August 8, 2012 in General
While many of us came of age in front of the television, Andrew Whiteside came of age on it.
Okay, that sounds filthy.
What I mean is, as a young journalist he made quite a brave decision in allowing himself to become the face of gay television in New Zealand when a little show called Express Report started on regional television in the mid-1990s.
That show eventually crossed to mainstream television, became Queer Nation, and was the longest running show of its type until its cancellation in 2004.Â At its height, it churned out forty episodes a year, most containing three stories apiece, busting stereotyping and chronicling the breadth of gay life in New Zealand.
I was lucky to get my first experience in television by working as a director and presenter on the final two series of the show, and thatâs where I first got to know Andrew as more than that guy off the telly.Â He was the showâs producer, and my boss.
Despite the fact I knew nothing about how to put stories together for television, I had come from a written journalism background and had recently completed shooting my first feature film, âQuiet Night Inâ.Â He gave me the confidence to develop as a storyteller, taught me the discipline of working to deadlines, and in our final episode green-lighted a mad story idea I had to dress up as a bishop and start my own political party to illustrate religious interference in state affairs.
When Queer Nation came to an end, however, he was burnt out.
âDoing forty episodes a year for nine years is a huge ask in time and energy.Â The budgets were tight and so youâre really churning them out. Youâre making cheap television but it has to be of a certain quality.â
For every hand-written letter in the weekly mailbox with a provincial postmark, written by men and women of all ages who loved the show â and some of whom openly said its mere existence had saved their lives â when youâre a highly visible media figure you open yourself up for criticism.
Andrew is confident in front of the camera.Â He has a natural curiosity, is a great storyteller, and can switch on the âpresenterâ mode whenever required.Â But he doesnât relish that time on screen.Â He just does it because itâs a necessary part of the job.
âThroughout the years of the show, I had praise and criticism.Â That touched me a lot, but I felt the criticism quite strongly, because I really believed in the show and the fact that it was about empowering gay people and showing the diversity of our communities.
âIt took me a white to realise that some peopleâs comments do not represent the entire audience or the entire community, and that realistically whatever product you create some people will love it and some people will hate it.”
By the time I was working on the show, Andrewâs role as producer had seen him shrink back from appearing on screen as much, often completing stories with voiceover and a short on-screen introduction. Â This was mandated by TVNZ, who had an inordinate amount of control over a show they contributed no money to and consistently relegated to the graveyard slot of 11pm on Thursdays.
âWhen I left the show, I didnât think that I would be making queer television again.â
That would have been a great loss for our communities.Â There are so many stories out there to be told, and so few people willing to tell them.Â Itâs often a thankless task, and certainly not one that you can make a serviceable living out of.
âIt took me a while to become creative again,â he remembers.Â âI just did office work for a while because I just wanted to do something I had no emotional commitment to.â
The creative bug did eventually bite again, but by this time the world of media consumption had changed.Â Internet video was taking off, social media was here, and television was becoming less relevant.Â Cheaper and better technology was allowing creative people to have more control over their product and be less reliant on interfering networks, futile funding applications and expensive teams of technicians.
His rebirth started when Queen Of The Whole Universe pageant creator and event organiser Jonathan Smith approached Andrew to make a small documentary about community photographer Brian Andrews.
âI thought, âhow am I going to do thisâ?â he says.Â âSo I just bought a whole load of equipment really and just started.â
A camera, a lighting kit and a Macbook later, and he was set up with Roll Tape Productions.Â He started to build up a list of corporate clients, more equipment, and most excitingly, began to tell stories again via interviews of high-profile New Zealanders for the website NZ On Screen.
âI had to learn all the technical stuff because in the Queer Nation days I directed and produced and presented, but other people actually did all the technical work.Â Iâve come to love editing, for example, because I love that whole crafting of a story, Â bringing all those elements together is fascinating.Â Thatâs what I love.â
When making my short film âCommunicationâ in 2010, I was honoured when Andrew agreed to come on set and shoot behind-the-scenes footage.Â Working as a one-man band, the richness and quality of what came out was worthy of a doco about a feature film.
