Chris Thomson was on hand to help command a number of New Zealand’s earliest television dramas.
After early attempts at Kiwi screen drama proved of variable quality, the NZ Broadcasting Corporation began organising seminars in an attempt to come to grips with the new medium. As this documentary chronicles, 170 actors were chosen to take part in training workshops in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch in 1967. Thomson led one of them. He describes this early period of learning on the job in the opening minutes of this documentary.
One of the immediate results of the workshops was an anthology of one-off dramas. Thomson produced two. A Game for Five Players was inspired by the real-life murder of a homosexual man in Christchurch. Although the violent elements of the narrative were handled discreetly, a worried NZBC management moved the drama to a later time slot, helping it win attention, acclaim, and criticism. The Thomson-produced Double Exposure, a lighter tale of two commercial travellers clashing in a hotel, was among the most well-received of the five dramas.
As NZBC colleague Derek Morton writes at the end of this profile, it was a time of excitement as programme-makers tried out new ideas and innovations. Aged 25, Thomson was asked to produce The Alpha Plan, the first TV drama from New Zealand that ran over multiple episodes. Utilising 100 plus extras, the ambitious Cold War thriller included scenes at Auckland Airport and Pakatoa Island. Thomson later expressed exasperation at just how much of the job was expected to be handled by the producer, including “having to arrange everything down to the extras’ bus fares”.
The following year he helmed the acclaimed The Killing of Kane. The first local TV drama shot in colour (though it debuted in black and white), it was set during the New Zealand Wars. Peter Vere-Jones and Alan Jervis played two British deserters who end up under the protection of Titokowaru. Thomson described it as “not strictly a play or a documentary, but a little of both. It’s as historically accurate as humanly possible... The whole thing adds up to a play about loyalty and corruption.“
Filming in Taranaki, the crew recreated Titokowaru's fortified village, and used muskets containing rolls of toilet paper filled with gunpowder. Some of the Māori extras brought their own taiahas. Even a reviewer who failed to be won over by the film gave Thomson praise as "a director with a good visual sense".
One of Thomson's final productions before leaving NZ was culture clash drama The City of No, which featured Sam Neill's earliest screen turn. By the time of a Listener interview in August 1971, Thomson was criticising the lack of expertise and training among NZBC crew, adding that "I don't feel that if I stay I will get better at my work ... We've found everything out by messing it up the first time."
After time in England, Thomson settled in Australia in the late 70s. Although no lover of self-promotion, he had begun accumulating Australian credits by 1979, and continued a busy directing career through the 80s and 90s. The mid to late 80s proved amongst his busiest years: in that period he directed two features — including Kylie Minogue vehicle The Delinquents — and a run of TV movies, mini-series and TV shows, among them award-winning strike tale Waterfront, America's Cup drama The Challenge and The Rainbow Warrior Conspiracy.
The latter telemovie saw him filming back in New Zealand for the first time in over a decade. The telemovie dramatises the bombing through three main characters: an American journalist (Midnight Express star Brad Davis), a Greenpeace volunteer (Kiwi Mary Regan) and an NZ advisor on international security (Aussie acting legend Jack Thompson).
Thompson and Thomson also worked together on the high-rating Waterfront, a depression-era tale of shipyard conflicts involving wharfies and Italian emigres. The mini-series won four Logie awards, including one for Best Miniseries or Telemovie.
There were further awards for The Perfectionist in 1986, which David Williamson had originally hoped to direct, based on his play. The telemovie follows a married academic (John Waters) who feels threatened by the arrival of a male babysitter.
Thomson’s movie CV was not a long one. His debut feature The Empty Beach (1985) is a private eye thriller starring Bryan Brown and Smash Palace star Anna-Maria Monticelli. It sold well internationally, despite doing negligible business on Australian soil. Romance The Delinquents was far more expensive, and high profile. Playing two 50s-era teenagers fighting to stay together were singer Kylie Minogue (in her big screen debut) and American import Charlie Schlatter. Reviews tended to the negative, but the Aussie $9 million drama became the country’s biggest local film of 1989, and did respectable business in the UK.
