Peter Sharp is one of New Zealand's most prolific directors of screen drama. Though his directing work covers the gamut from police shows and soap satires to live performance, Sharp is best known for his work helming kidult dramas - including Maurice Gee period tales The Fire-Raiser and The Champion. He also directed award-winning mini-series Erebus: the Aftermath.
He is unquestionably one of the best drama directors we've ever had for television. Together we brought out each other's strengths. Producer Ginette McDonald, on Peter Sharp.
The opening episode of the Prime TV series celebrating 50 years of New Zealand television travels from an opening night puppet show in 1960, through to Outrageous Fortune five decades later. It traverses the medium's development and its major turning points (including the rise of programme-making and news, networking, colour and the arrival of TV3, Prime, NZ On Air, Sky and Māori Television). Many of the major players are interviewed. The changing nature of the NZ living room — always with the telly in pride of place as modern hearth — is a story within the story.
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.
Orange Roughies was a 'border security' drama series following a Police and Customs task force led by Danny Wilder (Australian actor Nicholas Coughan). Made for TV ONE, the ScreenWorks production was a Kiwi attempt at the Aussie water police procedural, with the action transferred from Sydney to Auckland Harbour and CBD. Storylines included drugs busts, child trafficking, undercover ops and plenty of land-sea motorised chase action. Created by Scott McJorrow and Rod Johns, the script team was rounded out by Kristen Warner and series writer Greg McGee.
With its mix of quirky characters, lush scenery, and medical drama, Mercy Peak proved to be a winning formula. Produced by John Laing for South Pacific Pictures, and starring a host of NZ acting talent (Tim Balme, Jeffrey Thomas, Renato Bartolomei, et al), Mercy Peak follows the highs and lows of Dr Nicky Somerville (Sara Wiseman), who leaves the big city after discovering her partner’s infidelity. Taking up her new role at the hospital in the tiny town of Bassett, Nicky soon learns that life is full of complexities no matter the population.
Over four seasons, Street Legal’s slick Kiwi take on urban crime and law genres racked up a stack of award nominations - including a 2003 NZ TV Award for best drama series. Although initially wary that the Auckland setting might alienate viewers, writer Greg McGee chose a Samoan lawyer (Jay Laga’aia) as his main character, to exploit the show’s inner-city Ponsonby setting (where cafe society bumps into Pacific Island immigrant culture). Other key characters included Silesi’s lawyer ex-girlfriend Joni, and her new partner Kees, an overstressed sergeant.
Ask Country Calendar viewers which shows they remember and inevitably the answer is "the spoofs" — satirical episodes that screened unannounced. Sometimes there was outrage but mostly the public enjoyed having the wool pulled over their eyes. Created by producer Tony Trotter and Bogor cartoonist Burton Silver, the first (in late 1977) was the fencing wire-playing farmer and his "rural music". This special episode collects the best of the spoofs, from the infamous radio-controlled dog, to the gay couple who ran a "stress-free" flock, and more malarkey besides.
City Life follows a tight-knit group of apartment-dwelling twenty-somethings (lawyers, bartenders, drug dealers, art dealers, et al) on the emotional merry-go-round of urban living. Created by James Griffin, the television series was an effort to create popular drama relevant to contemporary Auckland city life and to appeal to a Gen X demographic – to inject Melrose Place into Mt Eden. A bevy of Kiwi acting talent drink, dramatise and prevaricate to a soundtrack of contemporary NZ pop.
City Life screened from 1996 to 1998 and made a direct appeal to New Zealand's Gen X apartment-dwelling demographic. Following the lives of a tight-knit group of friends, and featuring racy shots of Auckland's K-Road and nightlife set to contemporary NZ pop music, City Life was NZ's answer to Melrose Place. In this excerpt from the first episode, the friends are thrown into conflict when one of their own (played by Kevin Smith) decides to marry outside the circle. Complications ensue when Smith shares a brief, but notorious, screen kiss with Charles Mesure.
Written by Fiona Samuel, Face Value was a trilogy of monologues by three women with different stories to tell but who all share a quest for inner happiness. Ginette McDonald plays Steph, the pampered wife of a wealthy advertising executive in Her New Life. The action centres on Steph’s preparations for a friend’s daughter’s wedding while her husband is away on a business trip. The script cleverly subverts viewer expectations; and McDonald's performance delivers a fair dose of pathos from it. Her New Life was a finalist at the Banff and New York TV Festivals.
