Frank Torley is surely the most fondly remembered figure of the many broadcasters associated with iconic programme Country Calendar. When the gravel-voiced reporter/producer passed away in March 2016 at age 75, Julian O'Brien, who worked with Torley on the show for 30 years, argued that he was a key part of Country Calendar's growth into a programme of wide appeal, serving both rural and urban viewers.
O'Brien recalled Torley as a man of warmth, charm and wit, who always had time for others — whether it be workmates, or those going in front of the camera. According to O'Brien, that caring spirit became the "Country Calendar way of doing things". Derek Morton, who produced for the show in its first decade, described Torley as "a very down-to-earth bloke, who always thought that the story should be the focus, rather than the presenter". When Country Calendar turned 40, presenter Jim Hickey argued his boss was "almost as dry as a South Island tussock".
Torley's career in rural broadcasting began in 1966, thanks to a chance meeting with his friend Colin Follas at the Feilding saleyards.
Follas had left the stock firm where he and Torley worked, to join the NZBC as a so-called rural radio broadcaster. Follas asked Torley to do a voice test, then encouraged Torley to apply for his job in Palmerston North, since he'd been transferred to Hamilton. Torley did just that, and within the year he was a rural broadcaster, covering the lower North Island and upper South Island.
Country Calendar first began screening on 6 March 1966. Besides his main role on the radio, Torley soon joined the other rural broadcasters in contributing the odd interview for the new show (he likely began on Country Calendar in 1967). "We kept coming up with these brilliant ideas for radio stories," Torley recalled. "We were not mentally attuned to pictures."
Torley's love of farming had been fueled by childhood holidays spent on an uncle's farm in the Manawatu. Yet he was brought up mainly in urban environments: Dunedin, where he was born, Timaru and Auckland. Some argue his city background would help him become an effective bridge between town and country, communicating his love of rural matters to those who knew little on the topic. After leaving school, Torley spent three years as a farm worker, then became a stock and station agent for Wrightsons.
Apart from 18 months writing features for magazine New Zealand Farmer in the late 60s, Torley did almost a decade combining radio and Country Calendar. From 1970 he was based in Christchurch. Then in 1975 he was assigned to new channel TV2, after the NZBC split its radio and television into separate operations. Torley soon discovered that the newly launched TV channel had no idea what to do with their only rural broadcaster; instead he was assigned to TV One as a newsreader in Christchurch, sharing the role with Warwick Burke. Not above making himself the butt of a joke, Torley later said that one newspaper compared his work as a newsreader to "a startled rabbit".
Torley did 18 months in the new role; but his first love remained farming. In 1976 he moved to Wellington to join the small Country Calendar team full-time as a reporter/director. Apart from a period in purgatory he would be involved in the show in one way or another for the next 40 years, making use of an impressive network of contacts in the farming world.
After five years on the show, Torley realised that if he was to make a career in TV, he needed to become a producer. After taking the required production course he spent time as a trainee director on magazine show Today at One. He soon discovered he was "one of the worst multi-camera directors of all time".
By 1981 Torley was Country Calendar's producer, and also head (officially 'executive producer') of TVNZ's Rural Programmes unit. The job saw him producing Young Farmer of the Year specials, coverage of national fielddays, specialist farming show Agri-Tech 2000 and the classic sheep versus farmer encounters of A Dog's Show; he failed to see why the latter series was cancelled while still "rating its socks off".
Torley's television career took some interesting twists and turns. He hadn't been producing Country Calendar long before being offered "a substantial fee" to appear in an advertisement for stock and station company Wrightsons. Torley accepted the gig, despite a warning from management that it would present a conflict of interest with his role producing Country Calendar. As a result, he was removed from the show for a number of years to do time as producer of TVNZ's Religious Programmes unit (although he still retained his title as head of the rural unit). In the new role Torley argued unsuccessfully for the removal of a specal board of clerics which advised on the editorial content of TVNZ's religious programmes. In this period he also did a season fronting travelling game show Top Town, alongside Craig Little.
In 1986 he made Love Life Aids - The NZ Story with reporter Amanda Millar and veteran producer Keith Slater. The documentary on then-new health scourge AIDS was followed by a panel discussion fronted by David Beatson. Torley was also proud of his work producing reality series From Here to Maternity (2001), which followed a group of pregnant women through and after childbirth.
But apart from the period when Torley was instructed to take time away from Country Calendar, the iconic show always remained his priority. Along the way Torley mentored many reporters and future documentary makers. He also worked on a number of legendary Country Calendar spoofs, including the radio-controlled dog ("some people were fooled by it totally") and this item on rural fashions. Torley argued in this video interview that the spoofs had their origins in items first done for rural radio.
Torley was honoured with an Order of New Zealand Merit in 2002, for services to broadcasting. After Julian O'Brien took over as the show's main producer in late 2005, Torley became executive, then consulting producer — titles he described as appropriate for "someone who is well over 40 and mildly important". He also continued to direct and report items for the show until 2014, when he concentrated on narrating all the episodes, expanding the long tradition of what O'Brien called that "gravelly Mr Country Calendar voice".
Torley's boyhood ambition of farm ownership would be realised, at least in miniature. In the 80s he had a small kiwifruit orchard, and later he lived in the Rangitikei on a lifestyle block — as evidenced when the first Country Calendar episode of 2011 dropped in for a visit.
Frank Torley passed away from cancer on Easter Sunday 2016, a week after attending a crew party to celebrate Country Calendar's 50th anniversary. He had finally retired from Country Calendar at the start of the year, after nodules were found on his vocal chords. Torley's son Mark spoke of how he loved being part of Country Calendar. "He loved the people of the land and he loved working on the land".
'Frank Torley - on and off the farm' (Video Interview). NZ On Screen website. Director Ian Pryor. Loaded 16 March 2011. Accessed 16 March 2011
Barry Hawkins, 'Cockies' tales and the bionic sheep' - The Evening Post (TV Week pullout), 10 June 1991, page 3
Michelle Hurley, 'Country Calendar - what a dag' - The Sunday Star-Times, 27 February 2005, page E1
Julian O'Brien, 'In Memoriam - Frank Torley' TVNZ website. Loaded 5 April 2016. Accessed 7 April 2016
Bevan Rapson, 'Thank God it's a good ole COUNTRY show' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 8 January 1998, page E3
Laura Walters, ‘Country Calendar’s Frank Torley dies following cancer battle’ Stuff website. Loaded 28 March 2016. Accessed 28 March 2016
Unknown Writer, 'Keeping an Eye On Country Calendar' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 11 December 1981