Max Cryer’s career as an entertainer has encompassed pioneering live talk shows (Town Cryer), singing on stage and screen, and extended time in the United States. After a busy decade of television presenting beginning in the late 60s, Cryer went behind the scenes to produce a clutch of quiz shows —before a late flowering as a prolific, bestselling author, exploring his love of words and Kiwi culture.
The trouble with Max is that he can turn his hand to so many things, and accomplish them with flair and polish. And people tend to become confused by a man who moves with easy self-assurance through such a wide spectrum of entertainment. Bute Hewes in the NZ Listener, 8 June 1974
This edition of Prime TV’s history of New Zealand television looks at 50 years of entertainment. The smorgasbord of music, comedy and variety shows ranges from 60s pop stars to Popstars, from the anarchy of Blerta to the anarchy of Telethon, from Radio with Pictures to Dancing with the Stars. Music television moves from C’mon and country, to punk and hip hop videos. Comedy follows the formative Fred Dagg and Billy T, through to Eating Media Lunch and 7 Days. A roll call of New Zealand entertainers muse on seeing Kiwis laugh, sing and shimmy on the small screen.
This fourth episode in Prime’s series on Kiwi television history series charts 50 years of sports on TV. Interviews with veteran broadcasters are mixed with clips of classic sporting moments. Changes in technology are surveyed: from live broadcasts and colour TV, to slo-mo replays and CGI graphics. Sports coverage is framed as a national campfire where Kiwis have been able to share in test match, Olympic, Commonwealth and World Cup triumphs and disasters — from emotional national anthems and inspirational Paralympians, to underarm deliveries, snapped masts and face-plants.
When TV began in New Zealand in 1960, posh English accents on screen were de rigueur. As veteran broadcaster Judy Callingham recalls in this sixth episode of Kiwi TV history: "every trace of a New Zealand vowel was knocked out of you." But as ties to Mother England weakened, Kiwis began to feel proud of their identity and culture. John Clarke invented farming comedy legend Fred Dagg, while Karyn Hay showed a Kiwi accent could be cool on Radio with Pictures. Sam Neill and director Geoff Murphy add their thoughts on the changing ways that Kiwis saw themselves.
This 2002 documentary explores the stories behind one of Aotearoa’s most beloved songs: ‘Pokarekare Ana’. Claims for the authorship of the waiata aroha are examined, and Kiwis famous and lesser known reflect on the song’s place in the culture. Directed by Chas Toogood, the doco features classic performances: from St Joseph’s Girls’ Choir singing in the Waitomo Caves in 1960, to Inia Te Wiata going low in English, Kiri Te Kanawa soaring in concert, Hinewehi Mohi enlisting a 30,000 strong league crowd as backing singers, and sailing away in a 1987 America’s Cup campaign song.
Having made a comeback after heart surgery in 1990, legendary entertainer Billy T James passed away in August 1991. Four years later that anniversary was commemorated with Billy T James - A Celebration. Hosted by Pio Terei, the special highlights some of Billy’s best moments of both comedy gold, and his vast talents as musician. Interviews with Billy T and his colleagues (including showband veteran Robbie Ratana, comedian Peter Rowley, and screen wife Ilona Rodgers) offer insight into the real man behind arguably New Zealand’s most beloved entertainer.
While visiting family down under, American teen Lonny catches up with his grandfather, a man with an infectious giggle, a thirst for adventure — and two vampire-sized incisors. Released locally as Grampire, this family-friendly adventure combines local names (among them future Pluto singer Milan Borich) with a winning turn as nice guy vampire by American Al Lewis (cult series The Munsters). Director David Blyth was won over by Michael Heath’s script because it reversed convention, and “was a plea for children to be allowed to keep and develop their imaginations”.
TVNZ's long running quiz show pitted four-member teams from the country’s universities against each other for egghead bragging rights. Host Peter Sinclair (C'mon, Happen Inn) poses the "starter for 10" and presides over this second semifinal from the fifth series. Sinclair is typically sharp — "Lake Taupō. A very hesitant answer to what I thought was a very easy question" — as teams from Victoria and Canterbury (eventual series winners) compete for a finals place. Subjects range from The Decalogue to Dire Straits. Calculators and encyclopedia are at stake.
