Greg McGee was playing rugby for Otago aged only 19. Five years later, with a law degree behind him, he made a five-year plan to change his life and become a writer. The All Black trialist left a promising law job to become a player/coach in a village in Italy, then began writing a play about a rugby team riven by conflict.
When Foreskin's Lament began packing theatres across the country in 1980, McGee was a few days over 30. The Listener called it "a quantum leap forward in New Zealand drama". The play's intended theme of innocence lost, and its climactic cry of "whaddarya" gained iconic prescience in the wake of the divisive 1981 Springbok tour.
McGee hoped Foreskin's success would give him a shot at something then "even more exacting and rigorous and ambitious than being an All Black, or even than writing one successful play: I wanted to see whether I could earn a living from writing."
McGee had already had his first encounter with television - and future collaborator Chris Hampson. In 1981 Hampson, as script editor at TVNZ's drama department, commissioned him to write for anthology series Loose Enz. McGee contributed two-hander Free Enterprise, a satire of the market economy.
In 1983 McGee's second play, Tooth & Claw, "set in a lawyer's office above a burning city", was named joint play of the year by the Dominion newspaper. He followed it with freezing works tale Out in the Cold, then successfully campaigned for changes - some contractual - to help even up the playing field between writers and theatres. McGee was part of a co-operative (Working Title Theatre) which launched a number of new Kiwi plays; but McGee's own privately funded Whitemen failed to win an audience.
By 1984 McGee was also looking to television, inspired partly by the possibility of an income, and partly by British writer Trevor Griffith's argument that theatre was the covered stand, and real writers needed to get down into the terraces of TV.
For police show Mortimer's Patch, McGee wrote episode 'Nothing Changed', about a despondent Māori Battalion veteran. McGee later argued that he made "the classic mistake" of new television writers: concentrating his story more on the guest characters than the recurring cast.
But the show that really demonstrated to him TV's need for story-heavy, dialogue-light writing was 1985 Roche, about brothers who run a trucking company. McGee ended up writing three episodes (Dean Parker and Simon O'Connor took the other six). Scripts for a second series were never utilized; plans for a lucratively-paid Australian remake died after the stock market crash.
McGee and the more experienced Dean Parker made a good team; later South Pacific Pictures approached the duo to develop something for a half-hour 6pm time slot. By the time the show about a luxury resort began its 40 episode run, three years had passed, and Marlin Bay had morphed into a one-hour series playing at 8.30. McGee won a GOFTA award for the opening episode, and a latter episode would win McGee (and James Griffin) an award with a very long title: the US Writers Guild Foundation International Screen and Television Writer's Film Festival Award.
Parker and McGee would continue their partnership on colonial melodrama Greenstone, Otago-set adventure Gold (which they co-created with Chris Hampson), and Old Scores, winner of a 1991 film and TV award for best screenplay. Made for television, this lighthearted tale of ex All Blacks in a rematch against their Welsh enemies won local theatrical release.
Back in 1985 TVNZ drama head John McRae had invited ex-lawyer McGee to take on arguably his most challenging assignment: a mini-series based around the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Erebus plane crash. McGee felt the programme should move beyond the investigation to what happened to Justice Peter Mahon, after his findings proved "unpalatable" to the Government.
McGee insisted on an independent legal advisor, then spent months among 1000s of pages of evidence. Directed by Peter Sharp, Erebus: The Aftermath won high ratings, NZTV awards for best drama writer and programme, plus repeat screenings in England and Australia.
McGee scored a further drama award in 1995 for co-writing Lange-era mini-series Fallout, with Tom Scott. The two-parter dramatises events leading up to David Lange's announcement that New Zealand had gone anti-nuclear.
McGee's feature film work includes teaming with fellow playwright Anthony McCarten, to adapt McCarten's play Via Satellite for the screen. McGee helped lead the writing team on Sam Pillsbury's Crooked Earth to the goal line, and also co-wrote for a proposed Came a Hot Friday TV series that never saw the light of day.
In 1998 McGee joined frequent collaborators Chris Hampson and director Chris Bailey to found production company ScreenWorks, above a fish and chip shop in McGee's beloved suburb of Ponsonby. The company's first production was long-running drama series Street Legal, which revolved around a maverick Ponsonby lawyer (Jay Laga'aia), his legal partner and a detective. The McGee written pilot and follow-up can both be seen here in full.
Street Legal was the first New Zealand drama series to be bought for syndication by Australian television; it also sold to France, South Africa and Russia.
McGee would go on to write for and executive produce a host of ScreenWorks shows, including his war crimes mini-series Doves of War, border security series Orange Roughies, and script-polishing for teen show Hard Out. He also got the chance to "asset-strip" his classic Foreskin's Lament for 2003's Skin and Bone, re-imagining elements of the play for the professional rugby era.
McGee's book Tall Tales (Some True), written after McGee left ScreenWorks, provides a rare Kiwi's eye view on writing for the screen. The book includes extended background on Foreskin, Erebus, Roche and treasured scripts that got away. A follow-up volume, to cover the ScreenWorks period, is currently still inside McGee's computer.
In August 2011 it was revealed that his first two novels had been published under the name Alix Bosco. McGee explained to the Sunday Star-Times why he had decided to publish the acclaimed crime novels under a pseudonym: early readers of Cut and Run who knew he wrote it, were unconvinced by the main female character - whereas those with no idea of the author, found her "engaging and credible". The plotline of second novel Slaughter Falls began as a research assignment for a TV show that did not get made. In late 2009 Chris Hampson announced a mini-series was in development, with Robyn Malcolm pegged to play the main role.
- This profile is largely adapted from Greg McGee's autobiography.
Greg McGee, Tall Tales (Some True) Memoirs of an Unlikely Writer (Penguin Books, 2008)
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime: A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
Kim Knight, 'Novelist's killer finally confesses' (Interview) - Sunday Star-Times, 14 August 2011, Page F4