Marshall Napier’s run of memorable supporting film roles includes Came a Hot Friday, The Navigator, and Footrot Flats. He starred in The Lie of the Land and TV drama Swimming Lessons. A 1988 move to Australia saw turns in hit movie Babe and TV series Police Rescue (AFI-nominated), Water Rats and McLeod’s Daughters. Napier took his own play, Freak Winds, to off-Broadway New York in 2006 after a sell-out run in Australia.
I enjoy changing appearance. It's something you often get to do on stage, but not as often for television. But it does half the work for you because you certainly feel like the character with it on. Marshall Napier
“The funniest, liveliest, most exuberant film ever made in New Zealand”. So said critic Nicholas Reid, a year after Came a Hot Friday became 1985's biggest local movie hit. Reid may still be on the money. Though Billy T’s loony Mexican-Māori cowboy is beloved by fans, he is but one eccentric here among many — as two scheming conmen hit town, to encounter bookies, boozers, country hicks, nasty crim Marshall Napier, and Prince Tui Teka playing saxophone. Until the arrival of The Piano in 1993, Ian Mune and Dean Parker’s award-loaded adaptation remained NZ's third biggest local hit.
Geoff Murphy's second feature was a low-budget smash, definitively proving that New Zealanders could make blockbusters too. Young rascal Gerry steals a yellow Mini from a Kaitaia rental company. Heading south, he meets John, who wants his wife back; and a hitchhiker named Shirl. Soon they are driving to Invercargill to find her, with the cops in hot pursuit. Eluding the police with hair-raising driving, verve and trickery, it's not long before the "Blondini gang" are hailed as folk heroes, onscreen and off.
In 1986 Footrot Flats: The Dog's (Tail) Tale and its theme song ‘Slice of Heaven’ were huge hits in New Zealand and Australia. The movie starred the characters from Murray Ball's beloved Footrot Flats comic strip; it was NZ's first — and to date only — animated feature. Kiwiana questions touted the film: Will Wal become an All Black? Will Cooch recover his stolen stag? Will the Dog win your hearts and funny bones? And punters answered at the box office. This John Toon-shot trailer (above) doubled as a promo for the Dave Dobbyn-Herbs song to smartly leverage both.
In a lawless fuel wars future, marauders roam the wasteland looking for oil. Their malevolent leader Straker threatens his daughter Corlie; she’s rescued by loner Hunter and they harbour with eco-sensitive folk in the Clearwater Commune ... but not for long: there will be blood on the Central Otago plains! Following in the exhaust of Mad Max, the cult film was made during the 80s tax-break feature surge, with US director (Harley Cokliss) and leads flocking south during a Hollywood writers’ strike, and Kiwis as crew (“artists with chainsaws”) and supporting cast.
A young boy is afflicted by apocalyptic visions in medieval Cumbria. Believing he is divinely inspired to save his village from the Black Death, he persuades a group of men to follow him into a tunnel. They dig deep into the earth and emerge ... in Auckland, New Zealand, 1987. Following portents, the time travelers must negotiate the terrors of a strange new world, (motorways, nuclear submarines) — while seeking to save their own. Nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes, it scooped the gongs at the 1988 AFI and 1989 NZ Film & TV Awards.
This Depression-era road movie tails teen runaway Kate (Greer Robson) as she tags along with World War I veteran Patrick (Aussie actor Peter Phelps) — himself on the run after assaulting a repo man. The odd couple relationship grudgingly evolves as they oft-narrowly escape the law and head north across the southern badlands. Director Sam Pillsbury's on the lam tale won wide praise, with Kevin Thomas in the LA Times calling it "pure enchantment". Robson's award-winning turn as the scamp followed up her breakthrough role in Smash Palace.
This feature is a dramatized reconstruction of actual events surrounding a notorious miscarriage of justice. Farmer Arthur Allan Thomas was jailed for the murder of Harvey and Jeanette Crewe but later exonerated. Directed by John Laing, produced by John Barnett and starring well-known English actor David Hemmings (Blowup, Barbarella), the docudrama leveraged the immense public interest in the case (Thomas was pardoned when the film was in pre-production). It became NZ's most successful commercial film until Goodbye Pork Pie.
