Award-winning scribe Gavin Strawhan is one of the most experienced screenwriters working in New Zealand television. His extended resume includes writing for, and helping create TV shows Nothing Trivial, Filthy Rich, Jackson's Wharf, Mercy Peak, Burying Brian, kidult hit Being Eve, Kaitangata Twitch and futuristic thriller This is Not My Life. He also co-wrote 2010 feature film Matariki.
Write a lot. Don’t sit on one idea and think it’s brilliant. It probably isn’t. Love your characters for all their flaws. Write a lot. Gavin Strawhan’s advice to aspiring script writers
Twenty-four year-old barman Dave finds his life turned upside down when he meets the girl of his dreams — Cara, 14 years his senior, and the owner of three kids. Over two seasons, the light-hearted drama explored whether their live-in relationship could survive the weight of low expectations, and her unruly family. Created by Kate McDermott (This is Her), Step Dave starred Swedish emigre Sia Trokenheim (2014 film Everything we Loved) and Brit born Jono Kenyon. Interest in the format encompassed the Ukraine — which remade the show in 2016 — France, Hungary and Greece.
In the first episode of comedy drama Step Dave, solo Mum Cara (Sia Trokenheim) finds herself rescued by womanising barman Dave (Jono Kenyon), after a disastrous blind date ends in a sprained ankle. Dave is convinced he's met 'the one'. Cara's daughters and mother in-law (Lisa Harrow) are horrified. And Cara fears there isn't enough time in her busy life for a man who calls her favourite song "ancient". Meanwhile Dave's flatmate is falling for the workmate who has stolen his desk. Created by Kate McDermott, Step Dave screened for two seasons — and was later remade in Russia.
In September 1893 New Zealand became the first country to grant all women the right to vote in parliamentary elections. This fly on the wall docudrama reimagines this major achievement, following Kate Sheppard (played by Sara Wiseman) throughout the final push of her campaign. The 70-minute TV movie follows the template set by director Peter Burger and writer Gavin Strawhan in their 2011 docudrama on the Treaty of Waitangi, with key characters directly addressing their 21st century audience. At the 2012 NZ TV awards, Wiseman won for Best Performance by an Actress.
Nothing Trivial was a dramedy that kept score on the lives and loves of five friends in a pub quiz team called Sex on a Stick. The cast of City Lifers shifted to the suburbs and nearing middle age was led by Shane Cortese, Tandi Wright, Nicole Whippy, Debbie Newby-Ward and Blair Strang. Created by Rachel Lang and Gavin Strawhan, (the veteran writers behind Go Girls, Maddigan’s Quest, and Mercy Peak) the popular South Pacific Pictures production screened for three seasons on TV ONE. A fan-driven campaign saw NZ On Air fund a tele-movie to wrap up the series.
This docudrama follows an imaginary news reporter who travels back in time to cover the days leading up to the Treaty of Waitangi’s 6 February 1840 signing. The production drops the usual solemnity surrounding Aotearoa’s founding document, using humour and asides to camera to evoke the chaos and motives behind its signing. Written by Gavin Strawhan, with input from novelist Witi Ihimaera, What Really Happened screened on TVNZ for Waitangi Day 2011. Peter Burger won Best Director - Drama/Comedy at the 2011 Aotearoa TV Awards; Waitangi was nominated for Best Drama.
Nothing Trivial followed the lives and loves of five friends in their 30s and 40s, who compete in a weekly pub quiz. In this first 10 minutes of the debut episode, the Sex on a Stick team — played by Shane Cortese, Tandi Wright, Nicole Whippy, Debbie Newby-Ward and Blair Strang — gather at The Beagle to wrestle with John Wayne Bobbit trivia, and the trials of nearing middle age. The show was created by Rachel Lang and Gavin Stawhan (Go Girls). In the background piece, Lang explains how the show came to be, and argues Kiwis could give its professional actors more credit.
Iaheto Ah Hi's play Tautai involved an urban car thief emulating his Tokelauan fishing ancestors — only instead of hunting sharks, he hunted cars. Twelve years and 27 drafts after first seeing the play, director Michael Bennett and co-writer Gavin Strawhan intertwined Tautai's story with seven other characters, each impacted by one moment of violence. Praising the "excellent ensemble" and Don McGlashan score, Herald reviewer Peter Calder argued that Matariki delivers "a touching series of intersecting stories about the fragility of life and the redeeming power of love".
