Bruno Lawrence was a widely popular and prolific actor, musician and counter-cultural hero. His inimitable and charismatic screen presence was central to Kiwi legends Smash Palace, The Quiet Earth and Utu. Lawrence was also known for his influential and anarchic travelling theatre troupe, Blerta.
Local movies' most magnetic leading man. Peter Calder in The NZ Herald
If a single word could sum up the free-wheeling flavour of alternative music and comedy in Aotearoa during the 1970s, that word would surely be ... Blerta. The 'Bruno Lawrence Electric Revelation and Travelling Apparition' included foundation members of the NZ screen industry (Lawrence, Geoff Murphy, Alun Bollinger) plus other merry pranksters. Drawing on the Blerta TV series and beyond, Blerta Revisited (aka Blerta - The Return Trip) is an anarchic collection of comedy skits, musical interludes and films culled from the Blerta archives. Costa Botes writes about Blerta here.
Numero Bruno is a warts and all biography of widely popular actor, musician and counter-cultural hero Bruno Lawrence. Lawrence's intense, charismatic screen presence was key to ground-breaking Kiwi films, Smash Palace, The Quiet Earth and Utu. Directed by Steve La Hood (the veteran director’s TV swansong), this documentary features interviews with family and friends, and liberal excerpts from Lawrence's film and musical work, including performances by 70s alternative Aotearoa icons Blerta and clips showcasing his seminal collaborations with Geoff Murphy.
In director Garth Maxwell’s 1993 gothic horror twins Jack and Dora (late US actor Alexis Arquette and Kiwi Sarah Smuts-Kennedy) are separated while young; their adult reunion sees them battling the trauma of their past while being pursued by Jack’s sadistic step sisters. Complete with ESP, and a steam-driven hypnosis machine, Maxwell makes an exuberant and surreal contribution to the cinema of unease. New York Times’ Stephen Holden lauded the heady head-spinner as “a superior genre film” with a “feverish intensity that recalls scenes from Hitchcock and De Palma.”
This fast-paced trip through Bruno Lawrence’s first 50 years combines interviews, clips from his many film and TV roles, and priceless material from the vaults (early acting parts, Edmund Hillary presenting Bruno with a Feltex). Bruno talks about favourite roles, the challenges of breaking into the US after hit Smash Palace, and the music-based film he long hoped to direct. LA Times critic Sheila Benson raves about both Bruno and Sam Neill. The Bruno interviews conducted for this doco would later win an extended airing in biographical doco Numero Bruno.
Cowboys of Culture is director Geoff Steven's personal perspective on the Kiwi cinema renaissance of the 1970s. It traces the development of the local film industry from the ‘she'll be right' days when filming permits were unknown, and all that was needed to get a picture up were a Bolex camera, enthusiasm and ingenuity. Raw they might have been, but the films (Wild Man, Sleeping Dogs, Goodbye Pork Pie, Smash Palace) represented a vital new cultural force. The film features interviews with the major players, and clips from their movies.
This epic Lee Tamahori-directed promo for the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games imagines the stirrings of Games spirit in the mud of the Western Front, 1917. Behind the lines, soldiers from various 'British Empire' nations (Bruno Lawrence, Tony Barry and a young Joel Tobeck) lay bets to see who is the fastest. After racing they pledge to "do this again sometime eh brother" (referring no doubt to the shared joy of competition, as opposed to 1,115,597 Commonwealth war dead). The first Commonwealth Games were held in Hamilton, Ontario (Canada), in 1930.
Indie production house Communicado made their name with a stable of television shows that celebrated Kiwi culture. After the success of late-80s show That’s Fairly Interesting, the company began work on Magic Kiwis, a show devoted to heroes of popular culture. Mostly the cavalcade of Kiwi celebs were stars of entertainment (Howard Morrison, Split Enz) and sports (Susan Devoy, John Walker), with the odd politician thrown in. Over three series, the half hour shows combined classic clips and interview footage, all tied together in trademark upbeat style.
This sci-fi telefeature for kids follows the adventures of runaways Peter (Toby Laing) and Maggie (Toni Driscoll), who meet when Maggie’s attempt to get Picnic bars on a five finger discount go awry and "rich brat" Peter is on the lam on a 10-speed. After falling into a grave of golden light at a farm cemetery, they wake up in the house of the strange Piper family. Laing is now trumpeter for Fat Freddys Drop, and a young Kerry Fox appears briefly as a policewoman in the opening. Scripted by veteran Ken Catran, the telefeature was re-cut from a four-part series.