One of Thomson’s final directing credits was on Ponderosa, a prequel to classic Western series Bonanza.
Chris Thomson died in Sydney on 1 July 2015, after suffering from a stroke. He was 70.
Thomson's former NZBC colleague Derek Morton on creativity and bureacracy at Wellington TV station WNTV-1
If a Kiwi wanted to make something interesting happen on a NZ TV screen during the fabulous late 60s, Wellington, then the centre of theatre, music and television, was the place to do it.
At WNTV-1 we were joined by keen arrivals from — to mention a few — Auckland (John Barningham), Christchurch (Peter Muxlow, Murray Reece, Tony Isaac, Alun Bollinger and Mike Noonan, plus former Irishmen Des Monaghan and Brian Edwards) and Dunedin (Chris Thomson).
Chris, then in his early 20s, together with Brian Bell and Douglas Drury, established a scheme to get drama up and running, based initially on a series of actors’ workshops. There had been a few earlier drama productions, sometimes clumsy and stodgy, but with fresh vision and energy amongst the small TV staff all seemed new, happening for the first time. Lively innovations in documentaries, studio music shows and current affairs— all could take off and fly.
The esprit de corps was strong. Camera, editing, and staging people, plus writers, directors, producers and actors, felt enlivened by possible screen breakouts. Many of them were later to become major contributors to screen production elsewhere.
Chris produced and directed (yes, both — looking after all the logistical details always went along with the creative job then) a number of individual plays, then series The Alpha Plan, then The Killing of Kane, shot on colour film. In the film editing suite at WNTV-1, as Mike Horton hacked away at it, we were cutting 120 minutes of drama next door, shot on the sly (it screened over six episodes on Kid Set). Both productions used a camera crane we’d built independently, outside and beyond the resources of NZBC-TV.
Such a freewheeling approach was soon brought into line by Head Office. The NZBC, some years earlier, had been the NZBS, a government department, and proper order was restored, in civil service style, to return control to accountants and desk wallahs, and ensure less time was spent on such frivolous matters as storytelling or character development, and more on the serious businesss of haggling with accounts clerks.
Confined by a shorter leash, many of the most active and capable production people on staff gave up, and headed to more fertile environments, where, arriving with the same enthusiasm they'd brought to WNTV-1 years before, they soon flourished and created good stuff, mostly in Australia. David Stevens, John Barningham and Des Monaghan, for example, all had considerable input into major TV drama and film — as did Chris Thomson.
After 1915 and many other productions, he directed The Rainbow Warrior Conspiracy only a few years after the actual events. The fact that this quintessentially New Zealand story was an Australian 7 network production rather than a NZ one speaks volumes (incidentally, Rainbow Warrior director of photography Andrew Lesnie crossed the Tasman again years later to shoot the first of many hobbits).
Some courageous battlers remained on the payroll of NZ TV, and managed to bring worthwhile drama to local screens (The Governor, Pukemanu, Moynihan, Roche, Erebus etc). But that first flush of creative innovation, excitement and bloody good fun soon became just a memory, now retained only by those who survive.
Profile published on 7 February 2015. Updated on 21 December 2018
Profile sources include
Janet Bell, 'Waterfront - Episode 1 -Curator’s notes’ Australian Screen website. Accessed 2 July 2015
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Matt Day, 'Vale Chris Thomson’ IF.com website. Loaded 2 July 2015. Accessed 2 July 2015
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime - A History of New Zealand Television Drama Auckland University Press, 2005
Alexander Fry, ‘Death to the Pakeha’ (Interview) - The NZ Listener, 3 May 1971, page 5
Paul Maunder, ‘The Killing of Kane’ (Review) - Act, no 14, July 1971, page 5
Jill McCracken, 'Drudge and Drama' (Interview) - The NZ Listener, 9 August 1971, page 8
David Thomson, The Avocado Plantation - Boom and Bust in the Australian Film Industry (Sydney: Pan Macmillan Publishers Australia, 1990)