Alan Erson has managed to weave his love of the arts, sport and science into a successful Trans-Tasman TV career. The middle child of three kids, Erson (who is sometimes credited as Alan D'Arcy Erson) was born in the Waikato town of Morrinsville, and raised in Pakuranga. In those days the East Auckland suburb was a sea of new subdivisions, nicknamed Vim Valley after a 1970s cleaning advert featuring a ‘typical’ Pakuranga housewife.
Erson became a "ferocious" reader. At age 12 he won a scholarship to Presbyterian college St Kentigern. "I'm pretty sure I correctly answered all the questions in the scripture exam. I'd been to Sunday school — I loved the stories, without believing they were true."
Science was also a passion. He went on to graduate from Auckland University with a Masters of Science, with First Class Honours in Chemistry. He squeezed in some English papers along the way, and played in the New Zealand men's volleyball team for five years. His first job out of uni was as an industrial chemist in Lower Hutt, then he moved into the marketing department. After an unsuccessful tilt in Europe, trying to play volleyball for a living, Erson moved to London. There he found a job marketing electronic mail, a forerunner to internet communications. Newspapers were frequent clients, and he felt drawn to that world.
He returned to New Zealand and enrolled in a postgraduate journalism degree at Canterbury University. Then he worked briefly as a reporter for The Sunday Star-Times and other newspapers.
In the early 1990s, Erson made his final career shift — into TV. He joined a crew of novices, including Leanne Pooley, David Ambler and Mark McNeill. All were under the guidance of Richard Thomas, an ex-BBC documentary director who was Head of Factual Programming at TVNZ at the time. Seasoned producer George Andrews was also on board. The result was First Hand, a stripped-back documentary series using one person film crews and consumer video cameras. It was a hands on, ‘learn as you go’ experience; and Erson was keen to learn.
"I knew nothing about making TV; I didn’t know how to write for telly. But each day we’d be thrown into it, Richard would say ‘today we’re doing interviews’ or ‘today we’ll be observing a scene’. It was a very classical training."
Over the course of a year Erson made four half-hour documentaries. First Hand chronicled ordinary life in New Zealand in the early 1990s, an era that Erson recalls as "really grim. You’d drive downtown and always get a park, always a bad sign for an economy. It was a recession, it was Ruthanasia..." Erson’s episodes included Running the Rubbish (following a team of Auckland ‘dusties’) and extended episode A New Breed of Hero, about a couple leaping into the world of self-employment, and running a dairy. The episode caught a quietly desperate mood in Aotearoa, as ordinary people struggled to stay afloat. Erson lifted the title from a quote by PM Jim Bolger, which celebrated entrepreneurs.
Everyday New Zealand continued to be the focus in successful Heartland series (1991-1996). Erson directed episodes exploring Ngaruawahia and the Desert Road, and relished learning from veteran Heartland director Bruce Morrison, who he describes as "more of a filmmaker".
In 1995 Erson directed documentary Nuclear Reaction, which traced the move to New Zealand being declared anti-nuclear. He also wrote and directed two episodes of The Game of Our Lives (1996) a four-part series tracing New Zealand’s social history through its obsession with rugby.
Erson was getting busy. In 1997 he was one of the directors on early NZ reality series Flatmates (the brainchild of producer Vincent Burke). He also directed documentaries on bullying, and boxer David Tua — plus Billy T James- A Daughter’s Story, which was initiated by Cherie James herself. Erson came to appreciate the man behind the giggle. "I didn’t really understand how important Billy T was to our culture until I watched every minute of his performances."
Erson has written and directed two short films: Camping with Camus (a tale of lust and philosophy set in a caravan park) and Grace ("a strange lament to my Pakuranga childhood"). In 2003 he directed episodes of Greenstone kidult show Secret Agent Men.
Erson’s scientific background came back into play when he wrote and directed wildlife documentary At the Edge, for NHNZ. Shot in the Himalayas, it screened on Discovery and Japanese network NHK, and was nominated for a Panda award at wildlife festival Wildscreen. Erson's science studies also proved useful for his 2004 documentary on attempts to catch drug cheats in sport (Doping to Win, aka Dope: The Battle for the Soul of Sport).
Since 2007 Erson has successfully moved into management and executive producing roles in Australia. During five years at Australian public broadcaster ABC he spent time as a Commissioning Editor, then Head of Documentary and Factual Programming.
In 2012 he became General Manager and Head of Factual Programmes at Australian production company Essential Media and Entertainment. He went on join the team of writers and producers on big budget documentary series Australia: The Story of Us and acclaimed Aussie/Kiwi co-production Anzac: Tides of Blood (presented by Sam Neill). The later screened on Māori Television on Anzac Day in 2015.
In 2016 he became Managing Director at factual production company WildBear Entertainment.
Profile written by Gabe McDonnell; published on 31 July 2019
WildBear Entertainment website. Accessed 31 July 2019
Ian Pryor, 'George Andrews' NZ On Screen website. Loaded 18 February 2009. Accessed 31 July 2019
Billy T James- A Daughter’s Story (Television Documentary) Director Alan Erson (George Andrews Productions, 1997)
First Hand - A New Breed of Hero (Television Documentary) Director Alan Erson (George Andrews Productions, 1993)
First Hand - Running the Rubbish (Television Documentary) Director Alan Erson (George Andrews Productions, 1992)
First Hand - Two Men From Tuakau (Television Documentary) Director Alan Erson (George Andrews Productions, 1993)
'Heartland' NZ On Screen website. Accessed 31 July 2019
Unknown writer, 'New ABC TV Commissioning Editor For Science and History' (Press release). ABC website. Loaded 6 March 2007. Accessed 31 July 2019
Unknown writer, 'Wildbear Entertainment Appoints Alan Erson As Managing Director' Filmink website. Loaded 2016. Accessed 31 July 2019