Let’s face it. RocKwiz is the little show that tried on the network with a budget of two coins rubbing together.
In the heaving, iconic space that is The Gershwin Room at the Esplanade Hotel, St. Kilda, the SBS show clocks up its 10th season this week. It’s a humble ‘play-along’ pub trivia night with a few punters from the audience and a sprinkling of rock celebrity.
Now in its 8th year with host Julia Zemiro, the show has seen out its contemporary, Spicks and Specks.
Co-creator Brian Nankervis (pictured, far left) can barely believe his luck and is grateful the show has the freedom to play with its format.
“In my wildest dreams I hoped that we would still be going but the reality is in this game you’re happy to do one season. You hope and pray you’ll do another, but you’re fully aware you may not. You might just get the one chance and you’re grateful for that one chance,” he said.
“To be able to keep going and be given the amount of freedom where we go ‘Hey wouldn’t it be great to play tribute one of our heroes, (The Band drummer) Levon Helm.’ Other networks, can you imagine? They’d be saying ‘Who? Levon who? The band is going to sing? In black and white?’ They’ve just given us such incredible freedom.
“They trust us and we certainly send every episode to Sydney before the final cut is done and they give us notes and feedback, often very good feedback.”
Trivia host extraordinairre Julia Zemiro has emerged as a leading SBS face thanks to RocKwiz and Eurovision. Despite this she is still asked, ‘What’s it like to host Spicks and Specks?’ Both Zemiro and Nankervis regularly appear on other networks, with Nankervis most recently hosting Seven’s Pictures of You. But neither has stepped away from the pub trivia crowd-pleaser.
“The remarkable thing is that the team is largely unchanged: Dugald, the three band members, Julia, myself, lighting, sound, the three producers, the ‘Brains Trust’ who I work with for questions are largely unchanged.”
The new season has 12 episodes, but previous seasons have varied between 6-16 eps. RocKwiz has also survived management changes at SBS and endured 4 commissioning editors.
“They’ve all been great, they’ve all understood the show and been supportive without cramping our style,” he says.
“It’s a joy to do. We’re going out on tour in late August again. The last tour was incredibly successful in terms of numbers. Not financially, because there’s a lot of us and we like to eat well and stay in nice accommodation! And more importantly take a ‘deluxe’ production with Tim on Sound and Toby on Lights. We jump from 300 people in the Gershwin Room to 2000 at QPAC. This year we’re doing the Hordern, Festival Hall….
“Julia and I both relish the idea of being on a big stage. The Gershwin Room is fabulous but it’s hard work because it’s so narrow, so crushed. In a big theatre or convention centre we can move around. The show is longer and because it’s not being filmed there’s a looseness that we really love.”
But despite the affection for the humble SBS show, RocKwiz is yet to crack the international market for an overseas format. This is despite producers Renegade selling their other hit series Wilfred to the US.
Nankervis had conversations with FremantleMedia in the UK but nothing eventuated. It’s hard to hide the frustration, especially when visiting stars prove to be such fans of the show.
“We’ve tried. I don’t know why,” he sighs.
“Mary Wilson, Sarah Lee Guthrie, Martha Wainwright, they all say ‘how come no-one is doing this, how come you can’t sell it?’ I don’t know. I do not understand.
“We got really close about 3 years ago, where we going to travel to New York and do a show in the Bowery Ballroom, and the New York folk would watch and then the next night they were going to do a show.
“There was even talk of Joan Jett being Julia and Jack Black being me.”
Could it be that the show is just too humble for its own good for other countries to see its charms?
“Someone told me the idea of the pub quiz is such a part of English culture that maybe the Americans wouldn’t understand it. Think of the pool of talent!
“We’ve had to work really hard to find great women performers. We have a white board at the office that is filled with male names and the white board for the gals is a little thinner, because we’ve done 130 shows and we try to have new musicians every week. We find them, but it’s harder. But in England the pool would be immense.”
This week’s guests remain under wraps says Nankervis, because of the problem of revealing the names of guests intended to be surprises in the first challenge of the night. But it’s a dilemma. While SBS want to promote big name guests to help pull a crowd, RocKwiz fans don’t want to be spoiled.
“We have a lot of feedback from fans who say “We want to sit and home, listen to Who Can It Be Now? and be first,” Nankervis explains.
“(In interviews) I say, ‘You wait. We have an absolute legend who you’ve known and loved for 20 years and we have someone who you may not have heard of but who will knock your socks off.’
“I think people love to discover new talent.”
RocKwiz returns 8:30pm Saturday on SBS ONE.