Asked once what makes a good interviewer, Brian Edwards replied "wide experience of life - its highest peaks and lowest troughs - and the human sympathy that goes with it. The great interviewers are rarely young."
Edwards has done time as a television interviewer, talkback radio host, media advisor and author. He first made his name on television in the late 60s thanks to a hard-hitting style of interrogating public figures, which polarised viewers and won him awards. His style contrasted with the orthodox interviewing manner of the time, which was reserved, non-confronting and enunciated in ‘correct' BBC English.
Edwards was born in Northern Ireland. His father abandoned him after an argument with his mother when he was two years old. Edwards chronicled his first 25 years - and the search for the truth about his mysterious father - in 2008 book Daddy was a German Spy and other scandals. The book recounts how during a return trip to Northern Ireland, Edwards ran into an old teacher, who asked how he had been doing all those years.
Edwards' reply began "well... went to Queen's University (in Belfast), then to Edinburgh for my doctorate, emigrated to New Zealand, taught at Canterbury University, got into TV, became famous, wrote a book about my experiences, stood unsuccessfully for parliament, became a media adviser to a couple of Labour prime ministers, wrote a book about the '72 general election, worked for a trade union, found myself unemployable, went relief teaching at a local high school, became a radio talkback host, was tried for contempt of court for revealing the suppressed names of three SIS agents in a famous New Zealand spy trial..."
After completing his PhD on Franz Kafka, Edwards had entered television after encouragement from producer Linda MacDougall. His first turn before the cameras, for Christchurch show Out and About, was deemed unfit to air; after four hours of waiting while the outside broadcast crew set up, Edwards got so nervous he forgot most of his questions. Later episodes went much better, and soon producer Des Monaghan invited him to audition for the Christchurch edition of 60s magazine show Town and Around (Edwards talks about the show halfway through the third clip of this documentary). A Town and Around interview with some 60s era Mods and Rockers won acclaim; Edwards argues that it helped turn the show in a more courageous direction.
Monaghan and Edwards careers rose in tandem. In 1968 Monaghan invited him to Auckland to do a report on the city's Island population for oft-controversial current affairs show Compass. There he quickly began attracting the attention of both audiences and critics.
In 1969 Edwards was one of a trio drafted to interview American evangelist Billy Graham, for show Point of View. Although Graham later told journalists that he had enjoyed talking to the group of "devil's advocates", many viewers complained about the supposedly impolite style of the interview.
Such probing interviews had been seen in overseas shows, but were new to Kiwi television. When Edwards brought this more confrontational style to current affairs show Gallery in 1969, it helped make his name. There were controversial interviews with SIS head William Gilbert, who demanded (unsuccessfully) his interview not be broadcast, and heart transplant surgeon Christian Barnard. The latter won Gallery a Feltex award, and more complaints from the public.
The conversation which would win Edwards lasting fame occurred in September 1970. Post office workers were on a go-slow in a bid for higher wages, and communication between unions and managers had completely broken down. Gallery got representatives of both sides into the studio, and as the interview neared its end, Edwards managed to get both men to agree to go back into negotiation. The go-slow was called off that night. This time it was Edwards who won a Feltex Award.
A few months after the post office interview, the pilot episode of The Brian Edwards Show was recorded. The show included music, satire and what Robert Boyd-Bell describes as "a fiery conversation" between Finance Minister Robert Muldoon and three young critics (including Tim Shadbolt). Reporter David Beatson called it "the finest television programme you never saw". Possibly fearing pending decisions involving a possible second channel, the NZBC administration abandoned plans for a series, arguing the pilot wasn't good enough.
Edwards left Gallery soon after. His 1971 book The Public Eye details many of the interviews he had done up until that time.
The following year Edwards "nailed my colours to the mast", by making a failed attempt to win election as a Labour candidate. From then on political interviews would be the exception, rather than the rule.
He returned to television in 1975 with late nighter Edwards on Saturday. The live show mixed music, chat, and an element of the unpredictable. Initially paired on alternate weekends with a chat show starring BBC import Michael Dean, it rated highly. The first episode examined homosexuality, while the second convinced many viewers they were witnessing live psychic surgery - at least until the truth was revealed.
Sometimes clocking in at more than two hours, Edwards on Saturday proved exhausting to make. In 1977 many of the Edwards on Saturday team moved onto a new consumer rights programme. Fair Go would become one of the longest running shows in the history of New Zealand television (he also hosted 1979's Sons and Daughters, in which he interviewed children of famous New Zealanders). Edwards argued that his Fair Go interviews were just as tough as during his time on Gallery. After time as both presenter and producer, he finally left Fair Go in 1985, and travelled New Zealand getting public input into an unsuccessful bid by company Southern Cross to launch the country's third channel.
Edwards began running media training courses in the early 70s. Between them, he and third wife Judy Callingham have been advisors to four Prime Ministers, including Helen Clark (who Edwards has written a book about). He has also spent time as a columnist and radio host, including a five year stint in the 90s, hosting high rating National Radio show Top of the Morning.
In the 90s Edwards hosted a run of one-off documentaries (including Scorched Memories and Life Sentence - The Crewe Murders), and had a regular interview slot on magazine show Sunday.
Edwards returned once more to television interviewing in 2003 with Edwards at Large, a show which included controversial interviews with Rodney Hide and author Lynley Hood. He argued at the time that "if you're really interested in what makes people tick, what shapes their personalities, this is just the best job in the world".
In 1999 he was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (CNZM), for services to Broadcasting and Journalism. These days he continues to offer media training with Judy Callingham through company Callingham and Edwards Limited, and writes regularly on local media developments for National Business Review.
Brian Edwards Media website. Accessed 24 March 2013
Brian Edwards, Daddy was a German Spy - and Other Scandals (Auckland: Penguin Books, 2008)
'Brian Edwards - TV Current Affairs Legend' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen Website. Director Andrew Whiteside (Uploaded 26 July 2011). Accessed 26 July 2011
'Format energises Edwards' - Dominion Post (TV Week liftout), 6 July 2003, Page 15
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
'Sth Is. promised fair go' - The Marlborough Express, 30 July 1985, Page 2