Comedian, Actor [Tainui]
Billy T James ranks as a key figure in the development of Kiwi comedy. Billy honed his talents as a singer and comedian on stages worldwide, then brought them to a local TV audience on throwback show Radio Times. His self-titled comedy show was a major ratings hit. His turn as the Tainuia kid in Came a Hot Friday is still fondly remembered — as is Billy T's infectious chuckle, black singlet and yellow towel.
He sang. He danced. He drew. He joked. His live shows never failed to sell out and crowds flocked around him whenever he was out in public. He enjoyed popularity and wealth on a scale that had never been seen before in New Zealand. Matt Elliott, in his 2009 biography Billy T - The Life and Times of Billy T James
Funny As traces the history of New Zealand comedy through archive footage, and extensive interviews with local comedy talent. Debuting on TVNZ 1 in July 2019, the five-part series explores how Kiwis "have used comedy to navigate decades of profound cultural change". Funny As touches on everything from live and musical comedy, to pioneers of Kiwi screen humour (e.g. Fred Dagg, Lynn of Tawa) and the hit exports of later years (Flight of the Conchords, Rose Matafeo). The series was made by production/creative agency Augusto, and produced by comedy veteran Paul Horan.
As this promotional clip makes clear, Funny As features an impressive roll call of Kiwi comedy legends. The five-part series traces the history of New Zealand comedy through interviews and archive footage. In coming weeks NZ On Screen will be publishing extended interviews with the comedy talent captured on camera for the series. Funny As ranges all the way from the early days of live comedy to screen pioneers (Fred Dagg, the Week of It team), the legendary Billy T, and the Kiwi comedians who've made their mark internationally (Flight of the Conchords, Rhys Darby).
A who's who of Kiwi television names reminisce about iconic comedian Billy T James in this short video, celebrating NZ On Air's 30th birthday. Jemaine Clement, Oscar Kightley and Hilary Barry are among those describing Billy T as a national treasure, mischievous and cheeky, while friend Peter Rowley recalls the day he died. Billy T was already a household name by the time NZ On Air was created: an NZOA-funded sitcom and a celebration showcase allowed Kiwis to see him as much more than a comedian. He inspired many comedians, and left a legacy of brilliant moments.
Big hair, big shoulder pads and big earrings feature in this video celebrating Three’s 30th birthday. On 26 November 1989, TV3 — the first privately owned TV channel in New Zealand — transmitted from its Auckland studios for the first time. The promo opens with fresh-faced news reporters/presenters hamming it up for the camera, including Joanna Paul, Eric Young and Genevieve Westcott. The rest of the clip celebrates Three's successes (Outrageous Fortune, bro’Town, 7 Days) and takes a light-hearted look at its failings, revisiting times it went into receivership.
Directed by Peter Burger (Until Proven Innocent), this top-rating tele-feature dramatised the life story of legendary comedian Billy T James. Billy screened on 21 August 2011 as a Sunday Theatre drama on TV One, 20 years after Billy T’s death, aged just 42. Actor Tainui Tukiwaho (Step Dave) plays Billy T. Touted as revealing "the man behind the chuckle", the drama traverses Billy T’s life from childhood. This excerpt follows Billy as he reaches the peak of his career, fronting TV skits and pub stand-up. It was adapted by Briar Grace Smith and Dave Armstrong from the Matt Elliott biography.
Following the big-screen success of Topp Twins documentary Untouchable Girls came another chronicle of a Kiwi entertainment legend: sometime Taranaki bandito, giggling newsreader and crooner Billy T James. The film uses remastered footage and an impressive cast of interviews to capture his path from cabaret singer to fame, fan clubs and eventual financial and bodily collapse. Te Movie director Ian Mune originally cast James in the classic Came a Hot Friday, as the Māori-Mexican Tainuia Kid; Te Movie co-producer Tom Parkinson played a hand in making Billy T a TV star.
This edition of Prime TV’s history of New Zealand television looks at 50 years of entertainment. The smorgasbord of music, comedy and variety shows ranges from 60s pop stars to Popstars, from the anarchy of Blerta to the anarchy of Telethon, from Radio with Pictures to Dancing with the Stars. Music television moves from C’mon and country, to punk and hip hop videos. Comedy follows the formative Fred Dagg and Billy T, through to Eating Media Lunch and 7 Days. A roll call of New Zealand entertainers muse on seeing Kiwis laugh, sing and shimmy on the small screen.
This Wayne Leonard documentary from 2002 goes on a journey to explore what defines Māori humour. The tu meke tiki tour travels from marae kitchens to TV screens, from original trickster Maui to cheeky kids, from the classic entertainers (including Prince Tui Teka tipping off an elephant) through to Billy T James, arguably the king of Māori comedy. Archive footage is complemented by interviews with well-known and everyday Kiwis, and contemporary comedians (Mike King, Pio Terei). Winston Peters and Tame Iti discuss humour as a political tool.
