How New Zealand's televison had developed and changed over the years.

Drama (up to 1985): Vision of the country

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By Helen Paske, from NZ Listener June 1, 1985.

Dear Sir, The infantile drivel, barnyard manners and offensive innuendo in X are an insult to one’s intelligence . . . (Letters to the Editor, the Dominion)

Dear Sir, is X an indication of the quality of NZBC productions? If so, our licence fees surely could be directed to something much more worthwhile . . . (Letters to the Editor, Evening Post)

A landmark in the development of New Zealand television; an entertainment programme so firmly rooted in our own backyard and so zestfully expressed in our own distinctive idiom that it could not have been made anywhere else in the world. (TV review, NZ Herald)

The year was 1975 and X marked the demolition site of Buck House, New Zealand television’s first attempt to grow its own comedy. Buck House produced the greatest public furore over TV drama since Bruce Mason’s The Evening Paper (1965): it remained unchallenged until the political fuss over The Governor (1977). It came early in a year which was a watershed for TV drama, In April, the television system was restructured into two corporations, a new optimism pervaded its workers and ambitious plans were laid to produce, in one year, more drama than had been seen in television’s 15-year history.

The significance of that history could be simply summed up: one-off plays and Pukemanu. The first locally produced drama was transmitted live in Year 1, 1960, and was a Roy Melford production of Strindberg’s The Stranger. But, the first all New Zealand play did not appear until 1963. It was All Earth to Love, written by Alfred Flett, directed by Roy Melford and described by Christine Cole Catley in a 1973 Landfall article as highly derivative . . . and clogged with artificial dialogue. .

The fledgling television service was obviously not anxious to repeat the experience. It waited another two years before attempting the Mason play, castigated for revealing the unacceptable face of New Zealanders. 1966 had two local productions: Anniversary Day, by Jear Hill and Down by the Cool Sea, by Maurice Shadbolt.

In 1967 the NZBC held an actors’ workshop and five plays written for it were screened, including Momma’s a Good Girl, by Ian Cross and Slipknot, by Ngaio Marsh. (see Cheers for tele drama from Salient. Vol. 30, No. 14. 1967)

The effort must have been exhausting, because another two years passed before the first shot at a serial - The Alpha Plan (1969), written by Roy Hope and starring Peter Vere-Jones. No one flinched (or not to my knowledge) and we were all agreeably if mildly entertained. That makes it a milestone in local TV, wrote Cole Catley, then reviewing for the Dominion. Three one-off plays made up 1969’s complement and four were seen in 1970, including Julian Dickon’s second TV offering, The Genuine Plastic Marriage. His first, Green Gin Sunset, had been shown in 1969 and he was to be recognised as a TV dramatist in 1971 with Pukemanu.

Those involved, particularly in the first series, recall Pukemanu with a fierce pride. Tony Isaac, who directed two of the first six episodes, says, Pukemanu was the first TV drama that really captured the public imagination in a big way. The administration let us do it, more because we were a bloody nuisance than anything else. We had been wanting to do something like this and they thought they were giving us enough rope to hang ourselves. But the series worked. For the first time we had a realistic portrayal of Maori and Pakeha on the TV screen together in a dramatic sense. Set in a North Island timber town, Pukemanu tried to reflect the New Zealand people and their environment. Ordinary people in an ordinary town, wrote Cole Catley in Landfall. They are inarticulate, often isolated from one another. Relationships are limited; voices muted. Pukemanu’s script editor, Michael Anthony Noonan, says, There was a group of people who happened to be around who thought we ought to do something that had relevance to New Zealand. I can’t think of anything that’s been done since then which was a more honest programme.

Between Pukemanu and Buck House TV drama seems to have languished. Notable were local productions of overseas plays, a series on the probation service, Section 7 (1972), and several documentary-dramas, including Paul Maunder's moving Gone Up North for a While (1972) and a three-part series on the Depression, The Longest Winter (1974).

Came 1975, came restructuring and came, for better or worse, TV's Close to Home, originally planned for 26 episodes. Tony Isaac and I sat down and worked out Close to Home together, says Noonan. I think we were trying to pick up where we left off in Pukemanu.

