Born in Bristol in 1935, Ken Blackburn attended that city’s Clifton College from 1948 to 1952 before completing his education in New Zealand. His youthful experiences in World War II Britain were recounted in his autobiographical book Blitz Kids, in which two wartime refugee children, aged seven and nine, repeatedly run away from their billets all over the West Country as they try to get back to their mother and grandmother in Bristol. The book was published by the BBC to celebrate the 50th anniversary of VE Day in Britain in 1995.
But it’s for an acting career spanning almost 40 years that Blackburn is best known. He’s appeared on stage, film, television and radio as well directing in all those media. A familiar face on New Zealand screen and stage, Ken has also worked in Australia and the UK.
In 1975 Ken joined pioneering Kiwi soap opera Close To Home where he played dodgy lawyer Clive Foster. That role was short-lived. Ken says his still-English sounding voice didn’t fit with the home-grown feel of the show. It was also the first of a long line of baddies he played, which at that stage, he says, he quite enjoyed.
The following years saw a central role in Hunter’s Gold, an internationally successful kids costume drama set in the Otago Gold Fields. Blackburn fondly recalls working with Molly Gee: a Clydesdale horse. As a costume drama the show has a timeless quality and can still be seen on screens around the world. Indeed a friend of Blackburn’s was surprised to see it on TV during a business trip to Mongolia.
Blackburn featured in two TV shows in 1977, Australia’s Glenview High, in which he played teacher Mr Phillips; and another iconic New Zealand TV series, Moynihan: based around a carpenters' union secretary.
Blackburn’s movie profile was also on the rise. In 1978 he appeared in a lead role in Skin Deep. Set in small-town New Zealand, the pioneering Geoff Steven-directed film examines the emotions stirred up when a massage parlour opens. Blackburn plays the president of the town's Progressive Association.
Back on TV, Ken appeared in several notable series including the cop show Mortimer’s Patch in 1982 and, arguably, one of New Zealand’s best-loved sit-coms, Gliding On from 1981 to 1985. Blackburn played “The Boss” in the series based on Roger Hall's hit play Glide Time. The award-winning series satirised a paper-pushing working life by now familiar to many Kiwis.
On the big screen Ken played Thommo Robson in Bad Blood, the story of West Coast serial killer Stan Graham. He also appeared in Barry Barclay’s 1987 movie Ngati and two Peter Jackson films, The Frighteners in 1996 and King Kong in 2005. His most recent movie was Kiwi comedy Rest for the Wicked, set in a retirement village.
Other notable TV series include medical soap Shortland Street, in 1992, where he played Sir Bruce Warner, father of heartthrob Dr Chris Warner, and once again the role of a “baddie.” That, says Blackburn, was when he decided his desire to play that sort of part was waning. The shows that Blackburn is perhaps best known for overseas are Xena, Warrior Princess, which ran from 1995 to 2001, and the Jim Henson Productions show Farscape, an Australian-American science fiction series filmed in Australia and produced originally for the Nine Network.
Blackburn’s stage work is extensive. He’s appeared in productions around New Zealand of a wide variety of plays and has also toured with the NZ Symphony Orchestra as narrator for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
He performed his self-devised show An Evening with Dickens and his skills were officially recognised in 1999 when he won the Best Actor award at the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards for his performance as Vladimir in Waiting for Godot. He was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen's Birthday Honours List in 2005.
'Ken Blackburn'. Auckland Actors website. Accessed 21 March 2012
'Ken Blackburn'. Internet Movie Database website. Accessed 21 March 2012
'Ken Blackburn: Always the bad guy' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside (Uploaded 26 March 2012). Accessed 26 March 2012