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.
Having made a comeback after heart surgery in 1990, legendary entertainer Billy T James passed away in August 1991. Four years later that anniversary was commemorated with Billy T James - A Celebration. Hosted by Pio Terei, the special highlights some of Billy’s best moments of both comedy gold, and his vast talents as musician. Interviews with Billy T and his colleagues (including showband veteran Robbie Ratana, comedian Peter Rowley, and screen wife Ilona Rodgers) offer insight into the real man behind arguably New Zealand’s most beloved entertainer.
Billy T’s unique brand of humour is captured at its affable, non-PC best in this compilation of skits from his popular 1980s TV shows. There’s Te News (“somebody pinched all the toilet seats out of the Kaikohe Police Station...now the cops got nothing to go on!”) with Billy in iconic black singlet and yellow towel; a bro’s guide to home improvement; skits about first contact, and a take off of Miami Vice. No target is sacred (God, the IRA, the talking Japanese sketch) and there are classic advertising spoofs for Pixie Caramel’s “last requests” and Lands For Bags’ “where’d you get your bag”.
This posthumous series — produced by Ginette McDonald — collects segments from Billy T’s long running skit based comedy series. Some of his most cherished creations are here: the giggling Te News newsreader, Cuzzy in his black shorts, and the chief bemused by Captain Cook. Support comes from a seasoned cast including Peter Rowley, David Telford and Roy Billing (with cameos from Bob Jones and Barry Crump). Some of these skits are essentially elaborate setups for one line jokes but Billy T’s infectious warmth and good humour inevitably carry the day.
In the year of his knighthood, Sir Howard got to fulfil a long-held dream — playing with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. Broadcast on TV One in October 1990, this is a big show, from its opening Space Odyssey theme, through the operatic numbers to finale ‘This is the Moment’. It is classic Howard Morrison in its blend of cabaret, humour and Māori culture. Sir Howard performs his most controversial song, ‘My Old Man’s An All Black’, with comedian Billy T James, and has ex-All Blacks captain Buck Shelford up on stage to lead the haka alongside Temuera Morrison.
New Zealand's much-loved comedian and entertainer Billy T James tells the story of his heart transplant operation at Greenlane Hospital, in 1989, and his subsequent recovery. The documentary, much of which is filmed at the hospital (sometimes even from bed, as Billy re-enacts his operation) also features five other patients who he became close to over the months while they waited for their hearts. Entertaining as well as educational, the film includes a musical number with Max Cryer, dressed as a surgeon, joined in song by Billy and Don Selwyn.
In April 1990, Billy Taitoko James came back from years of ill health, and made a triumphant return to performing his unique brand of music and comedy. It was a last hurrah for James, whose transplanted heart gave out on him the following year, but it's a worthy swansong. His unique brand of humour is captured at its affable, non-PC, best, with Billy T giving everything he's got — every gag is rounded off with his trademark 'bro' laugh — a loudly appreciative audience. NZ On Screen has two excerpts. Guests include Sir Howard Morrison. Read more about Billy T and the show here.
'My Old Man’s an All Black' was a big hit for the Howard Morrison Quartet in 1960. The song subverted 'My Old Man's a Dustman' to mock an apartheid South African decree banning Māori players from the touring All Blacks. In this 1990 performance, Morrison and Billy T James (months after heart surgery) update the song’s lyrics for a more recent controversy: the dropping of popular All Black captain Wayne 'Buck' Shelford. Howard ribs rugby’s supposed amateurism, and Billy T explains why Buck isn’t packing down in the scrum. The final haka includes an unexpected guest...
In these excerpts from his last TV series — a family based sitcom — Billy T has to deal with his radical older daughter who wants to get a moko, a teenage boy trying to smuggle beer into his younger daughter’s birthday party, a defamation writ, and another tribe becoming his landlord. There are varying degrees of help from his wife (Ilona Rodgers), his aggressively dim Australian brother-in-law (Mark Hadlow) and his daughter’s painfully politically correct pakeha boyfriend (Mark Wright), as well as cameos from Temuera Morrison, Martin Henderson and Blair Strang.
Directed by Tainui Stephens, this 1990 TVNZ series surveyed Māori contemporary music. This second episode looks at the showband era (1950s - 70s), when musicians mixed genres (electric guitar, rock’n’roll) with Māori culture, to make a unique contribution to Kiwi show business. Acts like The Howard Morrison Quartet, The Māori Volcanics, The Quin Tikis and The Māori Hi-Fives took songs from marae to international cabarets. Music historian Chris Bourke praised the series for marking the role of showbands in the whakapapa of entertainers from Billy T James to Rim D Paul.