Kaitangata Twitch follows the adventures of 12-year-old Meredith (Te Waimarie Kessell) who faces mysterious happenings on Kaitangata island. Meredith is the only one who can apprehend the island's 'twitch' and prevent tragedy repeating. The Māori Television series was adapted from a Margaret Mahy story by long-time collaborator, director Yvonne Mackay, and was filmed in Mahy's Governors Bay hometown. Newcomer Kessell stars alongside Charles Mesure and George Henare (in a Qantas-winning turn). Twitch sold to ABC Australia and won international awards.
Kaitangata Twitch follows 12-year-old Meredith, who sees eerie visions as a Governors Bay island is drilled for mining. The Māori Television series was adapted from a Margaret Mahy story by long-time collaborator Yvonne Mackay. Mahy makes a rainbow-wigged cameo in this episode where the locals protest a subdivision, and Meredith apprehends the island's 'twitch'. Newcomer Te Waimarie Kessell stars, with Charles Mesure and George Henare. The mix of the Māori concept of wairua with a willful 21st Century teenage heroine won a Remi Award at Worldfest-Houston 2010.
Rachel Lang and Gavin Strawhan created Go Girls out of a desire for an upbeat show about "people who liked each other". Audiences liked the characters too: the show ran five seasons, after introducing us to a group of 20-something friends, each aiming to make a major life-change in the next year. Over five series various romantic adventures ensued, and the core cast of Anna Hutchison, Alix Bushnell, Bronwyn Turei, Jay Ryan and Matt Whelan were joined by others — before finally departing altogether, with one final season revolving around a new cast of wanna bes.
Go Girls starts from a twist, a beach and a promise. The twist is that this femme-dominated tale is narrated by a male (Jay Ryan). The promise involves four friends having a drink on the beach, and agreeing to make a major life-change within a year. Amy (Anna Hutchison) wants to be rich; whacky bartender Britta (Alix Bushnell) seeks fame; straight-talking Cody (Bronwyn Turei) wants a hubbie. The intentionally "optimistic, kind" hit show stretched to five seasons. In the backgrounder, co-creator Rachel Lang writes about the show's origins and difficult, rain-sodden birth.
In this six part TV One series, suburban Mum Jodie (Jodie Dorday) accidentially kills her ex-rock singer husband Brian (Shane Cortese) and is convinced by her friends to bury the body. The comedy drama was devised by Maxine Fleming and Gavin Strawhan, and produced for Eyeworks Touchdown by screen legends Julie Christie and Robin Scholes (Once Were Warriors). Scholes was onboard to develop drama at the production company renowned for its popular factual television. It was the first NZ TV drama to use high definition cameras. A planned sequel was never made.
In this first episode of the six part comedy drama, a suburban Mum (Jodie Dorday from movie Via Satellite) reaches the end of her tether with her washed-up rock singer husband Brian (Shane Cortese), and he comes to the end of his life — atop a broken bong. After her three closest friends convince her she’ll face a murder rap, Jodie makes a fateful decision to dispose of the body. The show marked a move into drama for reality TV supremos Eyeworks Touchdown. "Think Sex and the City meets Desperate Housewives in an Outrageous Fortune kind of way." wrote Listener critic Diana Wichtel.
This children's post-apocalyptic fantasy series follows a circus troupe, Maddigan's Fantasia on their quest to save the world's only remaining city, Solis. The show was created by children's writer Margaret Mahy, developed for television by writers Gavin Strawhan and Rachel Lang for South Pacific Pictures, who produced the 13 x 30min series for TV3. Award-winning and successfully exported, it marked a debut lead performance from Rose McIver (future Tinker Bell in US TV show Once Upon a Time) acting with Michael Hurst, Peter Daube, Tim Balme and Danielle Cormack.
This children's post-apocalyptic fantasy series follows a circus troupe on their quest to save the city of Solis. Conceived by Margaret Mahy and developed by Gavin Strawhan and Rachel Lang, the award-winning series was produced by South Pacific Pictures. A young Rose McIver (future Tinker Bell in US TV show Once Upon a Time) led the cast, acting with a caravan of Kiwi veterans. Māori elements mixed with rural West Auckland sets in the ‘solar punk’ rendering of the future. Here, Garland (McIver) faces tragedy but meets two boys (and a baby) with magical powers.