It was clear that he hadnât lost his passion for being on the front lines of storytelling about gay menâs lives, so it came as no surprise that heâd eventually be bitten by the bug to return to gay television.Â Over the years, friends had suggested he do something, but heâd resisted the idea, still feeling the burn of the Queer Nation years.Â All that changed on a recent trip to Australia.
âI was over there in February and Iâd been mulling around various ideas.Â I said to a friend of mine, Iâm thinking I might just pitch some ideas at some networks here because the powers that be in New Zealand donât seem interested.Â And he said âoh, just make it yourself, put it on the webâ.â
And âGay Talk Tonightâ was born â a weekly 12-minute show based around a single guest interview of a GLBT person from various backgrounds.Â Four episodes have gone online to date tackling a range of subjects: Urzila Carlson on comedy, Jonathan Smith on Queen Of The Whole Universe, Taane Mete on the world of dance, and the most emotional episode to date â MP Maryan Street on the issue of euthanasia.
âSomebody shared that episode on Facebook, and mentioned they have a degenerative disease and that theyâve discussed these very issues,â he says.Â âAnd a number of people have said to me, you know, itâs really great to have that discussion, we need to have it.â
Being the shameless self-promoter that I am, I phoned Andrew up a week ago and asked if heâd have me on to talk about the forthcoming release of my documentary âMen Like Usâ, and he kindly agreed.
Having shepherded that project from go-to-whoa, finding the interview subjects, convincing them to share their stories, shooting them, and then crafting them into a final piece, I share Andrewâs enthusiasm at how empowering it is to have control over your own work.
When his friend suggested that Andrew didnât need network approval, that he should just make his own show, âit really galvanised.Â Something just went off in my head because I suddenly thought I could choose who I want to interview, I could choose the format, I could have total creative control and, you knowâŠâ he laughs.Â âIâm sure thereâs an ego dimension in that, but mostly what it was about was freedom of not having to rely on a funder telling me what it should be, or whether itâs even a viable option.
âI wouldnât have to worry about network politics, and also I wouldnât need to worry about pleasing everybody in the queer community.Â I can talk to people I want to interview and put it out there and hopefully people will be interested.â
Working totally by himself on the production, Andrew has set up a Youtube channel and Facebook group, and started releasing episodes.Â He very much enjoys the direct audience interaction and feedback that the new era of social media provides.
Although the questions he asks each of his guests range to suit the subject, there is one that he asks everyone at the end of each interview.Â Itâs a question that takes âGay Talk Tonightâ above a simple piece of light entertainment and into an area where thereâs potential for us to have ongoing conversations about what matters in our lives.
âThe question is basically âwhat makes a happy, fulfilled lifeâ, so I ask each person that,â Andrew says.Â âOne of the reasons I ask that is because Iâve grappled with my own identity, Iâve grappled with mild depression over a number of years and also Iâm not religious ânever have been â but I have a belief in something that I canât quite define.
âSo Iâve always been interested to know how other people deal with these things, how do other people sort through their lives. Â (He also experienced the suicide of a very close friend a few years ago, which he spoke with me about in a separate interview last year.)
The responses have surprised him.Â âOne of the things Iâm finding is that everybody has their own particular language and observations, but the central themes seem to be the same.Â When we encounter problems in our lives, or things that are difficult for us to overcome, knowing that somebody else has faced this,that somebody else has got through it is actually really affirming.”
He sits back in his chair, the very chair that heâs sat in with his clipboard to interview me only a few minutes earlier.
âI donât have all the answers, I know I donât know everything and thatâs why I ask questions. Â I want to share that with people.
âBut partly itâs really selfish because I want to know how other people sort their lives out so I can sort out some of the messes in my own,â he laughs.Â âI say that slightly tongue in cheek, but itâs true. Â We all have a spiritual dimension whether or not weâre religious, and so that, to me, is really interesting.â