Director, Producer, Executive
Alan Erson captured the everyday lives of New Zealanders in 1990s documentary series First Hand. His directing credits also include Heartland and Nuclear Reaction. Since 2004 Erson has built a successful career in Australia as Head of Documentary and Factual Programmes for the ABC, and General Manager at Essential Media and Entertainment. In 2016 he became Managing Director at WildBear Entertainment.
I feel lucky to be telling stories about my tribe on both sides of the Tasman. Alan Erson reflects on his career making and commissioning television
In this acclaimed Kiwi-Aussie co-production Sam Neill confronted what ‘Anzac’ means, a century after NZ and Australian troops landed at Gallipoli as part of an invasion by British-led forces to capture the Turkish territory. Through the lens of his whānau’s war stories (including a visit to his grandfather's grave) Neill uncovered forgotten truths about the catastrophic campaign, and examined ways the Anzac myth has been manipulated. "I hate militarism, loathe nationalism but honour those who served.” The full documentary screened on Māori Television on Anzac Day 2015.
Launched in 2005, Artsville was a long-running documentary slot showcasing New Zealand art and artists. The subjects ranged from painters and comic artists, to theatre and dance companies. Pieces varied from hour-long documentaries to multiple items compiled together, all for a late night slot on TV One. Among the directors commissioned were Mark Albiston (award-winner Magical World of Misery), Shirley Horrocks (Questions for Mr Reynolds) and Andrew Bancroft (Book to Box Office). Artsville was repeated on Freeview channel TVNZ 6 (now defunct).
The Big Art Trip was a TVNZ arts series that took the form of a road trip around New Zealand visiting artists in their homes or studios. The series featured two presenters — design writer and art historian Douglas Lloyd Jenkins teamed with screenwriter Nick Ward in the first series, and with musician Fiona McDonald in the second. Ward and McDonald were very much the neophytes — the everyperson asking questions on behalf of the audience that allowed Lloyd Jenkins to background, contextualize and explain what was being seen, heard and experienced.
Our People Our Century was a documentary series from Ninox productions, that looked back over the past 100 years of New Zealand society as it turned over the millennium. Major events and changes over the century were shaped into six themed episodes: war, land, poverty and prosperity, families, state support and national identity, with apposite interviews providing personal and dramatic context. Our People Our Century won Best Factual Series at the 2000 NZ TV Awards, with Philip Temple winning a best documentary script award for the 'Families at War' episode.
Flatmates observes six Kiwi 20-somethings as they share a house for three months: four students (one a Miss Howick beauty contestant), a confident young gay financial consultant, and a cameraman (also one of the show's directors). In this first episode the flatties move in, go shopping, have a party, and end up calling the police after partygoers get out of control. Flatmates was one of a number of 90s reality shows observing 'homelife' as created for the cameras. It was broadcast on the now-defunct TV4. Straight-talking student Vanessa became a minor local celebrity.
In this documentary Cherie James pays tribute to New Zealand’s best-loved entertainer, telling Billy T James story from a daughter’s perspective. Performers who worked with Billy in his showband The Maori Volcanics also share their memories, as do family members who reminisce about Billy's early life growing up in the Waikato. Cherie provides her perspective on the well-publicised arguments that occurred after his death and why it was so important for Billy to be buried beside his mother on the sacred Taupiri mountain overlooking Huntly.
Pioneering reality TV show Flatmates trained its cameras on the home life of a bunch of young Gen X/Gen Y Kiwis. In this second episode the flatmates clean up after a party gone wild — the landlord ain't happy — and discuss flat finances, chore rosters, gender politics, and Anzac Day. Christian mourns his first love, a Finnish exchange student. Meanwhile Vanessa's pronouncements on apt lecture-wear reveal why she became a minor celebrity (she later co-hosted youth show The Drum). And cameraman/flattie Craig finds the courage to reveal a complicating crush.
The third slot of this 90s reality show mixes a beauty contest with the follow-on from Craig’s cliffhanger romantic revelation at the end of the previous episode. In pieces to camera the flattie/cameraman, his new girlfriend Vanessa and the other flatmates discuss what the burgeoning relationship means. Meanwhile the flatties watch the Warriors lose, Geoffrey gets a bit tiddly, and Christian ends the episode recalling Vanessa’s embarrassingly loud off-stage behaviour while Natasha was competing for the title of Miss Howick 1996.