After her husband is jailed, matriarch Cheryl West (Robyn Malcolm) decides the time has come to set her family on the straight and narrow. But can the Wests change old habits? So begins the six-series long saga of the Westie dynasty. Hugely popular at home (beloved by public, critics and awards-nights alike), and imitated overseas, Outrageous Fortune has been a flag-bearer for TV3 and contemporary NZ telly drama; the series proved — in all its grow-your-own glory — that genre TV in NZ could be so much more than overseas stories pasted to a local setting.
Being Eve was a popular and self-aware comedy-drama for teens. It launched the career of actor Fleur Saville, who played 15-year-old amateur teen anthropologist Eve. This excerpt from episode 22 of the second series sees angst and ambition collide, as Eve dreams of Hollywood success via a school Shakespeare production. Shakespeare himself makes a cameo (as Eve's muse), while she struggles with her original vision for the classic. But will she be upstaged by Sam? The series won best drama at the 2005 NZ Screen Awards, and fostered young directing and producing talent.
This quirky, upbeat comedy-drama looked at teen life through the eyes of 15-year-old Eve (Fleur Saville). Something of an amateur teen anthropologist, Eve questions everything in her world, musing on life to the camera and in voiceover. The series' fresh, self-aware style appealed directly to media-savvy teenagers. The TV3 series launched Saville's TV career, fostered young directing and producing talent, won many awards (including Best Drama Series at the 2002 NZ TV Awards) and sold to over 40 territories, screening in the US on Nickelodeon.
Produced by John Laing and featuring a star-studded cast (Sara Wiseman, Tim Balme, et al), South Pacific Pictures' 'seachange' series Mercy Peak hit just the right note with its down-home sincerity and quirky-but-complex characters. In this excerpt from the first episode Dr Nicky Somerville (Sara Wiseman) discovers the cheating ways of her partner (a deliciously oily Simon Prast) and decides it's time to get out. On her way to finding her bliss in the tiny town of Bassett she has an inauspicious beginning: a minor collision with the town's iconic pig.
Kiwi comedy-drama Being Eve "tacked the trails and tribulations of everyday adolescent life" (as website The Spinoff put it). It launched the career of Fleur Saville, starrig as amateur teen anthropologist Eve. In this excerpt from episode 10 of series one, Eve grapples with the day-to-day stuff of negotiating relationships (now that Matt is her boyfriend, does she have to sit next to him in every class?). Friends and family expose their relationship-challenging racial prejudices. Rated best drama at the 2002 NZ TV Awards, Being Eve was nominated for an International Emmy.
When his father dies, soldier Will Bastion (Temuera Morrison) returns home after 20 years. Tradition dictates he take on the mantle of tribal chief, but he's not interested. His brother Kahu (Lawrence Makoare) seizes the opportunity, but he's a drug-dealer with grand plans to get stolen land back. Worried about Kahu's provocative approach, Will must choose whether to face off against his brother. Melding horseback action and indigenous land rights, Crooked Earth marked the first NZ film for director Sam Pillsbury since 1987's Starlight Hotel. Variety called it "handsomely mounted and compelling".
With its mix of quirky characters, lush scenery, and medical drama, Mercy Peak proved to be a winning formula. Produced by John Laing for South Pacific Pictures, and starring a host of NZ acting talent (Tim Balme, Jeffrey Thomas, Renato Bartolomei, et al), Mercy Peak follows the highs and lows of Dr Nicky Somerville (Sara Wiseman), who leaves the big city after discovering her partner’s infidelity. Taking up her new role at the hospital in the tiny town of Bassett, Nicky soon learns that life is full of complexities no matter the population.
In the last of a trilogy of tele-movies, private investigators John Lawless (Kevin Smith) and Jodie Keane (Shortland Street's Angela Dotchin) seek the truth behind an apparent suicide. Their client is visiting mystery woman Lana Vitale (a strong performance by American Jennifer Rubin) who wants to know why her husband is dead. For Lawless, the trial soon leads to romance, intrigue, plus a shady nightclub/ porn operator (singer Frankie Stevens). This Kiwi take on American crime shows includes an appearance by Snakeskin actor Dean O'Gorman.
The second Lawless tele-movie sees ex-cop John Lawless (Kevin Smith) drinking too much while working as a bouncer in a downmarket bar. Then former crime-solving partner Jodie Keen (Angela Dotchin) enlists his help, to investigate the case of an incarcerated American (C. Thomas Howell) who may have been framed. Someone is attacking hitchhikers, and the creepy finale sees Jodie using herself as bait, before getting trapped in a barn with a murderer. Evening Post reviewer Sarah Daniell found "the whole shebang was executed with wit and style".
