Veteran actor Bill Johnson began appearing on Kiwi screens as early as 1969, when he joined the cast of TV thriller The Alpha Plan. Johnson is best remembered by a generation of Kiwis as the sinister Mr Wilberforce in 1980s sci fi classic Under The Mountain. After more than four decades as an actor, he passed away on 23 September 2016.
...one of the finest gentlemen (in the truest sense of the word) I've had the pleasure to know. Wayne Coles, on Bill Johnson's memorial web page
The second feature film directed by writer Anthony McCarten (Ladies' Night) is a small tale with some big themes. Set in a New Plymouth car yard, the film chronicles an endurance contest in which a car will be awarded to the person who manages to keep their hands on it the longest. As night falls, solo mother Jess (Melanie Lynskey) finds herself fending off the attentions of an obstinate competitor (Craig Hall), with a much harsher vision of the world than hers. Inspired by similar real-life contests, McCarten based the film on his novel Endurance.
Peter Jackson's love affair with moviemaking and special effects was ignited by seeing the original King Kong (1933) as a child. Jackson's Kiwi-shot remake takes one of cinema's most iconic monster movies, retains the 30s setting and iconic New York finale, and toughens up the "beauty" (Naomi Watts). The film also transforms the male (non-ape) lead from lunkhead to sensitive playwright (Adrien Brody). Exhilarating, Oscar-winning CGI brings the great ape to life, alongside rampaging dinosaurs, and oversized wētā inexplicably absent from the maligned 1976 remake.
Nominated for a Qantas Media Award, this documentary examines prejudices against Asians in New Zealand, amidst the context of burgeoning immigration (80,000 ethnic Chinese and 20,000 Koreans have arrived in NZ since 1988). Directors John Bates and Manying Ip look back at the history of Asian settlement in Aotearoa, from colonial xenophobia and the poll tax inflicted only on Chinese migrants, through ‘ching chong Chinaman’ abuse, to the present day — where 21st century migrants face struggles with discrimination, language barriers and integrating in their new home.
A continuation of the classic 70s UK TV series cherished by herds of horse-loving girls, the New Adventures follow Vicky Denning (Amber McWilliams) who has emigrated to the antipodes with her step-mother, where she is captivated by a mystic black horse. The co-production was set in NZ, produced by Tom Parkinson and features many Kiwi names in front of and behind the camera (Illona Rodgers, Ken Catran). Key original cast and the famous original title sequence and tune are reprised, but now with Beauty galloping along a west coast beach. Two seasons were produced.
A continuation of the classic 70s UK TV series cherished by herds of horse-loving girls, the New Adventures follow Vicky Denning (Amber McWilliams) who has emigrated to the antipodes with her step-mother, where she is captivated by a mystic black horse. The co-production was set in New Zealand and features many Kiwi names in front of and behind the camera. This extract from the fourth episode sees Vicky striving to convince the postmasters (Bill Kerr and Ilona Rodgers) that she and Beauty can be posties; and she faces hostility from local kids (including a young Claire Chitham).
Writer Maurice Gee’s experiences growing up in West Auckland during World War II were the basis for this home front drama expertly realised by the producer/director team of Ginette McDonald and Peter Sharp. Twelve-year-old Rex Pascoe (Milan Borich — future singer in the band Pluto) is a war-obsessed schoolboy worried about his father’s black-market dealings. Meanwhile, American soldiers are making their presence felt but not all of their attitudes are welcome. The locals’ prejudices are about to be tested by the arrival of a GI to stay with Rex’s family.
As a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, Brian Deeds (Belfast-born actor Ian McElhinney) grassed on 23 fellow terrorists in Northern Ireland. Now living in New Zealand under a new identity, Deeds has to come clean to his girlfriend (Judy McIntosh) when a hit squad arrives in town for him. This clip sees guns and car crashes on the streets of Dunedin. Made in NZ, the Anglo-Kiwi funded TV movie won solid audiences on UK television, before local release on video. Ian Mune (Came a Hot Friday) directs; Marshall Napier and Temuera Morrison are the cops playing catch up.
