Hayden Donnell looks back on one of New Zealand’s most iconic interviews.
In December 1997, two teenage girls gave Paul Holmes the sternest test of his storied interviewing career. The Ingham twins, both 18, had gone to extraordinary lengths for love. Sarah had fallen for a sailor. Her sister Joanna decided to help her pursue her crush through storm and raging sea. Together they clambered aboard his Malaysian container ship. Crossed the Tasman in a swaying metal cargo hold. Jumped overboard off the coast of Queensland. Swam for 15 hours through shark and crocodile-infested waters. Crawled ashore. Staggered into dense bush. Survived for 19 days eating only shellfish. The twins were hardy. Tough. They could do anything.
Anything except string more than two words together in an interview setting.
They met Paul Holmes at the height of his powers. It was his annual Holmes Christmas party, where he assembled the year’s headline-grabbers on the TVNZ roof, and interviewed them live as they got trashed on bubbly. Holmes would cavort between the drinkers, delivering monologues before delving into a seemingly haphazard series of interviews. In 1997, he warmed up by speaking to the cute family of a sick child. Then he turned, walked two steps, and straight into the jaws of hell.
“Sarah Ingham and Joanna Ingham, it’s very nice to see you,” he said.
They stood there, silent. Joanna wore a strained half-smile. Sarah let her hair hang over her face.
Holmes pressed on.
“Where are you living these days?” he asked.
“Nelson,” Sarah said.
“Is it nice?”
That was met with a reply probably most accurately transcribed as “ur”.
Any interviewer will know the stomach-churning terror that sets in when a question is met with a monosyllabic answer. The endless black expanse of silence stretching out before you. The fraught seconds spent desperately skimming every part of your misfiring brain for something else to ask.
Holmes was faced with the worst possible iteration of that scenario. It was live TV. Primetime. His biggest show of the year. And he had two minutes to fill.
He tried another question about the weather in Nelson. The plane ride to Auckland. Nothing. No dice. It was going to be a disaster. A lesser broadcaster would have dissolved into terrified sobs.
Holmes made up his mind to pivot.
“Okay,” he said, more to himself than the twins, and instantly transformed the exchange into something like a game show quickfire round. He rattled off rapid questions, barely bothering to wait for replies. “Enjoying Auckland?” he asked (Yeah). “Been here before?” (Once). “Can I get you both to turn around?”
Holmes had landed in his personal version of the crocodile-infested waters off the coast of Queensland, and was somehow swimming his way out. Better yet, he was enjoying it. He shuffled from foot to foot, weirdly interrogating the twins on whether the were “behaving”. Feigning fear that they would “paint [Auckland] too red”.
The Tsar of 7pm TV was tap dancing on the burning coals, and he’d never felt more alive. There was never more than one word from the twins, but there was also never more than a second of the most dreaded thing in TV: silence.
It ended as it began. A question about the twins’ weekend plans was met with resounding nothing.
Holmes turned to the camera.
And told the twins it had been enjoyable having them on the Holmes program.
Everyone knows how the story went from there. Holmes eventually left full-time TV, spending his dotage oscillating between making olive oil, filling in for Mike Hosking, and occasionally rattling off racist columns for the Herald.
But in his TV days, anyone who watched him could tell he loved people. If the Apocalypse happened tomorrow, it wouldn’t be long before Hosking was sending out hunting parties to find weak and sick people to turn into coats of human skin. Holmes had genuine warmth. He loved haranguing politicians. Getting soppy over sick kids. Whoever appeared on his show were his people today. And he loved speaking to them.
Even if they didn’t speak back.
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