Created by Gavin Strawhan and Rachel Lang, Jackson’s Wharf was set in a fictional coastal town and revolved around a sibling rivalry between brothers Frank (the town cop) and Ben Jackson (a big smoke lawyer). Returning with his family, golden boy Ben has controversially inherited the local pub from his recently deceased father. Produced by South Pacific Pictures, the one hour popular drama screened for two seasons. Writer James Griffin and director Niki Caro worked on the show, alongside much of the talent who would later create Mercy Peak and Outrageous Fortune.
Created by Gavin Strawhan and Rachel Lang, popular one hour drama series Jackson's Wharf was set in a fictional coastal town and revolved around a sibling rivalry between brothers Frank and Ben. Frank is the town policeman with a big secret; and golden boy Ben is a big city lawyer who has returned to town after their father's death. In this excerpt from the first episode of the South Pacific Pictures production, returning son Ben faces gossiping locals, simmering family tensions over the will (who will get the pub?) and an impending fishing tournament.
Lawless saw Kevin Smith in one of his biggest roles: as undercover cop turned private investigator John Lawless. The character's career arc was told across three tele-movies. In this self-titled debut, Lawless struggles with divided loyalties while working for a dodgy drug lord (Joel Tobeck). Next thing, a robbery leaves Lawless framed by the good guys. This stylish Kiwi take on American crime shows won good reviews and a stash of awards, including gongs for Tobeck, co-star Angela Dotchin, director Chris Martin-Jones and best drama programme.
City Life follows a tight-knit group of apartment-dwelling twenty-somethings (lawyers, bartenders, drug dealers, art dealers, et al) on the emotional merry-go-round of urban living. Created by James Griffin, the television series was an effort to create popular drama relevant to contemporary Auckland city life and to appeal to a Gen X demographic – to inject Melrose Place into Mt Eden. A bevy of Kiwi acting talent drink, dramatise and prevaricate to a soundtrack of contemporary NZ pop.
City Life screened from 1996 to 1998 and made a direct appeal to New Zealand's Gen X apartment-dwelling demographic. Following the lives of a tight-knit group of friends, and featuring racy shots of Auckland's K-Road and nightlife set to contemporary NZ pop music, City Life was NZ's answer to Melrose Place. In this excerpt from the first episode, the friends are thrown into conflict when one of their own (played by Kevin Smith) decides to marry outside the circle. Complications ensue when Smith shares a brief, but notorious, screen kiss with Charles Mesure.
This Shortland Street episode ended the 1995 season with a missing baby, a Christmas turkey and a bizarre accident. After being set up by conniving nurse Carla Leach (Elisabeth Easther), a drunken driver aims his Mac truck directly for the hospital's reception. Amongst the injured, Kirsty wakes up with a case of memory loss, while Carmen suffers unexpected after-effects, soon after swearing everlasting devotion to Guy Warner. Meanwhile Nick potentially faces prosecution, after accidentally leaving his girlfriend's one-year-old child at the supermarket.
Designed to inspire school leavers to find their career, Pathways sees a selection of young New Zealanders talk about their job paths. The pilot episode of this 1994 Careers NZ resource is bookended with a 'mini-drama' about young people flatting together, which includes some familiar faces. Karl Urban plays lazy surfer Wayne, while Robbie Magasiva is the sales assistant whose plans of climbing the career ladder go awry. Marcus Lush plays a DJ who links a series of interviews with people either working or training. Later Lush interviews experts on youth employment prospects.
Shortland Street is a fast-paced serial drama set in an inner city Auckland hospital. The long-running South Pacific Pictures production is based around the births, deaths and marriages of the hospital's staff and patients. It screens on TVNZ’s TV2 network five days a week. In 2017 the show was set to celebrate its 25th anniversary, making it New Zealand’s longest running drama by far. Characters and lines from the show have entered the culture — starting with “you’re not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata!” in the very first episode. Mihi Murray writes about Shortland Street here.
The first episode of Shortland Street starts with a pregnant woman being rushed to the clinic after an accident. Only the doctors are all missing. Visiting Doctor Hone Ropata (Temuera Morrison), who is soon to join the Shortland Street team, makes the call to deliver the baby. Head nurse Carrie Burton (Lisa Crittenden) disagrees, and proceeds to mention that Doctor Ropata is no longer in Guatemala. This first episode of the five night a week soap screened on 25 May 1992. It would go on to become New Zealand's longest running TV drama (but not our first soap — that was Close to Home).