Fresh from larger than life comedy Came a Hot Friday, Ian Mune made an abrupt turn to horror with his second feature as director. Friday alumni Phillip Gordon joins a brat pack of young Kiwi actors. Going bush, they meet gun-totting cattleman Bruno Lawrence and a young woman. He is not happy. In this clip, the group begin to crack under the strain of being hunted. Originally written by American Bill Baer, the film was pre-sold to an investor in the United States. Mune's LA agent later told him that letting the dog die didn't help the film's commercial chances in the States.
The last novel by Ronald Hugh Morrieson revolves around a freezing plant worker (Peter McCauley) in an interracial marriage. For this little seen movie adaptation, the role of an English remittance man was expanded in an attempt to cast Peter O'Toole (New Zealand-born Bruce Spence got the role). Morrieson's view of small-town Aotearoa is a dark one, as he explores racism, violence, suicide and blackmail. Bruno Lawrence contributes to Jonathan Crayford's jazz-tinged score, and features in the wedding band. The freezing works scenes were shot at the defunct plant in Patea.
In director Geoff Murphy's cult sci fi feature, a global energy project has malfunctioned and scientist Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) awakes to find himself the only living being left on earth. At first he lives out his fantasies, helping himself to cars and clothes, before the implications of being 'man alone' sink in. As this awareness sends him to the brink of madness — see the excerpt above — he discovers two other survivors. One of them is a woman. The Los Angeles Daily News called the movie “quite simply the best science-fiction film of the 80s”. Read more about it here.
Shot on location, Inside Straight‘s colourful portrait of Wellington’s underworld helped usher in a new era of urban Kiwi TV dramas, far from the backblocks. Phillip Gordon (Came a Hot Friday) stars as Steve Keenan, the everyman learning the ways of the city from taxi driver Roy Billing. In this episode, Steve finds himself on the run from dodgy gamblers, while trying to raise $5000 to enter a high stakes card game. Meanwhile another card-player has hit town: conman Nick (Bruno Lawrence), who quickly starts romancing Steve’s sometime girlfriend (Joanne Simpson).
Pre-dating Peter Jackson's arrival (Bad Taste) by three years, New Zealand's first horror movie sees Michael Hurst making his movie debut as he fights mutants (including Bruno Lawrence) on Waiheke Island. Hurst's character is out to avenge the mad scientist who forced him to kill his parents. A grand prize-winner at a French fantasy festival (with cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky on the jury), David Blyth's splatterfest marked the first of many horrors funded by the NZ Film Commission. It was also the first local showcase of the smoothly-flowing Steadicam camera.
Heart of the Stag showed that director Michael Firth could handle actors as well as skis (his first film, ski documentary Off the Edge, was Oscar-nominated). Bruno Lawrence stars as a man working for a King Country farmer (Terence Cooper), who romances the farmer's adult daughter (Mary Regan) and starts wondering about the strained family dynamic. A rare drama dealing with incest, Heart of the Stag was praised by The LA Times as "electrifyingly good". The NZ Herald said it handled a delicate subject without compromise. Metro voted it the best Kiwi film of 1984.
Shot on location in Wellington, often after dark, Inside Straight helped usher in a new era of Kiwi TV dramas, far from the rural backblocks. This Minder-esque portrait of Wellington’s underworld was inspired by writer Keith Aberdein’s experiences as a taxi-driver and all night cafe worker. Phillip Gordon (soon to win fame as a conman in Came a Hot Friday) stars as the former fisherman, learning the ways of the city from veteran taxi driver Roy Billing. A solid but unspectacular rater over 10 episodes, the show was scuttled by the launch of trucker’s tale Roche.
Mitch (Keith Aberdein) moves to Tongariro National Park to help wrangle wild horses threatening ecology and traffic. He meets Sara, who shares an obsession for a fabled silver horse. They clash with rangers and deer recovery guns-for-hire (Bruno Lawrence is the black-clad villain) determined to eradicate the horses, and a showdown on the Desert Plateau ensues. In the notoriously fraught production a stable of Kiwi acting legends perform a melange of western and freedom-on-the-range genre turns (with the conservationists oddly set up as the bad guys).