The pressure is on as contestants from Kirkwood, St Bernard’s and Remuera intermediate schools compete in the 1980 final of this children’s quiz show. Future MP, minister and Speaker of the House, Lockwood Smith asks the questions, assisted by Relda Familton (a National Radio overnight host until her death in 1995). The finalists, competing for a state of the art colour TV, are quizzed on subjects including geometry, the years 6 BC to 30 AD, Shakespeare quotations, deserts, anatomy, historic England and, appropriately for the quizmaster, cabinet ministers.
The W Three Show (aka 'W3') was a quiz show for intermediate school children that took its name from the first letter of the questions asked: What, Which, Who, Where or When. Lockwood Smith (future Speaker of the House) was the first quizmaster – he was completing his doctorate in Adelaide at the time and was flown over to do the show. NZ’s grand old man of quiz shows, Selwyn Toogood, and Peter Hawes took over from Smith from the fourth series, while original scorer Annie Whittle dropped out after the first and was replaced by radio broadcaster Relda Familton.
Mastermind was big brother to W3 and University Challenge in the pantheon of TVNZ's 80s quiz shows. The format (based on its creator's experience of being interrogated by the Gestapo) was licensed from the BBC and an ice cold Peter Sinclair asked the questions (with none of the bonhomie he allowed himself on University Challenge). Contestants faced two minute rounds on general knowledge and an array of sometimes mind-boggling specialist subjects ranging from Shakespeare, opera and gastronomy, to Winnie the Pooh, tantric yoga and sulphuric acid production.
In 1976 three former Miss New Zealand winners fronted up for Max Cryer talk show Town Cryer — including a winner from the 1920s, who agreed to talk on condition her identity wasn’t revealed. The woman recalls her mother firmly turning down offers of travel to Hollywood. 1949 winner Mary ‘Bobbie’ Woodward agrees stamina was as important to the role as beauty. 1954 winner Moana Whaanga (nee Manley) was also a national swimming rep. After the show aired, Cryer heard from an earlier Māori winner, who in 1923 took away possibly the first Miss NZ title of all.
Town Cryer was New Zealand's first live talk show to play to a national audience (Peter Sinclair had earlier hosted a late night regional chat show). Although enthused, local audiences took a while to believe it wasn't prerecorded. Over 64 episodes, Max Cryer persuaded both local and international names to join him, including actors, sports stars, Robert Muldoon — and an emotional appearance by singer Larry Morris, hours after finishing a prison sentence for drugs. In 1977 Town Cryer morphed into an afternoon show, shorn of its musical performances; by year's end it was gone.
Later retitled Arts Review, series Review debuted on New Zealand's only television channel in the early 70s. Among those who presented or reported for the arts based series were Max Cryer (Town Cryer) and onetime Town and Around reporter Barbara Magner.
A Girl to Watch Music By was a six-part series, with each episode showcasing a popular female singer or singing act. Among those featured were recent chart-topper Allison Durbin, perennial Pat McMinn, Yolande Gibson, Eliza Keil from the Keil Isles, and The Chicks. Hosted by Ray Columbus — by 1969, already well on the way to becoming a television veteran — the series also featured a fondly remembered sketch where Columbus played puppet to a much taller Max Cryer. The show's title was likely a variation on 60s instrumental hit 'Music to Watch Girls By'.
Although made to showcase female singers, late 60s series A Girl to Watch Music By is possibly best remembered for the moment Ray Columbus became a puppet. In this episode host Columbus played ventriloquist's dummy, sitting on Max Cryer's knee. Wrote Cryer later in his book Town Cryer: "it looked very funny and we knew it and set to work on the choreography immediately." The song is called 'Where Would You Be Without Me'. The ventriloquist idea, which would be repeated again on rare "special occasions", was the brainchild of broadcaster Cherry Raymond.
NZBC series On Camera was an afternoon magazine show. It screened separately on each of the regional channels, but shared items and interviews. Subjects ranged from Rolf Harris and Alfred Hitchcock to VSA and ballet, and topics “of particular appeal to women”. Presenters included Julie Cunningham (Christchurch), Irvine Lindsay (Wellington) and Sonia King (Auckland), with Max Cryer reporting from Hollywood. Future head of TVNZ Māori programming Ernie Leonard (reporter) got early experience on the show, and future Quiet Earth composer John Charles was a director.