Ken Blackburn is a familiar face on New Zealand stage and screen. In a career spanning 50+ years he's appeared in iconic television shows (Gliding On, Shortland Street) and films — including a lead role in 1978 feature Skin Deep. Blackburn was awarded a New Zealand Order of Merit in 2005; in 2017 he received the a Lifetime Achievement award, acknowledging long-serving local actors.
I think the boss actually personified every headmaster I’d ever operated under, who was sitting on a superannuation job and didn’t want anything disturbed. Ken Blackburn on his character in comedy Gliding On, in Blackburn's ScreenTalk interview, March 2012
Director Karl Zohrab’s docudrama makes the case for World War I military leader Major General Sir Andrew Russell to be resurrected in Kiwi popular memory alongside the likes of Freyberg. Based on Jock Vennell's biography, the film spans Russell’s life from his Hawke’s Bay childhood to Gallipoli and the Western Front — where the New Zealand Division commander was acknowledged for his tactical nous — to the latent effect of his war experience. It screened on The History Channel for Anzac Day 2014. Colin Moy (In My Father’s Den) plays Russell in battlefield dramatisations.
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.
Comedy Rest for the Wicked showcases an all-star aged A-team of Kiwi actors — among them Ian Mune, John Bach, and Gloss boss Ilona Rodgers. Gravel-voiced Tony Barry (the man who uttered the immortal line "goodbye pork pie") stars as Murray, a retired detective going undercover in an upmarket rest-home. Frank hopes to catch his longtime nemesis (Bach). Instead he finds himself in the company of the randy, and the unexpectedly dead. The "sweet, rather knowing little movie" (Linda Burgess, Dominion Post) marks the feature debut of ad veteran Simon Pattison.
A gang member wakes up one morning and decides he needs a day off. Willy (ex-Mongrel Mob boss Tuhoe Isaac) checks out of the gang pad and, on a whim goes for a cruise on the Interislander. At a Picton Pub he makes an unlikely connection with brothers of a different clan. The near-wordless exploration of culture clashes and a man’s journey outside of his comfort zone, was the debut dramatic short from director Zoe McIntosh. It was selected for New York and Tribeca film fests, and Isaac won best performance in a short film at the 2010 Qantas Film and TV Awards.
Duggan - Sins of the Fathers is the second of two telefeatures starring a brooding, charismatic John Bach as a city detective, drawn into a Marlborough Sounds murder mystery. Marion McLeod conceived the show; Donna Malane and Ken Duncum were nominated for an NZ Television Award for this script. The turquoise waters of the Sounds (shot by Leon Narbey) make for an evocative setting where Duggan, drawn by the irresistible allure of explosions and an unsolved case, investigates the murder of a convicted rapist. The late Michele Amas plays pathologist Jennifer Collins.
Peter Jackson’s fifth feature is a playful blend of comedy, thriller and supernatural horror and was an effective Hollywood calling card for Weta FX. Frank Bannister (Michael J Fox) resides in Fairwater, where he runs a supernatural scam. Aided by some spectral consorts, he engineers hauntings and “exorcises” the ghosts for a fee. When a genuine spook starts knocking off the locals, the FBI suspects Frank is the culprit. To clear his name, Frank must deal to the real perpetrator – none other than the Grim Reaper ...
Made for Montana Sunday Theatre, Dead Certs provides rare starring roles for talents Rawiri Paratene and Ginette McDonald. Paratene won a Television Award for his acting, and also co-wrote the script (with director Ian Mune), which he began writing on a Burns Fellowship. Paratene plays Hare Hohepa, whose dreams of a winning bet that will allow him to escape his down'n'out existence take an unusual turn: his friend Martha (McDonald) expires after some drinks, then returns in ghostly form to encourage him to keep betting. So begins a dream run at the TAB.
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.
