The worlds of film and television aren’t short of memorable personalities. Some become famous to the public at large. Others become legendary to those working behind the scenes.
Production manager and producer Brian Walden — aka The Sarge — fits in the latter category. Over roughly 35 years he was a key cog on a host of television shows and movies. Passionate, straight-talking and keenly aware that time is money when a rolling cavalcade of filmmakers arrive on location, Walden showed little hesitation in reordering the lunch queue so that key crew members could refuel and return to work.
Veteran director Wayne Tourell remembers the longtime production manager as forthright and relentless, and always keeping an eye out to make the director’s job easier. “He could bring any production in on time and budget,” says Tourell. “Even if he had to go and do half the stuff that needed to be done himself. Which was often the case. His knowledge of every aspect of production was legendary. He could go to any location and know exactly where the sun came up and where it would be lost. He could work out how to get the crew in and out in the best, safest and most cost-effective way. Boy did he love and protect his crew.”
From breakthrough kidult drama Hunter’s Gold (1975) through to Hanlon a decade later, Walden thrived amid a golden age of television drama. Then he went freelance, working on everything from co-productions to local movie classics like Illustrious Energy. Along the way he gave a leg up to a wide variety of industry figures, from late colleague Murray Newey (award-winner The Whole of the Moon) to grip Geoff Jamieson and producer Matthew Metcalfe (25 April).
Born and raised in Auckland, Walden did five years as an electrician, before a holiday in Hong Kong inspired an abrupt change of career plan. After volunteering to help out on 1967 movie Sampan, Walden found himself joining news crews as they dodged riot police and tear gas during riots in Hong Kong. Walden quickly showed he was up for a variety of roles; during seven years in Asia he was everything from first assistant director to production manager on a series of mostly English-language movies. As these photographs show, he did everything from fire-fighting to appearing on screen: playing a soldier on Too Late the Hero, directed by All Black fan Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen) and making sure his credit on one Hong Kong production was Mandarin for ‘bad egg’.
Returning to NZ in 1975, Walden signed on with new channel TV2, for $112.55 a week. One of the first things he worked on was series One Man’s View. Walden and reporter Hanafi Hayes survived muddy backroads and more while finding eccentrics to interview. Hayes later described Walden as “a sturdy lad”, with shoulders like a rugby prop.
The influental stripped board scheduling system — which Walden had quizzed Gary Kurtz on, while Kurtz scouted possible Philippines locations for Star Wars — would prove just as useful when Walden got home. In 1975 Walden and Tony Holden used it on landmark kidult adventure Hunter’s Gold. Walden began hunting down locations in Central Otago while the script was still being written, and stayed on to clean up after the crew had dwindled back to a handful.
The surge of local drama which followed saw broadcasting staff scrabbling to master the complex task of keeping locations supplied with power supplies, ablutions and food. For kidult series Children of Fire Mountain, access to the main set required more than two kilometres of walking (often involving mud and torchlight) plus a boat ride. The varied locations of Gather Your Dreams and Ngaio Marsh Theatre's four episodes supplied further challenges, while on The Mackenzie Affair he even found himself wrangling the bullock co-star.
In the 80s, Walden’s proposal to relocate the third season of Sea Urchins to the Marlborough Sounds was gratefully adopted. Walden also has a soft spot for police drama Mortimer’s Patch, which won solid ratings and was abruptly cancelled before being given another chance.
In 1984 he was chosen to production manage high profile drama Hanlon, inspired by real-life lawyer Alf Hanlon. Director Wayne Tourell doubts the shoot would have been completed within its nine-month schedule without him; Walden argues the top-notch crew was what made the difference. The project involved wrangling horses, cattle, vintage yachts and cars, and scores of extras.
Hanlon cameraman Michael O’Connor, who joined Walden on many projects, argues that Walden was “the backbone of TV2’s drama department for 10 years” — responsible for introducing professional working methods for major drama series, at a time when local TV was “still entrenched in an outdated public service system”.
After Hanlon, Walden went freelance, partly relieved to farewell the “politically correct and by the book mentality” of the public service. He got busy on a wide range of projects, from movies to music videos. On a number of them he associate produced for producer Murray Newey, including on David Blyth’s vampire tale Moonrise — which Walden feels deserved a much better fate — and this continuation of British TV series The Adventures of Black Beauty. He also line produced the first five episodes of anthology series Mataku, and shepherded two ambitious low-budget location shoots: goldmining classic Illustrious Energy, and Ian Mune TV thriller The Grasscutter.
En route, there have been many laughs. Having to stop the car from laughter while driving Rima and Beryl Te Wiata to the set of Porters; a night at the races with Munsters legend Al Lewis and Noel Appleby; frocks day for the crew of TV’s The Neighbourhood Network.
Asked to describe his most challenging screen projects, Walden’s answers tend to involve liquids — whether the boiling thermal waters of Children of Fire Mountain, or filming at sea. NZ-French co-production Deepwater Haven involved child actors on the ocean, and a director with limited English. Not for the first time in his career, safety matters seemed to fall to the production manager. Thankfully Walden wasn’t the only one on set with sailing experience. The Return of Tommy Tricker involved adventures across the Pacific including corruption, supply ships arriving late, and a complex sequence involving a plane 'flying' underwater. Late actor Yvonne Lawley (Ruby and Rata) lives on in Walden’s prodigious memory for her keenness to stay on for a stunt scene in an outrigger canoe, telling him “surely it would be easier if I were there — the crew would take care that I didn’t drown”.
Walden has been in no hurry to take it easy either, despite having retired. In 2009 he was about to start some gardening when a neighbour asked if he felt all right. The woman thought that Walden’s slurring and collapsed face indicated a possible stroke. The swift diagnosis, and a dose of clot-busting drugs, saw him recovering in a hospital bed an hour later. Walden swears that amazing memory of his has only improved.
Hanafi Hayes, Hayes Over New Zealand (Auckland: Methuen Publishing, 1981)
Unknown Writer, ‘Acting FAST saved Brian’s brain' - Forward issue 28, November 2011, page 4
'Brian Walden', Internet Movie Database website. Accessed 21 April 2016