Alan Morris held a number of senior television management roles during his career, but at heart he was a passionate and enthusiastic programme maker. According to some of those who worked with him in the early days of New Zealand TV, he was "charming, articulate" and "committed to getting New Zealand television out of the Ark" (John Terris), and "an authorative presence" (Gordon Bick) as presenter of early current affairs show Compass. Longtime friend Allan Martin recalls him as one of the best raconteurs he ever met.
Born in Dunedin in 1921, Morris lasted just two years at Otago Boys’ High School before leaving to become an office boy. He sought to compensate for his lack of education by spending Friday nights reading his way through the Dunedin Public Library’s shelves of novels in translation.
After serving in the navy during World War ll — he was part of the 1944 invasion of Normandy on D-Day — Morris returned to Dunedin. Work was hard to come by. With demobilisation money running out, and the Labour Department offering little help, he wrote directly to Prime Minister Walter Nash to express his frustration. Within days he was being fast tracked into employment; on the spur of the moment he chose radio. The resulting copywriter’s job at 4ZB marked the beginning of a broadcasting career that would last four decades.
In 1949 he headed to London and took a BBC training course, which led to a position with Radio Netherlands. Returning to England in 1951, he worked at BBC Radio’s Overseas Service before moving to outside broadcasts when the Scottish network was being established. After a stint back in radio in NZ, the lure of independent television pulled him back to England, and a job with Associated-Rediffusion (later Thames Television) which competed with the BBC. Morris was a director on long-running current affairs programme This Week; by 1959 he was head of light entertainment.
Three years later Morris decided to return once more to NZ. Before he left, he was given carte blanche to make any programme of his choosing. The result was a seven-camera live spectacular featuring circus acts, performing animals, jugglers and a 40 piece orchestra.
His spell with Associated-Rediffusion was also notable for the association he formed with fellow Kiwi Allan Martin, who was directing a busy diet of programmes with the company. They become great friends and their careers would be intertwined for the next two decades.
Morris arrived home in January 1960 to become the NZ Broadcasting Corporation’s chief producer. The fledgling local service, which was still mastering the rudiments of studio production, came as a shock after the relative sophistication of the English industry.
Allan Martin also returned to NZ and the pair worked on Compass, the country’s first local current affairs show. In his book The Compass File, journalist Gordon Bick argues the programme came into being because of their persistence. With Martin as producer, Morris stepped out from behind the cameras to be the show's first presenter (later replaced by Ian Johnstone). Bick remembers Morris as calm and "completely at ease on camera", despite lacking on-screen experience (as can be seen in his opening to this Compass special on local television). “He loved the limelight; loved sitting in the studio during the pre-rehearsal check, while the make-up woman added a last touch of powder to his shiny, balding pate, as he told wild, raucous stories about his television days in Britain or Portugal to the delight of the studio staff”.
Two decades later, Morris would nominate Compass as a career highlight (he can be seen presenting this special . However, mid-60s New Zealand TV wasn’t exactly a brave new frontier. There was an increasing exodus of staff across the Tasman, with some frustrated by what they saw as an overly conservative NZBC administration. Others were looking for a bigger industry and more opportunities.
In 1966 Morris joined Australian public broadcaster ABC TV as an executive producer and head of training. He progressed to head of entertainment (winning an award for an animated history of Australia along the way). Allan Martin had also made the move and became the ABC TV’s head of public affairs programming. He was best man when Morris married, and the families spent their Christmas holidays together.
When it was announced that New Zealand television’s long awaited second channel would be launched in 1975, the NZBC looked overseas for new managers. Alan Morris became head of TV-1, with Allan Martin as his counterpart at TV-2. Morris promised a healthy rivalry, but he also told The Listener “I don’t think one corporation would be out to sink another. That goes right against the spirit of the thing”.
Morris enjoyed a healthy advantage with TV-1. He inherited an already functioning network with a dedicated audience. TV-2 needed to be created from scratch and national coverage took several years to achieve.
Local drama flourished and TV-1 could point to successes including The God Boy, Moynihan, and The Governor. With his background in programme making, Morris took pride in an increase in quality that made international co-productions possible. Less tangibly, he spoke of “what we were achieving for New Zealand, a tremendous aspirational spirit which I had never quite experienced before”.
The twin channels had been an initiative of the third Labour Government, but it was voted out the same year they came into existence. Incoming National Prime Minister Robert Muldoon saw in them only an expensive duplication of resources. This hostile political environment and significant budget cuts increasingly undermined their viability. When Avalon staff struck in protest, Alan Morris stepped in to read the news. He recalled stumbling over the name of tennis player Martina Navratilova, and that a mother rang to say that the newsreader was frightening her children.
In February 1980, TV1 and SPTV became a complementary two channel service as TVNZ. Morris and Allan Martin were kept on as twin Directors-General. Morris was appointed head of production, with responsibility for all local programmes for TV1 and TV2. Another reorganisation later that year saw Martin taking overall control as Director-General — with Morris as his deputy, overseeing network services, including programming, sales, engineering and marketing. In the same period, Morris and fellow executive Des Monaghan fought to screen British docudrama Death of a Princess, based on the execution of a Saudi princess. Facing pressure from PM Robert Muldoon, Ian Cross overruled their decision.
Morris stepped down from TVNZ at the end of 1982. However he stayed on with TVNZ to supervise the training of directors and producers, and took delight in his role as a “greybeard” imparting his knowledge to a new generation. In a Listener interview Morris reflected on a career he could scarcely have anticipated when leaving school, but also noted it was "a shock to realise that someone like me wouldn’t have a chance of getting into broadcasting these days”.
He retired in 1986 and moved back to Dunedin. Alan Morris died in April 1994. His son Simon Morris – himself a director and producer with music show Radio with Pictures in the 1980s – is RNZ National’s film reviewer.
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Dave Andrews, ‘Boss Turns Greybeard’ – The Auckland Star, 11 September 1982
John Berry, ‘Chief Producer Has Wide Experience’ – The Auckland Star, 3 December 1962
Gordon Bick, The Compass File (Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1968)
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television: The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1985)
John Farnsworth, 'Two-channel New Zealand television : ambiguities of organisation, profession and culture' (University Thesis)
Selwyn Parker, ‘Alan Morris – New Man at TV-1’ – The Listener, 20 July 1974
Pamela Stirling, ‘Alan Morris on Television’ – The Listener, 30 April 1983
John Terris, Being Who You Are (Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2004)
Unknown Writer, ‘Mr Martin to Head Single TV System’ – The NZ Herald, 17 October 1980