When I was a kid, one of the greatest treats in my life was to be allowed to stay up and watch TV with my mum and dad. It didn’t happen all that often. It might surprise you, given I’ve spent half my life working in TV, to know that we weren’t really a big TV family.
My parents liked what they liked and disliked pretty much everything else. And instead of trying new stuff, they would get a VHS and record their favourite programmes, then watch them over and over and over again. In the 1990s, that meant watching about three shows on repeat. Inspector Morse, Letter to Blanchy, and McPhail and Gadsby.
One of my earliest TV memories is of sitting in our lounge and watching Letter to Blanchy. Specifically, I remember the gag with the jetboat and I remember how it made my parents laugh and laugh.
Honestly, as a kid, nothing makes you feel safer than seeing your parents so happy that they are properly weeping with laughter. Dad used to rock back and forth on the couch watching David McPhail and Jon Gadsby. Mum would squint her eyes super tight. I was so young that I only understood some of the jokes but I understood that it was really funny, and I loved it.
David McPhail comedies bookended my childhood.
Just before I moved away from home, TVNZ produced Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby. It was a cult hit and although I don’t think it ever had massive mainstream success in New Zealand, it apparently did extremely well on ABC in Australia.
It was a very non-PC satire poking fun at New Zealand and the education system that honestly probably wouldn’t and couldn’t be made today. It followed McPhail as an old-school teacher brought in to relieve a classroom of boys in the lowest stream of a state high school. The Māori teacher couldn’t actually speak Māori. Instead of his surname, the guidance counsellor insisted everyone call him Steve.
And David McPhail was at his absolute best. He marched up and down the hallways, a baton under his arm, the perfect characterisation of a teaher transported directly from the fifties, except he always made the effort to correctly pronounce his students’ names.
As a family, we’d hang out for new episodes. We watched both seasons through and through again. Dad would rock back and forth on the couch as he laughed. Mum would squint her eyes super tight. We constantly had to shush each other so we wouldn’t miss the next joke.
David McPhail gave us those moments.
He will be missed.