This morning Sir Paul Holmes passed away, succumbing to a heart condition coupled with the prostate cancer that first reared its head to him just over a decade ago. Aged 62, he was too young. But when you are regarded as arguably the greatest broadcaster in your country’s history and few are arguing about it, it’s not hard to say with conviction he’d lived a great life – a full life – and perhaps it’s time for a rest.
Like the most captivating broadcasters, Holmes was anything but bland. He knew he was a star and he loved it. Why not? He’d worked hard for it and because he hadn’t grown up with a silver spoon he always seemed to appreciate the benefits of his success. He got married (the first time around) on the roof-top of one of Auckland’s swankiest hotels in the early 90s with the Prime Minister and leader of the opposition in attendance, not to mention swirling helicopters with paparazzi. 20 years later he was mock aghast when a staff member at his local DVD store asked him for his name when he forgot his membership card. “You mean you haven’t heard of me? How is that possible!?”
And just a few of weeks ago, it’s been revealed he virtually campaigned to former Prime Minister Helen Clark to get his knighthood (during a phone call she had made to him broaching the subject). When he did get the title in a highly moving investiture at his property in Hawkes Bay, he proudly insisted all call him “Sir.” Good on him.
If all of that had been anybody else, it may sound like the description of a person out of touch with the common man, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In his final interview, broadcast this past weekend on the Sunday program, Holmes regarded his love of people as perhaps his greatest strength. The thing so often said about him was that he could be interviewing anyone – be it a politician, a Hollywood A-lister or a sickly child – and whoever it was, he would be there with passion, compassion, humour and empathy. And if the interview was with someone struggling with some sort of battle that needed a bit of assisted Holmes firepower, you’d never notice the Rolex on his wrist.
Indeed, I don’t even know if he wore Rolex. The point is, Paul Holmes gave everyone the time of day because he genuinely cared. He also sensed from an early age that a place for him on the very upper tier of New Zealand broadcasters was to be his, but that he’d have to go off and have a few adventures first. From selling fruit on the roadside in Australia, to gallivanting across the Americas, to forays into radio in Europe, to near death experiences back in New Zealand, he’d had so many experiences he could always draw on.
My favourite memory of Holmes is most likely a speech he made at the New Zealand Radio Awards a few years ago just after his longtime producer Phil Armstrong had died. He had a room full of hundreds of type-A personalities – a good chunk of whom had thrown back a few shandies – in complete silence as he ad-libbed his way through a love letter to a friend he never ever socialised with. Apparently Holmes and Armstrong didn’t feel the need to see each other outside of Newstalk ZB, but the love he had for this man was immense and the manner in which he could stand before an auditorium and ad-lib a tribute made me think he was also an orator without peer in this country.
Together, Armstrong and Holmes built a radio breakfast show that was floundering at #7 in the radio ratings and took it to #1 – a position it never lost. When you add to the mix that he was for the bulk of his radio career also presenting a nightly TV current affairs show, not to mention his beautifully direct abilities as a writer, he was truly one of a kind. And I hate cliches.
Holmes rang me after my first week on Newstalk ZB with words of encouragement. Talk radio is the most challenging job I’ve ever had and to think that the best in the business (another cliche) took the time to ring me to wish me well won’t ever be forgotten. RIP.