Reporter turned producer Tony Trotter was a key figure in the long history of rural show Country Calendar, pulling the programme out of the studio and towards a wider audience. Spotting the talent of Country Calendar reporter John Gordon, Trotter got him to front the quirky A Dog's Show. Later Trotter won two Feltex awards producing for TVNZ’s fledgling Natural History Unit. He passed away on 9 March 2016.
If I had any skill at all, it was in standing still and thinking ‘what is the real story, what exactly is this programme saying?’. Tony Trotter, on his time as producer of Country Calendar
This best of special culls history and highlights from 40 seasons of the longest running show on NZ television. Farming, forestry and fishing are all on the roster, but this edition is as much about observing people and the land. There is footage of high country musters, helicopter deer capture, floods and blizzards, as well as radio-controlled dogs and mice farmers. Longtime Country Calendar figures like John Gordon and Tony Trotter share their memories, and the show sets out to catch up again with some of the colourful New Zealanders that have featured on screen.
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.
This documentary follows the efforts of the New Zealand rowing eight to win gold at 1984’s Los Angeles Olympics. The eight, coached by the legendary Harry Mahon, had won the past two world champs and were expected to repeat the triumph of the 1972 Kiwi eight at Munich. Amongst training at home, the infamous six minutes of pain — the “erg test” — is featured; one of the most demanding trials in sport. The action then shifts to LA for the Olympic finals. The film offers a gripping insight into the extreme lengths the amateur athletes go to in their quest for gold.
This film tells the story of the world’s rarest wading bird, the black stilt (kakī). With its precise beak and long pink legs the stilt is superbly adapted to the stony braided riverbeads of the McKenzie Country, but it is tragically unable to deal with new threats (rats, ferrets, habitat loss). An early doco for TVNZ’s Natural History Unit, the magnificently filmed drama of the stilt’s struggle for survival makes it “stand out as a classic of its genre” (Russell Campbell). It won the Gold Award at New York’s International Film & TV Festival (1984).
“These three birds are over half the world population of their species.” Peter Hayden’s narration lays bare the stakes for the Chatham Island black robin, and the Wildlife Service team (led by Don Merton) trying to save them. Merton’s innovative methods include removing eggs from nests – to encourage the last two females to lay again – and placing them in riroriro (grey warbler) foster homes. The black robin documentaries helped forge the reputation of TVNZ's Natural History Unit. Paul Stanley Ward writes about the documentaries here, and the mission to save the black robin.
Flightless and nocturnal, the kākāpō is the world's heaviest parrot. By the 1970s the mysterious, moss-coloured bird was facing extinction, "evicted" to Fiordland mountains and Stewart Island by stoats and cats. Thanks to innovative night vision equipment, this film captured for the first time the bird's idiosyncratic courtship rituals, and the first chick found in a century. Marking the directing debut of NHNZ veteran Rod Morris, it screened in the Feltex Award-winning second season of Wild South, and won acclaim at the 1984 International Wildlife Film Festival.
Wildtrack was a highly successful nature series for children, combining a Dunedin studio set with reporting from the field. Produced by TVNZ’s Natural History Unit, it ran from 1981 until the early 1990s. Producer Michael Stedman sought to produce a series where “children can be excited and entertained with genuine information, while not neglecting adults”. Wildtrack won the Feltex Television Award for the best children's programme, three years running (1982 - 1984).
TVNZ’s Natural History Film Unit was founded in Dunedin around 1977. The first Wild South documentaries began filming a year later. The slot's initial focus was on New Zealand’s perilously endangered birds, eg the Chatham Island black robin (then the world’s rarest bird). The results won local and international notice, and a loyal audience. Wildtrack was a sister series showcasing natural history for young viewers. Wild South ended in 1997 when the Natural History Unit was purchased by Fox Studios; it later became internationally successful production company NHNZ.
Contact was introduced as TV2’s slot for local documentaries when TVNZ was established in 1980. At 7pm on Monday nights, it featured 30 minute programmes made both in-house and by independent producers. Multiple episode series within the strand included historian Les Cleveland’s archive based Not So Long Ago, and Ian Taylor Adventures, where the former Spot On presenter tried his hand at various extreme sports. The Contact brand was transferred to TV1 in 1981, as TV2 began to move towards more of an entertainment focus.
American journalist George Plimpton was a pioneer of ‘participatory journalism’; writing stories describing his experiences trying on the shoes of boxer, comedian and trapeze artist. In Kiwi TV series The Deep End, reporter Bill Manson tested himself by taking turns as a professional wrestler, female impersonator, captain of a navy frigate, and so-called Mum to a family of 18 kids, among others. The globe-travelling journalist later said the show was one of the projects that remained dearest to his heart, despite — or because of — its mixture of joy and terror.
TV series The Deep End saw reporter Bill Manson trying his hand at a variety of tasks, from female impersonator to Robinson Crusoe to captaining a navy frigate. In this episode, Manson is given six weeks to get in shape for a pro wrestling bout. To prepare himself for the dangerous job, 12 stone Manson hits the weights, grapples with wrestling legend Steve Rickard (On the Mat) and works with an acting tutor, barber and promoters on his onstage persona: ‘Doctor Mindbender’. “The thing that scares me," he says, "is just breaking my neck…”
Man. Dog. Sheep. This was an unlikely formula for Kiwi TV gold. Showing sheepdog trials from around the country, A Dog’s Show ran from 1977 to 1992. In each trial a farmer, armed with an array of whistles and commands, instructed a sheepdog to wrangle a flock of recalcitrant sheep along a course or into a pen while the bearded, sagacious, Swannie-clad John Gordon provided the commentary. Trivia: the opening tune is a version of the Statler Brothers song ‘Flowers on the Wall’, also used in movie Pulp Fiction.
The iconic all-things-rural show is the longest running programme on New Zealand television. With its typical patient observational style (that allows stories of people and the land to gently unfold) it’s an unlikely broadcasting star, but New Zealanders continue, after 50 plus years, to tune in. Amongst the bucolic tales of farming, fishing and forestry, there are high country musters, floods, organic brewing, falconry, tobacco farming, as well as a fencing wire-playing farmer-musician, a radio-controlled dog, and Fred Dagg and the Trevs.