Written by Fiona Samuel and produced by Ginette McDonald, Face Value is a series of monologues by three women with very different stories to tell, but who share a quest for inner happiness. In House Rules, the inimitable Davina Whitehouse gives a poignant performance as Miss Judd, a housekeeper of 22 years who is forced to reassess her life and situation after her employer’s death. Propriety at all costs is the rule of the day. House Rules is another example of Samuel’s ability to create memorable and subtly complex female characters.
Classic Kiwi play Joyful and Triumphant followed the Bishop family over four decades, from 1949 to 1989. Written by Robert Lord, it charted changes in New Zealand society by focusing on the minutae of Christmas Day family dynamics. The play was first performed to sellout audiences in 1992, a month after Lord died. It won multiple Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards. Directed by Peter Sharp (The Fire-Raiser), this TV adaptation features Robyn Malcolm and Goodbye Pork Pie's Tony Barry — plus Catherine Downes and Bruce Phillips, who both appeared in the original production.
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.
Marlin Bay was a drama series following the comings and goings of a far-north resort and casino. Andy Anderson, Ilona Rogers, Don Selwyn, Pete Smith, Katie Wolfe and others made up the cast of earthy locals, wealthy foreigners, and city weekenders. Created by writer Greg McGee, Marlin Bay was one of the first primetime drama series from South Pacific Pictures. Kevin Smith received a 1995 Best Supporting Actor nod for his role as villain Paul Cosic.
The "kids stumble on crims" premise of this kidult thriller series was practically an NZ TV staple in the 80s (Terry and the Gunrunners, The Fire-Raiser); here it's realised with a script by author Margaret Mahy and the director/producer team of Peter Sharp and Chris Bailey (vying with a schedule disrupted by Cyclone Bola). Mahy creates a world of masks, disguises and intrigue for a young cast including Martin Henderson (his screen debut), Hamish McFarlane (fresh from Vincent Ward’s The Navigator), Joel Tobeck (an early role) and deaf seven-year-old Sonia Pivac.
Writer Maurice Gee’s experiences growing up in West Auckland during World War II were the basis for this home front drama expertly realised by the producer/director team of Ginette McDonald and Peter Sharp. Twelve-year-old Rex Pascoe (Milan Borich — future singer in the band Pluto) is a war-obsessed schoolboy worried about his father’s black-market dealings. Meanwhile, American soldiers are making their presence felt but not all of their attitudes are welcome. The locals’ prejudices are about to be tested by the arrival of a GI to stay with Rex’s family.
This kidult thriller features Martin Henderson (in his screen debut) and Hamish McFarlane (fresh from The Navigator) with a script by Margaret Mahy. Brothers and sisters Emma and Zane, and Kelsey and Morgan are friends, with their own clubhouse and secret society. Their lives change when Zane and Emma witness a jeweller’s shop robbery, and Morgan and Kelsey see two men escape their crashed car after a police chase. The friends find themselves plunged into a world of intrigue, questionable Special Branch agents and a mysterious fire eater and magician.
The last drama to be made in-house by TVNZ, The Champion was written by author Maurice Gee at the behest of producer Ginette McDonald after the success of their collaboration on The Fire-Raiser. Set in Henderson, West Auckland over three weeks in early 1943, it centres on 12 year old Rex (Milan Borich — later the lead singer in Pluto) and a black American GI billeted with his family. This tough, accomplished drama looks unflinchingly at racism and prejudice — both imported and local — and is ample testimony to the skills of its writer, cast and crew.
Gloss was a popular Kiwi television drama series made by TVNZ that screened in the late 80s; it combined a wealthy family, the Redferns, with a lucrative high-fashion magazine business. Yuppies, shoulder-pads and méthode champenoise abound in this cult "glamour soap". New Zealanders wanted to see themselves as less bottom of the world and more "here we come and we are sailing" (as the infamous Cup campaign song warbled), and Gloss was just what the era demanded.
Created for television by author Maurice Gee, The Fire-Raiser pits a quartet of smalltown school kids against a balaclava-clad figure with fire on the brain. In this episode, the children sneak onto the property of the man they suspect of terrorising their town. The police arrive after Kitty is trapped inside a room that has tragic memories for the suspect’s mother, the memorably moody Mrs Marwick. This WWI-era gothic adventure went on to score four Listener TV awards, including best drama; and Gee’s accompanying novel was published both here and overseas.
