Keith Aberdein is probably best known for playing the small-town policeman who arouses Bruno Lawrence's ire, in Kiwi screen classic Smash Palace. But his screen work covers almost every angle: from journalism and directing, to writing scripts for some of the most ambitious television dramas of the 70s.
People look at us and think, ‘three million people, how do you do it?' Keith Aberdein in a 1985 issue of Onfilm, on New Zealand’s film and television industry
On April 10th 1968 the Lyttelton–Wellington ferry Wahine ran aground and sank at the entrance to Wellington Harbour. 53 people died as a result of the accident; 51 on the day. This news piece features aerial footage of the ship after the storm, and NZBC reporters conduct dramatic interviews with survivors, police and the head of the Union Steam Ship Company. Coverage was only seen by Mainlanders after a cameraman rushed up to Kaikoura and filmed a TV set that could receive a signal from Wellington — then returned to Christchurch so the footage could be broadcast.
In this infamous edition of the Loose Enz anthology series, sexologist Rufus (Grant Tilly) has marriage problems due to being more theoretical than practical when it comes to the ways of the flesh. Things get complicated when eccentric patient Ernest (Bruno Lawrence) claims he's suffering from having a magic touch with women. With Joy of Sex japes and punning pillow talk galore, the result is very much of its time. The sex farce gained notoriety for scenes of high-profile newsreader Angela D’Audney (as the dissatisfied wife) going topless, then into a turquoise catsuit.
It's the 1870s, and Māori leader Te Wheke (Anzac Wallace) is fed up by brutal land grabs. He leads a bloody rebellion against the colonial Government, provoking threatened frontiersmen, disgruntled natives, lusty wahine, bible-bashing priests, and kupapa alike to consider the nature of ‘utu’ (retribution). Legendary New Yorker critic Pauline Kael raved about Geoff Murphy’s ambitious follow up to Goodbye Pork Pie: “[He] has an instinct for popular entertainment. He has a deracinated kind of hip lyricism. And they fuse quite miraculously in this epic ...”
Smash Palace is a Kiwi cinema classic and launched Roger Donaldson's American career. Al Shaw (a brilliant, brooding Bruno Lawrence) is a racing car driver who now runs a wrecker's yard in the shadow of Mount Ruapehu. His French wife Jacqui is unhappy there and leaves him, taking up with Al's best mate. When she restricts Al's access to his young daughter, his frustration explodes and he goes bush with the girl, desperate not to lose her too. "There's no road back" runs the tagline. New Yorker critic Pauline Kael called the film "amazingly accomplished".
The Governor was a television epic that examined the life of Governor George Grey in six thematic parts. Grey's "Good Governor" persona was undercut with laudanum, lechery and land confiscation. NZ televison's first historical blockbuster was hugely controversial, provoking a parliamentary inquiry and "test match sized" audiences. It won a 1978 Feltex Award for Best Drama. In ‘Episode One: The Reverend Traitor', Grey arrives to colonial troubles: flag-pole chopping Hōne Heke, missionary Henry Williams, and rebellious Te Rauparaha.
On 28 November 1979, an Air New Zealand DC-10 crashed into Mt Erebus, Antarctica, killing all 257 people on board. It was the the worst civil aviation disaster in NZ history and at the time, the fourth worst in the world. Made independently of state TV, Flight 901 was the first in-depth documentary on the accident. It surveys the novelty of Antarctic tourist flights, the search and rescue operation, and controversy over causes stirred by the Peter Mahon-led Royal Commission of Inquiry. This 15 minute excerpt was edited for NZ On Screen by director John Keir.
This is the opening episode of the Prime TV series celebrating 50 years of New Zealand television: from an opening night puppet show in Auckland in 1960, through to Outrageous Fortune five decades later. It traverses the medium's development and its major turning points (including the rise of programme-making and news, networking, colour and the arrival of TV3, Prime, NZ on Air, Sky and Māori Television) and interviews key players. The changing nature of the NZ living room — always with the telly in pride of place as modern hearth — is a story within a story.
Once upon a time the Kiwi accent was a broadcasting crime, and politicians decided in advance which questions they would answer on-screen. Here is the News examines three decades (up to 1992) of Kiwi TV journalism and news presentation. The roll-call of on and off camera talent provides fascinating glimpses behind key events, including early jury-rigged attempts at nationwide broadcast, Dougal Stevenson announcing the 1975 arrival of competing TV networks, the Wahine, Erebus, Muldoon, turkeys in gumboots, and the tour - where journalists too, became "objects of hatred".