In 1992 Australian soap star Craig McLachlan (Neighbours) landed in NZ, to tackle one of his only starring roles in a movie to date. McLachlan plays Ed — a WWll soldier who goes AWOL — in a story 74-year-old writer James Edwards drew from his own life. When Ed is shipped overseas with no leave, he feels obliged to make sure that his recently pregnant wife Daisy (Katrina Hobbs) is OK before he departs. But then the days become weeks. For director John Laing the road movie offered a chance to explore changing gender roles, as women discovered life beyond house and family.
A teenage boy (Lance Wharewaka) should be at school, but instead learns about the bush and the old days from his ailing grand uncle (Bill Tawhai). The friendship prepares the boy with the necessary skills for life. Written by poet Hone Tuwhare, Eel marked the drama directing debut of TV3 newsreader and Wild South presenter Joanna Paul."He [Bill] brought a mana with him and has such irreplaceable Māori knowledge," said Paul, who remembered him discussing "how he used bobs to catch eels. He remembers using flax — you can't buy knowledge like that."
A big smoke cousin to Mortimer's Patch, Shark in the Park was NZ's first urban cop show and first true genre police drama. Devised by Graham Tetley, it portrayed a unit policing Wellington's inner city under the guidance of Inspector Brian "Sharkie" Finn (Jeffrey Thomas). With its focus on the working lives of the officers, it was firmly in the mould of overseas programmes like The Bill and Hill Street Blues. The first of three series was the last in-house production for TVNZ's drama department. The other two were made independently by The Gibson Group.
As a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, Brian Deeds (Belfast-born actor Ian McElhinney) grassed on 23 fellow terrorists in Northern Ireland. Now living in New Zealand under a new identity, Deeds has to come clean to his girlfriend (Judy McIntosh) when a hit squad arrives in town for him. This clip sees guns and car crashes on the streets of Dunedin. Made in NZ, the Anglo-Kiwi funded TV movie won solid audiences on UK television, before local release on video. Ian Mune (Came a Hot Friday) directs; Marshall Napier and Temuera Morrison are the cops playing catch up.
BMX bikes, motorcycles, and home computers — as the opening titles demonstrate, this children’s adventure series features all the hardware an 80s-era kid could want. In the first episode, Sandra, Mike and their father move into the city, arriving just in time for two jewel thieves to crash into their lives after a daring heist at Auckland Museum, and a chase through the city. Scripted by Kiwi kidult king-turned-novelist Ken Catran (Children of the Dog Star), Steel Riders was later shortened to movie length for American video release, as Young Detectives on Wheels.
Set in and around the fictional town of Kapua in 1948, Ngāti is the story of a Māori community. The film comprises three narrative threads: a boy, Ropata, is dying of leukaemia; the return of a young Australian doctor, Greg, and his discovery that he has Māori heritage; and the fight to keep the local freezing works open. Unique in tone and quietly powerful in its storytelling, Ngāti was Barry Barclay's first dramatic feature, and the first feature to be written and directed by Māori. Ngati screened in Critics' Week at the Cannes Film Festival
Dunedin barrister Alf Hanlon’s first — and most famous — defence case was the first episode in this award-winning drama series about his career. In 1895, alleged baby farmer Minnie Dean was charged with murdering two infants in her care. Hanlon’s inspired manslaughter defence was undermined by the judge’s direction to the jury; and Dean became the only woman to be hanged in NZ. Hanlon vowed none of his future clients would ever suffer this fate. Emmy-nominated and a major critical success, the episode contributed to a re-evaluation of Dean’s conviction.
Heart of the High Country saw NZ and the mother country getting into bed together, on and off the screen. The rags/riches/rags tale chronicles 18 years for Ceci (Valerie Gogan), a working class Brit who arrives in the South Island and fends off a series of mean-tempered pioneer males — and one long unrequited love. The Sam Pillsbury-directed mini-series played in primetime on ITV in the UK, and was funded by England’s Central TV and TVNZ. It shares storytelling DNA with earlier TV movie It’s Lizzie to Those Close; Brit Elizabeth Gowans scripted both.
