We may not know who Lord Joseph Banks is here in America, but he was an important man. Educated in botany and natural history at Oxford in the 1760s, Banks was a member of Captain Cook’s first voyage through the Pacific, and was crucial in Britain’s colonization of Australia and New Zealand. He was the first guy to bring eucalyptus back to the west, the man who recommended Britain send their prisoners to Australia, and the chief adviser to King George III (the same king we gave the boot to) on all botanical matters. He even wound up on Australian money centuries later. Now he’s the subject of a new scripted podcast on the Howl network, The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium, where he’s played by actor and comedian Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords fame. And like an American, Clement, a native of New Zealand, had no idea who Banks was when he took the job.
Clement laughs when he tells me he knows nothing about Banks during a phone call from his home in New Zealand. He didn’t really do any research, in part because he wanted the script to contain the sum total of what he would know about the man. That script, written by the acclaimed writer and director Duncan Sarkies (a frequent and longtime collaborator of Clement’s), the musician James Milne (aka Lawrence Arabia) and artist Stephen Templer, was inspired by history, but twists it into a cartoonish reflection of itself.
“The writers had all read the same history book and wanted to do something in this world,” Clement says. “I should’ve researched him, but this version of course is pretty different. It’s not England he’s leaving from, but the Gravy Isles. They stand in for historical ones, but are pretty perverted. And by perverted I mean changed, not kinky.”
Clement has done radio work in the past, and it’s a medium that he loves performing in. It’s not just the antiquated charm of working like his creative forebears would have before television; there’s a unique appeal, as a performer and audience member, to the fog that radio narratives are inherently shrouded in. “It’s a mixture between reading a book and watching a movie,” Clement summarizes. “Some of it’s provided for you like a movie, like the performances, but a lot of it you have to imagine yourself when you’re listening to it. I’m hoping podcasts will bring radio comedy and radio drama back.”
Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium is different than a lot of radio plays, though. Episodes could take days to produce, in part because Sarkies, Templer and Milne were dedicated to capturing the appropriate ambience for each scene. It was often recorded on location, which is almost unheard of for scripted radio productions.
” These guys went to great lengths in capturing the soundscapes,” Clement explains. “Say if we went to an island in the radio play, we’d actually go to, not an island, but we’d go to a hill near a beach. We’d be outside. We wouldn’t just stay in the studio, we’d go to locations often. That’s pretty unusual. I’ve never come across that in a radio play before. But these guys are trying to make a period piece so they can’t have any cars or anything. They have to go a bit further to capture what they wanted.”
That extra effort comes through in the show itself. The rich, textured audio is as vital to creating the world of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium as the script or any performance. The audio production evokes the struggles of 18th century exploration even as it creates fanciful and absurd worlds full of dangerous butterflies and man-eating sausages. Even if you don’t care for the whimsical story or inspired performances for whatever reason, you might still appreciate the intricate aural treats that the show offers up.
Although the show’s about a New Zealand legend and was produced entirely in New Zealand, it was always targeting an international audience. It landed at Howl, the premium wing of the Earwolf family, after a brief dalliance with the BBC. And although Clement calls Wellington home, he says it’s not particularly important to him to work in his home country. It’s just where he lives, he says, explaining that “it’s more the people I like, my friends. I’m used to it. It wouldn’t matter where we worked. And as it happens, we did make this in New Zealand, but it’s for an American company. Hopefully New Zealanders take to it though.”
The first season of The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium debuted on Howl this week, and new episodes will premiere every Wednesday. Shortly after that season ends, Clement and Bret McKenzie will be returning to the States for a Flight of the Conchords tour. Clement was actually working on new Conchords material right before our phone call. He won’t be leaving Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium for good, though; a second season is already being planned. Maybe by then America—and even Clement—will know more about this Joseph Banks guy.
Listen to The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie’s Botanariumhere.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He spent a day in New Zealand back whenever that Jack Nicholson movie Wolf was in theaters.