This is the final episode of the pioneering Kiwi soap. TV One’s Hearte family saga achieved enormous popularity during its eight year run, and provided a training ground for a generation of screen talent. But by 1982 Close to Home’s characters were aging, and the show faced competition from US youth-focused fare (eg. Fame, The Six Million Dollar Man). With this 818th episode it was time for moving house, nostalgic re-caps, for The Seekers’ ‘Carnival is Over’ to score the opening credits, and for Tom (John Bach) to stub out his last ciggie and write the ending.
The Governor was a six-part TV epic that examined the life of Governor George Grey (Corin Redgrave). This episode arguably best lived up to the blockbuster scale and revisionist ambitions of the series. It depicts key battles of the 1863-64 Waikato Campaign (including ‘Rewi’s last stand’ at Ōrākau). General Sir Duncan Cameron (Martyn Sanderson) feels growing unease following Grey’s orders to evict Māori villagers, as he learns respect for his foe, and that Grey’s motives are driven not just by the urge to impose order on ‘the natives’ but by land hunger.
After hitting town for a Ranfurly Shield game, two brothers from the sticks (Grant Tilly and Pork Pie's Kelly Johnson) have to sneak their abruptly deceased father back home. If the body isn’t buried at home, they won’t inherit the family farm. Director John Reid’s shaggy dog tale — a Wellington-set Weekend at Bernies reeking of stale-beer and ciggies — both lauds and satirises the Kiwi male. It’s set back when "blokes were blokes and sheilas were their mums". The final clip sees Grant Tilly getting things off his chest, now that Dad is unable to answer back.
In 1983 director Geoff Murphy stormed out of the scrub of the nascent Kiwi film industry with a quadruple-barreled shotgun take on the great NZ colonial epic. The New Zealand wars-set tale of a Māori leader (Anzac Wallace) and his bloody path to redress 'imbalance', was the second NZ film officially selected for Cannes, and local cinema’s then second biggest hit (after Goodbye Pork Pie). A producer-driven recut was later shown in the US. This 2013 redux — led by cinematographer Graeme Cowley, with Murphy and editor Mike Horton — is Utu “enhanced and restored”.
The Governor examined the life of George Grey, providing a whole new angle on traditional portraits of him as the "Good Governor". The six-part historical blockbuster was hugely controversial, provoking a parliamentary inquiry and "test match sized" audiences. This episode — 'He Iwi Kotahi Tatou' (Now We Are One People)' — won a Feltex award for best script. War looms in the Waikato as Māori tribes band together; peacemaker and kingmaker Wiremu Tāmihana (the late Don Selwyn) agonises over the right course of action.
Numero Bruno is a warts and all biography of widely popular actor, musician and counter-cultural hero Bruno Lawrence. Lawrence's intense, charismatic screen presence was key to ground-breaking Kiwi films, Smash Palace, The Quiet Earth and Utu. Directed by Steve La Hood (the veteran director’s TV swansong), this documentary features interviews with family and friends, and liberal excerpts from Lawrence's film and musical work, including performances by 70s alternative Aotearoa icons Blerta and clips showcasing his seminal collaborations with Geoff Murphy.
Shot on location, Inside Straight‘s colourful portrait of Wellington’s underworld helped usher in a new era of urban Kiwi TV dramas, far from the backblocks. Phillip Gordon (Came a Hot Friday) stars as Steve Keenan, the everyman learning the ways of the city from taxi driver Roy Billing. In this episode, Steve finds himself on the run from dodgy gamblers, while trying to raise $5000 to enter a high stakes card game. Meanwhile another card-player has hit town: conman Nick (Bruno Lawrence), who quickly starts romancing Steve’s sometime girlfriend (Joanne Simpson).
Mortimer’s Patch was a highly popular detective series following Detective Sergeant Doug Mortimer (Terence Cooper) and his policing adventures in the small town of Cobham. Mortimer plays a city cop returning to his rural roots. In this Keith Aberdein-scripted episode a girl, Judy Savage (Smash Palace’s Greer Robson), goes missing in sand dunes near the shack of an eccentric recluse. Fear and suspicion mounts and Mortimer brings in help from the city: prejudiced detective, Chris Knight (Ken Blackburn). Don Selwyn plays Sergeant Bob Storey.
This 1994 ‘home front noir’ is set in World War II Wellington, where the plots — a murdered marine, exploited working girls and gonorrhea — spread amidst the invasion of US soldiers stationed at Paekakariki. Kerry Fox (An Angel at My Table) is a public health nurse who becomes romantically linked with the US investigating officer (Tony Goldwyn — Ghost, TV's Scandal) while pursuing the STDs and the truth. They’re supported by Oscar-winning US veterans Rod Steiger and Robert Loggia. John Reid (Middle Age Spread) directs, from a Keith Aberdein script.