This episode of New Zealand's own office comedy sees John (Ross Jolly) concluding that a love of stamps makes the boss (Ken Blackburn) a natural fit for Mastermind — next thing, the stores branch staff are gathering around with imaginary cameras and desk lamps, to help him practise for the pressures of facing quiz master Peter Sinclair. Meanwhile the team try to score another victory by getting an astrological chart made for a racehorse. Roger Hall's sitcom about public servants was a bona fide hit, long before Rogernomics and Ricky Gervais in The Office.
This feature tells the true story of the notorious 1941 manhunt for Stanley Graham. The West Coast farmer went bush after a shooting spree that followed police pressure to have him hand over his firearms. Seven men were ultimately killed. Written by Kiwi-born Andrew Brown (from Harold Willis’ book), Bad Blood was made during the tax break era for UK TV, but was released in NZ cinemas. Directed by Brit Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral), it won strong reviews. Aussie legend Jack Thompson and compatriot Carol Burns star as the isolated Bonnie and Clyde coasters.
It's April 1966 when young Massey student Peter (Hurst, sporting period mop and moustache) makes a surprise visit back home at the farm during study break, and is quickly put out by the archaic social mores: "ya taken to wearing a bra as well?". It's also Anzac Day, and his newfound pacifism and career plans soon put him on a collision course with his veteran father (Vere-Jones) in a surprisingly potent TV drama that pulls no punches — literally — in its depiction of a generation gap that proves irreconcilable.
In an age before Rogernomics, and well before The Office, there was the afternoon tea fund, Golden Kiwi, and four o'clock closing: welcome to the early 80s world of the New Zealand Public Service. Gliding On (1981 - 1985) was the first locally made sitcom to become a bona-fide classic. The series was inspired by Roger Hall's hit play Glide Time and satirised a paper-pushing working life then-familiar to many Kiwis. Gliding On won several Feltex Awards including best male and female actors and best entertainment.
In an age before Rogernomics, well before The Office, there was the afternoon tea fund, Golden Kiwi, and four o'clock closing: welcome to the early 80s world of the New Zealand Public Service. Gliding On (1981 - 1985) was the first locally-made sitcom to become a bona-fide classic. Inspired by Roger Hall's hit play Glide Time, the award-winning series satirised a paper-pushing working life familiar to many Kiwis. This episode features Beryl's non-smoking campaign, Jim's efforts to kick the habit, office sexual innuendo and a much-debated fire drill. "Morning Jim!"
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.
Mortimer’s Patch was a popular police series following detective Doug Mortimer (Terence Cooper), a city cop returning to his rural roots. In the first episode, scripted by Keith Aberdein (The Governor), a girl (Greer Robson) goes missing in sand dunes near the shack of an eccentric recluse. Fear and suspicion mounts, and Mortimer brings in help from the city: prejudiced detective Chris Knight (Ken Blackburn). Don Selwyn plays Sergeant Bob Storey. In this background piece, Mortimer's Patch producer Tom Finlayson writes about the show's birth, death and double resurrection.
This TVNZ kidult drama is a saltwater Swallows and Amazons, where the plucky "urchins" stumble upon villainous plots (from missing treasure to wildlife smuggling) on their seaside adventures. Over three series, locations like Mahurangi Peninsula in the Hauraki Gulf — where the youngsters holidayed with their uncle — and the Marlborough Sounds allowed for much floatplane, launch and navy frigate chase action. The cast included an array of experienced talent and featured a young Rebecca Gibney (the Packed to Rafter’s star’s first major TV role) and Robert Rakete.
