Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Inside a production company's private pain: After Simba Mhere's death Tswelopele Productions mourns the loss of one of their own.

Theirs is a world of selling make-belief. Fantasy. An hour a week of the good life and indulgent escapism: jetsetting foreign locales, massive mansions and beautiful people. Neverending celebrity parties.

For the past 22 years on the South African public broadcaster Top Billing had only one aim: to whisk ordinary viewers away for one hour per week from their ordinary lives – lives where bills are waiting to be paid, bad hair days are much more numerous than Jeannie D's perfect locks, and where death and pain and tragedy stalk us – to a Neverland place. A nebulous TV wonderland where youth, wealth and champagne flow freely and designer everything is everywhere.

But this past Saturday morning not even Top Billing could escape the painful ordinary life – the real harsh, cruel one where a selfish, speeding, drunk or maybe not drunk driver (we won’t know since the police didn’t do an alcohol test) rammed a vehicle into the driver’s side of the car where Simba Mhere was behind the wheel and instantly killed two people. 

At Tswelopele Productions, a finely run production company in Westlake Business Park in Tokai, the past 20 years has seen a script for everything at Top Billing under the fine-tuned hand of co-executive producers Patience Stevens and Basetsana Kumalo.

Tswelopele has built up, from scratch, a go-to plan for basically every conceivable production crisis (and there’s been many over the decades): from delayed and cancelled and missed flights, to weather, to sickness; from pedantic celebrities, cancelled shoots, no-shows, can’t-do’s and no visas, to altered deadlines and suddenly moved up episode delivery dates and even postponed timeslots (part of the inexplicable vagaries of the SABC).   

On Saturday morning at 05:10am however one of the harsh realities of real life – the world where a beautiful, vibrant life can be cut short in an instant – punctured the finely manicured TV machine which has over years the honed the ability to bring viewers only the good side of life.

When Simba Mhere died there was no go-to for the production company; no script for the pain.

This coming Thursday night on SABC3 at 20:30 the show that focuses on the vibrant, the celebrated and the beautiful, will deal with death on television for the first time in its history in the only way it knows how: by remembering the loss of one of its own.

The South African lifestyle show which never ever showed us sadness is now filled with sorrow.

'A pervasive sense of loss'
Simba Mhere's dad who was also in the car during the accident which took his son’s life will be on Top Billing this Thursday – a symbol of what the showstopper production lost.

Presenters already started to record tributes, with Bonang Matheba, Ursula Chikane and others who couldn't keep back the tears.

On Thursday night the popular lifestyle magazine show that all others on South television are measured by and which brought happiness and joy and possibility to millions of viewers weekly, will – for the first time ever – make them cry.

Tswelopele Productions hasn’t responded to any media enquiries since Simba Mhere's senseless death Saturday morning, but insiders were willing to talk about the "utter shock, numbness and devastation" of the production company's private, and yet so public, pain.

"There's a pervasive sense of loss," said a longtime Tswelopele production insider. "This hit everybody hard, especially Patience and Bassie. People are concerned about Jonathan too," said the insider about Top Billing presenter Jonathan Boynton-Lee who flew back to Johannesburg to be with Simba Mhere's family.

"They really were like brothers, it wasn't some kind of an act," said another source. "They were both sortof the 'little brother' of each other. At the same time. They would mercilessly rib each other but underneath it they were fiercely protective [of each other]."

"They were both essentially individually hand-picked by Patience through the presenter searches and to this day they felt like they were 'the new ones' who constantly wanted to prove themselves I guess – to their families, to their fans; even to the show, especially Patience.

"For them it was always in a sense 'them' against the world. You saw it every time you saw Simba and Jonathan's fierce work ethic. A really deep-seated need to make those around them proud. And so extremely loyal. Everybody's heartbroken over Simba and also what it's done to Jonathan".

A TV moment that can't be scripted
The unexpected death will likely cast a shadow over the new Presenter Search on 3 on SABC3. The show is looking for three presenters for three different Tswelopele produced shows – one of them being Top Billing.

Although planned and announced before Simba Mhere's passing, instead of an additional new TV face to join the crop of existing presenters, the reality show will now feel like it's looking for a replacement for Simba Mhere - someone to fill his (literally) big shoes.

Producers are already thinking of how to properly honour Simba Mhere's legacy through that upcoming reality show. 

In fact, Top Billing's tight turn-around productions schedule can now actually do with two new presenters, although the company will stick with finding and adding only one to the weekly flagship production.

This coming Thursday the Tswelopele produced SABC sunshine show will also turn sombre when Jonathan Boynton-Lee is set to make a live appearance on the "feel good breakfast show" Expresso done from Cape Town. He will for the first time talk publicly about his grief and the loss of his "brother" Simba Mhere in a safe and protected TV environment. 

And again it will be a TV moment that can't be scripted.

"It's just so very hard," laments a source. "Everybody working here are miracle workers. Real miracle workers. Day in and day out – the impossible. People here do and create and achieve the impossible even under the most trying conditions and circumstances."

"But nobody is able to take the tears and pain away".