Caterina De Nave, ONZM, was a major figure in the New Zealand television landscape. As producer on a range of dramas including the ambitious Erebus: The Aftermath, and the first woman to head a department at Television New Zealand, De Nave helped break the glass ceiling for women's advancement within the industry. Later she spent nine years as head of comedy and drama at TV3, before moving to Australian broadcaster SBS. Aside from the high stress job of helping choose which programmes got made, she was also a key player in the birth of New Zealand's longest-running soap, Shortland Street.
"She was extremely supportive and encouraging to work with," said producer Irene Gardiner, one of many who worked with De Nave early in their career. "She was an exceptional mentor, very generous with her time and energy. And also a straight talker, but a very kind and decent one." When De Nave departed for a job in Australia in 2008, NZ On Air Chief Executive Jane Wrightson praised De Nave for having put in the extra yards as a commissioner for television — "going out to the theatres and comedy venues and finding talent, nurturing and sticking with projects".
Caterina De Nave began in television in Auckland in the early 70s, initially as a script editor on Play School. The show moved to Dunedin in 1975 and De Nave followed, producing and directing on it for a number of years. Interviewed for an article in 1974, she sounded keen to move beyond the backroom roles traditionally assigned to women in television at that time. De Nave told Thursday magazine that "there is this idea that women have certain roles such as production assistants, continuity, makeup, costumes, cups of tea. And there are very few women directors."
Though De Nave would go on to direct on everything from Shortland Street to Pioneer Women, it was as a producer and TV executive that she really made her mark. Her producing credits include globally successful sci-fi series The Boy From Andromeda; hit big screen comedy The Topp Twins; and family dramas Steel Riders and Children of the Dog Star.
De Nave's most ambitious producing assignment was surely a toss up between Shortland Street and Erebus: The Aftermath. Based on the Commission of Inquiry into the crash of Flight 901, Erebus proved a challenge both legally and logistically — including speaking parts for 600 actors. As Trisha Dunleavy points out in her book Ourselves in Prime Time, the four-part mini-series "criticised still current public figures and exposed recent corruption in the corridors of power". De Nave, scriptwriter Greg McGee and TVNZ executive Des Monaghan fronted up for 12 hours of extended meetings, in order to persuade a defamation lawyer the scripts were accurate. Erebus: The Aftermath won rave reviews and strong ratings when it screened in 1987.
The following year De Nave was appointed Head of Entertainment at TVNZ, becoming the first female to head a department there — a significant advance in opportunities for women within local television. She then became Head of Development at South Pacific Pictures, the in-house subsidiary created by TVNZ to make drama programmes.
It was at SPP that De Nave helped develop, then produced Shortland Street, the first NZ drama series to screen five nights a week. The show was the brainchild of TVNZ programmer Bettina Hollings, who conferred with De Nave about the best environment in which to set a soap. De Nave spent time in Australia, helping devise the basic format and style alongside soap experts the Grundy Organisation. Then she was tasked with getting the new show up and running.
"It was six months from sitting around a table to going on air — which is remarkable," De Nave later recalled. "It is enormously fast. You have to design and build sets, you're budgeting it, you're casting it, you're writing scripts, you're crewing it." Though Shortland Street is now a television institution, the early days felt like "an uphill battle," with skepticism towards the project from many quarters. De Nave argued that one reason the show went on to find success was because it mixed optimism with edginess, and faced up to contentious issues like rape and racism. "I always wanted to push it as far as I could go."
In the early 80s, De Nave had directed this episode of Loose Enz, one of a series of one-off dramas. In the 90s she championed the first season of TV One's Montana Sunday Theatre. The Sunday night slot would become a key showcase for local one-off dramas. When the first season debuted in late 1995, De Nave told The Listener that her brief to potential writers was contemporary stories that people would talk about, as well as enjoy. "A healthy local industry needs opportunities for upcoming directors to practice their craft" she added. "That's the only way you can improve". Among the titles in that first season were Niki Caro's Plain Tastes and one of the earliest projects directed by Jessica Hobbs (The Slap). The second season of Montana Sunday Theatre attracted 200 submissions and good ratings. In the same period De Nave oversaw 45 hours of arts documentaries, as executive producer of Work of Art.
In 2000 De Nave began nine years at TV3 as Head of Drama and Comedy. She was tasked with developing a new primetime drama series skewed towards female viewers. The result was strip club tale The Strip, which went to air in 2002 and ran for two seasons. She was won over by the boldness and comedy of both Outrageous Fortune and bro'Town, when the shows were first pitched to her. She also executive produced comedies The Jaquie Brown Diaries and A Thousand Apologies.
In addition to producing, De Nave had extensive experience as a director, including episodes of Shortland Street, Country GP, Close to Home, and The Topp Twins Election coverage in 1996. She also directed this episode of 90s series Immigrant Nation, concentrating on Italian immigrants to Wellington (her father had moved to the city from Stromboli as a teen). De Nave also chaired the International Comedy Festival from 1995 to 2000.
De Nave had made her first venture into feature films back in the 80s, when she cooked up the story of Trial Run with director Melanie Rodriga. Trial Run revolved around an isolated woman facing unseen forces; Rodriga and De Nave made a point of creating a story featuring strong women characters, who didn't need help from men.
In 1994 De Nave worked with director Christine Parker to produce short film Hinekaro Goes on a Picnic and Blows Up Another Obelisk — an adaptation of a Keri Hulme short story. Parker and De Nave collaborated next on Peach, featuring then unknown Lucy Lawless, before producing their first feature Channelling Baby (1999). The ambitious, decade-spanning tale of love gone wrong starred Danielle Cormack and Kevin Smith. De Nave followed it the next year by executive producing the Michael Hurst-directed Jubilee.
In the 2006 Queen's Birthday Honours she was named an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for her work in television and film. Three years later De Nave moved to a new position in Australia, as executive producer of drama and comedy at public broadcaster SBS. There she continued to champion a diverse range of projects, including award-winning drug-smuggling tale Better Man, and comedy series Legally Brown.
De Nave died of leukaemia on 17 August 2014.
Profile updated on 15 January 2020
Cath Bennett, 'Road to Success' - The Sunday Star-Times, 23 May 2010, page C6
Barbara Cairns and Helen Martin, Shortland Street - Production, Text and Audience (Auckland: Macmillan Publishers New Zealand, 1996)
Mary Crockett, 'Taking a Gamble' (Interview) - The Listener, 16 September 1995, page 32
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime - A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2005)
Fiona Rae, 'Caterina De Nave' (Interview) - The Listener, 31 May 2008
Deborah Shepard, reframing Women - a history of New Zealand film (Auckland: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2000)
Maggie Tully, 'Where Are Our Female Fellinis?' (Interview) - Thursday, 27 April 1974, page 46
Unknown writer, 'An honest living hard work' - The Dominion Post (TV Week pullout), 12 July 2005, page 5
Unknown writer, 'TV and drama expert to take up top job across the Tasman' - The NZ Herald, 29 December 2008
'Remembering Caterina De Nave' (Press release) MediaWorks Corporate Communications. Released 19 August 2014