From Close to Home to Outrageous Fortune by way of Gloss, Shark in the Park, Marlin Bay, Mercy Peak and Shortland Street, Jeffrey Thomas has appeared in many of New Zealand’s leading television drama series — but at times he has been a reluctant actor, while seeking a balance between high profile roles and his writing for stage and screen.
Thomas was born in the Welsh mining town of Llanelli in 1945; he spoke Welsh until he started school. He credits his grandmother with giving him an interest in drama. She took him to amateur productions and to the movies (paid for with sixpences his grandfather earned for cutting hair at the local steelworks). His first attempt at writing a play was at age 11, but it was a long time before he wrote another.
After leaving school at 17, he trained as a quantity surveyor but quit after four years and vowed never to work in an office again. Instead, Thomas did his A-levels through a community college, and attended Liverpool University where he completed a BA in Celtic Studies and English Literature. During this time he became interested in drama (particularly Tom Stoppard) and started writing for, and appearing in, university revues. He went on to Oxford where he graduated with a Master of Literature.
Thomas had married a New Zealander he met at Oxford — and in the early 70s the couple relocated to Melbourne, where he lectured at Latrobe University. He also started acting again to assist his writing (which he worried was too academic). In 1976 they moved again — to Victoria University in Wellington where he taught romantic and Victorian poetry for a year, before becoming a fulltime actor and writer in 1977.
After acting in productions at Unity, Circa and Downstage, he came to the attention of the producers of pioneering television soap Close to Home. For the next 18 months, he played the genial cockney barman Gerry — but, by the end of 1979, the life of a fulltime TV actor had begun to pall. He had no interest in being a public figure and confessed to running away the first time he was recognised in a shop. He was also missing the intellectual satisfaction he got from writing, telling The Auckland Star, “I am not being critical of others in the cast — I really admire people who can stay with it — but it wasn’t enough for me”.
Meanwhile, after a shaky start, his writing for the theatre was becoming more successful. His first play had been “a disaster”, and Grant Tilly directed his second to workshop level before telling him it was unworkable; but his next work Playing the Game — set in a rugby club pre-Foreskin’s Lament - premiered at Circa, was toured through Wales and staged in London’s West End.
Thomas’ other early television roles included appearances in two Loose Enz one-off dramas: Michael Noonan’s Eros and Psyche, and WW2 drama Coming and Going. He also playing a vengeful sheep station manager in High Country. In 1980 he combined writing and acting in Stroke, a TV drama about a rower making one last attempt to compete at the Olympics. As well as writing the screenplay, Thomas took the lead role and drew on his rowing experiences at Oxford. Stroke was timed to coincide with the Moscow Olympics but the United States-led boycott, and withdrawal of New Zealand’s official team, caused some last minute rewriting and reshooting.
In 1981, Thomas was a co-winner of the Welsh Academy’s Play for Wales competition. His entry Men of Steel told the story of a young man returning from New Zealand to his hometown, to find decay and despair with the closing of the steelworks. However, life didn’t imitate art for Thomas. Throughout the 80s he had a very profitable relationship with his homeland after being cast as a former policeman turned private eye in Bowen — a Welsh language series for BBC Wales which ran for three years. Dividing his time between New Zealand and Wales, he also appeared in, or wrote, several other UK telefeatures.
Thomas continued to act on New Zealand screens during this time and his credits included Inside Straight, Pioneer Women, Hanlon, Erebus: the Aftermath and Gloss (which he also wrote for). In 1989 he was cast in the title role of new inspector Brian “Sharkey” Finn” in Wellington-based police drama Shark in the Park, which ran for three years.
Always on the lookout for new outlets for his talents, Thomas wrote two children’s books in the late 80s — and in 1994 he wrote and directed his first short film Making Money.
In 2001 he began appearing in successful series Mercy Peak as Dr William Kingsley. “He’s a very unambiguous character. He really seems to care about people and I like that because I think I’m far too uncaring, too selfish”, he told the Dominion Post. It won him Best Actor at the 2003 New Zealand Film and Television Awards.
His acting career came full circle in 2004 with another soap opera role — spending two years on Shortland Street as Ian Jeffries; and he continued his 30 year association with New Zealand’s leading television dramas, when he guested as the lecherous Vern Gardiner on Outrageous Fortune.
On the big screen, Thomas went on to co-star as one of a trio of paranormal investigators in Jason Stutter horror film The Dead Room (2015), and appeared in the movie version of bestselling novel The Light Between Oceans.
Profile written by Michael Higgins
‘Shark’s Finn a Welsh Writer’ (Iinterview) - The Dominion, 20 July 1990, page 20
Jane Bowron, ‘Doctors’ Script for Healthy Drama’ (interview) - The Dominion Post (TV Week pullout), 11 February 2003, page 3
Karl du Fresne, ‘One Man Went to Row’ - The Listener, 19 July 1980, page 18
Marion McLeod, 'Acting Too'(Interview) - The Listener, 6 May 1989
Barry Shaw, ‘Real Talent Created Jerry’ (Interview) - The Auckland Star, 3 December 1979, page 14