In this tale of an English servant woman doing it hard down under, Lizzie (Sarah Peirse, who won a Feltex) finds herself trapped on a rundown Canterbury sheep farm alongside three men: one mean, one silent, and one simple-minded (Bruno Lawrence, who Lizzie first meets in this excerpt). Directed by David Blyth between his edgy debut Angel Mine and splatter-fest Death Warmed Up, the pioneer tale was written by English author Elizabeth Gowans. Newbie scribe Fran Walsh later extended the film to tele-movie length, from its original incarnation as A Woman of Good Character.
It's the 1870s, and Māori leader Te Wheke (Anzac Wallace) is fed up by brutal land grabs. He leads a bloody rebellion against the colonial Government, provoking threatened frontiersmen, disgruntled natives, lusty wahine, bible-bashing priests, and kupapa alike to consider the nature of ‘utu’ (retribution). Legendary New Yorker critic Pauline Kael raved about Geoff Murphy’s ambitious follow up to Goodbye Pork Pie: “[He] has an instinct for popular entertainment. He has a deracinated kind of hip lyricism. And they fuse quite miraculously in this epic ...”
In a lawless fuel wars future, marauders roam the wasteland looking for oil. Their malevolent leader Straker threatens his daughter Corlie; she’s rescued by loner Hunter and they harbour with eco-sensitive folk in the Clearwater Commune ... but not for long: there will be blood on the Central Otago plains! Following in the exhaust of Mad Max, the cult film was made during the 80s tax-break feature surge, with US director (Harley Cokliss) and leads flocking south during a Hollywood writers’ strike, and Kiwis as crew (“artists with chainsaws”) and supporting cast.
This 2 June 1982 Close Up edition looks at the journey of the merry pranksters behind Blerta, from Dr Brunowski to making multi-million dollar movies. Geoff Murphy and Bruno Lawrence are interviewed at Waimarama while working on colonial epic Utu. Various members of the Murphy clan are seen involved in the production, reinforcing Murphy’s stab at why Blerta’s players have stuck together up to this point: “A uniformity of philosophy I suppose ... the family thing.” Nb: ‘B-roll’ shots (supplementary cutaway footage) are missing from the archive copy of this show.
In this infamous edition of the Loose Enz anthology series, sexologist Rufus (Grant Tilly) has marriage problems, due to being more theoretical than practical when it comes to the ways of the flesh. Things grow more complicated when patient Ernest (Bruno Lawrence, playing nerdy for a change) claims he is suffering from having a magic touch with women. Alongside Joy of Sex japes and punning pillow talk galore, this sex farce gained notoriety for scenes of high-profile newsreader Angela D’Audney (as the dissatisfied wife) going topless, then donning a turquoise catsuit.
For this documentary director Gaylene Preston goes behind the scenes during the making of Geoff Murphy's Utu — his ambitious 'puha western' set during the 1870s land wars. “It’s like football innit? You set up the event and cover it…” says Murphy, as he prepares to shoot a battle scene. In this excerpt, the film’s insistence on cultural respect is conveyed: Merata Mita discusses the beauty of ta moko as star Anzac Wallace is transformed into Te Wheke in the makeup chair, and Martyn Sanderson reflects on having his head remade to be blown off: “What’s the time Mr Wolf?”.
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.
In this episode of the early 80s TVNZ high country drama (penned by Pukemanu writer Julian Dickon and directed by Roger Donaldson), Jocko (Bruce Allpress) is reunited with two fellow Korean War veterans — but one is now an escaped convict and the other a police officer heading the manhunt. Stan, another escapee (a suitably manic Bruno Lawrence), stirs things up but the real drama here involves unfinished business for three former soldiers from a conflict 25 years earlier. It’s also very much a man’s world, without a single female character to be seen.
Goodbye Pork Pie was a low-budget sensation, definitively proving Kiwis could make blockbusters too. Young Gerry (Kelly Johnson) steals a yellow Mini from a Kaitaia rental company. Heading south, he meets John (Tony Barry), who wants his wife back, and hitchhiker Shirl (Claire Oberman). Soon they're heading to Invercargill, with the police in pursuit. High on hair-raising driving and a childlike sense of joy, the Blondini gang are soon hailed as folk heroes, on screen and off. Remake Pork Pie (2017) was directed by Matt Murphy — son of Geoff, who drove the original film.
Introduced by a pilot called High Country, Jocko was an early 80s attempt by TVNZ to build a series around a travelling swagman character. Jocko (Bruce Allpress) is a maverick musterer and rural jack-of-all-trades in the tradition of the Australian swagman and the American cowboy. But the setting is a contemporary one: in the South Island high country where old and new methods of farming are coming into conflict. Two series were made, written by Julian Dickon (Pukemanu), and co-starring Desmond Kelly as Jocko’s off-sider and travelling companion, China.
