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April 7, 2008 | by  | in Books Features |
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Game Show

Today I’m a celebrity stand-in on The Great New Zealand Spelling Bee. My cousin – who works for TVNZ – got the job for me and my friend Arun. On our arrival at Avalon Studios she hands us each an envelope, containing $50 in New World vouchers. A few Avalon film school students arrive soon after. A goateed guy in a leather jacket who at once resembles a weasel and the actor Steve Buscemi; an attractive brunette girl wearing an Illicit top, black jeans and converse sneakers; an athletic male in his early twenties with dark, close-cropped hair and sleek features; and a pear-shaped middle-aged fellow with a bulbous nose and glasses. His flawless forward-combed grey bowl-cut (which is probably a hairpiece) makes me think of a Dominican Friar.

This will be the practice run for the final of seven shows, the first of which aired last night. My cousin hands us all bottled water and confidentiality agreements to sign. I suppose this is so we won’t ruin the surprise of who makes it to the final round. After we sign, she leads us down a grey corridor into the studio. We sit in the audience seats facing the podium. Large metal lights hang from tracks in the ceiling. Below them is the presenter’s podium, which rotates to face the camera with its autocue screen. On ground level by the podium a collection of ancient-looking blocky cameras stoop over wires, which weave across the floor in front of seven standing consoles. Violet and white neon lights bounce off the silvery veneer of the set. Crew members are making last minute adjustments, duct taping wires out of sight and applying grey paint to the backdrop.

Walking to the consoles we pass the presenter. A grey haired, middle-aged man in a dark suit, he strikes me as looking a lot like Father Ted. He beams a set smile and seems to be warming up by making small talk with us: “So are you all from the film school? How’s that going?” The Steve Buscemi look-alike answers that he is enjoying it. The others nod. The presenter looks toward me and Arun. I say “Nah, I’m Nix’s cousin,” which seems to trouble him.

We line up behind the portable consoles and are given some direction. We are told about our lifeline; if anyone has trouble with a particular word they can outsource it to Samir. Samir is a young Indian boy who appears on a large screen to our left, sitting in front of a neon blue backdrop. He is said to be a world class speller, and will spell the difficult word out for us. But you are only allowed to ask him three times.

The presenter reads from the autocue in his familiar-sounding and dramatic TV voice; “Welcome to the final episode of The Great New Zealand Spelling Bee! Well, we’re down to the last seven now, having said goodbye to Frank Bunce in the last round, and I can certainly feel the tension building!” The game-show music plays in short, emphatic blasts; ‘DUH DUH DUH!’ during which Buscemi jerks his hips side to side in a twitchy semi-dance. He makes trite small-talk as though he wants to ingratiate himself with the presenter. Buscemi is standing in for Raybon Kan; the attractive girl is a reporter called Wendle; Arun is Simon Barnett and Hairpiece is Peter Dunne. I’m an actor named Peter Elliot.

We run through the motions, attempting to spell words which the presenter gives us; product names with themes like cars: Mitsubishi, Chrysler, Toyota (I spell this backwards for extra points), followed by drinks: Montieths, shiraz… a continuous stream of commodities. The presenter tells us to make the odd mistake, allowing him to practice his “Ooooh, not quite” banter.

The others gradually drop out and sit in the audience while Hairpiece and I go into the final round. Behind the haze of lights I see Arun sipping his bottled water in the darkened seats. When I spell ‘Cadillac’ correctly the presenter says in a slightly irritated tone, “It’s not a competition you know, you can make a mistake,” and I get the impression he really doesn’t want me to ‘win’ this. – Before the final question, he asks us to what charity we will give our fiftythousand dollar winnings. Hairpiece says “Salvation Army” and I say “H-Bone industries,” which throws the presenter and causes Arun to almost choke on his water. “What’s that?” the presenter asks. “H-Bone Industries.” “H-Bone Industries?” he says back. “Yeah, I think they’ll really appreciate it.”

I correctly spell ‘Paracetamol’ to win the final round. “Well your charity will certainly appreciate the 50,000, plus the 10,000 from the start. How does it feel?” I’m not sure what to say, offering “Yeah they sure will. It’s great.” As we step down from the podiums the presenter approaches and gives me a good firm handshake, a shiny smile and a rehearsed congratulatory speech. Then I shake Hairpiece’s hand, accidentally cutting off the presenter as he’s about to do the same. He sighs and walks away.

Before leaving I see my cousin. I can’t tell whether the practice run went well or not. They’re filming the live show shortly and she’s all business. She asks if we’d like to sit in the audience. We decline. As Arun and I walk to the car, he points out Leishman’s low-key hatred of me. Philip Leishman, so that was the presenter’s name. He used to host a popular Channel One show called Tux Wonderdogs. Arun’s says I’m Leishman’s nemesis, and I wonder aloud if they pay him in dog biscuits. We talk about how he’ll get his revenge and I visualise a big black automobile running me down right there in the car park; a large Alsatian driving while Leishman rides shotgun. This makes me laugh so hard my stomach hurts and I have to force myself to stop.

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