Michael Firth's follow-up to his 1977 Oscar-nominated ski documentary Off the Edge, but this time with a plot and scripted dialogue. Canadian Matt hitches from Auckland to meet a bunch of Kiwi extreme thrill-seekers at a southern ski field. They throw themselves off volcanoes, glaciers, mountains and into an Iron Man with "get more go" abandon. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh's first feature shoot — "I was relatively cheap and I could ski" — is notable for its action sequences (set to an 80s pop soundtrack) and Billy T James as a mad pilot.
Comedian Billy T James presents an introduction to The America’s Cup as Team New Zealand challenges for The Auld Mug for the first time. Billy T visits Fremantle in Western Australia — where the Cup is being contested — and meets members of the NZ team including skipper Chris Dickson and backer Michael Fay. Rules and strategy are explained and there’s occasional product placement for sponsor Sony. Billy’s sense of humour is never too far away but this is a largely-factual exercise from a time before The America’s Cup was (briefly) “New Zealand’s Cup”.
In this video billowing sails and an impressive array of mid-80s celebrities (musicians, broadcasters, sportspeople) raise their voices in patriotic fervour, to rally support for the first Kiwi challenge for the America’s Cup: “in a boat just called New Zealand”. The bid failed, but ‘Sailing Away’ set a record for the most consecutive weeks at number one by a NZ artist (nine), until the arrival of Smashproof’s ‘Brother’ in 2009. The tune — borrowed from ‘Pokarekare Ana’ — remains both as a reminder of simpler times in the America’s Cup, and an era of questionable haircuts.
In 1986 Footrot Flats: The Dog's (Tail) Tale and its theme song ‘Slice of Heaven’ were huge hits in New Zealand and Australia. The adaptation of Murray Ball's beloved Footrot Flats comic strip marked Aotearoa's first animated feature. There were a lot of big questions to answer: Will Wal become an All Black? Will Cooch recover his stolen stag? Will the Dog win your hearts and funny bones? Punters answered at the box office. This John Toon-shot trailer doubled as a promo for the Dave Dobbyn-Herbs song, and smartly leveraged both. Tony Hiles writes about the film's making here.
This was a beloved six-part children’s drama about the adventures of skateboarding 12-year-old Terry Teo, based on a 1982 graphic novel comic by Stephen Ballantyne and Bob Kerr. The Auckland-set series honoured the comic’s distinctive New Zealand landscapes, people and humour, and gave them a cartoonish feel with larger-than-life acting, animated arcade game style sequences, bright costumes and oversized props. Former Goon Michael Bentine headed the cast which also featured Billy T James as a bikie, and a cameo from former PM Sir Robert Muldoon.
This Kaleidoscope profile heralds the arrival of producer Larry Parr on the global film scene, following “the Kid from Raetihi” in his Jaguar from the hometown premiere of Came A Hot Friday (at that point the second most successful NZ film at the box office) to the Auckland offices of his company Mirage. In spite of the shoulder-padded, aspirational 80s framing, Parr talks about more troubled productions (eg. Pallet On The Floor) and the need for less self-conscious local cinema, with disarming honesty. Billy T James and Ian Mune provide character references.
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 kids’ adventure series, 12-year-old hero Terry Teo has stumbled on a gunrunning operation. The baddies — boss Ray Vegas and villainous sidekicks Curly and Blue — are hunting for him; and Terry’s brother and sister are doing their best to help, ending up in Kaupati in the most Kiwi holiday park ever. Meanwhile, more information emerges about the mysterious, but dim, Thompson and Crouch as they report to their boss (played by none other than real life ex PM Sir Robert Muldoon) — and Billy T James is turning out to be a very cultured bikie.
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 beloved 80s kids’ drama, hero Terry Teo has escaped from evil criminal mastermind Ray Vegas. All roads lead to a lovingly realised Kaupati A&P Show (with cameo from radio personality Merv Smith) as Vegas’ henchmen Curly and Blue, Terry’s brother and sister, and Thompson and Crouch pursue him. Curly still has the best outfit and manages to trash another motorcycle — but the bikies are too busy discussing philosophy. Meanwhile, Thompson and Crouch are revealed as government agents (with a cavalier approach to spending taxpayers’ money).
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.
“The funniest, liveliest, most exuberant film ever made in New Zealand”. So said critic Nicholas Reid, a year after Came a Hot Friday became 1985's biggest local hit. Though Billy T’s loony Mexican-Māori cowboy is beloved by fans, he is but one eccentric here among many — as two scheming conmen hit town, and encounter bookies, boozers, country hicks, nasty crim Marshall Napier, and Prince Tui Teka playing saxophone. Until the arrival of The Piano in 1993, Ian Mune and Dean Parker’s award-loaded adaptation remained NZ's third biggest local hit. Ian Pryor writes about the film here.