Mortimer’s Patch was a popular drama series following Detective Sergeant Doug Mortimer (Terence Cooper) at work in the town of Cobham. Mortimer plays a city cop returning to his rural roots; Don Selwyn is Sergeant Bob Storey. The series was NZ’s first police drama, and a rare local drama to top ratings. Mortimer's Patch was made when the archetype of the ‘community cop’ everyone knew was still a powerful one, and it was a counterweight to the faceless riot policing of the Springbok Tour. Three series were made.
This episode of The Deep End asks whether a navy captain has the skill set to direct television. Aided by Royal NZ Navy officer Peter Cozens, navy veteran Ian Bradley agrees to direct a teleplay starring an occasionally troublesome team of Kiwi actors. Bradley's mission had its roots in an earlier episode, where he forced normal Deep End host Bill Manson to walk the plank of the frigate HMNZS Waikato. The result is a rare behind the scenes glimpse into local TV production — and a chance to witness the grace under pressure of both Bradley, and veteran TV Production Assistant Dot LePine.
The Mackenzie Affair told the story of colonial folk hero James Mackenzie: accused of rustling 1000 sheep in the high country that would later bear his name. This fifth and final episode sees the manhunt for Mackenzie over, with ‘Jock’ facing a sentence of hard labour and provoking sympathy from equivocal sheriff Henry Tancred. Adapted from James McNeish’s book, the early co-production (with Scottish TV) imported Caledonian lead actor James Cosmo (Braveheart, Game of Thrones) and veteran UK TV director Joan Craft. It was made by Hunter’s Gold producer John McRae.
The five-part series told the story of colonial outlaw James Mackenzie: accused of rustling 1000 sheep in the high country that would bear his name. His escapades on the lam elevated him to folk hero status. Like producer John McRae’s prior series, Hunter’s Gold, the South Pacific Television ‘prestige’ drama was made with export in mind. Adapted from James McNeish’s book, the early co-production — with Scottish TV, where the opening episode was shot — imported Caledonian lead actor James Cosmo (Braveheart, Game of Thrones) and veteran UK TV director Joan Craft.
This classic kids’ adventure tale follows a 13-year-old boy on a quest to find his father, missing amidst the 1860s Otago gold rush. When it launched in September 1976, the 13 part series was the most expensive local TV drama yet made. Under the reins of director Tom Parkinson, the series brandished unprecedented production values, and panned the Central Otago vistas for all their worth. Its huge local popularity was matched abroad (BBC screened it multiple times); it showed that NZ-made kids’ drama could be exported, and helped establish the new second television channel.
This classic kids’ adventure series follows a boy trying to find his missing father, amidst the 1860s Otago gold rush. The show brandished unprecedented production values, and demonstrated that NZ-made kids’ drama could be successfully exported. This first episode sees plucky Scott Hunter (Andrew Hawthorn) steal away to Tucker’s Valley, spurred on by his unsympathetic uncle. In the background pieces, writer Roger Simpson recalls creating 13 scripts at high speed, and director Tom Parkinson writes about the Kiwi landscape as character, and finding the production team.
In Moynihan, secretary of the carpenters’ union Leo Moynihan (Ian Mune) — with orange mini and leather jacket — has to navigate the shark-infested waters of 70s industrial relations. The first NZ-Australia co-production (with ABC) was devised by union organiser Earle Spencer and Jane Galletly (a rare credit in the then-male dominated industry). It was the first series made by TV One’s drama department; it won viewers as well as Feltex awards for best drama and Mune’s performance. The changing face of Wellington, including an under-construction Beehive, features.
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.
This tale of body-snatching botanical aliens invading 70s Wellington shared the 1973 Feltex Award for Best Drama. Dominated by Davina Whitehouse’s performance as a retired teacher-turned ET foster parent, it included early TV roles for Paul Holmes, Grant Tilly and Susan Wilson. Vincent Ley’s script won a Ngaio Marsh teleplay contest, and its realisation stylishly traverses local summertime environs — Silence was one of the first NZBC dramas filmed in colour. Director David Stevens went on to success in Australia (writing Breaker Morant, and The Sum of Us).