Australian producer Antony Ginnane brought this $6 million romp to New Zealand, after Aussie union Actors Equity objected to the four lead roles going to foreigners. Deer hunting heroes Donald Pleasance (Halloween) and Ken Wahl (six years before becoming TV's Wise Guy) race around in helicopters and jet boats, after discovering a half-sunken WWll plane. This opening excerpt indicates the film's mixture of action, comedy and Southern scenery. Zephyr helped establish Aotearoa's reputation as a place to film; Ginnane and Kiwi John Barnett produced further projects together.
Smash Palace is a Kiwi cinema classic and launched Roger Donaldson's American career. Al Shaw (a brilliant, brooding Bruno Lawrence) is a racing car driver who now runs a wrecker's yard in the shadow of Mount Ruapehu. His French wife Jacqui is unhappy there and leaves him, taking up with Al's best mate. When she restricts Al's access to his young daughter, his frustration explodes and he goes bush with the girl, desperate not to lose her too. "There's no road back" runs the tagline. New Yorker critic Pauline Kael called the film "amazingly accomplished".
Beyond Reasonable Doubt reconstructs the events surrounding a notorious New Zealand miscarriage of justice. Farmer Arthur Allan Thomas was jailed for the murder of Harvey and Jeanette Crewe. Directed by John Laing, and starring Australian John Hargreaves (as Thomas) and Englishman David Hemmings (Blowup, Barbarella), the drama benefitted from immense public interest in the case. Thomas was pardoned while the film was in pre-production, and he saw some scenes being made. It became New Zealand's most successful film until Goodbye Pork Pie in 1981.
Band Spats demonstrated they could write a catchy song with 'New Wave Goodbye'. But it needed the addition of singer Jenny Morris, a name change to The Crocodiles and a track called 'Tears' for the public to really sit up and take notice. In the video, drummer Bruno Lawrence hangs around next to a shady lamp post while Morris passes by, and the band's bubblegum coloured costumes positively shine against an all white set. After reaching number 17 on the NZ singles charts, 'Tears' won the APRA Silver Scroll songwriting award for 1980.
Infamous, short-lived, and arguably unfairly maligned, The Neville Purvis Family Show was hosted by the occasionally foul-mouthed and very Kiwi Neville Purvis — in reality, writer and musician Arthur Baysting (Sleeping Dogs). The series is best known for containing possibly the first use of the f-word on New Zealand television. The full episode containing the controversial utterance has likely been lost; surviving material from the show includes appearances by PM Rob Muldoon, actor Marshall Napier as Neville's mechanic mate, and Limbs Dance Company.
Written by future Gloss creator Rosemary McLeod, this Television One sitcom satirised late 70s gender politics. It was filmed before a studio audience at Avalon Studios. In this episode, Ginette McDonald’s lippy feminist withholds the joy of sex from her hippy hubbie, and Bruno Lawrence (sporting a magnificent anti-comb over) is the unreformed motorhead neighbour whose hangover cure is beer and cornflakes. Lawrence’s larrikin performance in the show was spotted by director Roger Donaldson, who cast Bruno in his breakout lead role in a movie: Al Shaw in Smash Palace.
Charlie Horse is a personal film diary by actor Martyn Sanderson showing the breaking-in and training of a young colt in rural Hawke's Bay. It was made when Sanderson was a vital part of the gang of Blerta creatives who based themselves at Waimarama Beach in the 1970s. Some stunning ‘wild horses' imagery is captured (shot by Sanderson and cinematographer Alun Bollinger) and narration is intriguingly provided from audience comments recorded at a local screening of the footage. It features music by Blerta members Bruno Lawrence, Chris Seresin and Patrick Bleakley.
Wild Man is the missing link between 1970s musical legends Blerta, and the burgeoning of Blerta trumpeter Geoff Murphy as a director whose talents knew few bounds. The Blerta ensemble relocated to the mud-soaked West Coast to create this tale of pioneer con men and silent movie style pratfalls. Bruno Lawrence and Ian Watkin arrange a fight — and betting — in each town they arrive in, while Bruno channels his inner wild man from under a leopard skin. Wild Man was released in cinemas alongside John Clarke and Geoff Murphy’s Fred Dagg comedy Dagg Day Afternoon.
