Why Spicks and Specks is back
When the much loved music quiz show Spicks and Specks returns to Australian screens later this month for a 10-episode run, it will be like welcoming an old friend back into the living room.
Host Adam Hills, team captains Myf Warhurst and Alan Brough - and their endless roster of musician and comedian guests - have been delighting audiences with music trivia and inventive games on and off for more than 15 years. And, like the seasoned professionals and old friends they are, the trio and the behind-the-scenes team of writers, producers and technicians have made it look easy.
But while the relaxed banter and inspired silliness is back in full force for the new episodes, the first season in a decade after four successful comeback specials in 2019-20, the degree of difficulty in actually getting them done was off the chart thanks to the pandemic and, more specifically, Melbourne's extended lockdown of last year.
"The big discussions I had with my manager before saying yes to the series was 'are there too many hurdles for this to work?'," says quizmaster Hills, freshly returned to Melbourne after a stint in the UK making his successful panel show, The Last Leg.
Ironically it was Hills' sudden availability due to the postponement of the Tokyo Paralympics that created a window for the return of the ABC fan favourite, but it was very much touch and go as to whether they could pull it off. The stage four Melbourne lockdown meant no interstate guests could appear, nor could the usual live audience be present. Curfews dictated all present needed permits just to film and social distancing rules meant revamping the desks and giving contestants their own buzzers rather than a communal one. Hills even had to sanitise his hands every time he handed something to a player - and an employee with a specially measured stick had to be present if he wanted a quiet word with his producer.
"Literally the guy would come over and put the stick between us and say 'I'm really sorry guys - I hate that I am the person who has to do this'," says Hills with a laugh. "So, we were going 'can we make all of this work?' and eventually I guess we all made the decision of 'well, it's worth a shot'."
Hills says some potential negatives turned out to be positives. The lack of an audience meant the panellists were more relaxed and conversational and with the live music and comedy scenes almost entirely shut down, the guests were even more excited than usual just to be there. "The first time we had live music - I think it was the Teskey Brothers - and when they sang at the end, there were tears behind the cameras because no one had seen live music for six months and we suddenly realised what we had been missing, that visceral feeling of live music being played in front of you.
The challenges of Hills' own working year has been compounded by competing commitments in Melbourne, where he lives with wife, performer Ali McGregor and their two primary school-aged daughters, and London, where he films The Last Leg. Travelling between the two countries has been a draining and sometimes discombobulating experience for Hills, not least because of the wildly different pandemic experiences. "I don't think British people realise how bad they have it. But when you are in it you don't realise, you just think that's what the world is like. And I think the converse happens here. I definitely don't think we realise how good we have it."
While he made good use of his two separate stints in hotel quarantine after coming back to Australia, writing the second and third drafts of his first children's book and raising money for stroke awareness and a paralysed rugby league player by running laps around his room, Hills says the time away from his family has been the most challenging aspect.
"I have eight weeks at home now but there's a chance I might not see them for six months after that because of quarantines or travel restrictions," he says. "I reduced it to almost a punchline, because that's what I do, but it feels like I have to either feed my family or see them. I can't do both."
GET UP, STAND UP
Hills is relishing the chance to get back in front of a live audience with his stand-up show, Shoes Half Full, that kicked off last night as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. At a recent warm-up gig, he apologised for not having any COVID material, to which an audience member shouted "good - talk about something else". He was happy to oblige, with a typically positive show inspired by a divided era in which both sides of any argument tend to shout at each other from the fringes rather than meeting in the middle. Hills says he has retreated from the ranty comedy he used for a while on The Last Leg after listening in disbelief to some of the more outrageous statements by the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson and realising he was only adding more noise.
"I think in a way, we as comedians have had to become more responsible for what we are saying but not for fear of being cancelled - we have had to do it because in a weird way we have had to be the grown-ups. The people who are meant to be the grown-ups and responsible for what they say, aren't being responsible, so we have to be now."
He's not concerned by the rise of so-called cancel culture and considers a good episode of The Last Leg to be one where "I get as many people calling me a Lefty wanker as a Tory enabler".
"There is a group of people who would like to think that cancel culture is more than it is - and there is a group of people who like to think they can ban stuff. And they are having a big fight on either end. And most of everybody else in the middle is going 'is it that bad?'. The idea you can't say anything in comedy any more - I'm not entirely sure what is it that you can't say. If you say it and you lose your audience, then you have probably said the wrong thing. That's what the audience is there for isn't it? If you offend them - it's not necessarily their fault."
Spicks and Specks, April 18, 7.40pm, ABC
Originally published as Why Spicks and Specks is back