Michael Noonan is a legend in New Zealand scriptwriting, and not just because he was amongst the first to prove you could actually make a living at it. Creator of landmark New Zealand shows The Governor and Close to Home, Noonan's work has often explored ideas of power and social injustice.
We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by foreign rubbish. Michael Noonan
From early teleplay The Evening Paper to the edgy Outrageous Fortune, this episode of 50 Years of New Zealand Television talks drama and comedy. Key players, from actors to executives, recall a host of signposts in the development of storytelling on Kiwi TV screens. John Clarke recalls 1970s sitcom Buck's House; Paul Maunder remembers the drama that likely helped introduce the DPB; and TV executive John McRae recalls worries about the projected cost of global hit Hunter's Gold, and mentioning the word 'placenta' on the first episode of Shortland Street.
A family reunion is the perfect vehicle to introduce the characters of this early TV3 soap. Set in a rural hamlet just south of the Bombay Hills, it revolves around the Johnstone family who have farmed the area for 100 years; but times are changing and, following the market crash, so are their fortunes. Beneath the surface of reunion civilities lurks a marriage in tatters, a prodigal son returned, a family inheritance spat and a mystery teenager (Simone Kessell) confusing the bloodlines. The cast included Liddy Holloway, Peter Elliott and a young Karl Urban.
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.
Homeward Bound was TV3’s bid for New Zealand on Air funding for a local soap opera. Set around the lives of the rural Johnson family, 22 episodes were produced for the then-nascent network (the series ultimately lost out to TVNZ’s Shortland Street). Created by Ross Jennings and written by Michael Noonan, it represented a move back to a small town way of life after the Gloss-y urban excesses of the 1980s; it also explored pressures facing country communities following the stock market crash. The cast included Liddy Holloway, Peter Elliott and a young Karl Urban.
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.
This is the final episode of the pioneering Kiwi soap. TV One’s Hearte family saga achieved enormous popularity during its eight year run, and provided a training ground for a generation of screen talent. But by 1982 Close to Home’s characters were aging or departed, and the show faced competition from American youth-focused fare (eg Fame, The Six Million Dollar Man). With this 818th episode it was time for moving house, nostalgic re-caps, for The Seekers’ ‘Carnival is Over’ to score the opening credits, and for Tom (John Bach) to stub out his last ciggie and write the ending.
Young Geoff Garlick reckons he's developed a game-winning move - the 'Garlick Thrust' - for his schoolboy rugby team, but the Saturday he hopes to show it off to his dysfunctional family they're more interested in the Springbok match. The national loss of innocence the '81 tour represented is captured in an end scene, where Geoff and his weeping Dad (Michael Noonan) are intercut with clips of a notorious stand-off between tour protestors and rugbyheads. Written by playwright Bruce Mason, this was one of a three TV dramas written as he was battling cancer.
This off-the-wall comedy of errors — from the Loose Enz series — sees hapless tour operator Graham (Ian Watkin) and his wide boy driver Ron (John Bach) leading a busload of international visitors (well) off the beaten trail. the teleplay neatly skewers clichéd promotional travelogue commentaries (with the music of Sibelius never far away) and takes broader shots at the tourists’ various cultural stereotypes. With Graham well-meaning but dim, and Ron too busy looking after number one, Graham’s mum (a formidable Yvonne Lawley) and enterprising local Iwi come into their own as hosts.
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.
The Governor was a television epic that examined the life of Governor George Grey in six thematic parts. Grey's "Good Governor" persona was undercut with laudanum, lechery and land confiscation. NZ TV's first (and only) historical blockbuster was hugely controversial, provoking a parliamentary inquiry and "test match sized" audiences. It won a 1978 Feltex Award for Best Drama. Auckland Star reviewer Barry Shaw trumpeted: "It has made Māori matter. If Pākehā now have a better understanding of the Māori point of view [...] it stems from The Governor.
The Governor examined the life of George Grey, providing a whole new angle on traditional portraits of him as the "Good Governor". The six-part historical blockbuster was hugely controversial, provoking a parliamentary inquiry and "test match sized" audiences. This episode — 'He Iwi Kotahi Tatou' (Now We Are One People)' — won a Feltex award for best script. War looms in the Waikato as Māori tribes band together; peacemaker and kingmaker Wiremu Tāmihana (the late Don Selwyn) agonises over the right course of action.
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.
TV drama The Governor examined the life of Governor George Grey in six thematic parts. Grey's 'Good Governor' persona was undercut with laudanum, lechery and land confiscation. NZ televison's first historical blockbuster was hugely controversial, provoking a parliamentary inquiry and "test match sized" audiences. It won a 1978 Feltex Award for Best Drama. In first episode 'The Reverend Traitor', Grey arrives to colonial troubles: flag-pole chopping Hōne Heke, missionary Henry Williams, and rebellious Te Rauparaha. Writer Keith Aberdein goes behind the scenes here.
Three New Zealanders was a documentary series that looked at the lives of three of NZ's most celebrated writers: Sylvia-Ashton Warner, Janet Frame and Dame Ngaio Marsh. Produced by Endeavour Films (John Barnett), the final chapter of this three-part series centres on internationally acclaimed crime-writer and Shakespearean director Dame Ngaio Marsh. It contains an interview with Marsh in her later years, interspersed with comments from former students and friends, and re-enactments from her novels (with the Blerta crew as players, and John Bach as Hamlet!).
Pioneering soap opera Close To Home first screened in May 1975. For just over eight years (until August 1983) 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. This first episode sees the family gathering for Grandfather’s 78th birthday. Vivian (Ilona Rodgers) moans to Tom (John Bach): “you’ve drunk all my cooking sherry”, then tenderises the beef with the empty bottle.