Part one of a four part thriller written by Keith Aberdein. In a small North Island town, a mysterious unmarked grave is believed to hold the remains of a tohunga who died ridding his people of a deadly epidemic. Now, an archaeological dig might be getting too close to that grave. A visiting doctor (Cathy Downes) arrives in town to find the locals in a state of agitation; the archaelogist (Martyn Sanderson) full of good intentions, but unaware of where his actions could lead; and relations between Māori and Pakeha strained as two cultures struggle to co-exist.
Ian Mune is Leo Moynihan, secretary of the carpenters’ union, who — with orange mini and leather jacket — has to navigate the shark-infested waters of 70s industrial relations. In this episode, earthquake regulations, a shifty minister and stand-over tactics from worksite agitators, count amongst Moynihan’s workplace problems. At home he has to introduce lecturer girlfriend Sarah to his young son. The NZ-Australia co-production (with ABC) was the first drama series made by TV One’s drama department. It won Feltex awards for best drama and Mune’s performance.
A mainstay on cinema and TV screens for over 20 years, this commercial — reputedly NZ’s longest-running — made Kiwis feel as if the UK-born hokey pokey treasure was ‘ours’. Directed by Tony Williams, the madcap romp features a bevy of 70s acting talent caught up in chaos, after outlaws start a free for all fight for a chest of Crunchie bars. A connection with Martin Scorsese’s editor allowed access to footage from old Westerns, while the immortal tune is by Murray Grindlay. Williams overspent his meagre budget, and a lawn mower given to him as a thank you ended up his fee.
Pioneering soap opera Close To Home first screened in May 1975. For just over eight years, middle New Zealand found their mirror in the life and times of Wellington’s Hearte clan. At its peak in 1977, nearly one million viewers tuned in twice weekly to watch the series, which was co-created by Michael Noonan and Tony Isaac. They initially only agreed to make it on condition they got approval for The Governor. The popular family saga carved a regular niche for local drama on screen; the demands of creating a regular show helped develop the skills of Kiwi actors and crew.
Pioneering series Pukemanu (the NZBC’s first continuing drama) followed the goings-on of a North Island timber town. The series was conceived by former forester Julian Dickon (who quit the series and was replaced by Listener critic Hamish Keith as writer). Producing two seasons of six episodes was a key step in industry professionalisation, and many of the cast became stars (Ginette McDonald, Ian Mune). It offered an archetypal screen image that Kiwis could relate to: rural, bi-cultural, boozy and blokey; and reviews praised its Swannie-clad authenticity.
Pioneering series Pukemanu (the NZBC’s first continuing drama) was set in a North Island timber town. Its portrait of the town’s folk offered an archetypal screen image that Kiwis could relate to: rural, bi-cultural, boozy and blokey; viewers and reviewers praised its Swannie-clad authenticity. This first episode sees a culture clash as a motorcycle gang (including a young Bruno Lawrence) comes to town and causes trouble, running Ray (Geoff Murphy) off the road; and stranded townie Diana (Ginette McDonald) falls in love with a local axeman while hunting.
The Italian Job meets cheap jugs and a student union gig in this early heist tale from Geoff Murphy (Goodbye Pork Pie). The plot follows some university students — short on exam fees and beer money — and their scheme to crack a campus safe. Murphy enlisted $4000 and a bevy of mates (including Bruno Lawrence in one of his earliest screen roles), and made it over nine months of weekends. It sold to local television (as well as the ABC in Australia). Its deliberately low key, naturalistic acting stood in stark contrast to the stage-influenced television dramas of the time.
In the one channel days of the early 1970s, the Survey slot was the place to find local documentaries. Topics ranged across the board, from social issues (alcoholism, runaway children) to the potentially humdrum (an AGM meeting) to the surprisingly experimental (music film The Unbelievable Glory of the Human Voice). After extended campaigning by producer John O’Shea, emerging independent filmmakers, including Tony Williams and Roger Donaldson, joined the party — bringing fresh creativity and new techniques to the traditional gentle, narration-heavy doco format.
Before the Blerta bus and Goodbye Pork Pie's yellow mini hit the road, some friends with more energy than cash dressed up as mad doctors and criminals, and began making films. This freeform short about running late is an early product of varied schemers who were key in the Kiwi film renaissance. Geoff Murphy plays the man in a hurry, and Bruno Lawrence is Dr Brunowski. Originally screened with live music, here it’s jazzed up with new opening credits and a 2012 soundtrack, led by Murphy on vocals. The result is an unbottling of youthful filmmaking pep. Warning: final credits not to be trusted.