We did our best with it, says Isaac. People weren’t used to what we were trying to give them; it took a while to grow. And the actors settled down after a while and got more easy-going about it.

It was meant to be a kind of pressure-cooker course for writers, says Noonan. Between 1959 and 1974 there had been so few opportunities, then came 1975 and they wanted to launch into this big programme of drama. It was expecting a hell a lot of the writers. Every man, woman and dog was given a go on Close to Home. We must have used 17 or 20 people in the first 26 episodes. We were trying to plan for the future, in case it did continue.

Continue it did, until August 1983, having long outlasted the rival channel’s soap operas, having reached and slid from No 1 in the ratings and having provided work and training for almost every actor, writer and director in New Zealand. Isaac’s verdict: Sometimes it was dreadful; sometimes it was quite good.

But very good, even excellent, was the verdict on the years 1975 to 1977, the closest TV drama has come to a golden age. In one week in April 1976 audiences saw Murray Reece's production of The God Boy, the independent production Shining with Shiner and the first episode of Moynihan. Other stand-out productions in those years included the Winners and Losers series, The Immigrants, Thirty-Minute Theatre and The Park Terrace Murder.

The Auckland-based second channel, under its head of drama John McRae (now heading all television drama production and overseas when this article was prepared), was to go on to public success and international sales with the kidult strand of production and shows like Hunter's Gold, Gather Your Dreams, Children of Fire Mountain and, much later, Children of the Dog Star.

And it is the Auckland style of drama, unashamedly entertaining, with high production values and an eye to overseas sales, which now dominates in New Zealand. The more socially committed style which largely came from Avalon took a knock from which it never really recovered when the National Government excoriated cost over-runs on The Governor. It was the best, publicity campaign anyone could have, says producer Tony Isaac. Everyone watched it to see what all the fuss was about. But the long-term effects have been more serious.

A post-Governor loss of confidence at Avalon saw the cancellation of some major projects, including Coal Flat, set to shoot on the West Coast in 1978, and, at the end of 1983, a series of-one-off plays.

Director John Anderson, who left TVNZ after this series was canned, believes that its writers, people like Sue McCauley, Tom Poata, Judith Fyfe and Paul Maunder, are the people who have something to say about this country. There is a big danger that what we are as people doesn’t get reflected on the screen. We see a nostalgic view of what we might once have been, but I really think there are big issues about race, sex and class which television has determinedly ignored. The thing drama should be doing is showing one part of the community to another - we should learn the Maori viewpoint from Maori drama, women’s and working-class viewpoints from their drama. As it is we get a strong diet of the male, middle-class, white viewpoint.

In recent years, probably only Isaac’s 1982 Loose Enz series of one-off plays provided these alternative viewpoints. And it got people upset again, he says. I tried to pick the best, the most lucid pieces of drama as written. The idea was to put the emphasis on the writers’

A rare approach, according to Noonan In the whole period the number of times that television has said to writers ‘Got any ideas?’ is very small.

Anderson stresses the importance of the writer’s voice. His series of Bruce Mason plays grew from this: Sometimes the medium has to adjust itself and put its toys at the service of the people who have some sense of vision about this country.

The vision of the country revealed by TV drama in recent years has had more than a touch of country, with shows like Jocko, Stock and Station and High Country prominent in the list from the late 70s and early 80s. Rachel brooded darkly in gumboot territory, Mortimer's Patch was a rural town and the flagship Country GP cruised gently through the rural backwaters of the 1940's.

It was not until last year and Inside Straight that New Zealand television drama truly brought itself up to date and into the city streets, though only the locations really coloured it Kiwi.

But why bother to make your drama unique to New Zealand, why tackle issues of concern mainly to New Zealanders? Noonan: If you’re going to borrow other people’s culture second-hand you’ve got to have some balancing diet of local production to project images of our own society. Why not have our own images on TV? Why not have our own aspirations? That’s true of everything, not just drama.

Television drama in New Zealand can no longer be called an insult to one’s intelligence. Whether, 25 years from now, its canon will justifiably be seen as an insult to our culture is still an open question.