This 38 episode series revolved around the ups and downs of a community house run by Tony Van Der Berg (Frank Whitten). The series was devised by Liddy Holloway to meet a network call for an Eastenders-style drama that might tackle social issue storylines. It was the first drama series to put a Māori whānau (the Mitchells) at its centre. Despite being well-reviewed, it was perhaps the last gasp of Avalon-produced uncompromisingly local drama (satirised as the ‘Wellington style’), before TV production largely shifted to Auckland to face up to commercial pressures.
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.
The Fire-Raiser pits a quartet of smalltown World War I era school kids against a mysterious figure with fire on the brain. Inspired partly by a real-life Nelson arsonist, the five-part gothic adventure was created for television by author Maurice Gee. Peter Hayden plays the town’s unconventional teacher ‘Clippy’ Hedges, while the lead role went to Royal NZ Ballet star Jon Trimmer. The Fire-Raiser won four Listener TV awards, including best overall drama and best writer. Gee’s accompanying novel was published both here and overseas. He writes about the show's birth here.
Country GP was a major 80s drama series that charted the post-war years 1945 to 1950 in a rural central South Island town. Using fast-turnaround techniques that anticipated later series like Shortland Street, 66 episodes of Country GP were shot in 18 months at a specially built set in Whiteman’s Valley, Lower Hutt. It was groundbreaking as the first NZ series to cast a Samoan in a title role (Lani Tupu as Dr David Miller); but it also provided a nostalgic look back to an apparently kinder, gentler time than mid-80s New Zealand with its major social reforms and upheavals.
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.
While convalescing down under Sir Charles Pemberton (Terence Cooper) schemes to build a thermal spa in the town of Wainamu c.1900. Conflict ensues as the spa’s planned location is on Māori land. The action is seen through the eyes of youngsters: hotelier’s son Tom, and Pemberton’s granddaughter Sarah Jane; who — along with an erupting volcano — eventually impart on Sir Charles a lesson about colonial hubris. The 13-part series was a marquee title from a golden age of Kiwi kidult telly-making: it won multiple Feltex awards, and screened on the BBC in 1980.
This award-winning kidult series is set in the colonial town of Wainamu, amidst the North Island’s ‘thermal wonderland’, c.1900. It follows the challenges that Sir Charles Pemberton (Terence Cooper) faces in building a spa on Māori land. In this episode local lad Tom, son of the hotelier, is piqued by the arrival of Sir Charles and his aristocratic entourage, (particularly granddaughter Sarah Jane aka “Little Miss Prim”), whose train is late due to being spooked by natives. His gang of shanghai-toting scallywags also take on the mean local butcher.
Radio Waves charted the “lives and loves” of a commercial Auckland radio station in the age of Bee Gees and flares. Grant Bridger (‘Win Savage’) and Andy Anderson played DJs with Alan Dale as station manager; it was Dale’s screen debut, before fame in Australia (Neighbours) and the US (24, Ugly Betty). Devised by Graeme Farmer, Waves was an effort by SPTV to best TV One’s flagship soap Close to Home. While producer Tom Finlayson’s first drama was short-lived, its metro Auckland context — peopled with upbeat urban strivers — signaled a changing NZ on screen.
A Going Concern was part of a wave of new drama which hit television from the mid 70s, after the launch of a new second TV channel. The soap debuted in July 1975, initially twice a week in an afternoon slot, before moving to primetime. Chronicling the lives of the staff of a South Auckland factory, it won enthusiastic reviews. The Auckland Star praised the "believable Kiwis with topical problems". Critic Barry Shaw argued it had "a good deal more going for it in characterisation, pace and direction" than rival soap Close to Home. A Going Concern was cancelled after a year.
Town and Around was a nightly magazine show, covering everything from current affairs and studio interviews to slapstick to stunts; including a notorious spoof on a farmer who shod his turkeys in gumboots. A popular and wide-ranging regional series, it ran for five years from 1965, and was the training ground for a generation of industry professionals (Brian Edwards, David McPhail, and Des Monaghan amongst many others). Town and Around was made prior to a national network link, and editions came out of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.