The Italian Job meets cheap jugs and a student union gig in this early Geoff Murphy (Pork Pie, Quiet Earth, Utu) heist tale. Tank Busters' plot follows some Vic Uni students — short on exam fees and beer money — and their scheme to crack a campus safe ... the things kids got up to before internal assessment! Murphy enlisted $4000 and a bevy of mates (including Bruno on bongos) to make the film over nine months of weekends. It screened on TV on New Year’s Eve 1970; its assured pace and tyro verve in stark contrast to the stage-derived telly standards of the time.
Mitch (Keith Aberdein) moves to Tongariro National Park to help wrangle wild horses threatening ecology and traffic. He meets Sara, who shares an obsession for a fabled silver horse. They clash with rangers and deer recovery guns-for-hire (Bruno Lawrence is the black-clad villain) determined to eradicate the horses, and a showdown on the Desert Plateau ensues. In the notoriously fraught production a stable of Kiwi acting legends perform a melange of western and freedom-on-the-range genre turns (with the conservationists oddly set up as the bad guys).
Part one of a four part thriller written by Keith Aberdein. In a small North Island town, a mysterious unmarked grave is believed to hold the remains of a tohunga who died ridding his people of a deadly epidemic. Now, an archaeological dig might be getting too close to that grave. A visiting doctor (Cathy Downes) arrives in town to find the locals in a state of agitation; the archaelogist (Martyn Sanderson) full of good intentions, but unaware of where his actions could lead; and relations between Māori and Pakeha strained as two cultures struggle to co-exist.
A rare and early case of a Kiwi play being adapted for the big screen, Middle Age Spread asks whether adultery is inevitable (or whether the adulterers will inevitably be found out). Grant Tilly stars as a philandering teacher fearing a future of stress, decay and marital dissatisfaction. Roger Hall's acclaimed middle-aged comedy was adapted in the first flush of the Kiwi film renaissance, and marks the feature debut of many talents: director John Reid, cinematographer Alun Bollinger, writer Keith Aberdein, editor Mike Horton, and composer Stephen McCurdy.
Hooks and Feelers tells the story of a painter haunted by an accident in which her son lost a hand. Written and directed by Melanie Rodriga, the 45-minute psychological drama explores guilt and reconciliation as the family adjusts to his disability. An adaptation of the short story by future Booker Prize-winner Keri Hulme, Hooks and Feelers starred jazz singer Bridgette Allen and Keith Aberdein (Smash Palace). It screened on TV in 1984. With producer Don Reynolds, Rodriga (then known as Melanie Read) would go on to make pioneering feminist thriller Trial Run (1984).
In this episode of the early 80s TVNZ high country drama (penned by Pukemanu writer Julian Dickon and directed by Roger Donaldson), Jocko (Bruce Allpress) is reunited with two fellow Korean War veterans — but one is now an escaped convict and the other a police officer heading the manhunt. Stan, another escapee (a suitably manic Bruno Lawrence), stirs things up but the real drama here involves unfinished business for three former soldiers from a conflict 25 years earlier. It’s also very much a man’s world, without a single female character to be seen.
This off-the-wall comedy of errors — from the Loose Enz series — sees hapless tour operator Graham (Ian Watkin) and his wide boy driver Ron (John Bach) lead a busload of international visitors (well) off the beaten trail. It neatly skewers clichéd promotional travelogue commentaries (with Sibelius never far away) and takes broader shots at the tourists’ various cultural stereotypes. With Graham well-meaning but dim, and Ron too busy looking after number one, Graham’s mum (a formidable Yvonne Lawley) and enterprising local Iwi come into their own as hosts.
In this children's sci-fi caper, an all-singing all-dancing gang of cronies led by 'evil Eva' holds Auckland to ransom for $5,000,000. As in Under the Mountain Auckland's volcanoes play a starring role, with Eva threatening to drop a nuclear bomb into the crater of Rangitoto. Who will save the city? A trio of intrepid kids and their DIY anti-gravity machine are on the case. Writers Ian Mune and Keith Aberdein give director Roger Donaldson (and a bevy of industry talent) plenty of goofy 70s fun to play with. Donaldson would shortly helm the acclaimed Smash Palace.
