Connecting with Billy T.

Ian Mune during the filming of <i>Bill T: Te Movie</i>. Photo by Geoffrey H. Short.
Ian Mune during the filming of <i>Bill T: Te Movie</i>. Photo by Geoffrey H. Short.
From humble origins to on-screen hilarity, New Zealand director Ian Mune's film about Billy T. James is a reminder of a rare gift. Shane Gilchrist reports.

Want a blast from the past? Jump on the internet and take a look at Billy T. James' Buying A Car skit. The vehicles and salesmen's clothes might have dated a bit, but the humour hasn't. That's probably why the performance has had more than 300,000 hits.

As Ian Mune, director and co-writer of Billy T: Te Movie, a film that both celebrates and explores the talent and personality of the late Kiwi comic, says: "He still connects".

Musician, singer, comedian, actor, writer ... Billy T. James was many things, including an enigma. Te Movie is thus an attempt to "bear witness" to his life, Mune says, adding it does so through heartfelt interviews with friends, family and colleagues, who offer insights into his life and work from many points of view.

"Working on this project, I got to talk to a whole pile of people, going right back to people who were kids with him at primary school, others who worked with him, mates and business partners."

The film reveals Billy T.'s humble origins, from the time he moved from rural Cambridge to Auckland on a Maori apprenticeship scheme (as a signwriter) in the 1960s and joined his first band, through to his high-rating television series and award-winning performance in 1984 feature film Came a Hot Friday, directed by Mune.

It also explores the financial difficulties over the latter part of Billy T.'s career, the heart problems that led to his death in 1991, at the age of 42, and the controversy surrounding his funeral and burial, when members of his Tainui iwi claimed his body for burial.

There is also something of an inquest into the origins of that infectious giggle; one person suggests it was based on the laugh of Charlie Te Hau, bass player in the Maori Volcanics; another that it was styled on that of a cattle-truck driver in Kawerau.

"Everyone who answered that question was pretty much convinced they had the right answer. No two agreed," says Mune, speaking by telephone from Auckland last week.

In fact, that encapsulates the elusive nature of Billy T.

One of 12 children of Sally and Jimmy Smith, he was adopted by relatives Ruby and Wiremu Taitoko and named William James Te Wehi Taitoko and known by the family as Te Wehi. The "James" came from his birth father, a talented musician. Billy chose Billy T. James as his stage name on his return to New Zealand after touring Europe with the Maori Volcanics.

"The thing is, the real Billy, Te Wehi Taitoko, was so shy that when he got his first job with the band he couldn't face the audience," Mune says.

"Over a period of months he would slowly turn around to the audience until he finally got up to the microphone and started singing. Whereas Billy T. James would step up to the stage and immediately make contact. It was like two totally separate people.

"We didn't realise the complexity of the man we were dealing with. We've got a few things there that will prompt people to think, 'oh'," Mune says, not wishing to elaborate lest he ruin any surprises for would-be filmgoers.

"Billy was a kid who would go to the local fish and chip shop, stick his head in the door and say, 'you got any spare chips?' The guy would say, 'yeah', and Billy would answer, 'well, you shouldn't have made so many then, hee hee'. And off he'd go. That was when he was about seven or eight.

"The character Billy T. James was always there, but it was Te Wehi Taitoko who was living the life.

"There was no angst with Billy. When he found out his heart bypass hadn't worked and the only way he was going to survive was if he lasted long enough until another heart turned up, the only person who didn't seem worried about it was Billy.

"When he had the heart transplant, his financial affairs were in chaos and the lawyers and accountants were trying to help him sort it all out. But, again, Billy wasn't worried.

"People might start looking for a sad clown somewhere. Well, they're not going to find one. Billy was up, under all circumstances," says Mune, who admits to having doubts about whether the multitalented Maori man could pull off a dramatic role in Came A Hot Friday.

"When he auditioned to do the film, my first thought was, 'we don't need a bloody comic; he'll make jokes all the time". But he impressed me. When he turned up he said, 'I don't know how to do this; this is acting'. I said, 'the main thing is don't make it funny; play it like Hamlet'. I was thrilled with his work. He made that movie."

(Billy T. won best supporting actor at the 1985 New Zealand Film and Television Awards for his role as the Tainuia Kid in Came A Hot Friday, which is being released on DVD this month.)

The idea for a film about Billy T. James originated from producer Tom Parkinson, who first spotted the entertainer at a late-night gig at the Avondale Rugby League Club.

"I was sent by his agent to have a look at him," Parkinson recalls.

"The audience had been drinking for hours and the situation was like walking a tightrope for a comedian. But instead of going loud, he spoke softly and drew them in. Everyone stopped to listen to him. It worked beautifully."

Parkinson's long association with Billy T. began with the television variety series Radio Times, in which he played the music hall-style character Dexter Fitzgibbons.

Then followed The Billy T. James Show in which he starred and co-wrote between 1981 and 1990. At its height, the show was viewed by 1.3 million people - more than half New Zealand's population at the time. He won the Feltex Best Entertainment Award in 1984, the Entertainer of the Decade Award in 1985 and was awarded an MBE for services to entertainment the following year. 

"Tom was the first television producer to spot him and think, 'we must do something'," Mune recalls. "He then tailored Radio Times to get Billy past the blockage of Maori on TV."

Mune's film also places Billy T. and his humour into context, looking at aspects of New Zealand society and culture that shaped his life and experiences.

"He did, of course, arise out of a time and place. But it is because of the nature of his gift that he makes all the responses to that time and place equally appropriate today. He would not get angst-ridden in a time of marches on Parliament, Bastion Point, the 1981 Springbok Tour and all that," Mune says.

"When he first started, television executives wanted to close him down. They thought it was a load of muck, a bit racist and a bit smutty. Then they got the ratings; the Billy T. James Show had gone through the roof; they couldn't close him down.

"I've seen some of that material a hundred times and I still laugh.

"Making the movie, if we found he was off-screen for more than a few minutes it'd get boring. So there is a lot of his work in there. But it is not just a best-of; it is work that is relevant to his life."

Mune says his film is, at its core, a celebration of a great entertainer.

"Billy had this strange ability to make you feel you were really important to him. Everyone felt they were special friends. He made that kind of connection when he was on stage; he could even make that connection through a television camera.

"People sometimes stop me on the street and ask me what I'm working on. When I tell them about a Billy T. James movie, their eyes light up. I think people are really ready for a Billy T. movie.

"He was a gift to us all."

Catch it
Billy T: Te Movie
opens nationwide on Thursday, August 18.

Billy T. James: Fact file

• Billy T. James (1949-1991) played guitar and sang in bands in Auckland before touring internationally as a member of the highly successful Maori Volcanics showband in the 1970s.

• He became a television star through the variety series Radio Times, which he hosted as the music hall-styled character Dexter Fitzgibbons, followed by several sketch comedy and sitcom series titled The Billy T. James Show in which he starred and co-wrote between 1981 and 1990. At the height of his popularity, his show was watched by 1.3 million people - more than half the country's population at the time.

• He won the Feltex Best Entertainment Award in 1984, and the Entertainer of the Decade Award in 1985. In 1986 he was awarded an MBE for services to entertainment and the NZ Film and Television Awards best supporting actor for Came A Hot Friday. In 1990 he received the Variety Club Golden Microphone (aka "Benny") Award for his outstanding contribution to entertainment.

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