David McPhail has appeared on TV screens as Roger Douglas, Keith Holyoake and Tina Turner. But it was an impersonation of former prime minister Sir Robert Muldoon that sealed his place in popular culture — shrinking, in the words of writer Steve Braunias, "the most terrifying man in New Zealand" to a goblin-sized joke.
McPhail first came to the attention of the Kiwi public with A Week of It, one of the most successful Kiwi comedy shows of the 70s. He rejoined comical partner-in-crime Jon Gadsby on the long-running Issues and McPhail and Gadsby. In 2005, McPhail played a controversially straight-talking teacher in popular satire Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby.
David McPhail has lived much of his life in his birthplace of Christchurch. He began studying English at Canterbury University, but dropped his studies to become a cub reporter on The Press. The newspaper sent him to Ashburton, despite his protests.
During this period he was part of revue group The Merely Players (alongside a number of his future collaborators), produced music shows, was a reporter on regional magazine programmes, appeared in Roger Simpson's docu-drama Richard Pearse, and worked on early sketch show Something To Look Forward To (1976). His career path would be sealed after being introduced to former law student Jon Gadsby at a party, and persuading a TVNZ executive to let him make a pilot for a topical satire show called A Week of It.
A Week of It debuted in 1977 in a graveyard slot at 10 past 10 in the evening. In this era, local television comedy was rarely thought of as a good idea. McPhail writes about the challenges of getting executive approval to make the show — and keep making it — here. It soon graduated to prime time, helping persuade New Zealand audiences that local comedy existed. Daring for its period, the show mixed political satire and potshots at Kiwi culture and sport. As he says in this interview about his career, McPhail got the job of impersonating PM Robert Muldoon, because no-one else in the cast looked anything like him. Long fascinated by his political alter-ego, McPhail's Muldoon impersonations became iconic in several further programmes (including McPhail and Gadsby). He would later shed the "crude caricature" of earlier days to write and star in one man dramatic play Muldoon (2003).
A Week of It won Feltex Awards for best entertainment programme in 1978 and 1980, with McPhail even beating castmembers from TV epic The Governor to the best actor award. The show's writing team included McPhail, Gadsby and longtime offscreen partner in crime AK Grant.
The trio would be central to creating a run of successful comedy series, including the award-winning skit show McPhail and Gadsby. McPhail and Gadsby lasted seven seasons, winning a 1983 Feltex Award for best entertainment show, before returning again in 1997. "They were called satirical shows, but in the true sense of satire, they never put the knife between the ribs," McPhail says of A Week of It and McPhail and Gadsby. "We didn't want people sitting there saying, ‘ooh, that's true.' We wanted them to laugh."
McPhail and Gadsby would last an impressive eight seasons, surviving a disappointing, sometimes controversial debut, following a decision to begin in an hour long format, with each format based around a different theme. The name stuck because nothing better had been thought of.
The team also combined on the skit show Issues, and sitcom Letter to Blanchy. In 1987 McPhail was a foundation shareholder of TV3, and worked behind the scenes on helping set up the new network. In the 90s, McPhail and Gadsby re-teamed on Issues, a skit based comedy series which weathered a number of variations of channel and title. The show returned to more of an ensemble approach, benefiting from a cast which included Rawiri Paratene, Rima Te Wiata, Mark Wright, Alison Wall and Willy de Wit.
With Letter to Blanchy in 1994, the McPhail/Gadsby/Grant team left the skit format behind. McPhail plays a straight-laced accountant caught up in Barry Crump-style mishaps with two down to earth mates (Gadsby and longtime offsider Peter Rowley). In McPhail's words, the characters "hit water mains with pick axes, chased crazed heifers through crashing glass houses and left a trail of holes across the landscape through the ill-advised use of gelignite". The show won keen audiences despite some rocky scheduling and the bankruptcy of TV3. In 2008, McPhail and Gadsby began touring successful play Letter To Blanchy: Stir Crazy., based on an episode of the show that had won them and AK Grant a local script award.
The 90s saw McPhail playing a straight role as finance minister Roger Douglas in political mini-series Fallout.
McPhail's career as a producer and director has included extensive work both on the various television shows, and on stage — often for Christchurch's Court Theatre. He also worked behind the scenes as a director on Pio Terei's comedy show The Life and Times of Te Tutu (about an 1800s Māori chief).
In 2005, feeling like he was "in a straitjacket muttering broken Swahili", McPhail went through gruelling auditions with Danny Mulheron and Tom Scott, before being given the chance to star in the pair's un-PC satire Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby. The show chronicles the arrival at a low decile school of a man described by officials as "an out-dated, reactionary, racist, sexist teacher completely out of touch with educational theory in the second millennium." McPhail described the role of Gormsby as like nothing he'd done before. The Sydney Morning Herald found the show "quick-witted" and "darkly funny"; a second series followed.
In 2006 McPhail played the judge in acclaimed, shot in only six days mockumentary The Waimate Conspiracy, followed by No Petrol, No Diesel!, two of his only movie roles to date. In the same period he began donning lycra and baggy y-fronts to play eccentric superhero The Green Termite in children's comedy The Amazing Extraordinary Friends. The show's director and co-writer was McPhail's son Matt, who had first appeared on one of McPhail senior's comedy shows as a child.
In 1995, McPhail received the QSM for service to the community. In 2008 he was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in recognition of services to television and the theatre (McPhail's theatre work includes playing Walt Disney, and directing the first, acclaimed season of Crumpy, based on writer Barry Crump). In 2010 Longacre published his highly readable autobiography, The Years Before My Death: Memories of a Comic Life.
David McPhail, The Years Before My Death (Auckland: Longacre Press, 2010)
Steve Braunias, 'Dear piggy' (Interview) - The Listener, 28 June 2003, Issue 3294
Lesley Ann Low, 'tv previews' (Review of Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby) - The Sydney Morning Herald (The Guide section), 24 November 2005, page 14
David McPhail, 'A class of his own' - Sunday Star-Times, (Escape section) 1 May 2005, page 1
'Amazing Extraordinary Friends' - The Press, 14 July 2008