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Light Entertainment (up to 1985) - The Entertainers

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by Frank Stark, NZ Listener, June 1, 1985

Looking back, the 1960s can seem like one long Peter Sinclair show - the cardboard psychedelia, the go-go dancers, the breathless enthusiasm. Let's GoC'mon and Happen Inn may not have captured the way that decade really was, but they certainly reflected the way it wanted to be. No New Zealand television programme since has been so right for its time, not even the turn-of-the-7Os gloom of Close to Home.

These days Sinclair himself has no doubts about the pre-eminence of those shows. Let's Go was started by Kevan Moore and me in 1964 out of Wellington. It became immensely popular and really put the other local shows like In the Groove out of business. . . A couple of years later we both moved to Auckland and started C'mon and that was acknowledged to be the light entertainment show. And the hits just kept on coming. After the stylised frenzy of C'mon and the big stars it made out of mid-60s performers like Mr Lee Grant, Alison Durbin, the Chicks and Larry's Rebels, came the more temperate but no less successful Happen Inn. The appeal there was less specifically teenage, with the likes of Craig Scott, Rob Guest and Angela Ayers crossing over into mums and dads territory.

Happen Inn rated even better than its predecessors and, as it entered the 70's, showed every sign of going on for ever. But something had to give and it was Sinclair who, after the best part of a decade of doing 40 shows a year and spending the breaks on the road with spinoff tours, packed it in at the end of the 1972 season. Moore pressed on with the same sort of show, under the title Sing, replacing Sinclair with a roster of performers doing their own fronting. Maybe because Sinclair was essential, or perhaps just because the zeitgeist had turned against the Moore formula, Sing failed to match up and was quietly laid to rest.

I quit, says Sinclair, from sheer battle fatigue. Once a job becomes a burden, that's the time to get out. If I hadn't we'd probably have been doing Happen Inn until about 1980. It had excellent ratings. And the whole structure was all set in place. Kevan had a production line going, turning out stars where there had never been any before.

So bright was the glare from the Sinclair/Moore blockbusters that only the most tenacious of memories can still recall most of the other entertainment programmes from their era. Somewhere in the shadows were period pieces like Just a Song at Twilight and The Cheeseman Singer series from AKTV2 and Music Hall from Dunedin, speciality music programmes like Just Folk and The Country Touch made in Auckland by Bryan Easte and late night "sophisticated" chat and jazz shows including After Dark and The Late Show.

The real competition came from Auckland's In The Groove, a pop show fronted by Clyde Scott and directed by Peter Webb, among others, and Studio One and New Faces which originated from Chris Bourne in Wellington. In the Groove was onscreen-for two years before Let's Go and featured a peculiar practice, long-since abandoned, of having local entertainers lip-synch along with the latest imported hits. It failed to outdo the live excitement of Let's Go and folded in 1964. The "New Faces" segment of Studio One (later a series on its own) was an attempt to get a new talent programme off the ground after the relative failure of the radio transplant Have a Shot. First winner was Brendan Dugan. Studio One lived on into the 70s, often watched as much for the put-downs by judges like Phil Warren and Nick Karavais as for the talent on show.

It wasn't all song and dance in the 60s. Television satire made a tentative beginning in 1969 with In View of Circumstances, written by Joe Musaphia and Roger Hall. Cookery was an early favourite thanks to Graham Kerr and Alison Holst. The biggest effort other than for the musical shows went into panel games and quizzes. Some, like Note for Note and Play It By Ear were musical, others like Top of the Farm and Top Mark provided stiff mental competition for minimal prizes. It wasn't until Selwyn Toogood made a triumphant and belated crossover from radio with It's in the Bag that the old standby the greed quiz reared its head here. Dishing out impressive prizes in return for answering simple questions or negotiating embarrassing parlour games has always been a surefire formula for popular success, but it took the best part of 10 years to catch on in New Zealand television.

The division into TV1 (out of Avalon) and South Pacific Television (Auckland/Christchurch) in 1975 didn't bring a golden age of light entertainment. While SPTV did come up with some new faces which have lasted, it was very much business as usual at Avalon with plenty of talent shows and lightweight song-and dance predominating. SPTV Auckland introduced Hudson and Halls, whose tipsy mix of slap-up cordon bleu and guest acts still goes down well. SPTV Christchurch specialised in humour, with Something to Look Forward to and A Week of It ultimately giving birth to McPhail & Gadsby. Then it was back to ONE and TWO, with TWO scoring well with "specialised" musical shows like That's Country and Radio Times. That's Country brought host Ray Columbus back to Christchurch where he had begun with his own pop show, Club Columbus, in 1962. Even though he began as a supporting player, Billy T James came to dominate Radio Times and was duly rewarded with his own Tom Parkinson produced show.

