They say good things come to those who wait. I had been waiting a long time to interview someone who I admired quite as much as Simon Morris. And so, peculiarly enough, I haven’t rushed writing up this interview either despite having interviewed Simon in late January.
Simon and I met at Prefab, for a lunch and chat about his career at Radio New Zealand and presenting ‘At the Movies’, one of my favourite pieces of audio content of all time, and certainly my favourite programme on Radio New Zealand (second is Kim Hill’s Saturday Morning Show, but she’s not returning my calls funnily…KIM - come back to me!).
While I was a teenager, and the rest of the kids were down hanging in town, I used to look forward to the odd Sundays where I’d sit down and do homework, clean or draw, while listening to Simon’s voice, tease out at length what exactly was on ‘at the movies’ this week.
Part commentator, part raconteur and all showman, Simon Morris reminded me both of my Dad and of somehow of an old friend who I would talk intensely about all things film with. In a way, when I meet him, I feel like he is, and when he opens his mouth to speak it is as if we’ve met many times before.
"Part commentator, part raconteur and all showman, Simon Morris reminded me both of my Dad and of somehow of an old friend who I would talk intensely about all things film with."
WHO IS SIMON MORRIS?
Simon Morris is a Wellingtonian radio presenter and producer. He presents the radio show ‘At the Movies’, which plays on Radio NZ each week, and also produced ‘Standing Room Only' (formerly 'The Arts on Sunday') programme. He’s been presenting the show since 2001.
HOW DID HE BECOME A CRITIC AT RADIO NZ?
“It’s a little complicated really” Simon explains, over a trim latte (and sourdough and marmalade toast), before settling it down on his Acme saucer. “My parents are both New Zealanders. My father was in radio and then TV. He was in Britain just before I was born and due to certain circumstances, I was born in Holland. I stayed there for just 9 months. After that, we came back to New Zealand and then back to Britain. We stayed there until we were 13 when we moved back to New Zealand. New Zealand is good because it doesn’t have the class system which the UK seems unable to shake. I love England as a place to visit but it is bizarre.”
"When Shortland Street started, I rang them up and asked if they needed a writer. They said they did"
Simon went to school at Onslow College. “Moving back to Wellington was quite different,” Simon remembers. “The things that the people at Onslow were interested in was not the same that the people in England were interested in.” Growing up, Simon’s love of music led to him joining several bands, from “pretentious folk groups” to “rock groups and pop groups”. He was in and out of such bands for around 10 years. “It was fun, but then it got to a stage where you wondered ‘Well now what?’” Simon explains. “Someone asked if I’d like to write some scripts for TV. I did that, off and on, for the next 10 years. When Shortland Street started, I rang them up and asked if they needed a writer. They said they did so I wrote for Shortland Street for around 5 years, from 1992 - 1997. It was always music until Shortland Street and then it was all writing!”
Simon admits that while he enjoyed working on Shortland Street, it never felt quite right for him, until Radio came into his life. “I ran into an old flatmate and asked her ‘Why are all the music shows on Radio New Zealand so awful?’.” Simon remembers “He replied ‘Well, do you think you can do better?’ I thought the bar wasn’t very high, so I decided to give it a go.”
“You can do anything on Radio. Unlike TV, where everything is so expensive and there are so many people, you can just have one person producing a radio show.”
Instantly, Simon felt a connection. “You can do anything on Radio. Unlike TV, where everything is so expensive and there are so many people, you can just have one person producing a radio show.”
Simon, however, felt other murmurings of inspiration, outside of just music. “Through all this time, I’d always liked Movies. But the Movie reviewing job was well and truly in the hands of Jonathon Dennis. He was a serious, film critic type chap.” Simon kept thinking that he'd do it differently. Then one day, Jonathan Dennis passed away. Simon decided to throw his hat in the ring for the job. With no formal qualifications in film, he was told he would need to do a trial first before being offered the role. “The first film that came out that week was Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone. So Harry Potter got me the job!”
"Harry Potter got me the job!”
WHAT DID HE THINK OF THE FIRST FILM HE REVIEWED [HARRY POTTER]?
“I said I could see why it would be a huge hit” recalls Simon. “It had nothing to do with the magic or the fact it had fantastic actors in it. The reason it was a success is that it was one of the most ‘can’t fail’ genres in children’s literature - the school story!”
HOW DOES HE CREATE BEST?
“Some people think they do their best work on the verge of a nervous breakdown all the time. I think I do my worst work on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Personally, the more comfortable I am, the better my work is” Simon says.
DOES HE READ ANYONE ELSE'S REVIEWS?
“No - you can’t really do it! All you’re selling is someone’s opinion. Once it is someone else’s opinion, then you’ve got nothing” Simon says. “If there’s one thing I have learnt about films is that the plot summary will never tell you anything about how good a film is. ‘Alcoholic runs into an old girlfriend’ sounds quite dreary. But really, Casablanca has a bit more to it than that! And is quite a classic.”
HOW DOES HE LIKE TO CONSUME FILM & TV?
“I used to record films off TV during the 80’s and 90’s,” Simon says. “It used to feel like a treasure hunt when you’d catch a classic flick, like ‘Citizen Kane’ on TV. Nowadays, you can buy anything so it almost feels like cheating. The first DVD I bought was North By Northwest. I bought it for the extras, mainly.” And as for Netflix and streaming? “It gives us too much choice! I don’t mind a box set DVD if someone gives it to me, like ‘The Bridge’. I already watch too many movies. I’ll be damned if I watch too many TV shows!”
"The actors are what keep me coming back.”
WHAT KEEPS SIMON COMING BACK TO THE MOVIES?
“I always sneer at the concept of FOMO. I don’t care about new gadgets” Simon says. “However, I do like to keep up with movies - I like to know the buzz about a certain film. Also, I love actors. I respond to a great performance and material which allows people to create a great piece of work as an actor. The actors are what keep me coming back.”
DOES HE LISTEN TO RADIO NZ HIMSELF?
“I like to listen to the Radio when I am cooking or when I am in the car. It means my knowledge of Radio New Zealand is so much worse than everyone else because I only listen to it in the morning between 10 - 11 and I only know what happens around half past 6!”
“Maybe a lack of ambition?” Simon says. “Every job I’ve had I’ve been backed into. The only time I’ve ever applied for a job was for the Radio New Zealand Arts Programme. I worked freelance for so many years (the money is terrible by the way) to avoid having to apply for a job. It then occurred to me I was constantly having to apply for jobs, almost every week. It’s not really very sensible. I decided to get a good part time job. I saw a job going for a part-time producer at Arts Programme at Radio New Zealand. I thought to myself ‘I’ll apply for this as a dummy run and then they’ll tell me where I've gone wrong and I’ll apply for a real job.’ And of course, because I didn’t give a damn, I got the job. I thought ‘Oh no! You’re meant to tell me what to do to go for a higher paid job somewhere else.”
“I know where everything is” Simon explains. “I live off Aro St, which is terribly handy to everything. I can’t think of another city in New Zealand I’d rather live in, and I can’t think of another country I’d rather live in. So I think I am living in the best part of the best city of the best country in the world. I like it around here. It’s a real town, you know. I can come here comfortably, to have coffee, I can get around, and I can do my job. That’s what I think anyway.”