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The next stage for James Packham and Walter 'Wiz' Walsh

This year marks their last showcase of popular Stars in Their Eyes.

Having co-produced with Walter ‘Wiz’ Walsh live talent show and fundraiser Stars in Their Eyes since 2017, James Packman has announced the last showcase will be held in September. James looks back at his and the Wiz’s achievement and tells Mark Peters about their plans . . .

After September 19, James Packman will be . . . James Packman, to paraphrase the introduction in British TV talent series Stars in Their Eyes.

Having co-founded the popular show with entertainer, DJ and radio broadcaster Walter “Wiz” Walsh in 2017, the duo will bring down the curtain on Stars in Their Eyes this year. The September production of Stars will be the fourth and last of the live series.

Other big, glittering, music-fuelled shows will help fill the vacuum. While Walter and brother Doug Walsh tour the country as The Walsh Brothers with their old-school sound of Maori showbands peppered with comic banter, performer/producer James has a big, local show of his own in mind.

“Next year I'm directing Grease, a full-on production, so my year will be taken up with that,” he says.

James performed as David Bowie in his and Walter's first Stars in Their Eyes production.

“I was Ziggy Stardust and did Spiders From Mars. I'm a big Bowie fan.”

Since then he has focused more on the backstage, production side of the show while Walter is out front as MC.

“I think my on-stage time is done,” he says.

“I'm trying to get offstage for now.”

Having said that, he is interested in taking on a role in Unity Theatre's upcoming production of The Crucible.

“That'll be the last one for now. I organise three to four events a year so I find it hard to spend time learning lines.”

Inspiration for the talent show as a fundraiser came in 1992 when Karen Hollis staged a production of Stars in Their Eyes at what was then the Sandown Park Hotel. An earlier inspiration had already got James interested in the stage — seeing the Dustin Hoffman rom-com, Tootsie, in which Hoffman played a talented but volatile actor whose reputation for being difficult forced him to adopt a new identity as a woman in order to land a job.

“I was in those early shows,” says James.

“Karen put them on for four years in a row. In the first year I was Julian Clary.”

Clary began his career as part of Britain's comedy revolution in the 1980s and was often costumed in leather or PVC with a hint of bondage. James's dad was “a bit dubious” when he played Julian Clary in a Stars in Their Eyes show”. Despite his apparently reserved nature, James's love of the stage is followed closely by a love of boundary-pushing. In the second year of Stars in Their Eyes he played the androgynous 1980s English pop star Boy George. In 1994 though he went country and played Willie Nelson and in 1995 James Packman was an Abba character while Walter took on the role of Stevie Wonder.

James will perform in this year's show but the star he will play is a secret for now.

He and Walter met through the 1995 show and later performed in a local production of Ladies Night at the Lawson Field Theatre.

In the New Zealand play by Stephen Sinclair and Anthony McCarten, a group of unemployed workers develop a male strip show.

“We were strippers,” says James.

“We opened in the middle of summer and the air con broke down. We had to drink beer onstage to hydrate. The audience got a good show that night.

“We did Grease the following year.”

James and Walter picked up Stars in Their Eyes after someone — James can't remember who — asked him to reprise his Julian Clary character.

“I said ‘no, that's been and gone'. Then they asked if I would be interested in bringing back Stars in Their Eyes.

“I phoned Walter, we had a one-hour meeting and that was that.”

Money raised goes to Gizzy charities

Stars was reborn. But wait, there's more.

“We said we'd only do it if the money went to charity.”

The 2017 show acted as a fundraiser for domestic violence prevention and community support services such as Women's Refuge and for Tauawhi Men's Centre, while funds raised from the 2018 show went to St John Ambulance.

Gizzy School Lunches benefited from the 2019 show. Moko Turongo Trust, a group that takes an indigenous approach to combatting suicide, will be the recipients of funds raised by this year's Stars in Their Eyes.

For the past two years recipients of proceeds from the talent show are decided by public vote via Facebook.

“We thought that would give us free advertising which meant more money could go to charity,” says James.

One standout moment among many happened last year for James.

“We had this guy last year — Clarence — who came along to give it a go. I think he wanted to be one of the Backstreet Boys. He started off with a Backstreet Boys' song and hit some high notes. I heard Andy Gibbs in him and said ‘look, I know you don't look like him but try the song I Just Want To Be Your Everything.

“I gave him a blonde wig, sparkly shirt, Spandex pants and chest-hair mat to wear. He was very nervous during the morning run but when the show started, he was off. He nailed it. He was the star of the show. He's back again this year and the star he'll be will be another crowd-pleaser. I can already see people singing along with him. He has a good voice.”

Other highlights include all the feedback — and handing over the cheque to the nominated charity “and knowing we've supported someone in some small way”.

The unexpected can happen during live shows, says James, and the only way to deal with a glitch is to roll with it.

“In 2018 the projector froze during the screening of an interview. I told Walter to get up there and tell them a joke or something. We lost about 15 minutes before we got the footage back up but Walter was in his element. He sang Happy Birthday to a few people he knew.

“I slipped over last year at half time and nearly concussed myself. Dry ice had left a wet spot on stage. The curtain had just come down and I was walking across the stage and went right over and banged my head. Luckily we had a nurse on hand and she helped me out.”

Stars In Their Eyes is so popular the organisers host an afternoon and an evening show. This leaves time in the day for one run-through in the morning. The biggest Stars In Their Eyes show James and Walter have hosted was in 2018 when 16 acts took to the stage in each of the day's two shows.

“The more performers you have, the more family members come. At the first show in 2017 we had only 12 acts so we've definitely increased over the years.”

Although previously staged at the War Memorial Theatre, this year's Stars will be held for the first time at the Lawson Field Theatre and, because this is 2020, it will feature 20 performers.

“I think we will miss it, and I think it will come back . . . but not for a while,” says James.

“We have other ideas, but will bring it back in maybe five to 10 years because there is so much talent here.”

This year, the show coincides with the 2020 election day.

“If people want a break from boring politics, vote, then come and watch the show.”

MOVING ON: Pictured here as Willy Loman with suitcase packed and ready to go in a Unity Theatre production of Death of a Salesman, James Packman is never far from the stage — but this year marks the last production of his and Walter ‘Wiz' Walsh's popular Stars in Their Eyes talent showcase. However, James has plans for another big local production. Picture supplied
THE MANY FACES OF JAMES PACKMAN: Nothing if not theatrically versatile, James Packman is pictured here in rehearsal with Iscah Montgomerie for a 2018 Unity Theatre production of The Shadow Box. Picture by Elenor Gill