YOU CAN’T SHOW REAL MONEY on television! That’s the rule!”
I was writing a few sketches for television in the 1980s, and I wanted to portray a shopping scene. The TVNZ director at the Avalon studios was adamant: it was illegal (according to her) to show real money on television. “It would be reproducing the money. We would be charged with counterfeiting”.
Unlike the person who made up that rule, pause and think for a moment, even half a moment: how would a villain actually use that image on the TV? Would he carry his 50kg Murphy TV into a shop, plug it in, wait for the exact moment the money was on the screen and then convince the shopkeeper that this brief flicker of an image was real money, and could he please buy some smokes? But that was the Director’s rule. Instead, she supplied us with genuine counterfeit money (if there is such a thing) to use in the sketch … and at the local dairy afterwards. (Full disclosure: I didn’t).
Looking back, the truly surprising thing is that we were docile lambs, dumbly following dumb rules. In the 20th century, New Zealanders were remarkably good at making and keeping to rules.
Rulemaking was a growth industry in the 20th century, and many rules were determined to protect us from the 20th century. For example, there were rules to protect us from cordless phones. Illegal. Forbidden. You could only get phones from the Post Office … one model … and they would supply it in, maybe, a few months. And, by the way, you could not play music over a phone line. That was forbidden. You waited to be connected in silence. A friend brought back a novelty phone cradle from overseas: when you hung your phone on it, a music box tinkled music into the mouthpiece. “OOoo! That’s illegal!” I don’t think they dared use it.
The rules were that only the State could run a radio or TV station. (Fortunately, I didn’t really want one.) State stations, and so State rules: Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti and scores of other tracks were banned as too racy. Rules, too, at the movies: censors chopped out all the sexy and violent bits. In 1967, the film Ulysses could only be shown to segregated male and female adult audiences in separate theatres. That would have been a great date night: “You go to that cinema, and I’ll go to this one. We’ll meet at the milk-bar afterwards and compare how corrupted we’ve become.” That’s if there was a milk-bar open … the rules were pubs had to close at 6:00pm and everything else at 9:00pm.
Some rules seem so silly now: you could only get milk from a milkman or a dairy. Selling milk from a supermarket was forbidden until 1982. They could, however, sell flavoured milk, so some supermarkets got around the prohibition by selling ‘milk-flavoured milk’. True. Milk with a bit of condensed milk added as a flavouring. To protect the dairy industry, margarine was banned until 1974 unless you had a doctor’s prescription – and it was not allowed to be coloured yellow. Supermarkets also had to pull down blinds over some aisles on weekends as some goods could only be sold at dairies on Saturdays and Sundays.
Rules were everywhere, sometimes preserving old-fashioned ideas. In a hospital elevator I regularly rode in the 70s, there was a small, official-looking certificate pasted above head height: in tiny print, it said that the lift could only be operated by someone over the age of 18 – or 21 if they were a woman! Even in the 70s, that discrimination was well past its sell-by date.
Of course, sports have necessary rules, but 20th century New Zealanders liked to overlay them with lots of unnecessary ones. Despite protests, women lawn bowlers were forced to wear stockings and skirt hems that had to be strictly 12 inches above the ground – imagine the terror of the tiniest players.
I should have been more like my rebel mother. Boys and girls were kept in separate areas at her co-ed high school in the 1930s. If a boy came in sight, the rule was that girls were not allowed to look at them. “I looked”, she said. My Mum. The renegade. She could spot a dumb rule. Her logic: “Rules without reason leads to rebellion.” Rules should have a real purpose. I know she could have prefixed every rule she made for us kids with, “Because I love you…”. “Because I love you, get off that roof”, “Because I love you, you need to go to bed”. “Because I love you”, not, “Because I said so”.
Unlike old-time New Zealand, the rules in my life growing up never mapped out a narrow path; instead, they marked the edges of a playground. It’s still my rule.
AFTER DECADES STUDYING FAMILY LIFE, JOHN NOW FOCUSSES ON THE ‘PRIME-TIME’ ISSUES OF LATER MIDDLE AGE. CHECK HIM OUT ON JOHNCOWAN.CO.NZ – ESPECIALLY IF YOU NEED SOME WRITING, EVENT SPEAKING, VIDEOS MADE, OR SOMEONE TO HAVE A COFFEE WITH.