Dean Parker has argued that “every time you write for one medium, you find yourself getting better in others. Write for film and you realise the peculiar strengths of radio. Write for TV and you realize how the stage works.”
Parker is certainly in a position to know. His resume includes generous dollops of all of the above, plus many newspaper opinion pieces as well.
Parker grew up in Napier. In his 20s, he spent time in London. While there, he began a long involvement in socialist and Irish republican movements.
Back in New Zealand, Parker began writing for radio in 1973. By 1975, five of his radio plays had hit the airwaves — including drama Smack, which doubled as his stage debut. Seven more radio plays followed by 1980.
But television paid much better rates, especially after the Writer’s Guild (for which Parker has been a longtime delegate) managed to double the going rate. Parker’s first television work was an episode of edgy mixed-flatting comedy Buck House, and two contributions to anthology series 30 Minute Theatre. The Touch of Class was a comedy about an aging boss handing over his workplace to his staff; Rugby Burns examined the pros and cons of firebombing a rugby park, as a Springbok tour protest.
In 1978 Parker did his first screen adaptation for The Ngaio Marsh Theatre, coincidentally the first Kiwi TV drama to screen in the United States. Opening Night was a murder tale set in London’s theatre world. Parker followed it by writing for Kiwi stalwarts Mortimer’s Patch and half a dozen Close to Home's, plus scripting classic hopeless bloke short Gordon Bennett. The television work paid for his house, a valuable bolthole against the vicissitudes of the writer’s life.
Parker was also working alongside director Ian Mune on their first movie, an exuberant adaptation of Ronald Hugh Morrieson novel Came a Hot Friday. It was Parker who penned that all-important “there is money to be made” opening line (originally it was intended as a reminder to the film’s creative team of the main theme).
A big local hit, Hot Friday scooped the 1986 awards ceremony, and won rave reviews (“a major advance in Kiwi comedy” extolled Variety). Author Nicholas Reid praised Parker and Mune for preserving “the essentials of Morrieson's yarn while extensively remoulding it".
Two separate Parker adaptations of Morrieson’s novel Predicament failed to get the final go-ahead; Parker is especially keen on the version that transformed bad influence Mervyn Tobeck into a fiery, religiously conflicted teenage girl.
In early '84 Parker and fellow scribe Greg McGee were asked if they had any ideas for a drama series. The result was Roche, featuring John Bach and Andy Anderson. “Mainly Dean’s idea”, according to McGee, the show was inspired by two brothers who ran an Auckland trucking firm: socialists “running a highly competitive capitalist enterprise, who had been involved in protests and all kinds of scrapes with the law”.
In the end McGee, Parker, and Simon O’Connor penned three Roche episodes each, with Parker’s set including the all-important debut episode. Scripts for a second series were in train, when Roche was taken permanently off the road.
In between scriptwriting sessions, Parker invited McGee into the Halt All Racist Tours (HART) soccer team. As he writes in autobiography Tall Tales, McGee was impressed by Parker’s wit, wide knowledge and talent for knowing where to place narrative beats — plus occasionally the ball.
For the Parker/McGee team, the 80s were busy times: art versus commerce screenplay Love and Money, a contract to retool Roche for Australia, and a proposed Came a Hot Friday TV series. But the television projects both melted away after the 1987 stock market crash. Love and Money just died.
Parker returned to the theatre, though he would reconvene with McGee for Old Scores, period goldmining series Gold (co-created by Parker, McGee and Chris Hampson), and later, the cross-cultural creative bunfight that was colonial TV epic Greenstone (1998). Originally developed as a co-production with the BBC, Greenstone follows a missionary-educated woman (Simone Kessell) whose romantic life is subject to the shifting loyalties of a chiefly father. Old Scores, a lighthearted tale of ageing All Blacks refacing their Welsh enemies, won the pair a NZ Film and TV scriptwriting award — plus local theatrical release, even though it was designed for television. A lasting regret is shooting down McGee’s idea for a South Pacific Pictures series, set in a privatised accident and emergency clinic.
Parker would win another gong for Montana Sunday Theatre piece Share the Dream, which starred Joel Tobeck and Luisa Burgess (Shortland Street) as lovers who meet on a factory assembly line, only to be parted by the demands of the market. Reversing the stage to screen norm, Parker then turned it into a play.
In the same period he also wrote Federation of Labour play The Feds (with Rena Owen as Jock Barnes!) and co-directed documentary Shattered Dreams, alongside journalist Francis Wevers. The film examined industrial conflict in New Zealand, in the years before the 1951 waterfront lockout.
Parker makes no bones about injecting his politics into his art. Baghdad, Baby! (2005), set in an Iraq cafe, won enthusiastic reviews from The Listener, Theatreview’s John Smythe, and the Sunday Star Times, with the latter arguing “you would be hard pressed to find a more intelligent, humane piece of theatre.”
Asked to adapt Nicky Hager’s bestselling expose The Hollow Men for the stage, Parker found the task “a gleeful honour”. Wrote reviewer Smythe: “Like any Shakespeare history — although I hasten to add it's funnier than most of them — this play has enduring value as an enquiry into the nature of politics itself.”
His other plays include 2011’s Midnight in Moscow (The Press dubbed it “one of his best”), works on Muldoon (Slouching towards Bethlehem), fictional Kiwi runners (the "highly entertaining" Man that Lovelock Couldn't Beat), fictional Kiwi poets (April 25), and an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial.
In October 2013 Parker was presented with a prestigious Laureate Award from the Arts Foundation.
Parker’s compendium of dodgy gossip involving Kiwi literary icons remains unpublished — though a memorable tale detailing Barry Crump’s bisexual leanings saw the light of day in one of Parker’s many pieces for the Listener.
Dean Parker, ‘Work and Income according to writer Dean Parker’ - Playmarket News, Spring 2006
Laurie Atkinson, 'The reality of romance' (Review of The Man that Lovelock Couldn't Beat) - Dominion Post, 8 April 2008, Page B7
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime: A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
Greg McGee, Tall Tales (Some True) (Auckland: Penguin Books, 2008)
Ian Mune, Mune - An Autobiography (Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2010)
Nicholas Reid, A Decade of New Zealand Film - Sleeping Dogs to Came a Hot Friday (Dunedin: James McIndoe, 1986)
John Smythe, ‘The Hollow Men’ (Review). Theatreview.org.nz website. Accessed 17 March 2011
Anonymous. The Hollow Men (Programme) Circa Theatre, 2007.