Comedy series Porters featured an impressive cast. George Henare, Peter Bland (star of Came a Hot Friday), Bill Johnson (Under the Mountain) and Stephen Judd (Bridge to Nowhere) starred as a cynical team of hospital porters who share no love for their boss (Roy Billing). In the hope of lifting the standards of Kiwi comedy, the makers of this 80s television series imported Emmy award-winner Noam Pitlik (Barney Miller, Taxi) from the US to direct. The series made comedy from hospital romances, missing patients and union representation. Only six episodes were made.
Created by actor/writer Jonathan Hardy, comedy series Porters was based around a group of porters working in a big city hospital. This episode features an early screen appearance by Rima Te Wiata (Hunt for the Wilderpeople); she guest stars as a worried nurse who calls on junior porter Peter (Stephen Judd from Bridge to Nowhere), after hearing some strange noises on the night shift. An encounter in the mortuary awaits. The episode also includes appearances by fellow porters George Henare, Peter Bland and Bill Johnson, with Roy Billing playing their long-suffering boss.
This first episode from the kidult series pits 12-year-old Terry Teo, sister Polly and brother Ted against a gang of gunrunners led by crime boss Ray Vegas (former Goon Michael Bentine), after Terry skates down the wrong driveway and stumbles on the crims and their illegal arsenal. Terry was fondly remembered by Kiwi kids who grew up in the 80s. Taking cues from the Stephen Ballantyne and Bob Kerr comic it was based on, there are Batman-esque graphics and arcade game-style animated sequences. Sean Duffy’s bald villain is called Curly and the bikie is Billy T James.
In this episode of the larger-than-life kids' drama series, action moves to the punningly-named town of Kaupati where crime boss Ray Vegas and sidekicks Curly and Blue are expecting a weapons delivery (in well-labelled cardboard cartons). They’ve also abducted Terry Teo after he stumbled on their cunning plan. Meanwhile, Terry’s sister and brother are in pursuit, Thompson and Crouch are looking highly conspicuous in their quest for stealth, the bikies are discussing Hegel — and the Kaupati cop could be the dimmest bulb in the chandelier so far.
In this episode of the 80s kid’s TV drama, matters are coming to a head. Terry Teo and brother Ted and sister Polly, criminal mastermind Ray Vegas and his henchmen Blue and Curly, government agents Thompson and Crouch, the bikies and the local policeman continue to chase each other around rural Kaupati. What Thompson and Crouch lack in intelligence, they make up for in costume changes; and Spud (Billy T James) is now quoting Byron to his bikies. The constable is dimmer than first suspected — but old salt Captain Shaddock’s aim is true.
When people tell the amazing story of Kiwi legend Julian Harp, Nicky doesn't get a mention. Now, in one of the New Zealand screen's classic monologues, Nicky (Lucy Sheehan, from Talkback) takes the opportunity to let us in on what really happened: her relationship with Julian, his plan to destabilize the Government via a letterwriting campaign, and the couple's preparations for the day he achieved engineless flight and rose into the sky from the Auckland Domain. This episode of anthology series About Face is based on the classic story by CK Stead, author of Smith's Dream.
Frank Whitten won probably his biggest audience when 10 million Brits saw him play an outrageous bastard in this primetime melodrama. This first episode sees Ceci (Glaswegian actor Valerie Gogan) arriving from England hoping for a better life, and instead finding herself trapped on a rundown farm with a rapist, a bitter old man and a simpleton. NZ producers Lloyd Phillips and Rob Whitehouse won finance from TVNZ, Westpac and the UK's Central Television for the six-part mini-series, written by Brit Elizabeth Gowans. There were 118 speaking parts, most of them Kiwi.
