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. 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 that’s where I first got to know Andrew as more than that guy off the telly. He was the show’s 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, ‘Quiet Night In’. 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.
“Doing forty episodes a year for nine years is a huge ask in time and energy. The budgets were tight and so you’re really churning them out. You’re making cheap television but it has to be of a certain quality.”
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 – and some of whom openly said its mere existence had saved their lives – when you’re a highly visible media figure you open yourself up for criticism.
Andrew is confident in front of the camera. He has a natural curiosity, is a great storyteller, and can switch on the ‘presenter’ mode whenever required. But he doesn’t relish that time on screen. He just does it because it’s a necessary part of the job.
“Throughout the years of the show, I had praise and criticism. 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.
“It took me a white to realise that some people’s 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, Andrew’s 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. 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.
“When I left the show, I didn’t think that I would be making queer television again.”
That would have been a great loss for our communities. There are so many stories out there to be told, and so few people willing to tell them. It’s often a thankless task, and certainly not one that you can make a serviceable living out of.
“It took me a while to become creative again,” he remembers. “I just did office work for a while because I just wanted to do something I had no emotional commitment to.”
The creative bug did eventually bite again, but by this time the world of media consumption had changed. Internet video was taking off, social media was here, and television was becoming less relevant. 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.
“I thought, ‘how am I going to do this’?” he says. “So I just bought a whole load of equipment really and just started.”
A camera, a lighting kit and a Macbook later, and he was set up with Roll Tape Productions. 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.
“I 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. I’ve come to love editing, for example, because I love that whole crafting of a story, bringing all those elements together is fascinating. That’s what I love.”
When making my short film ‘Communication’ in 2010, I was honoured when Andrew agreed to come on set and shoot behind-the-scenes footage. 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 hadn’t lost his passion for being on the front lines of storytelling about gay men’s lives, so it came as no surprise that he’d eventually be bitten by the bug to return to gay television. Over the years, friends had suggested he do something, but he’d resisted the idea, still feeling the burn of the Queer Nation years. All that changed on a recent trip to Australia.
“I was over there in February and I’d been mulling around various ideas. I said to a friend of mine, I’m thinking I might just pitch some ideas at some networks here because the powers that be in New Zealand don’t seem interested. And he said ‘oh, just make it yourself, put it on the web’.”
And “Gay Talk Tonight” was born – a weekly 12-minute show based around a single guest interview of a GLBT person from various backgrounds. 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 – MP Maryan Street on the issue of euthanasia.
“Somebody shared that episode on Facebook, and mentioned they have a degenerative disease and that they’ve discussed these very issues,” he says. “And a number of people have said to me, you know, it’s really great to have that discussion, we need to have it.”
Being the shameless self-promoter that I am, I phoned Andrew up a week ago and asked if he’d have me on to talk about the forthcoming release of my documentary ‘Men Like Us’, 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 Andrew’s enthusiasm at how empowering it is to have control over your own work.
When his friend suggested that Andrew didn’t need network approval, that he should just make his own show, “it really galvanised. 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 know…” he laughs. “I’m sure there’s 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 it’s even a viable option.
“I wouldn’t have to worry about network politics, and also I wouldn’t need to worry about pleasing everybody in the queer community. I can talk to people I want to interview and put it out there and hopefully people will be interested.”
Working totally by himself on the production, Andrew has set up a Youtube channel and Facebook group, and started releasing episodes. 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. It’s a question that takes “Gay Talk Tonight” above a simple piece of light entertainment and into an area where there’s potential for us to have ongoing conversations about what matters in our lives.
“The question is basically ‘what makes a happy, fulfilled life’, so I ask each person that,” Andrew says. “One of the reasons I ask that is because I’ve grappled with my own identity, I’ve grappled with mild depression over a number of years and also I’m not religious –never have been – but I have a belief in something that I can’t quite define.
“So I’ve always been interested to know how other people deal with these things, how do other people sort through their lives. (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. “One of the things I’m finding is that everybody has their own particular language and observations, but the central themes seem to be the same. 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 he’s sat in with his clipboard to interview me only a few minutes earlier.
“I don’t have all the answers, I know I don’t know everything and that’s why I ask questions. I want to share that with people.
“But partly it’s 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,” he laughs. “I say that slightly tongue in cheek, but it’s true. We all have a spiritual dimension whether or not we’re religious, and so that, to me, is really interesting.”