The golden age of rock is recaptured in a studio mock-up of the Wellington Rock “n’ Roll Revival club. Hosted by Paul Holmes (using the name Wonderful Wally Watson,) the show features Tom Sharplin and his band. Dalvanius Prime puts in an appearance too, delivering a wonderful version of “The Great Pretender.” The show mixes studio and location sequences as it delivers hits made famous by the likes of Bill Haley and Chuck Berry. Marshall Napier and Brian Sargent are on hand as a couple of bodgies, referencing the milk bar cowboys of the 50s.
This feature tells the true story of the notorious 12-day 1941 manhunt for Stanley Graham. The West Coast farmer went bush after a shooting spree that followed police pressure to have him hand over his firearms (seven men were ultimately killed). Written by NZ-born Andrew Brown (from Harold Willis’ book), Bad Blood was made during the tax break era, for UK TV. Directed by Brit Mike Newell (of future Four Weddings and a Funeral fame) the film won strong reviews. Aussie legend Jack Thompson and compatriot Carol Burns star as the isolated Bonnie and Clyde coasters.
This showcase for Arthur Baysting's sleazy, comedic alter-ego Neville ("on the level") Purvis ("at your service") is notorious for containing the first use of the f-word on NZ television. As a result, Baysting was banned and crossed the Tasman to find work (an irony given the show's anti-Australian jokes). The controversial utterance no longer exists — extant segments include a launch by PM Rob Muldoon, a tour of Avalon, a performance by Limbs Dance Company (including Mary-Jane O'Reilly), a visit to the Close to Home set, a garden gnome fan, and some Mark II Zephyr worship.
Swimming Lessons is the story of jaded swimming coach Jim Sadler (Marshall - Came a Hot Friday, The Navigator - Napier) and a spirited seven-year-old delinquent who comes under his instruction. The troubled Samoan boy is a potential champion, but the challenges of training him force the coach to confront his own failings in life: one as seemingly straight as the pool's lane line. Directed by Steve La Hood, Swimming Lessons won three NZ TV Awards. It screened as part of Montana Sunday Theatre and was the TV producing debut for Philippa Campbell.
The last novel by Taranaki author Ronald Hugh Morrieson revolves around a freezing plant worker (Peter McCauley) in an inter-racial marriage. The role of an English remittance man was expanded in a failed attempt to cast Peter O'Toole (the role ultimately went to NZ-born Bruce Spence). Morrieson's view of small town NZ is a dark one, as he explores racism, violence, murder, suicide and blackmail. Bruno Lawrence contributes to Jonathan Crayford's jazz-tinged score, and features in the wedding band. The freezing works scenes were shot at the defunct plant in Patea.
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).
In this dark whodunit Gareth Reeves (The Cult, A Song of Good) stars as a crime writer who goes bush with strangers while on a break from researching a story on a serial killer. Soon there’s death in the muddy Waitakere back-blocks. The debut from young writer/director (and ex-Shortland Street actor) James Napier Robertson won support from a strong ensemble cast (Renato Batolomei, Ian Mune, Ilona Rodgers et al), an invitation to the NZ film festival, and praise from NZ Herald reviewer Peter Calder, for "smart writing and good acting".
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.
Heart of the High Country saw NZ and the mother country getting into bed together, on and off the screen. The rags/riches/rags tale chronicles 18 years for Ceci (Valerie Gogan), a working class Brit who arrives in the South Island and fends off a series of mean-tempered pioneer males — and one long unrequited love. The Sam Pillsbury-directed mini-series played in primetime on ITV in the UK, and was funded by England’s Central TV and TVNZ. It shares storytelling DNA with earlier TV movie It’s Lizzie to Those Close; Brit Elizabeth Gowans scripted both.
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.