Asked once what makes a good interviewer, Brian Edwards replied "wide experience of life — its highest peaks and lowest troughs — and the human sympathy that goes with it. The great interviewers are rarely young."
Edwards has done time as a television interviewer, talkback radio host, media advisor and author. He first made his name on television in the late 60s thanks to a hard-hitting style of interrogating public figures, which polarised viewers and won him awards. His style contrasted with the orthodox interviewing manner of the time, which was reserved, non-confronting and enunciated in 'correct' BBC English.
Edwards was born in Northern Ireland. His father abandoned him after an argument with his mother when he was two years old. Edwards chronicled his first 25 years — and the search for the truth about his mysterious father — in 2008 book Daddy was a German Spy and Other Scandals. The book recounts how during a return trip to Northern Ireland, Edwards ran into an old teacher, who asked how he had been doing all those years.
Edwards' reply began "well... went to Queen's University (in Belfast), then to Edinburgh for my doctorate, emigrated to New Zealand, taught at Canterbury University, got into TV, became famous, wrote a book about my experiences, stood unsuccessfully for parliament, became a media adviser to a couple of Labour prime ministers, wrote a book about the '72 general election, worked for a trade union, found myself unemployable, went relief teaching at a local high school, became a radio talkback host, was tried for contempt of court for revealing the suppressed names of three SIS agents in a famous New Zealand spy trial..."
After completing a Doctor of Philosophy on Franz Kafka, Edwards began in television after encouragement from producer Linda MacDougall. His first turn before the cameras, for Christchurch show Out and About, was deemed unfit to air; after four hours of waiting while the outside broadcast crew set up, Edwards got so nervous he forgot most of his questions. Later episodes went better, and producer Des Monaghan invited him to audition for the Christchurch edition of 60s magazine show Town and Around (Edwards talks about the show halfway through the third clip of this documentary). A Town and Around interview with some 60s era mods and rockers won acclaim; Edwards feels it helped turn the show in a more courageous direction.
The careers of Monaghan and Edwards rose in tandem. In 1968 Monaghan invited him to Auckland to do a report on the city's Island population for oft-controversial current affairs show Compass. There he quickly began attracting the attention of both audiences and critics.
In 1969 Edwards was one of a trio drafted to interview American evangelist Billy Graham, for show Point of View. Although Graham later told journalists that he'd enjoyed talking to the group of "devil's advocates", many viewers complained about the supposedly impolite style of the interview.
Such probing interviews had been seen in overseas shows, but were new to Kiwi television. When Edwards brought this more confrontational style to current affairs show Gallery in 1969, it helped make his name. There were controversial discussions with SIS head William Gilbert, who (as Edwards talks about here) attempted to stop his interview from being broadcast, and heart transplant surgeon Christian Barnard. The latter won Gallery a Feltex award, and more complaints from the public.
The conversation which won Edwards lasting fame occurred in September 1970. Post office workers were on a go-slow in a bid for higher wages, and communication between unions and managers had completely broken down. Gallery got representatives of both sides into the studio, and as the interview neared its end, Edwards managed to get both men to agree to go back into negotiation. The go-slow was called off that night. This time it was Edwards who won a Feltex Award.
A few months after the post office interview, the pilot episode of The Brian Edwards Show was recorded. It included music, satire and what Robert Boyd-Bell describes as "a fiery conversation" between Finance Minister Robert Muldoon and three young critics (including Tim Shadbolt). Reporter David Beatson called it "the finest television programme you never saw". Possibly fearing pending decisions involving a possible second channel, state television executives canned plans for a series, arguing the pilot wasn't good enough.
Edwards left Gallery soon after. His 1971 book The Public Eye details many of the interviews he'd done up until that time.
The following year Edwards "nailed my colours to the mast", by making a failed attempt to win election as a Labour candidate. From then on political interviews would be the exception, rather than the rule.
He returned to television in 1975 with Edwards on Saturday. The live show mixed music and chat. As Edwards discusses here, it deliberately pushed the boundaries. Initially paired on alternate weekends with a chat show starring expat Kiwi Michael Dean, it rated highly. The first episode examined homosexuality, while the second convinced many viewers they were witnessing live psychic surgery — at least until the truth was revealed.
Sometimes clocking in at more than two hours, Edwards on Saturday proved exhausting to make. In 1977 many of the Edwards on Saturday team moved onto a new consumer rights programme. Fair Go would become one of the longest running shows in the history of New Zealand television (he returned for this 30th anniversary special, and later looked back on Fair Go here).
Although "no longer out to destroy people" on-screen, Edwards felt he was doing "tougher" interviews on Fair Go than he had before. In the same period, he interviewed children of famous Kiwis for series Sons and Daughters, and did a rare comic turn in this tribute to Fair Go reporter Judith Fyfe . After time as both presenter and producer, he finally left Fair Go in 1985, and travelled New Zealand as an ambassador for Southern Cross Television, in their failed bid to launch the country's third TV channel.
Edwards began running media training courses in the early 1970s. Between them, he and third wife Judy Callingham have been advisors to four Prime Ministers, including Helen Clark (who Edwards wrote a book about). He has also spent time as a columnist and radio host, including a five year stint in the 90s, hosting high rating National Radio show Top of the Morning.
In 1989 Edwards and Callingham collaborated on the TV docu-series Missing, which sought to connect people, including adoption cases, long-lost lovers and war veterans. Throughout the 90s, Edwards hosted a run of one-off documentaries (including Wahine - The Untold Story and Life Sentence - The Crewe Murders), and had a regular interview slot on magazine show Sunday.
He returned to television interviewing in 2003 with Edwards at Large, a show which included controversial interviews with Rodney Hide and author Lynley Hood. Edwards argued at the time that "if you're really interested in what makes people tick, what shapes their personalities, this is just the best job in the world".
In 1999 he was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (CNZM), for services to Broadcasting and Journalism. He has also written often on local media developments for National Business Review.
Profile updated on 17 January 2023
Brian Edwards Media website (broken link). Accessed 6 April 2018
Brian Edwards, The Public Eye (Wellington: AH and AW Reed, 1971)
Brian Edwards, Daddy was a German Spy - and Other Scandals (Auckland: Penguin Books, 2008)
'Brian Edwards - TV Current Affairs Legend' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen Website. Director Andrew Whiteside (Uploaded 26 July 2011). Accessed 26 July 2011
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Karl du Fresne, 'I Still Make Them Squirm' Says Brian Edwards'' (Interview) - TV People (Wellington: INL Print Limited, 1978)
Michele Hewitson, 'Michele Hewitson interview: Brian Edwards' - The NZ Herald, 21 August 2010
Ian Johnstone, Stand and Deliver (Whatamango Bay: Cape Catley, 1998)
Unknown writer, 'Sth Is. promised fair go' - The Marlborough Express, 30 July 1985, page 2
Unknown writer, 'Life's missing link' - The Evening Post, 13 April 1989, page 14
Unknown writer, 'Format energises Edwards' - Dominion Post (TV Week liftout), 6 July 2003, page 15