Alex Casey spends the afternoon watching a master at work: the one and only Dan Corbett, TVNZ 1’s enigmatic metereologist.
The good thing about Dan Corbett is that you don’t know if he’s talking about the weather, or if he’s tracing the movements of a Cockney gangster on the run. “Here comes the mean geezer,” he sternly warns down the barrel, “he’ll be here on Thursday, even though he’s lost most of his juice by now.” Crikey. The geezer’s not alone either. In the colourful stories Dan paints on the TVNZ 1 news every night, he’s frequently joined by “little grandmas”, “nasty pancakes” and “big uglies”.
On this particular day, there’s going to be a “freight train” southerly barrelling up the country. It’s 4.30pm and I’m sitting at Dan’s desk in the TVNZ newsroom, running through some of his choice phrases. It’s a pretty normal office environment, if your version of normal is Mike Hosking glowering while holding an orange highlighter and Simon Dallow gliding around like he’s on an invisible Segway. A cooing tour group, all tote bags and capri pants, comes in and fusses over Toni Street. She bounces out of her seat and greets them. Hosking’s glower deepens.
“Some people think I’m nutty!” chirps Dan, as I momentarily steal a glance at the sizable Glad bag of mixed nuts sitting on his desk. Luckily, he doesn’t let the haters dull his shine. All Dan wants to do with his nightly weather gig is to tell people a good story, and do whatever it takes to stop them “falling asleep and tipping their tea tray onto the floor”. But does he have a favourite phrase to use? He furrows his brow for a moment. “It’s raining so hard that even the ducks will be hiding under the deck.”
There’s so much more than just the Nosferatu fingers you see every night at the tail end of the news. For example, Dan puts together everything you see onscreen himself. For each of his roughly 4 minute 15 second live segments, he spends a whole day assembling the data, imagery, titles and animations. Staring at them cross-eyed, his computer screens are a swirling Magic Eye of mesmerizing, technicolour weather patterns. “Notice how that front is dropping away?” I could only see a 3D dolphin, jumping through a hoop and coming straight for me.
Dan draws raw data from three main computerised weather models, as well as several smaller subsets throughout the day. I counted approximately 9000 tabs open across two screens. “There’s too much information to look at, really” he says, staring into the eye of what was most probably a big mean ugly. Of the 9000 tabs, one of them, rather surprisingly, was Twitter. “I’ll just share this out on social media” Dan says, mechanically screen-grabbing a photo from his latest video. I couldn’t help but notice he only followed 15 people. Later I would investigate: all meteorologists, of course.
First joining the weather team at BBC, Dan was a young upstart that disrupted the dusty drawl of the likes of veteran Michael Fish. “I was more personable,” says Dan, “he was very old school.” Improv classes came in handy during his stint in the heart of Texas’ Tornado Alley. “They had nasty storms and stuff,” he remembers, that would frequently make breaking news. In 1997, Dan had to interrupt the evening film to alert people to the arrival of a mile-wide, five mile long tornado. 28 people lost their lives that same night. “I’ll never forget driving down that hill and seeing that massive long, brown scar,” he recalls. “Everything was gone.”
Having cut his breaking news teeth on tornados, Dan is well-versed in going off the cuff. This why he never, ever, writes a script or uses an autocue – a highly unusual decision that someone in the control room would later describe as “completely crazy”. I watch in awe as Dan copy and pastes ‘DAN AD-LIB’ into the news rundown again and again and again. Regardless of technical difficulty, breaking news or whatever other big ugly pancakes get thrown at him, Dan has never run under or over his allocated time. Nobody seems able to explain it, not even him.
He’s wary about answering any of my questions about global warming, deeply concerned with being respectful to people who might have varying opinions on the topic. To remedy these fears, Dan responds quietly: things are getting wetter, things are getting stronger, and it’s all happening more often and more extreme than he has ever seen. Complex weather jargon takes over, and he sees my eyes glaze over, tea tray beginning to spill. He leans in and whispers, “whatever drives the weather used to be like a solid jetstream… now it’s like a piece of wet spaghetti.”
As six o’clock approaches, Dan hurries off to the makeup room and returns 15 minutes later, eyes rimmed with kohl and face contoured to rival a Kardashian. I sit in the best seat in the house – Hosking’s Seven Sharp chair – to watch the master at work. Dan sways with complete focus until his countdown, coming alive in a blaze of finger guns and freight trains, the wild-eyed puppeteer of our atmosphere. Later in the control room, Toni Street would assure me that Dan is the most professional person in the building, before sprinting back to her desk because she had forgotten to bring a pen with her.
The clock strikes seven and Dan retires his special weather clicker to its nook behind the green screen, pacing back to his desk to check up on his weather maps. I still don’t know if Dan takes that much time away from the weather – certainly not on Twitter – but I finally got to ask what other interests he pursued before we parted. He said he and his wife like travelling, picnics and gardening, but it sounds like he can never really leave the office. “Truthfully, if I have a day off, I’ll often just sit there watching the sky.”
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