The distinctive voice of John Callen has graced dozens of documentaries and commercials. Onscreen, the Brit-born actor and director has played dwarves (in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit), PM David Lange (The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior) and villainous DJs (Send a Gorilla). Callen has also worked as a director, helming The Tribe, Battle of Britain doco The Kiwi Who Saved Britain and many episodes of Shortland Street.
[Oin is] a little bit hard of hearing, so if we are being attacked for instance, I may not be the first person to know ... an elbow in the ribs from my brother is very useful. John Callen, describing his role as Oin in The Hobbit
Touted as the defining chapter of the trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies sees Smaug wreaking havoc from the sky, Thorin Oakenshield succumbing to dragon-sickness, and a climactic battle to dwarf anything seen in the first two Hobbit films. As Orcs look to the Lonely Mountain with their eyes on the treasure, dwarves, elves and humans must decide whether to unite and fight them off. The final Hobbit film arrived in cinemas 15 years after Peter Jackson first trained his cameras on Middle-earth — and made it clear that global blockbusters could come from New Zealand.
After only 17 days in international cinemas, the first part of the Hobbit trilogy stacked up enough treasure to become 2012's fourth highest-grossing movie. In part two director Peter Jackson ups the adventure quotient further, thanks to spiders, high speed river rides and the first encounter between hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Smaug the Dragon, as envisioned by Weta Digital and British star du jour Benedict Cumberbatch. Legolas (Orlando Bloom), one of the breakout characters in the Lord of the Rings movies, also makes an appearance.
JRR Tolkien's beloved novel The Hobbit follows Bilbo Baggins on a quest to help reclaim the lost dwarf homeland of Erebor from the dragon Smaug. Shoulder-tapped by Gandalf for the mission against some opposition, Bilbo joins a company of dwarves in an epic adventure: vying against goblins, orcs and Gollum's riddles. After the box office blitzing and Oscar-slaying Lord of the Rings trilogy, adapting the precursor novel was an expected journey. Martin Freeman (The Office, Sherlock) is Bilbo, and Peter Jackson is again at the helm in this first of a three-part adaptation.
Director Paul Murphy follows Second Hand Wedding with a romance featuring comedian Rhys Darby, songs by Queen and ... a duck. Darby plays heartbroken nice guy Doug: after a close encounter with a native duck (a paradise shelduck) with emotional problems, he enlists expert help from a sassy animal specialist (played by Brit Sally Hawkins, a Golden Globe-winner for feature Happy-Go-Lucky). True to rom-com form, love ensues ... eventually. NZ Herald reviewer Russell Baillie called Love Birds “an endearingly funny, if sugar-coated local romantic comedy”.
Some argue that if the 1981 Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand had been halted from the outset, the impact on the hearts and minds of South Africans would not have been as profound. This Leanne Pooley-directed film aims to show how events in Aotearoa (captured in Merata Mita's documentary Patu!) played out in South Africa; how the tour protests energized blacks, shamed the regime, and provoked democratic change. Says Archbishop Desmond Tutu: "You really can't even compute its value, it said the world has not forgotten us, we are not alone."
A taonga in Māori culture is a treasured thing, whether tangible (eg. a letter, photo, or heirloom) or intangible (eg. a family story). This series uses taonga — whose protection is enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi — as a starting point to tell dramatic Māori stories from the last 150 years. Weaving documentary techniques with re-enactments, Taonga features the stories of Guide Sophia, Sir Maui Pomare and Penetito Hawea among others. It screened on Māori Television in 2006, and featured actors Ian Mune, Rawiri Paratene, Taungaroa Emile and Miriama McDowell.
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.
One of the most successful television shows shot on Kiwi soil, The Tribe was the brainchild of British-born Raymond Thompson. In a future where the adults have been wiped out by a virus, the children that remain have formed into competing tribes, some of whom live to terrorise. Running five seasons, The Tribe sold to more than 120 territories, and the cast toured performances from the soundtrack for overseas fans. The cast were almost entirely New Zealanders, as were most of the crew. Sequel The New Tomorrow, following descendants of the original characters, screened in 2005.
For 150 years, southern right whales (tohorā) were hunted to the brink of extinction. But the discovery of a “lost tribe” in the Southern Ocean sparked hope that their numbers are increasing. This documentary — made by veteran nature filmmaker Max Quinn for The Discovery Channel — follows a research expedition to learn about the pod. Breathtaking and intimate underwater footage, including a fabled white whale and new-born calf, reveals the behavior of these gentle giants. The award-winning film also captures soaring royal albatross, vomiting sea lions, and a flightless duck.
Epitaphs on gravestones are the starting point for presenter Paul Gittins to unravel skeletons in cupboards, lovestruck suicide pacts, and fatal love letters. The series uses compelling personal stories to retell New Zealand history and effectively combines documentary and re-enactment. An actor and history enthusiast, Paul Gittins became a household name on Shortland Street (as Dr Michael McKenna) before he devised this series for Greenstone. Epitaph ran for three series, and won Best Factual Series at the 1999 NZ TV Awards.
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.