Introduced by a pilot, High Country, Jocko was an early 80s attempt by TVNZ to make an action drama. Jocko (Bruce Allpress) is a traditional central character — a maverick musterer and rural jack-of-all-trades in the tradition of the American cowboy and the Australian swagman; but the setting is a contemporary one: in the South Island high country where old and new methods of farming are coming into conflict. Two series were made, written by Julian Dickon (Pukemanu), and co-starring Desmond Kelly as Jocko’s off-sider and travelling companion, China.
Section 7 was New Zealand’s first urban TV drama series and followed soon after Pukemanu (which was set in a logging town). Taking its name from the Criminal Justice Act section which placed offenders on probation, it focussed on a Probation Service office and addressed issues of the day including new migrants, ship girls and domestic violence. Expatriate Ewen Solon returned from England to take the lead role in a series very much based on British dramas of the time. More popular with critics than the public, Section 7 was limited to 11 half-hour episodes.
Pioneering series Pukemanu (the NZBC’s first continuing drama) followed the goings-on of a North Island timber town. The series was conceived by former forester Julian Dickon (who quit the series and was replaced by Listener critic Hamish Keith as writer). Producing two seasons of six episodes was a key step in industry professionalisation, and many of the cast became stars (Ginette McDonald, Ian Mune). It offered an archetypal screen image that Kiwis could relate to: rural, bi-cultural, boozy and blokey; and reviews praised its Swannie-clad authenticity.
Pioneering soap opera Close To Home first screened in May 1975. For just over eight years middle New Zealand found their mirror in the life and times of Wellington’s Hearte clan. At its peak in 1977 nearly one million viewers tuned in twice weekly to watch the series co-created by Michael Noonan and Tony Isaac (who had initially only agreed to make the show on the condition they would get to make The Governor). The popular family saga carved a regular niche for local drama on screen, and the output demands were foundational in developing industry talent.
Town and Around was a nightly magazine show, covering everything from current affairs and studio interviews to slapstick to stunts; including a notorious spoof on a farmer who shod his turkeys in gumboots. A popular and wide-ranging regional series, it ran for five years from 1965, and was the training ground for a generation of industry professionals (Brian Edwards, David McPhail, and Des Monaghan amongst many others). Town and Around was made prior to a national network link, and editions came out of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.
In Moynihan, secretary of the carpenters’ union Leo Moynihan (Ian Mune) — with orange mini and leather jacket — has to navigate the shark-infested waters of 70s industrial relations. The first NZ-Australia co-production (with ABC) was devised by union organiser Earle Spencer and Jane Galletly (a rare credit in the then-male dominated industry). It was the first series made by TV One’s drama department; it won viewers as well as Feltex awards for best drama and Mune’s performance. The changing face of Wellington, including an under-construction Beehive, features.
Mortimer’s Patch was a popular detective series following Detective Sergeant Doug Mortimer (Terence Cooper) and his policing adventures in the small town of Cobham. Mortimer plays a city cop returning to his rural roots. The series was NZ’s first police drama and was the most successful drama of the early 80s (it was a rare local show to top ratings). The series was made when the archetype of the ‘community cop’ everyone knew was still a powerful one, and it was a counterweight to the faceless riot policing of the Springbok Tour. Three series were made.
The Governor was a television epic that examined the life of Governor George Grey in six thematic parts. Grey's "Good Governor" persona was undercut with laudanum, lechery and land confiscation. NZ TV's first (and only) historical blockbuster was hugely controversial, provoking a parliamentary inquiry and "test match sized" audiences. It won a 1978 Feltex Award for Best Drama. Auckland Star reviewer Barry Shaw trumpeted: "It has made Māori matter. If Pākehā now have a better understanding of the Māori point of view [...] it stems from The Governor.
Shot on location in Wellington, often after dark, Inside Straight helped usher in a new era of Kiwi TV dramas, far from the rural backblocks. This Minder-esque portrait of Wellington’s underworld was inspired by writer Keith Aberdein’s experiences as a taxi-driver and all night cafe worker. Phillip Gordon (soon to win fame as a conman in Came a Hot Friday) stars as the former fisherman, learning the ways of the city from veteran taxi driver Roy Billing. A solid but unspectacular rater over 10 episodes, the show was scuttled by the launch of trucker’s tale Roche.
Launched in October 1964, Compass was the first local programme to provide regular coverage of politically sensitive topics. Alongside the job of reporting on the news from a NZ perspective, Compass was the first to file comprehensive news reports from overseas. The controversial banning of a programme on the changeover to decimal currency became a flashpoint in 1966. This led to the high profile resignation of producer Gordon Bick. Compass can now be seen as the forerunner to Close Up, Foreign Correspondent and more recently Sunday.