“After the trouble at Miss Howick I realised that life with Vanessa was going to be a roller coaster.” These immortal lines from flatmate and cameraman Chris Wright open the fourth episode of the 1997 ‘docu-soap’. Sexual strife is in the house: Craig is having doubts about whether his relationship with Vanessa is monogamous; Christian gets a rejection letter from Finland; Natasha appears to have a tiff with Nick; and too much drinking at Ceilla’s 21st results in conflict. Elsewhere, the flatties face up to vomit, cleaning, freeloading boyfriends and a game of hacky sack.
In this final episode of the 90s ‘docu-soap’, reality bites for the household of young Aucklanders. Vanessa demands to talk to cameraman/boyfriend/flattie Craig off-camera, and Craig's refusal to do so fails to help things. Geoffrey can’t remember vomiting in the bathroom; there’s frisbee in Cornwall Park and moments of romance; Christian gets a letter from his on/off Finnish girlfriend, and flunks chemistry at uni. But no flat lasts forever and Natasha packs up (taking her freeloading boyfriend with her), before the rest of the flatties go their separate ways.
This 1995 documentary comprehensively plots New Zealand's progress from enthusiastic supporter of the atomic bomb in the 1940s to becoming proudly nuclear free by the late 1980s. The birthplace of "father of the atom" Ernest Rutherford willingly participated in British tests at Christmas Island in the 1950s (and looked eagerly for uranium in the Buller Gorge). But as testing increased in the Pacific, Prime Ministers Holyoake, Kirk and Lange voiced opposition. Moruroa, nuclear ship visit protests and the Rainbow Warrior bombing fuelled the anti-nuclear cause.
This extended episode of First Hand sees a couple at an economic crossroads, and making the decision to move into self-employment. After finding their jobs in Auckland compromised, Alec and Sheena McDonald set out to find and buy their own dairy in a small North Island town. They end up in Awakeri, near Whakatane. The lifestyle transition is far from trouble-free, as the couple must negotiate the worlds of bureaucracy and banking to insure their new business stays afloat. The documentary provides insights into running a small business during a time of economic reform.
Bruce Graham, wife Lynn and son Mark are in the funeral business, serving the people in the Waikato town of Tūākau at their darkest times. This episode of First Hand takes place in the aftermath of local man Athel Parsons' death, from collecting his body to his funeral and cremation. Athel lived alone but was from a large family. He contributed to his town through his love of sports, in particular indoor bowls. As Bruce organises Athel's farewell we learn about both men's lives, and how the most common of events can affect a small community.
The St Heliers Bowling Club is the setting of this episode of First Hand, a series dedicated to giving young directors a shot at making documentaries. A triples team from the Remuera Bowling Club have made the short journey to the Auckland seaside suburb, and aim to prove their superiority on the club’s fast greens. The documentary takes time to observe the culture of the club throughout the day’s play, from the variety of whites the players wear and the backgrounds of the members, to their lunchtime rituals and the role of women at the club. It’s all in a lively day’s play.
One day each summer, some of the oldest sailing ships in New Zealand gather at Sullivans Bay (also known as Otarawao) to take part in a race that dates back to 1858. The race is the premiere event of the Mahurangi Regatta. It's also a day when the community gets together to take part in sand sculpture competitions, running races and a hotly contested tug of war, usually resulting in triumph for the whānau from nearby Opahi Bay. First Hand captures the organisational dramas preceding the fun, and the community spirit inspiring this regular get together.
Composed of one-off episodes, each by a different director, First Hand was an opportunity for up-and-coming filmmakers to try their hand at making documentaries. This instalment from director Alan Erson looks at ‘dusties’ — the men who collect Auckland’s rubbish. Their rewards and career pathways are considered, alongside the hard physical nature of the work. Just as important is what happens during time off. There are visits to local pub The Bellbird, and the café where they stop for cups of tea — plus sucker for punishment Manu heads to rugby league training.
Heartland was a long-running series where, in each episode, affable presenter Gary McCormick explored a Kiwi community. Location and local legend are relayed as McCormick (or occasionally Annie Whittle, Maggie Barry, or Kerre McIvor) interacts with the natives, most famously, tiger slipper-shod Chloe of Wainuiomata. The popular, award-winning series, was inspired by a collaboration — Raglan by the Sea — between McCormick and director Bruce Morrison; it connected mostly-urban Kiwis with faraway corners of the country, and a homely sense of shared identity.
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.