It's in the Bag rolled on regardless, joined by other game-shows like StumpersSupersale and Blankety Blank and the heavyweight quizzes Mastermind and University Challenge. The latter two completed a neat cycle in local television as they involved Max Cryer and Peter Sinclair who had begun in the very early days often in much less serious surroundings.

The march of the rock video has also been apparent since the mid-70s. While the early pop shows such as In the Groove, Let's Go and C'mon all had overseas material in them, it wasn't until the advent of shows like Grunt Machine and A Dropa Kulcha in the 70s that this became the staple diet for nominally local programmes. These days Ready to RollRadio With Pictures and Sha'zam provide the bulk of each week's music content - catering for the rock and roll audience almost entirely and doing it by medium of free promotional videos for records. They spend virtually no money on producing videos themselves. Of those local artists who do make it onto the programmes, many have paid for their film clip themselves and then donated it to Television New Zealand.

Of the old-style musical shows hardly a trace remains. With the demise of That's Country the flag is now carried by specials, new talent shows and occasional short series of programmes like Hui Pacific. The days of big names in local entertainment Tina Cross, Prince Tui Teka for instance being regularly on the television screen seem to have passed. Sinclair regards that as a tragedy. I maintain that there's a crying need for that sort of show once a week on New Zealand television a showcase. In our day we set the tone for the entire entertainment industry in the country and now television says it can't afford it . . . that attitude just has to change.

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News and Current affairs (Up to 1985): Still so much to be done

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By Peter Stewart, NZ Listener June 1 1985

News and Current affairs are my biggest headache. This reluctant, yet frank admission was made by Gilbert Stringer, Director General of the NZBC throughout the 60s, as he stepped down in 1970. No doubt it has been echoed more trenchantly - if privately -by other executives responsible for television's performance since then.

To a degree, of course, Stringer's headache was caused not so much by what news and current affairs programmes did, or how they did it, as by the viewers' perception of what was being done and how.

For as television grew in confidence and its producers and journalists grew in experience, current affairs programmes, especially, became more forceful, the interviewing more direct.

But the conservative. New Zealand audience, which had readily accepted the first, relatively soft documentary-type programmes of Compass, for instance, became uneasy. Frank probing was frequently interpreted as brash aggression; endeavours to investigate the issue, rather than just accept the news story, were often seen as proof of political bias on the part of a public broadcasting service.

By its very nature, however, the news and current affairs area of television is always likely to provoke reaction. In the reporting and exploration of subjects of public concern, a raw nerve can easily be touched.

Current affairs, generally the object of more suspicion, grew up in the second half of the 60s with the long-running programme Gallery. It brought to New Zealand screens what was then regarded by purists as the true current affairs format - a film set-up of the issue followed by a vigorous studio debate.

Under their producer, Des Monaghan, Gallery personnel became the first current affairs "team" -a feature that has characterised virtually all programmes that have followed. The strength of the team has often determined the success or otherwise of the programme.

Gallery, in its time, set high standards. Although it had no competition, it fixed its own challenges, particularly the need to be topical. And it was the hour of the taxi driver, the farmer, and the housewife sitting down in the studio to discuss matters with the politician.

But current affairs came of age once the two independent channels were created in 1975. Now there was genuine, often fierce, competition between the news services. Dateline Monday and Tonight at Nine on TV1 were to be matched by Thursday Conference and News at Ten on TV2 (South Pacific Television).

There were to be dramatic changes in both the approach of television journalism and the attitude of viewers towards that reporting -and even to television generally.

In the news area, the bulletins of TV1, emanating from Avalon, continued to reflect the traditional, almost establishment view of national news. But from Auckland, TVZ offered a distinctive, alternative approach -a little more offbeat, a little more enthusiastic, perhaps, as befitted a new boy.