Charlie is about to die. His wife is playing prison guard, stopping visitors. She wants to score him a christian grave. But Charlie would prefer a drink. It it is time for blunt honesty — which means more battles with his wife, insulting the kids, and making sure his funeral involves the ocean. One of the last things legendary playwright Bruce Mason wrote before his death in 1982, Do Not Go Gentle also offers a rare central role for veteran Bill Johnson, fresh from playing villain in Under the Mountain. Late children’s TV talent Huntly Eliott cameos as the priest.
This pirates of the South Seas tale stars Tommy Lee Jones (Men in Black, The Fugitive) as rogue Bully Hayes, who helps a missionary save his kidnapped-by-savages wife. Produced by Kiwis Rob Whitehouse and Lloyd Phillips (12 Monkeys, Inglorious Basterds), the film was made in the 80s ‘tax-break’ feature surge and filmed in Fiji and New Zealand (with an NZ crew and supporting cast). John Hughes (Breakfast Club) and David Odell (Dark Crystal) scripted the old-fashioned swashbuckler from a Phillips story. It was released by Paramount in the US as Nate and Hayes.
Classic sci-fi series Under the Mountain follows redheaded twins with psychic powers — Rachel and Theo — as they battle the alien Wilberforces. This fourth episode sees the twins venture into the aliens' submarine lair for the first time. The lair's moody production design, the NZ Symphony Orchestra's score, and creepy transmogrifying special effects contributed to the slimy imprint the series left on a generation of Kiwi kids, haunted by the giant slugs slithering underneath Auckland's volcanoes. The award-winning series was adapted from the Maurice Gee novel.
Classic sci-fi TV series Under the Mountain follows the adventures of redheaded twins with psychic powers — Rachel and Theo — on their Auckland summer holiday. They meet the mysterious Mr Jones, an alien emissary who enlists them in the battle against the evil Wilberforces, who are plotting planetary destruction. Adapted from the Maurice Gee novel, the series' fx left their slimy imprint on a generation of NZ kids, haunted by the transmogrifying Wilberforces, who changed from humans into giant slugs slithering underneath Auckland’s volcanoes.
Mortimer’s Patch was a popular drama series following Detective Sergeant Doug Mortimer (Terence Cooper) at work in the town of Cobham. Mortimer plays a city cop returning to his rural roots; Don Selwyn is Sergeant Bob Storey. The series was NZ’s first police drama, and a rare local drama to top ratings. Mortimer's Patch was made when the archetype of the ‘community cop’ everyone knew was still a powerful one, and it was a counterweight to the faceless riot policing of the Springbok Tour. Three series were made.
While convalescing down under Sir Charles Pemberton (Terence Cooper) schemes to build a thermal spa in the town of Wainamu c.1900. Conflict ensues as the spa’s planned location is on Māori land. The action is seen through the eyes of youngsters: hotelier’s son Tom, and Pemberton’s granddaughter Sarah Jane; who — along with an erupting volcano — eventually impart on Sir Charles a lesson about colonial hubris. The 13-part series was a marquee title from a golden age of Kiwi kidult telly-making: it won multiple Feltex awards, and screened on the BBC in 1980.
Radio Waves revolves around an Auckland commercial radio station. In this episode, drive-time DJ Win Savage (Grant Bridger) annoys an advertiser and doesn't seem to care. Andy Anderson is a hippy ‘jock’, Alan Dale plays urbane station manager Jack in his screen debut (before finding fame on Australia's Neighbours), and the many women on staff put up with their share of stick from all that male ego. Waves was short-lived — The Bee Gees and flares weren’t enough for viewers to shut the farm gate — but its urban strivers signaled a changing face for NZ on screen.
