Veteran scriptwriter Keith Aberdein once said that Michael Noonan was the best television writer New Zealand had — a man who wouldn't be brought off, who insisted on "getting things right". Certainly Noonan's resume is not lacking in Kiwi television firsts: including pioneering drama Pukemanu, the epic The Governor, and long-running soap Close to Home.
Growing up in Dunedin, with spells in Oamaru, Michael Noonan hated school, arguing that he never learnt to spell. His Catholic childhood gave him "a healthy cynicism" which he says may have helped him be a better writer.
After leaving school he began writing: poetry (partly to impress women), satire, and theatre. Landfall editor Charles Brasch compared his play The Rattle to King Lear. Then came a series of part-time jobs: newsreading for the Dunedin regional station DNTV-2, radio drama, acting at the Globe Theatre. He won good reviews both for the latter, and for a lead role in an early television play: A Joker in the Park (1969).
Noonan moved to Auckland four years before that. There he experienced the cultural shock of discovering there are other colours than Pākehā, and managed the university bookshop. Newly married, Noonan saw television as the only way he could make a decent income from writing, in the absence of a local film industry. When the NZ Broadcasting Corporation decided to split television drama off from radio in 1969, Noonan became the new drama department's first script editor.
New Zealand's first ongoing drama series, Pukemanu (1971) was inspired by working class life in a North Island forestry town. As script editor, Noonan recruited Listener reviewer Hamish Keith to write scripts, and together they coached a team of fellow novices whose talent would quickly grow: among them Fiona Kidman, Roger Hall, Keith Aberdein, and Ian Mune.
Echoing the thoughts of series creator and ex-forestry worker Julian Dickon, Noonan argued for Māori characters, fighting disbelief from above there were enough Māori actors to play them. Frustrated by how a series about outdoor people living in the middle of a forest was increasingly spending so much time indoors, Noonan would later quit the NZBC in protest at Pukemanu's axing.
Going freelance did no harm to his career. Noonan worked on the ambitious probation officer series Section 7 — "a terrible flop", he says — adapted the Strindberg play Miss Julie, wrote for children's thriller The Games Affair, and scripted Feltex award-winning documentary Richard John Seddon - Premier.
The following year — 1975 — Noonan won his own Feltex award: for writing The Longest Winter, a three-part dramatisation of the impact of the Great Depression. The programmes followed the decline of a jewellery business and a boot-making factory, including the Queen Street riot of 1932. During this period Noonan also researched and conducted interviews with Janet Frame and Ngaio Marsh for Three New Zealanders, a series profiling women writers.
Close to Home, New Zealand's first soap opera, launched in May 1975. Its aim, in Noonan's words, was "to hold a mirror up to society". Noonan and his longtime producing partner Tony Isaac were at the start line. They had agreed to devise a concept and create the first 26 episodes, on one condition: Noonan's long cherished dream to make a historical series about Governor George Grey got the go-ahead in return. Nobody expected the soap to last 818 episodes.
Noonan had written a Māori family in the show's original ‘bible', but a lack of funding for Māori writers meant that such bicultural hopes wouldn't even begin to be realized until later episodes.
Noonan and Isaac's "friendly blackmail" resulted in a landmark series in the history of New Zealand television: The Governor. Covering the colonial period from 1840 to 1890, The Governor was based on exhaustive primary research, including tribal oral histories. Noonan, producer Isaac and series scriptwriter Keith Aberdein were well aware of the show's subversive potential. The six episodes were partly designed to challenge myths about what Aberdein called "New Zealand smugness about what good chaps we were towards ‘our' Māoris."
Audience figures for The Governor were impressive. Reviews ranged across the spectrum. Already caught up in spats with TV One journalists, PM Robert Muldoon helped drum up newspaper headlines over the cost of bringing The Governor to the screen.
While he was a Burns Fellow in 1979, Noonan spent two and a half years researching and writing an adaptation of Bill Pearson's acclaimed West Coast mining novel Coal Flat. Sam Neill was approached to play one of the leads. But in the costcutting that followed The Governor controversy, Coal Flat saw cancellation at a late stage, after the budget came in at $40,000 over the allowable figure. Noonan's World War 1 era drama Home Fires also never went into production.
Around this period, Noonan adapted Roger Hall's smash debut play Glide Time as a one-hour television play. The success of Glide Time led to Gliding On, the long-running comedy show about public servants who do very little.
The following year Noonan left TVNZ's drama department. That year he also spoke out against a lack of commitment to New Zealand drama, complaining that ‘local productions' were only finding funding when they were made with an eye to overseas markets.
In the 90s Noonan was one of the writing team on TV3 series family drama Homeward Bound, which won rave reviews and uninspiring ratings. The show's cast included Liddy Holloway, Peter Elliott and a young Karl Urban.
Amongst the shows Noonan is proudest of is Legacy, a documentary series about immigration to New Zealand. Michael Noonan continues to write. He is currently working on reactivating three treasured projects: another historical piece featuring George Grey, a script on pioneer aviator Richard Pearse, and his treasured Coal Flat, which has been rewritten in shorter form.
He is normally credited as Michael Anthony Noonan, to avoid confusion with Christchurch-born writer Michael (John) Noonan.
'Michael Noonan' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen website. Director Cloare O'Leary. Uploaded 14 April 2009. Accessed July 2009
Pamela Stirling, 'The Drama of it all' (Interview) - NZ Listener, 16 April 1983, Page 14