Certainly, during the five years of two channel competition, the political scene, and Parliament especially, were scrutinised more than had ever been the case, or , has been since.

And with this new vigour, it seemed that television was often demanding that the government of the day account for its actions publicly through the medium. In part, this may have been a response to an apparent lack of effective official opposition in the House of Representatives itself; in part, too, however, it stemmed from the self-assurance of some of those who determined the line of current affairs activity. There were times, unfortunately, when the crusading journalistic zeal was badly misplaced.

This period also coincided with the realisation by journalists that neither channel had a specific editorial policy relating to current affairs, other than the demand for balance. And balance was not necessarily required within every programme but could be achieved over a period or through successive programmes.

When the dominating figure of a leader like Robert Muldoon was also thrown into this active, journalistic arena, news bulletins and current affairs programmes, and those involved in making them (particularly on-screen personalities) became the focus of constant public attention.

The Muldoon phenomenon, in fact, probably did more to jolt people into a genuine awareness of television journalism, and that of current affairs in particular, than any constructive advance the medium itself could have made in this field.

The results were positive in some respects. Viewers became more critical, more discerning; producers had to sharpen up the professionalism of their presentation; journalists had to learn to take criticism -a difficult task in television where the ego threshold is relatively high.

But in more important ways, the results of the public debate were quite negative. Programmes were not allowed to settle down, and, like the broadcasting , service itself over the years, were "chopped and changed".

In 1980 they were radically altered yet again as the two competing identities were merged into Television New Zealand. It was no consolation to suggest, (disregarding a lot of other factors) that perhaps the very vigour of the journalism had forced a political re-shuffle of television.

But now, instead of being the old TV2 source of an alternative news, Auckland became the arbiter of what is the mainstream national news. It is doubtful if it finds this responsibility an easy one and frequently appears to have difficulty in matching its news judgments with those of the rest of the country.

And more current affairs programmes, while perhaps covering a wide spectrum of stories, do not necessarily add up to dynamic current affairs. Nor should familiar titles mislead. The Eye Witness News of today, for instance, is nothing like the Eye Witness that used to screen on TV2. Today, the need to be "good television" - that is, being entertaining enough to hold an audience - may well be the paramount consideration. At a time of radical change in viewing habits, mainly because of the video revolution, any new, strong current affairs programme could face further difficulties. The scheduling of a programme can either make or break it. But unless a new programme could guarantee an audience for the advertiser, it is possible that it could end up being relegated to a "dead time". That, in turn. could affect the amount of resources - either personnel or budget - allocated to the programme.

In personnel terms, in the past, current affairs, and news, too often have seen the experienced people move on, or "up" to administrative positions. Television journalism would be that much richer had it managed to retain more of its mature personnel in the front line. Such is the nature of the television industry in New Zealand, however, that moving on is almost a predetermined event.

In financial terms, news and current affairs have probably never been better off than at present. Yet even this does not guarantee that New Zealanders will. be more deeply informed about domestic social and political questions, irrespective of what technology and satellites can transmit about international events. (It may be simply fashionable at the moment, for example, to suggest that Maori issues warrant far more attention than television currently gives them. But the fact remains that only a pitifully small number of important and relevant Maori concerns are looked at by the medium.)

Perhaps Gilbert Stringer would not suffer too many headaches from news and current affairs today. That would be a pity because one might then assume that the exciting, enterprising years of television journalism - warts and all - have been and gone. And yet there is still so much to be done.

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NZBC Mt. Victoria transmitter site 1962

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Courtesy of ex NZBC staffer Clyde Cunningham

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Schedule for Channel 2 (Auck) Oct 1960

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FOUR new locally-produced programmes have been introduced to Channel 2 viewers this week. Their appearance coincided with the extension of transmission hours, which now enables the station to provide a five-nights-a- week (Monday to Friday inclusive) schedule. The new local shows are Tonight, Sportsroom, Puppet Playhouse, and Looking at Pictures). Two other programmes, the interview session On Our Doorstep and the panel game Two to Win have been withdrawn.

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Chanel Check 10

Survey of the goings on in the NZBC studios for the four main centres published in the New Zealand TV Weekly.