket. Even Salome, Stalin and the proverbial garden shed were mentioned.
     I was tearing my hair out because I missed it completely on account of some forgotten silver of my own - namely the aged parents down south who chose 8.40pm on Sunday night to avail themselves of cheap weekend phonecalls.
     The next day only one person I spoke to had twigged that the "documentary" was a hoax.
     Everyone else swallowed it hook, line and sinker and was, moreover, delighted with the whole glorious tale of hitherto undiscovered genius lurking in our national past.
     With the seeds of doubt sown, a good part of Monday afternoon was spent combing visitors' recollections for any shred of possibly verifiable evidence and debating the veracity of what they'd seen.
     Where was the Salome set? What was it made out of? Concrete, they said. How did it get there, miles into the bush? It took him five years they said. But New Zealand is a village I said. Someone knows every bump of this land - how it got there, who walked over it, why and when. Somebody's grandfather's cousin would have carried the bags of cement. We would have heard.
     "But Leonard Maltin was in it," they said, dismissing any argument that movie critic Maltin and all other television personalities are creations, powdered, primped and prompted images, as opposed to whoever they may be at home picking their noses. Surely, aware of this duality in his own personae, Maltin would be delighted to lend his complicity to any cheeky creation of illusion?
     It should have gone without saying that everything on television is illusion - a shiftless parade of provenance-free images made of artifice, sound waves and insubstantial light which viewers, with the aid of perception and experience, realise as whatever they seem to be.
     As the debate progressed I became convinced it really was a hoax. The misunderstood man alone thread corresponded too well with the major theme in our national fiction. The Tahitian berries coincided nicely with the romantic notion that New Zealanders have always led the world in every field - using only number eight wire and boundless ingenuity.
     The Pierce footage fitted too snugly with the urban myth, afoot for all of my lifetime, that a camera was present at the historic flight but the film was lost.
     On Monday night's One Network News all was revealed. Co-director Peter Jackson said "Maybe we're just naughty" and "We are makers of illusion". Then later in the paper on Tuesday TVNZ spokesman Roger Beaumont was quoted as saying, "It quickly became apparent that the film was fictitious."
     Not to viewers around here it didn't.
     In the end they took it pretty well though. After the initial thrill of discovery and then the disappointment, they decided, rather charitably I thought, that the show was very clever to have sucked them in.
     I'm pleased I didn't see it now because I'll never know whether I would have failed the gullibility test.
     In a way it was all very post-modern. We've had Forrest Gump inserted into historical footage, novelists supplying photographs of fictional characters, reality soap like Sylvania Waters and virtual reality - so why not virtual history?
     As an illusion, apart from the aforementioned professional cynic, Forgotten Silver was obviously successful - no mean feat in any medium. Mind you, there's a fine line between illusion and deception and, as I said to the young drama students of my acquaintance who recently turned restaurant patrons into an unwitting audience by staging an impromptu theatrical fight, those who cross it deliberately had better watch their backs.
(Northern Advocate, 4 November, 1995)