Though born in England, Roger Hall thinks of himself as "most definitely a New Zealand writer". Alongside a prolific and successful career as a playwright, Hall has made many contributions to Kiwi television, including writing our most successful sitcom to date.
Roger Hall was born shortly before the onset of World War 2. As an only child growing up on the edge of London, he become an avid reader, and occasional actor. Hall began working at an insurance company, but in 1958, aged 19, he sailed for New Zealand on an assisted passage scheme for migrants.
In Wellington he began training as a teacher (ultimately he would complete a master of arts), and editing and writing for the literary club magazine. Hall would be involved in many shows both in the city and at Victoria University, as writer and performer. This included directing a capping show featuring an early appearance by Fred Dagg. The show was developed and toured the country as the Brian Edwards Travelling Road Show. John Clarke has called Hall's impression of then PM Keith Holyoake the template for all others.
Hall began writing his first plays for children while teaching at primary school in the mid 60s. Then an old school friend asked him to co-write a TV show showcasing the talents of actor/writer Joe Musaphia. In View of the Circumstances was one of the country's earliest sketch shows and won a Feltex Award for best programme (shared with news show Gallery). Hall also appeared on the show, alongside Grant Tilly and Ken Blackburn (who would become familiar names in many future Hall plays).
Hall decided to go freelance. He and Musaphia worked together again as writers of 1974‘s Buck House, the country's first sitcom. Written with a strong local flavour, the show revolved around a group of university students (variously including Paul Holmes, Clarke and Tony Barry), living in a rundown Wellington flat.
Given Hall's reputation as a comedic writer, Hall's early television work perhaps surprisingly included: interviews on women's show On Camera; writing an episode for small-town drama Pukemanu; and presenting and writing the well-reviewed doco, Obesity.
1973‘s Clean-Up was a one-off television play featuring an office cleaner who secretly writes a novel. The following year the NZBC launched Spotlight, a series of twelve one-off plays. Hall wrote three: The Bach, The Reward, and Some People get all the Luck. All were nominated for Feltex awards. He also won an arts council grant to study television screenwriting overseas. After returning to a government job (as an editor at the Department of Education), his scripts for long-running soap Close to Home were rejected (as the dialogue was "too literate").
Hall's theatrical career took off with Glide Time. His play about a group of public servants became one of the biggest hits in Kiwi theatre history. A radio adaptation followed, then two one-off TV adaptations, the first one more sombre than expected. In 1981 Gliding On began its five-year television run with Hall at the writing helm, and many of the original cast from show's first run. The result was the first bona fide Kiwi sitcom success. By its end the ensemble comedy was number two in the ratings, and a Kiwi institution.
Hall followed Glide Time with Middle Age Spread, completed during his time as a Robert Burns Fellow (1977-78). Like many of Hall's plays, this tale of middle class ritual and betrayal blended comedy and pathos. Hall began earning comparisons with Chekhov, and Brits Tony Hancock and Alan Ayckbourn.
Before Gliding On hit television screens, Middle Age Spread had been adapted into a 1979 movie (although not by Hall, who was too busy, but writer Keith Aberdein). Many actors from the play's debut season reprised their roles on screen, including star Grant Tilly. American magazine Variety compared him to "an antipodean Woody Allen". Hall rewrote the play for London's West End, with Richard Briers (The Good Life) starring. It won an award for Comedy of the Year.
In the same period Hall helped form television watchdog group Monitor, which pressured the NZBC to make more local children's programmes, and raised concerns about the violence in promos and shows like Dukes of Hazzard.
Hall penned musicals (including an adaptation of Footrot Flats). Two hit plays about the mid-80s sharemarket frenzy would became the basis for his next TV series Neighbourhood Watch. He also began working on Bed Time, a show about a long-married couple whose relationship is affected when the woman starts earning more than her husband.
After the Bed Time pilot was filmed and approved, Hall was told he only had nine weeks to write five scripts. He refused; the idea later came to the stage as Conjugal Rites. After a second TV proposal was rejected, Hall sold the idea to England's Granada Television. So began a busy year in England, juggling Conjugal Rites scripts with a never-to-be-made show about shearers abroad. When Conjugal Rites debuted in 1993, 10.5 million people watched: "more people than all my plays put together". A second series followed.
In the late 90s, Hall updated Gliding On's characters for "the brave new world of management" in the play Market Forces, which was picked up by initially skeptical networks as a TV series.
At the close of his 1998 autobiography Bums on Seats, Hall tallied up his output to date: an output that included 20 stage plays, one movie script, and 68 episodes for television. Since writing those words, Hall has spent time on the writing team of PR-satire Spin Doctors, and lectured at Washington's Georgetown University on movies inspired by New Zealand literature, noting on his return that Whale Rider and The Lord of the Rings had "helped enormously" in raising global awareness of New Zealand. Unsurprisingly there have been more plays besides.
Roger Hall, Bums on Seats (Auckland: Penguin Books, 1999)
Richard Corballis, 'Hall, Roger' (Profile) New Zealand Book Council website. Accessed 15 December 2018
Mike Nicolaidi, 'Middle Age Spread' (Review) - Variety, 31 December 1978
Matthew Peddie, 'Roger Hall: Life in the US' (Interview) - Victorious, Autumn 2004, page 11