This three-part documentary series was made to mark International Women's Year in 1975; it provides rare and precious interview footage with three of New Zealand's most celebrated writers; Sylvia-Ashton Warner, Janet Frame and Dame Ngaio Marsh; who each reflect on their life and philosophy. In the case of Ashton-Warner and Marsh, these documentaries were filmed in the last decade of their lives. Three New Zealanders was produced by John Barnett for Endeavour Films.
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 fresh, unhurried film is drawn from a substantial interview with renowned writer Janet Frame by Michael Noonan; filmed largely at at Frame’s then-home on Whangaparoa Peninsula. It was part of the Three New Zealanders series made to commemorate the 1975 International Year of Women — an early John Barnett production. The rare footage of Frame — here aged 50 — presents a confident writer in her prime, and negates any stereotypes about Frame's inarticulacy or shyness. Note: the segments from the programme dramatising some of Frame’s work are not included here.
Set amidst the 'friendly' 1974 Commonwealth Games, The Games Affair was a thriller fantasy series for children. Remembered fondly by many who were kids in the 70s, the story follows three teenagers who battle a miscreant professor who's experimenting on athletes with performance enhancing drugs. Alongside the young heroes the series featured John Bach as a grunting villain, a youthful Elizabeth McRae, and SFX jumping sheep. It was NZ telly’s first children’s serial, the first independently produced long-form drama, and an early credit for producer John Barnett.
Set during the 1974 Commonwealth Games, thriller-fantasy series The Games Affair was NZ telly's first children's serial. Remembered fondly by 70s kids, it follows three teenagers battling a miscreant professor who's experimenting on athletes. The second episode begins with the trio finding a performance-enhanced (by nifty stop-motion) beach runner. The trail takes them to QEII Park for the Games' opening ceremony where they confront the villains, and — via pioneering DIY FX — deflate John Bach Flat Stanley-style. Note: the episode has nothing to do with toilets.
New Zealand’s economy is in serious trouble in the first episode of this award-winning drama series about The Great Depression. An ailing Prime Minister and a weak government seem powerless in the face of a downward spiral caused by rising unemployment and falling export prices. Meanwhile, the plight of a boot maker seeking work while people are being laid off all around him, and a jeweller struggling to keep his business afloat and food on his family’s table bring home the human cost and social divisiveness being caused by the worsening crisis.
Set during the 1974 Commonwealth Games, The Games Affair was a thriller fantasy series for children. Remembered fondly by many who were kids in the 70s, the story follows three teenagers who battle a miscreant professor who's experimenting on athletes with performance enhancing drugs. This first episode include some SFX jumping sheep; John Bach as a blonde, grunting villain, and a youthful Elizabeth McRae. It was NZ telly's first children's serial, the first independently produced long-form drama, and an early credit for producer John Barnett.
The Great Depression — the biggest social upheaval ever faced by New Zealand — is the subject of this very well-received three part NZBC drama series. Based on an award-winning script by Michael Noonan, The Longest Winter focuses on the experiences of politicians, the middle class family of a jewellery shop owner, a boot maker and an unemployed workers’ group. It examines the inter-related forces that combined in the early 30s to plunge New Zealand into some of its darkest days — and left the nation and many of its citizens scarred for decades after.
This award-winning 1973 TV drama follows the career of PM Richard 'King Dick' Seddon from the events leading to his premiership in 1893, until his death in 1906. Writer Michael Noonan intersperses speeches and cabinet discussions with vignettes of Seddon's interaction with pressure groups and voters. Tony Currie (Close to Home) won a Feltex Award as the colourful Seddon, who forced through groundbreaking legislation. Listener reviewer Roger Hall praised it as New Zealand's "best historical documentary" to date. Watch out for broadcaster Brian Edwards as an opposition MP.
'Ship girls' are the subject of this episode of the NZBC’s Probation Service drama. Hapless Janice (Freda Costley), a 19-year-old with a father who moved to Whakatane and a mother she doesn’t see if she can help it, is looking for love in the wrong places: sneaking onto the wharves to party with sailors in the hope she’ll find a boyfriend. Now the police have arrested her and, if she’s not careful, she’ll end up in borstal. Will the Probation Officers (Ewen Solon and Glynis McNicholl) be able to "stop her gangway habit becoming an addiction"?
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).
Section 7 was New Zealand’s first urban TV drama series and followed soon after Pukemanu (which was set in a logging town). Taking its name from the Criminal Justice Act section which placed offenders on probation, it focussed on a Probation Service office and addressed issues of the day including new migrants, ship girls and domestic violence. Expatriate Ewen Solon returned from England to take the lead role in a series very much based on British dramas of the time. More popular with critics than the public, Section 7 was limited to 11 half-hour episodes.
Pioneering series Pukemanu (the NZBC’s first continuing drama) followed the goings-on of a North Island timber town. The series was conceived by former forester Julian Dickon (who quit the series and was replaced by Listener critic Hamish Keith as writer). Producing two seasons of six episodes was a key step in industry professionalisation, and many of the cast became stars (Ginette McDonald, Ian Mune). It offered an archetypal screen image that Kiwis could relate to: rural, bi-cultural, boozy and blokey; and reviews praised its Swannie-clad authenticity.
Pioneering series Pukemanu (the NZBC’s first continuing drama) was set in a North Island timber town. Its portrait of the town’s folk offered an archetypal screen image that Kiwis could relate to: rural, bi-cultural, boozy and blokey; viewers and reviewers praised its Swannie-clad authenticity. This first episode sees a culture clash as a motorcycle gang (including a young Bruno Lawrence) comes to town and causes trouble, running Ray (Geoff Murphy) off the road; and stranded townie Diana (Ginette McDonald) falls in love with a local axeman while hunting.