From Dennis Connor to Dotcom: Paul Holmes remembered

When I heard my friend Paul Holmes had died, I needed to write. This is what came out

Timing. It was part of the Paul Holmes genius. There were tougher questioners, better researchers, more authoritative interviews. But no-one understood the ebb and flow, the rhythm and pace, the pure performance part of an interview like Paul. And so it seems the most natural and obvious thing in the world that his death this morning, whilst a heart wrench for those of us who loved him, is well timed.

Paul would not have wanted to hang around as the infirm and diminished star of an increasingly macabre circus. Paul was, at heart, a performer and a star. Any true stars know when to leave the stage, to leave 'em wanting more. The true and rare blessing was that he enjoyed the sort of applause few get in their lifetime before he left. He received the knighthood that meant so much to him (a very good deed done by Helen Clark and John Key), and just as importantly he heard what he meant to his friends, colleagues and audience. Stars, as we know in this celebrity-crazed world, need to be loved and Paul was no exception. To have heard that love said out loud, to feel it in the touch of a sword on his shoulder and to have read it in the many messages collected by NewstalkZB would have given him some peace in what has been, at times, a scary few months.

The image of him in my head today is him slipping quietly out the stage door and heading for the van while the crowd are still on their feet.

I had the privilege of working with Paul for four years on Q+A. I'm the last in a long line of producers to have worked with him, some who stuck by him for decades and remain good friends. And that should tell you a lot. He was wonderful at being a friend. He sparkled at it, like he sparkled as a raconteur.

He would confess - indeed he did - that sometimes that was at the expense of being a father and husband. But he was so generous with his friends and colleagues - with his time, his wine, his warmth, and his wisdom. He had such a heart. And that shone through.

He befriended people easily because he was so open, wore his heart on his sleeve. And because he gave a damn. It cost him, but it gave him so much as well. It was who he was. In many ways it was the secret of his professional success as well.

I only knew him in the twilight of his career (he once said to me how sorry he was we hadn't worked together when he was in his prime, but to be honest I think we would have driven each other mad back then). But I spent many a Saturday afternoon, after the questions had been written, the strategy argued into place and a glass of wine poured, talking about life, family, faith, books, Erebus, money, love, fame and current affairs.

So what of the man? He could be a bit of a prick. He made me cry, made me furious, almost made me quit. And this was long after the Holmes days when he could use the withering, argument-ending line "it's my name above the fucking shop". That didn't stop him yelling at me more than once, "I've been doing this for 20 years" and "You don't know a fucking thing about TV" and the like. I'm a fan of a well-researched, detailed interview without fear or favour and the hardest thing was to get him to read in-depth and try to structure an interview. He had a different style and we'd clash.

I tried reminding him of some of those arguments late last year and he all-but denied us ever disagreeing. I laughed at him, but I realised it was a mark of the man. It took me a while to learn, but he forgave and literally forgot readily. He was willing to lose an argument and be persuaded. And he seldom held a grudge. As he always said, "it's only telly. No-one dies on the table". He was wise enough, bless him, to keep it all in perspective. He didn't take himself too seriously - well, not often. I remember the Holmes days when he played tennis with Kelly Evernden or hammed up his spat with Gordon Ramsey. He was able to laugh at himself, unlike many.

Happily, he also knew how lucky he was. Guyon Espiner told me the story this morning that when they met, and he was giving Guyon the tour of his-then Remuera home, he said 'all this just from talking'. But what a talker he was.

When he was cruel - and he could be - it was out of thoughtlessness or those in-built prejudices we all have; I can't remember him being scheming or purposefully malicious. And he had an array of skills that just kept on giving.

For a start, he liked people and people liked him. He was real, the same on and off screen. You cannot begin to understand how important that is on television, when night-after-night the true person can't help but shine through. Not only did he liked people, he was genuinely interested in them. Both the Prime Minister and the AIDS victim. That is rare. And it is TV-gold.

Paul used to say he was a broadcaster, not a journalist. And that was true. While his nose for news was brilliant - if there was a better reader of what Kiwis cared about and the mood of the nation, I haven't met one - he didn't want to play by the typical journo rules. He was our first opinion broadcaster; he was proud of that and saw no fault. He let his personal opinions and biases intrude, which was difficult on a programme such as Q+A and another reason for our clashes.

But the thing is he was the best opinion broadcaster around. He was good at it because, what many don't appreciate, was that he was incredibly well read and had a magpie mind, gathering up facts and yarns like they were shining baubles. He would read Russian history and Phillipa Gregory, loved Downton Abbey and the Kardashians. So his views had broad foundations.

And on nearly every occasion (I can think of only three exceptions), he manned up for the big interviews and put himself aside to ask the questions that mattered.

I think back to the John Banks 'cabbage boat' interview on Kim Dotcom's donation. He and Banks were friends. But he put that aside to do the job and hold Banks to account.

The story of that interview is a great example of another part of his genius - he was not just a broadcaster, he was a performer. He knew the power of silence ( we had several long conversations about that), the importance of facial expressions, of tone, of pace, of delivery.

Banks and Labour's David Parker had agreed to come on Q+A to talk about the economy before the story of the Dotcom donation and meeting at the mansion broke. We sweated, fearing Banks would cancel, but to his credit he didn't. And we organised a strategy. We had about nine minutes for the interview. The first four minutes we'd let the men debate the economy as promised. But the news and the audience interest demanded questions about Dotcom. So at four minutes I gave him the signal in his ear and he switched gear. And here's an example of the little things that stood Paul apart.