Children's adventure series Gather Your Dreams follows Kitty, a teenager who dreams of stardom while travelling with her family's vaudeville troupe in Depression-era 1930s New Zealand. The troupe's impresario (and Kitty’s father) was played by Mortimer’s Patch star Terence Cooper. Mostly shot in the Coromandel, the half hour 13-part series was one of a run of kidult dramas made in the late 70s by South Pacific Television. Like its predecessor — colonial scamp saga Hunter's Gold — it had international sales success. Dreams was helmed by Hunter's Gold director Tom Parkinson.
The Governor was a television epic that examined the life of Governor George Grey in six thematic parts. Grey's "Good Governor" persona was undercut with laudanum, lechery and land confiscation. NZ TV's first (and only) historical blockbuster was hugely controversial, provoking a parliamentary inquiry and "test match sized" audiences. It won a 1978 Feltex Award for Best Drama. Auckland Star reviewer Barry Shaw trumpeted: "It has made Māori matter. If Pākehā now have a better understanding of the Māori point of view [...] it stems from The Governor.
Smith (Sam Neill, in his breakthrough screen role) is devastated when his wife runs off with his best friend Bullen (Ian Mune). Smith escapes to the Coromandel. Meanwhile, the government enlists an anti-terrorist force to crack down on its opponents. Bullen, now a guerrilla, asks Smith to join the revolution. Directed by Roger Donaldson, this adaptation of CK Stead's novel Smith's Dream heralded a new wave of Kiwi cinema; it was one of the only local films of the 1970s to win a big local audience. This excerpt includes a much talked about scene: a baton charge by government forces.
In Moynihan, secretary of the carpenters’ union Leo Moynihan (Ian Mune) — with orange mini and leather jacket — has to navigate the shark-infested waters of 70s industrial relations. The first NZ-Australia co-production (with ABC) was devised by union organiser Earle Spencer and Jane Galletly (a rare credit in the then-male dominated industry). It was the first series made by TV One’s drama department; it won viewers as well as Feltex awards for best drama and Mune’s performance. The changing face of Wellington, including an under-construction Beehive, features.
A forgotten slice of New Zealand TV history, A Going Concern was the country's second, short-lived soap opera. Launched in July 1975 — two months after rival soap Close to Home — it revolved around the staff of a South Auckland plastics factory. The characters were a mixture of Pākehā and Māori, plus a Brit (entertainer Ray Woolf, in his first acting role). Apart from this 23 second clip pulled from a 1975 variety show, the series is believed destroyed. A Going Concern won solid reviews, but the new channel's limited coverage affected audience numbers; it ended after a year.
It's Wellington in the 1970s and Bob (Jeremy Stephens) is having a midlife crisis. Square-peg Graham (Bill Johnson, who later played Mr Wilberforce in Under the Mountain) tries to convince Bob to quit his bohemian lifestyle (and his lover/muse Carol) and return to his wife Jean. But is Graham really acting in his mate's best interests? Featuring a young Sam Neill as the epitome of handsome, unfettered youth (flared jeans, bushy beard) this early, well-received TV drama was one of several produced by the NZ Broadcasting Corporation to tackle 'difficult' contemporary issues.
The Alpha Plan involves a British spy down under, investigating strange deaths among a Mensa-like group of the planet's brightest brains (meeting on Pakatoa Island!). Made when jet-setting Cold War thrillers were all the rage, the ambitious series involved roughly 120 actors, and was NZ's first drama series to emerge, after occasional one-off plays. This first meet-and-greet episode builds to a memorable finale, after introducing us to key players: an English geology professor, a curious journalist, and a mysterious American who rings after dark with shocking news.
In the Cold War 60s, thrillers peopled with jetsetting spies with shifty figures standing behind pillars in sunnies were all the rage (Danger Man, The Man from Uncle). Kiwi entry The Alpha Plan revolves around a British security agent who finds himself downunder, on the run, investigating strange disappearances amongst a Mensa-like society made up the planet's brightest brains. The ambitious six-part mystery thriller was the first Kiwi TV drama designed to go beyond one episode; positive reaction to the show paved the way for NZBC’s in-house drama department.