This classic 1989 TV commercial promoted the NZ Lotteries Commission’s new ‘scratch and win’ cards. The goad to gamble was based on the question: “Instant Kiwi attitude: have you got it?” as personified by a bungy-jumping fisherman. From Saatchi & Saatchi’s then-high-flying Wellington office, the promo is iconic of the big budget era of NZ ad making. It was directed by Flying Fish co-founder Lee Tamahori, who also helmed high profile promos for Fernleaf and Steinlager before making his movie directing debut with Once Were Warriors (1994).
This documentary comprehensively traces the history of skiing and winter sports in New Zealand. From Mannering and Dixon, who used homemade skis in an almost-successful ascent of Mt Cook and the hut-building pioneers of recreational ski clubs in their pre-Gore-tex garb, to commercial ski fields and lifts, superb archive footage shows the advances. New Zealand teams at the Winter Olympics in Oslo in 1952 and Sarajevo 32 years later had come some way from the days when carrier pigeons were used to report snow conditions from Canterbury's ski fields to Christchurch.
This 80s TV series sees real estate agent Selwyn, TV producer Nardia (early turns from Temuera Morrison and Jennifer Ward-Lealand) and art student Ben (Kerry McKay) as a trio of young Wellingtonions drawn together by a mysterious invitation. At an antique shop dinner they discover they share a colourful birth mother, before becoming players in a game for a legacy of $250,000. Conceived by Brian Bell, Seekers was one of a series of teen-orientated dramas made in the mid-80s (along with Heroes and Peppermint Twist). The 16 episodes screened from February 1986.
Shot on location in Wellington, often after dark, Inside Straight helped usher in a new era of Kiwi TV dramas, far from the rural backblocks. This Minder-esque portrait of Wellington’s underworld was inspired by writer Keith Aberdein’s experiences as a taxi-driver and all night cafe worker. Phillip Gordon (soon to win fame as a conman in Came a Hot Friday) stars as the former fisherman, learning the ways of the city from veteran taxi driver Roy Billing. A solid but unspectacular rater over 10 episodes, the show was scuttled by the launch of trucker’s tale Roche.
The Feltex-winning series Pioneer Women dramatised the lives of groundbreaking New Zealand women. This episode looks at the story of controversial safe-sex campaigner Ettie Rout. In World War I she travelled to Egypt to care for Kiwi soldiers; there she found venereal disease was rife, and recommended that prophylactic kits be issued and that brothels be inspected for hygiene. To the establishment her pioneering ideas on health, sex and gender were ‘immoral’ and received with hostility; while the RSA and some doctors considered her a “guardian angel of the ANZACs”.
TVNZ’s Natural History Film Unit was founded in Dunedin around 1977. The first Wild South documentaries began filming a year later. The slot's initial focus was on New Zealand’s perilously endangered birds, eg the Chatham Island black robin (then the world’s rarest bird). The results won local and international notice, and a loyal audience. Wildtrack was a sister series showcasing natural history for young viewers. Wild South ended in 1997 when the Natural History Unit was purchased by Fox Studios; it later became internationally successful production company NHNZ.
This fictionalised account of pioneering 19th century photographers the Burton brothers is set partly in Dunedin during the closing stages of the New Zealand Wars. William and Alfred take contrasting approaches to representing their subjects — and are treated accordingly by the authorities, who are attempting to attract new settlers while brutally suppressing Māori. Produced by veteran John O'Shea (who co-wrote with playwright Robert Lord), the tale of art, commerce and colonisation was largely well received as a thoughtful essay at revisionist history.
The Governor was a six-part TV epic that examined the life of Governor George Grey (Corin Redgrave). This episode arguably best lived up to the blockbuster scale and revisionist ambitions of the series. It depicts key battles of the 1863-64 Waikato Campaign (including ‘Rewi’s last stand’ at Ōrākau). General Sir Duncan Cameron (Martyn Sanderson) feels growing unease following Grey’s orders to evict Māori villagers, as he learns respect for his foe, and that Grey’s motives are driven not just by the urge to impose order on ‘the natives’ but by hunger for land.
Ian Mune is Leo Moynihan, secretary of the carpenters’ union, who — with orange mini and leather jacket — has to navigate the shark-infested waters of 70s industrial relations. In this episode, earthquake regulations, a shifty minister and stand-over tactics from worksite agitators, count amongst Moynihan’s workplace problems. At home he has to introduce lecturer girlfriend Sarah to his young son. The NZ-Australia co-production (with ABC) was the first drama series made by TV One’s drama department. It won Feltex awards for best drama and Mune’s performance.
This edition of the 1976 adventure series documents a pioneering attempt to fly over Aoraki-Mount Cook by hot air balloon. RNZAF squadron leader Roly Parsons had made the first balloon crossing of Cook Strait the previous year. Director Pamela Meekings-Stewart captures his preparations to take on perilous winds and high altitudes. A first attempt with newbie co-pilot Rolf Dennler sets an altitude record, but crashes near Fox Glacier township, before Parsons pulls on his gold flight jacket for a final attempt at the challenge. Julian Dickon (Pukemanu) wrote the script.
Pioneering soap opera Close To Home first screened in May 1975. For just over eight years middle New Zealand found their mirror in the life and times of Wellington’s Hearte clan. At its peak in 1977 nearly one million viewers tuned in twice weekly to watch the series co-created by Michael Noonan and Tony Isaac (who had initially only agreed to make the show on the condition they would get to make The Governor). The popular family saga carved a regular niche for local drama on screen, and the output demands were foundational in developing industry talent.