He turned to Parker and said he'd have to excuse him, as he needed to ask questions of Mr Banks alone now. It was perfect - the audience saw him being polite, knew something was about to happen and it told Parker to butt out. He gave Banks several chances to answer the core questions, but it was quickly clear he wouldn't. So Paul just went for it, question after question, punch after punch landed on a politician who couldn't offer a straight story. It was all pitch-perfect.

More of those little things was on display in his final television interview, which was with Kim Dotcom. We'd had been working on it for months. He had been ill, I don't think he'd mind me telling people that he was on morphine, but he did the interview regardless - 48 minutes raw that was cut down to 23 for air. It was a gruelling gig.

In the first part of the interview (transcript) Paul wanted to get inside the man - to talk about his family, childhood and motivations. At one point Paul asks about the things of the mind and he taps his pen against his forehead. I don't know any other interviewer aware enough of visual drama to have thought to do that.

Dotcom had been a bit reticent talking about the raid on his house, but when Paul asked about the internet, Dotcom lit up. Paul liked to "lift the curtain", as he called it. So he stopped and pointed out how Dotcom's mood had changed; he was in the moment and reading it in an instant. Again, a little thing, but a rare talent.

My other memory of that last interview was as we were leaving, driving out the gate. He was drained, but we suddenly remembered we hadn't shot the break teasers I wanted on location. We stopped by the front gate and he hopped out. As it started to drizzle, I desperately went through the interview in my head. 'What do you want?" he asked. 'Coming up on Q+A, we're at the Dotcom mansion... something about his family... and what he really thinks about John Key. That sort of thing," I replied.

We needed three teasers. We shot four. Every one he did in a single take, word perfect and lively. We jumped back in the car and drove home. Paul was a pro. An utter pro.

I think of programmes around the Christchurch earthquake and the ANZAC Day chopper crash when he just had to talk. Yep, what a talker he was. He would always say the TV folk needed to hire more radio folk, because that was where you learnt to just be able to keep talking, coherently and entertainingly, while all around you was chaos.

That rare mixture of talent, combined with grit and a ferocious work ethic, made him, along perhaps with Aunt Daisy, the New Zealand broadcaster. For all that Paul could polarise public opinion - some of you will still think he was a lightweight - there's no question within the business that he changed things like no other.

Gordon Harcourt once said we all work in 'a post-Holmesian media world'. I told Paul about that and he was chuffed. But there's no hyperbole in that. He was the man. Newstalk ZB was built on his shoulders, the 7PM TV slot is now generating so many column inches because he made it matter. 

As he became a great broadcaster, he also became a star. It's hard for those of us with ordinary-sized lives to understand. But I got it one Friday afternoon in our first year on screen. He'd swan in greeting all and sundry, still enjoying what had been, if you'll permit me, a pretty triumphant return to TVNZ. He wanted a coffee and I was to come with him; I had a million things to do, but you couldn't say no. The coffee cart in the TVNZ atrium, however, was closed. I suggested a walk to Starbucks on the other side of SkyCity, little more than a block away. He ummed and prevaricated, but I nagged him into it. He used to say he didn't really do walking, which I teased him about. But I got to see why.

There and back, in little over a block, he must have been greeted a couple of dozen times. Everyone knew him, wanted to say hi. He had to switch on and engage with his fans - and remember, this was years after he'd been on primetime. It's the sort of fame only a few Prime Ministers and the odd All Black can understand.

Don't get me wrong, he loved it. Throughout his career he courted it, even when it was to his detriment. The attention was oxygen for Paul. But there's always a price.

The work, the drink, the love affairs... they took a toll. But you know what? He loved life. He had few regrets and even those he didn't dwell on. As Maryanne Ahern, who produced Paul for over 20 years on radio and TV, said to me today, he just enjoyed it all.

These days 62 years of life is not long enough. He would have loved growing old in his beloved Hawkes Bay looking out over the olives and lavender, glass in hand, recalling the glory days and bragging about his kids. (And writing more. He really loved to write). But what a life. So many lives touched, such a difference made.

At his recent thank you do from all the charities he worked so hard at last year, a representative of Paralympics New Zealand made it quite clear he utterly changed how their sports and endevaours are viewed in this country. That would be legacy enough for most of us, but for Paul it is just one of many.

As he went about his work, he lived life as he wanted to and had fun.

He loved meeting the stars, the politicians and the people in the street. He loved being rich ("There were times Tim when I couldn't walk through an airport without dropping 10k on a watch!"). He loved the influence ("The power of the green room Tim, that matters and I'm good at that"). He loved pushing himself and proving his detractors wrong. Most of all he loved generously and loved to be loved.

And for all the stress and angst, I loved him. You couldn't help yourself, even if you were mad enough to want to. He was larger than life one-on-one, as he was in public.

The world was a stage for Paul the born performer, and the tributes from many in that world will rightly flow today. But he would, I think, say he was just a good talk and no-one died on the table... Oh alright, he'd lap up the praise! But I'll most remember those Saturday afternoons, when I got time with New Zealand's best talker and a good bloke, when we would wrestle over questions and I would try to force facts and figures into his head and he'd try to teach me to relax and enjoy it all, when we'd talk about holding the buggers to account and putting on a show. I'll remember a drink with a friend like no other. And I will remember it all with immense and profound affection.