Birdman flies south for the whiners

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Jeremy Wells, presenter of Birdland (TV1, Saturdays, 7pm), has a sort of thing going on with Southland.

It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that he was nearly run out of Gore for daring to suggest it was the gay capital of New Zealand. When the mayor was asked to comment, her reaction was along the lines of: “Well, what do you expect? This is Gore.”

I only raise the issue after reading an excerpt from the recently published memoirs of British Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond, who mentioned an incident in Alabama a couple of years back in which he and co-presenters Jeremy Clarkson and James May were almost lynched for taking the mickey out of some southern rednecks.

The slogans painted on their cars as they drove into the first town? Nothing overly provocative, really.

All good clean fun.

Clarkson had painted “Hillary for President” on May’s Cadillac, Hammond had daubed “Country Music is Rubbish” on Clarkson’s Trans Am – and May had trumped them both by splashing “Man Love Rules, OK?” across the side of Hammond’s pickup.

They were lucky to live by all accounts.

The TV camera crew was stoned, fuel stations refused to service the vehicles, good ol’ boys communicating on CB radios gathered to hurl insults, truckies rolled up in support and, inevitably, a posse of shotgun-toting cowboys chased them out of town.

Gore folk apparently haven’t forgiven Wells for his 1999 wisecrack about their town, gathering to harass and threaten the former Eating Media Lunch host when he returned on election day last year.

But if the opening episode of Birdland was any guide, he hasn’t completely forgiven them either.

It was only one comment, to be fair, but you knew he didn’t have Queenstown or the Southern Lakes in his sights when, on hearing that many species at Auckland’s Tiritiri Matangi bird sanctuary would eventually be relocated beneath the 45th parallel, he remarked: “That’s a bit ironic, isn’t it? Going down to Southland to avoid
in-breeding?”

Wells might not be as earthy or eccentric as South presenter Marcus Lush but he’s certainly politically savvy and unafraid of passing comment.

When it was disclosed that many endangered birds on Tiritiri required dietary assistance, he couldn’t help himself again: “Like true New Zealanders, many of them rely on a daily handout from the Government.”

But there are parallels with South. As much as Birdland is a magnificent chance to witness rare and wonderful species such as the blue-wattled kokako, red-crowned and orange-fronted kakariki, and Greg, the Tiritiri sanctuary’s 16-year-old takahe, it’s just as much about the people involved and the characters unveiled in the process.

Like Dave, one of the Tiritiri DoC workers, momentarily rendered speechless by Wells’ reference to Southland and eventually shaking his head and asking: “Can you get away with that?”

Sadly, you couldn’t hear Wells’ reply. But you’d imagine it would have been something like: “Yes, but I wouldn’t recommend trying it in Gore.”