TVNZ’s Māori programme Koha talks to Billy T James in this studio interview. At 34, he is already one of NZ’s most prominent performers after a breakthrough role in Radio Times, two years of his own TV show and winning Entertainer of the Year. Topics include the unwitting role his teachers played in his mimicry, his brief career in commercial art, touring with the Maori Volcanics and whether his characters unfairly stereotype Māori. He also discusses why his humour doesn’t work with overseas audiences and recounts meeting a rather confused American.
In this episode of the Jon Gadsby written rural sitcom, the locals at The Rabbiter’s Rest pub attempt to take an overzealous young constable down a peg. Michael Haigh (Gliding On) has yet another of his police roles as the worldly wise local sergeant. No appearance from Gadsby in this episode, but David Telford plays the genial proprietor, Doreen the barmaid reprises the role Annie Whittle made famous in A Week of It, and Billy T James is among the regulars propping up the bar. The humour is gentle; some of the jokes are shaggier than the local sheep flock at shearing time.
Off the back of the success of A Week of It and McPhail and Gadsby, Jon Gadsby was given his own gig, as writer of this gentle, rural based sitcom series. His comic partner David McPhail was not involved, but writer AK Grant was on board as script editor. Gadsby’s onscreen involvement was limited to cameo appearances, as a highly competitive rugby coach. Set in the rural backwater of Rabbit Flats, the series drew on Gadsby’s experiences as a barman in the Southland town of Dipton, and allowed him to revisit the bar-based skits of A Week of It.
The powerhouse, largely Māori cast of this teleplay includes Jim Moriarty, Merata Mita, Billy T James (as a Marxist) and, in his acting debut, Zac Wallace (star of Utu). The Protesters explores issues involving race and land ownership in the aftermath of the Springbok Tour and Bastion Point. A group of Māori and Pākehā protestors occupy ancestral land that the government wants to sell. While waiting for the police to arrive, they debate whether to go quietly or respond with violence. Though some wounds are healed, The Protesters ends on a note of division, reflecting the era it was made in.
One of those Blighters began life as a doco on Taranaki novelist Ronald Hugh Morrieson, but after interviews with many who knew him, morphed into something more offbeat: a semi-fictionalised tale of Morrieson’s mates reminiscing about his departure, interwoven with highlights from his tales of drunkards and con artists. The dramatisations are from his four novels - all became movies - plus one posthumously published short story. Amidst a cast packed to the rafters with carousing Kiwi screen legends, fellow multi-talented muso Bruno Lawrence plays Morrieson.
This live TV spectacular documents an 18 October 1981 Royal Variety performance in front of the touring Queen Elizabeth and Duke of Edinburgh. Performers in St James Theatre included Ray Columbus (in That's Country mode), Sir Howard Morrison and John Rowles. Dance is represented by Limbs and the Royal New Zealand Ballet, while McPhail and Gadsby and Billy T James deliver pre-PC gags. There’s a show stopping all-singing all-dancing finale, and what seems like the entire roster of NZ showbiz of the time lines up to greet the Queen, including Lynn of Tawa.
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.
The original launchpad for Billy T’s rise to TV superstar, Radio Times travels back in time to find a fresh angle on the musical variety show. Inspired by 30s and 40s era radio shows, the series features a swinging dancehall band, fake singing stars, German villains, and coconut shell sound effects. Creator Tom Parkinson’s masterstroke: casting Billy T James as oh-so-British compere Dexter Fitzgibbons. In this episode the cast go South American, forgotten bombshell Alita Gotti channels Marlene Dietrich, and The Yandall Sisters cover Fats Waller classic 'Handful of Keys'.
This episode of the legendary pro-wrestling show screened on 29 July 1980. Ernie Leonard and Steve Rickard compere the action at Canterbury Court Stadium. In the first match up Aussie grappler Larry O'Day teams up with local Merv Fortune to take on Kid Hardie and young Ricky Rickard. An excerpt features Brute Miller and Sweet William (later famous as The Bushwackers) against Lu Leota and Samoan Joe; while Jack Claybourne and Ron Miller round out the bill. Billy T James makes an appearance and comments on the authenticity of the in-the-ring proceedings.
The launchpad for Billy T’s rise to television superstar, Radio Times recreates an era when home entertainment involved another type of box entirely. Inspired by 30s and 40s era radio extravaganzas, producer Tom Parkinson creates a show complete with swinging dancehall band, adventure serials and coconut shell sound effects. Parkinson’s masterstroke was casting Billy T as the oh-so-British compere glueing everything together (and occasionally sliding effortlessly into a different accent). The Yandall Sisters, singer Craig Scott and writer Derek Payne also feature.