Born in the northwest English town of Redditch and raised in varied locales, Raymond Thompson grew up fascinated by a great many things. But school was not among them. Often he was at the local music shop or library instead of class.
By the time he left school at 15, Thompson was playing in a number of bands, sometimes clad in his Beatles-style jacket. Classic Who song 'My Generation' inspired one of his very first stories, set in a world with no adults. Words and lyrics proved "seductive and inspiring" to him, but also felt frightening and hard to analyse. Thompson suspects that having undiagnosed Asperger's Syndrome may have played a part. When it came to music, he was a natural. After the family relocated to Canada, he was even invited to join a new, Monkees style TV pop group. A strike by the local writers guild meant the show never screened.
During his nine years in Canada, Thompson tried to sell some television scripts. Back in England, he scored a job as a stand-in for Christopher Reeve on 1978 blockbuster Superman, and co-authored novel The Number to Call Is... Then he was commissioned to write a script about the British Indian Army, for a rich Asian shipping magnate. The project soon descended into nightmare, with the producer demanding eight rewrites and a starring role, before going missing with half of Thompson's fee unpaid.
An early version of The Last Samurai also got trapped in development hell. Increasing demand for his services as a script doctor only increased his dissatisfaction. Thompson looked to television, and began sending his scripts to everyone he could think of. A lack of academic qualifications worked against him, until BBC script editor and writer Mervyn Haisman offered him his first TV commission. Made with the cooperation of the RAF, Squadron was about a Special Forces Unit. But when the Falklands War began, the RAF was forced to reprioritise.
Thompson's big break arrived thanks to a new show about a designer who launches a yacht-building operation. Howard's Way proved to be one of the BBC's biggest shows of the 80s; soon he was soon promoted to lead writer, helping shape the path of the series.
After five years and 78 episodes, Thompson segued to new series Trainer, then spent five years as the BBC's Head of Development, where he provided input into new shows like Eastenders and Casualty. After going freelance, he soon tired of trying to get shows through the final starting gate. The early 90s deregulation of English television forced broadcasters to commission more shows from independents; Thompson wanted to be one of them.
Thompson founded Cloud 9 Screen Entertainment Group in 1994, partnering with European multimedia company Sanctuary Group. The key aim, he says, was to "own and control our own intellectual property". Cloud 9 would take the risk, making the shows upfront, then license them to interested parties. Cloud 9 also ran its own distribution arm, Cumulus, and subsidiaries for publishing and merchandising, plus a joint-venture involving music publishing.
Thompson began by securing the rights to two sets of Enid Blyton adventures. While searching for a base which offered both a studio and an easily accessible range of scenery, Thompson was approached at a French television festival by representatives of TVNZ's Avalon studio complex on the edge of Wellington. Originally the plan was to use New Zealand as base for Cloud 9's first show only: The Enid Blyton Adventure Series. Thanks to bad weather and a falling exchange rate, it proved a trial by fire. But Thompson was impressed by the talent and innovation of the local crews, and the way the many locations made it "almost like a world in a country". For subsequent shows Cloud 9 set up its own operation from the National Film Unit's last base, close to Avalon.
Inspired by classic tales The Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island, the company's next shows were shot in New Zealand and Fiji. A lack of accommodation at the Fiji location saw crew staying on a cruise ship moored near the beach.
By 1998 — after only having been in operation for five years — Cloud 9 had completed five series (the other two were The Enid Blyton Secret Series and The Legend of William Tell). With widescreen television on the horizon, the company made shows simultanously in two different aspect ratios, and provided the option to buy them in both shorter and longer running times.
After making William Shatner-hosted A Twist in the Tale, Cloud 9 set up a joint venture fund, and set to work on the story Thompson had been tinkering with on and off, ever since puberty: The Tribe, the tale of a world without adults. After the first 52 episodes were shot in just six months, Thompson's confidence in the show was such that he managed to persuade his board to make 52 more, before any episodes had gone to air. After debuting on England's Channel Five in April 1999, The Tribe's ratings and press coverage slowly increased; so did international sales. By season three, an open day on the The Tribe's main shopping mall set attracted more than 20,000, leading to road closures.
The show also won a community of online fans, with official website TribeWorld sometimes crashing from the strain. As Thompson writes in his book Keeping the Dream Alive, "the underlying thematic of building a better new world order had taken on a life of its own". The teenage cast did promotional and musical tours overseas, and contributed to two spinoff albums. Thompson also added his musical talents, composing on a number of Cloud 9's shows. Performed by the NZ Symphony Orchestra, his Spirit Symphony was released on CD in 2003.
Facing pressures from some TV classification bodies to change The Tribe, Thompson eventually shelved plans for a sixth season, instead making spinoff The New Tomorrow (2005). Many actors who'd gained early experience on Cloud 9 series returned to appear in later shows, including Revelations - The Initial Journey and the offbeat Atlantis High.
In 2003 the self-described "adopted Kiwi" was made a Member of the NZ Order of Merit, for Services to Television and Entertainment. Working in the days before major incentives were introduced to encourage more production in New Zealand, he estimates that Cloud 9 put around $150 million into the local economy; the first season of The Tribe employed 500 cast and crew. By now the man who hadn't even sat his O level exams was giving guest lectures in scriptwriting for Queensland University of Technology.
Having spent 14 years overseeing the varied aspects of running Cloud 9, Thompson decided to scale back his operations, and spend more time on his Wairarapa vineyard. Appointing Dutch-based company Endemol to handle the back catalogue, he returned to his creative roots, including "chasing some unfulfilled dreams like developing a portfolio of motion pictures". This coincided with company Legendary Entertainment optioning a Tribe movie, and Hollywood interest in a romantic comedy set in the country music industry.
Since then, Thompson has reactivated distribution company Cumulus and structured operations so that his son, writer/producer Adam Thompson, can eventually take over the reins. But Raymond is far from retired. Cloud 9 continues to both exploit its back catalogue and develop new, locally-made productions — some of them in conjunction with Singapore-based Indus Media and Entertainment.
Profile written by Ian Pryor
Raymond Thompson, Keeping the Dream Alive (Cumulus Publishing, 2011)
Cloud 9 Screen Entertainment website. Accessed 31 January 2017
Dave McNary, 'Raymond Thompson's Cloud 9 Teams with Indus Media's $100 Million Fund' - Variety, 21 December 2015
Unknown writer, 'Made-in-NZ Tribe to screen on TV4' - The Dominion, 24 July 1999