A professional musician since the mid 50s, multi-instrumentalist Bernie Allen was one of NZ television’s leading musical directors, through the heyday of light entertainment in the 1970s and early 80s. As a composer, his themes and scores accompanied a host of dramas and general programming over more than two decades. Ex Television New Zealand head of entertainment Tom Parkinson remembers Allen as both modest and extremely versatile. "His talent was to sense the right musician, instrument, arranger, and song to fit the production".
Born in 1937 in Muriwai Beach, northwest of Auckland, Allen grew up there and in a number of nearby towns, as part of a family that wasn’t particularly musical (apart from a grandfather who had been a professional violinist). As a child he learned piano and drums, but his interest in music blossomed at Sacred Heart College. He joined the school band and taught himself the clarinet.
After playing in bands around Helensville, Allen found work in Auckland as a commercial artist at age 17. He joined a brass band and made connections with trombonist Merv Thomas and the local jazz fraternity.
The advent of rock’n’roll in the mid 50s meant regular work playing saxophone at the Trades Hall's Jive Centre. He was also playing in touring shows, big bands and jazz ensembles, and making records with Johnny Devlin, The Morrison Brothers and countless others in a thriving music scene.
By the early 60s, with a family and mortgage to support, Allen took a full time job in the despatch department of movie distributor RKO, while continuing to play in various radio and dance bands. After RKO’s distribution was taken over by 20th Century Fox, Allen sent reports to Fox's head office in New York, having calculated the share of payment owed to producers and directors for each film.
By 1963, with his music was in danger of being sidelined, he turned his back on finance and enrolled at teachers college. He became a fulltime teacher, but continued to play in various NZBC radio bands.
Allen had narrowly missed out on appearing in one NZ television’s very first incarnations, leaving the Arthur Skelton Big Band just before they appeared in one of Al Bell’s experimental broadcasts in 1957. Five years later, he made his TV debut conducting the band in a Howard Morrison special — the first local show to feature a big band. It was shot at the North Shore’s Surfside Ballroom in temperatures so cold, condensation from the vocalists’ mouths required many retakes.
Allen's television career began in 1968 with a call from producer Kevan Moore, to produce music for a a live tourism show called C'mon to New Zealand, which was set to tour Australia. Although Allen was told it was a one-off project, it was a de facto audition. He was then appointed as assistant musical director and then MD for the final series of Moore’s ground-breaking popular music show C’mon. It was the beginning of a long working relationship between the pair.
C’mon bowed out after the 1969 series — a victim of a lack of family friendly material in the charts, suitable for its early evening slot. In 1970 it was replaced by the more middle of the road Happen Inn. Intended as a short term production, the series would run until 1973.
As colour and the second channel approached, Moore pared back his productions, replacing Happen Inn with the more straightforward Sing. Allen worked on more than 100 episodes of the two shows from 1970 to 1974.
With the advent of two channel TV, Moore (now Head of Programmes for South Pacific Television/TV2) commissioned Allen to write themes, incidental music and stings for the new channel. The only brief was that the music should be a cross between ‘Pokarekareana’ and the ‘Eton Boating Song’, to reflect the channel’s twin bases in NZ’s most Polynesian city (Auckland) and its most English (Christchurch). Allen went bush with the assignment, retreating to his brother’s farm at South Kaipara, armed with a Fender Rhodes keyboard and a tape recorder.
Moore had one more request — a lullaby to close the evening’s viewing. He suggested Princess Te Rangi Pai’s ‘Hine e hine’. Allen’s understated arrangement accompanying the Goodnight Kiwi animation became an NZ television classic.
TV2 had been created from scratch, and much of the industry’s expertise in programme planning was locked up by TV One. Moore asked Allen to draw on his experience in film distribution to help in this area. Aside from his work as programme planning manager, Allen helped Moore commission programmes, and set up systems in the new channel’s music department. But there was less and less time for the actual music. He did get dispensation to compose the soundtrack for award-winning children's drama Hunter’s Gold, which won the light music section of the 1977 APRA Silver Scrolls.Later he handled music for follow-ups Children of Fire Mountain and vaudeville tale Gather Your Dreams.
By the late 70s, administration was once again taking over his life, and he opted out of the role. Retraining as a producer, he cut his teeth on Stars on Sunday and the Mobil Song Contest. He also made series Columbus Discovers, with Ray Columbus exploring different musical styles.
In 1979, Allen won a Queen Elizabeth ll Arts Council/Air New Zealand scholarship. He used it to spend three months studying film music scoring in Hollywood. “The people I learnt the most from were the orchestrators,” says Allen, “people like Jack Hayes [Camelot], Earle Hagen [I Spy] and Carl Brandt [Mr. Magoo]".
Allen returned home in 1980 to a television industry with the two channels no longer in direct competition. Tom Parkinson and then Malcolm Kemp headed up the TVNZ entertainment department. Allen worked extensively with fellow musical director Tony Baker, rekindling a friendship that extended back to playing clarinets together at Sacred Heart College. Allen was musical director on a host of light entertainment shows, featuring everyone from Prince Tui Teka to Patsy Riggir.
One of his major MD projects was a series first mooted back after the end of C’mon (but eclipsed by the success of Happen Inn). Radio Times recreated the big band era, and allowed Allen to employ musicians he had worked with since the 50s. The series was a breakthrough for compere Billy T James; Allen still believes it was the most successful harnessing of James’ wide range of talents.
Over the years Allen worked on innumerable entertainment specials, and composed themes and scores for dramas (Mortimer’s Patch, Ngaio Marsh Theatre, Under the Mountain, Savage Play), general programmes (Landmarks, On the Mat, Kaleidoscope), and two features — Mortimer’s Patch spinoff Trespasses, and Billy T: The Movie. He also composed ballets and concert pieces, produced albums for a host of Kiwi vocalists, and backed everyone from Roy Orbison to the Supremes.
From 1986 Allen moved away from day to day TV work, opting for programme-specific contracts. He returned to teaching and freelance projects in both Auckland and Melbourne, and bowed out of the industry with TVNZ’s Millennium coverage. He also worked with youth groups and the Queen City Big Band. After taking up a lectureship at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music in 1990, he returned to New Zealand and spent three years lecturing in varied music'related topics at Auckland University.
In 1987 he was awarded the Queen's Service Medal for Service to the Community.
Allen’s career began in the 1950s, in a musical landscape unrecognisable from its current incarnation. Much of the work he did with orchestras, bands and recording studios can now be created in isolation in home studios. He has tried both methods, but misses the more collaborative ways of the past. Allen believes that “the input of other people into what you do so often makes something you did and saw a certain way, into something new and exciting”.
Profile written by Michael Higgins
Chris Bourke, 'Bernie Allen Profile' AudioCulture website. Loaded February 2014. Accessed 19 June 2016
Max Cryer, 'A profile of Bernie Allen' - NZ Film Music Bulletin, 1 February 1974
Unknown Writer, 'This Month's Music Man: Bernie Allen' (Interview) - Allegro, 1 August 1974, page 5