Review: Untouchable Girls: The Topp Twins’ Story

Reviewed by Ruth Spencer

‘Untouchable Girls is a rollicking, intimate, uproarious romp through the triumphant lives of Jools and Lynda that will make you want to sing, to go on the road, ride horses, fall in love and never stop laughing.’

Somewhere out there, a man named Bruce McKenzie has been trumping everyone else’s dinner party stories for 50 years. Bruce has the glorious honour of having won first place in the Huntly College Talent Show, his electric guitar stylings knocking the Topp Twins and their brother, also named Bruce, out of contention. The Topp Family’s three part harmony version of Lean On Me took second place.  Bruce Topp took the hint and promptly became a florist, but Jools and Lynda have a habit of not letting anything stop them.

It’s a long way from the Huntly College hall to a sold-out Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre. The Topps have documented that journey in their own words in Untouchable Girls, a gorgeous collection of stories and photos from their long and varied career. When Jools is writing, the text is in black; when Lynda is writing, it’s grey. Their written voices, like their singing voices, are quite similar and they chime in and out in harmony, with the occasional joyful yodel. Together they regale us with their best anecdotes bringing hilarity, honesty and courage to every page. Reading this book is like being at an intimate dinner party with the Girls with the photo albums out, the guests hanging on every word, the laughter and love and music flowing like wine.

One of the highlights of the book is the historical detail, the stories they can tell of important moments in New Zealand’s coming of age. Being politically active in the late 1970s and early 80s demanded a lot of presence and involvement. The Topps were on the field, arms linked with the other protestors, for the Springbok game in 1981 when the Riot Squad arrived. They were at Bastion Point. They were invited to the party on board the Rainbow Warrior the night it was bombed but had another gig.  Hero parades, Women’s festivals, protest marches and concerts, the Topps walked the talk and sang it too. 

It is far from inevitable that the Topp Twins would become beloved icons of New Zealand culture.  No one was casting for country-singing political-activist feminist lesbian twins from Huntly when they arrived on the entertainment scene in the late 1970s.  Any one of those identifiers is still polarising for much of New Zealand and taken together ought to be anathema for mainstream family entertainment. Perhaps that did tell against them, at least in one arena. Despite the sense that the Topps have always been a celebrated part of our culture since the early 80s, they have barely been on television at all. An early concert special in 1987 was followed by a decade without them on screen. The late 90s series Topp Twins: Do Not Adjust Your Twin-Set that gave us Camp Mother, Camp Leader and the Kens only lasted one season and even the 2022 Topp Class tribute concert was rejected by TVNZ before Prime snapped it up.  

There’s some quiet bitterness about this in the book, and rightly so – we have squandered a precious resource. There could be so much more recorded for posterity, so many more characters and moments to make us laugh and to confront us with a gently mocking mirror. The original concert special, if you can find it – and you should try - is hilarious, political and avant-garde, a virtuoso performance by two young artists who already know how to be both experimental and professional, punk and commercial. 

Jools gives a succinct description of their comedy philosophy: ‘We discovered early on that to put something down you don’t have to know much, but to send something up you have to know your target very well.’ There’s no punching down in the Topp’s comedy.  The Topps know what shearers are like, so we believe in the Kens; they know the Country music scene inside out, allowing the Gingham Sisters to be so convincing and so funny.  Once in Australia the Topps performed the first half of a show as the Ginghams and came on for the second half as themselves. Afterwards, people came up to them to say they loved the songs, ‘...but you should have seen the old scrubbers that were on before you!’ For the Topps, there’s respect and love for the characters they portray, letting the audience understand and love them too. 

The book is ultimately a celebration of a career that has been largely spent on the road with all the mishaps and bizarre experiences that brings. Trying to tow a Gypsy caravan over the Auckland Harbour Bridge with a tractor at 4am; a possum frying the power lines outside a country hall mid-concert (they just opened the doors and aimed the tractor headlights at the stage). There are love stories and grief stories and, of course, the inescapable shadow of the ‘sneaky little creep,’ the illnesses that have thrown a spanner in the works. The Topps know how to hold an audience. Untouchable Girls is a rollicking, intimate, uproarious romp through the triumphant lives of Jools and Lynda that will make you want to sing, to go on the road, ride horses, fall in love and never stop laughing.         

Reviewed by Ruth Spencer