As a reporter on popular 60s magazine show Town and Around, Barbara Magner’s lively, personable style provided welcome early notice that presenters didn’t always have to speak in a BBC-style British accent and look sternly down the lens of the camera.
Magner’s early life would have stopped many smiles. Born in 1937 in the Waikato farming town of Te Kowhai, her Irish father died when she was 12. As a young woman, she had to nurse her mother through a terminal illness.
In her 20s Magner joined the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, and worked on radio stations in Dunedin and Invercargill. After the NZBC opened a television station in Dunedin in 1962, she did four nights a week as a continuity announcer, then moved to Auckland to host an evening radio show on 1ZB.
Magner’s fame likely reached its high point when she joined the crew of reporters on the Auckland edition of five nights a week magazine show Town and Around (she is seen briefly on horseback, early in the second clip of this episode). The show helped bring some welcome levity to state television at a time when laughter was usually imported, along with most of the accents.
In one piece for the show, Magner skipped through Auckland Domain and left milk bottles on the steps of the museum. “I think I just wanted to see if I could get away with it,” Magner told Sunday Star-Times journalist Tim Hume in 2006. "Television was so stiff and starch; I was bored."
Hulme writes that "the piece brought Magner’s cheeky sense of humour to the fore, drew requests for replays and made her something of a star. Press clippings of the time invariably describe her as ‘bubbly’, ‘vivacious’, ‘personality plus’."
According to fellow Town and Around reporter Tom Finlayson, Magner and her raucous laugh helped break the mould of serous BBC-style presenters. Magner herself argued that shows like Town and Around helped television bosses realise that, "television could be used for fun things, tons of things, whatever anybody wanted".
In the 70s, Magner read the news on TV One’s Tonight at Nine, and reported for Arts Review. In 1977 she began working as an education officer for the Health Department. In 1984 she tried her hand (unsuccessfully) as a politician in the Whangarei seat. Married at one point to writer Maurice Shadbolt, she reconciled with him a number of years before his death in 2004. Later she would scan the newspaper each morning with an expert eye, and read selected highlights to her fellow residents at an Auckland rest home.
Diagnosed with Alzheimers, Magner died on 12 July 2014. She was 77.
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Tim Hume, ‘Notes to herself: The search for memories’ (Interview) - Sunday Star-Times, 11 June 2006, Page C1
'Kiwi TV pioneer Barbara Magner dies' - Stuff website. Loaded 14 July 2014. Accessed 14 July 2014