20 Aug 2023

Jemaine Clement’s forgotten Aotearoa podcast

From Culture 101, 1:00 pm on 20 August 2023
Uncle Berties

Recording with Jemaine Clement Photo: Matt Grace

In an entertainment world of endless streaming platforms and paywalls, great content can lie below the popular radar for years.   

Indeed, it was way back in 2016 when a brilliant group of New Zealand creatives conjured up The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie's Botanarium: an ambitious 24-part radio comedy series in the spirit of Monty Python and Blackadder

Writer Duncan Sarkies, artist Stephen Templer and musician James Milne (also known as Lawrence Arabia) pooled their collective talents to make the show, which follows the fictitious adventures of 18th century buffoonish protagonist Joseph Banks (played by Jemaine Clement) and mercilessly sends up colonial tropes.

“We had that collective idea of wanting to create something that is really fruity and off the wall,” Templer told Culture 101.

The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie's Botanarium received great overseas reviews on podcast premiere with the likes of The Guardian and LA Times, yet remained largely unheard of in Aotearoa; hidden behind a paywall. 

Until now, that is. RNZ is proudly premiering the series on-air and on-demand for free.

Why has it taken so long for it to reach audiences in Aotearoa? That’s a long story, co-creator Duncan Sarkies says.

As part of the initial deal to make the show, the creators received “a whopping $100,000 budget,” he explains.

“I’m very grateful that that happened. But of course, you know, part of that deal is everything was locked behind a paywall. And then we had a really fun Hollywood adventure, with Stevie and James and I hoping there would be a really exciting outcome but instead we have a very boring tale about lawyers and stuff like that.”

Uncle Berties

Duncan Sarkies with Jemaine Clement Photo: Matt Grace

HBO was interested in making it into a TV series, Sarkies says, until another contender came along.

“The thing that really killed it is our good old mates Taika (Waititi) and Rhys [Darby] with [their show] Our Flag Means Death. It became an HBO show, and they didn't want two nautical-based, New Zealand-based TV shows.”

The Mysterious Adventures of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium tells the story of the fictional Joseph Banks (not to be confused with the Joseph Banks who was part of Captain Cook’s voyages to New Zealand).

“Basically, he goes off on an adventure to look for a plant known to be the very source of pleasure,” Sarkies says.

James Milne aka Lawrence Arabia Photo: Matt Grace

“And he's going there so that he can destroy pleasure, because pleasure is a threat to society. And this is also a world where I should say that everyone no matter who you are, is attracted to plants, every single person is, but only really a trained botanist should be allowed to touch them professionally.

“What we're doing here [in the show] is pulling down reputations, and really trying to sort of show up that lunacy of that arrogant, white man thinking.”

The trio started workshopping the story in 2009, working closely together to create “this incredibly rich and ludicrous world,” Templer says.

“The process was very collaborative in terms of coming up with the whole story. We spent lots of time pacing around various spaces with huge pieces of paper, lining up all these different plot points and ridiculous things that were going to happen.

“We relied on Duncan's skills as a writer to take all of that chaos that we created and put it on paper so we could actually turn it into a script.”

Duncan Sarkies and Jemaine Clement

Duncan Sarkies and Jemaine Clement in 2016. Photo: supplied

When it came to recording, Milne says Clement – best known to New Zealand audiences as one half of the Flying Conchords – was intimidating.

“He's just such an adept improviser. And he inhabited that character so intensely. The character is a narcissist and a tyrant.

“In character, as Banks, he terrified the crap out of me,” he says.

“Not Jemaine as a person,” Sarkies says. “Jemaine’s a really nice guy.”

Uncle Berties

Photo: Matt Grace

Clement’s inherent niceness even makes his “British twit” character a bit more likeable, Sarkies says.

Sarkies and Templer also act in the show in a variety of roles.

“Stevie and I were the cheap actors that you could just get to play anything because we're always there anyway,” Sarkies says.

“He’d always try and do a Michael Caine impression, and I would always say no every single time, I’d say ‘no, we're not doing that’ and it was that kind of environment. It was playful and fun.”

Uncle Berties

Jemaine Clement rehearsing Photo: Matt Grace