Claude Wickstead was in his early 20s when he began working at the Government Film Studios in Wellington, in October 1938. Sound engineer Free Grant taught Wickstead how to record sound on film. As a sound technician and recordist, his duties included recording sound directly to film, and mixing music and effects from discs while recording the words of the commentator.
Centennial feature One Hundred Crowded Years marked Wickstead's first sound credit. However he didn't get to see his name on the screen, as the film was still uncompleted when he enlisted for war service in February 1940. At the time it was expected the studios would close for the duration of the war.
Joining Divisional Signals, a unit of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force, Wickstead served in Greece, Crete and North Africa. He later recalled some of his experiences in this episode of NFU television series The Years Back — including a tale about hiding out from a German bomber in an olive grove in Crete. "As he proceeded around, we proceeded around the tree. He expended all his ammunition. In the end the bomber had no alternative but to wave to us and the pilot flapped his wings and flew away. At least, this is one time when we’ve got the German Air Force whacked.”
Wickstead was captured in July 1942. He was sent to a prisoner of war camp in Görlitz, Germany, where he spent the rest of WWll.
On his return to New Zealand in late 1945, Wickstead returned to his old workplace. The studios hadn't closed after all; they'd been transformed into the National Film Unit, which had already released over 200 weekly newsreels in support of the war effort. Wickstead soon found his place in the team and its busy routine producing the popular Weekly Review.
In documentary Toogood Tales, Wickstead talks with host Selwyn Toogood (29 minutes in) about their days in the NFU, including making highly regarded Weekly Review The Coaster. Wickstead can be seen at work in behind the scenes film Exhibition Loop (1947) .
His first NFU credit was as sound recordist on Weekly Review No. 346 – Rhythm and Movement (1948). This short film profiled Gisa Taglicht, a pioneer of women's rhythmical gymnastics. Many NFU credits would follow, including 1959's Air Force aerobatics team short film Jetobatics and The Lion and the Kiwi, about a British Lions tour of NZ.
Wickstead became increasingly expert at selecting disc music to suit the rhythm and set the mood of an item. (Synchronised recordings of dialogue were rare.) During the early 1950s, the NFU was keen to keep up to date with advances in technology and adopted magnetic media for recording sound. In 1951, Wickstead was appointed sound director. By then the NFU was largely focussed on films for other government departments, like road safety film White For Safety (1952).
In 1952, the NFU began producing monthly magazine programme Pictorial Parade. The unit's workload grew frantic, after Parade began weekly coverage of the Royal Visit (Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip) of 1953-54. In addition to NFU films, the sound department would often be called on to record soundtracks for independent production companies.
The invention of television in 1960 increased the demand for quick turnaround processing and printing services for 16mm film, and the need for sound recording, dubbing and mixing services. With the expansion of the NFU’s facilities to cater for this growth, Wickstead left much of the hands-on work to the unit's growing staff, so he could focus on administrative work. His credits during the 1960s include series These New Zealanders (1964), which marked one of Selwyn Toogood's first TV appearances, and Cook Islands film Drums Across the Lagoon (1960).
In 2013 documentary That was New Zealand, sound designer Kit Rollings recalls how his boss’s intervention in support of his young staff saved the three-screen Expo ’70 classic This is New Zealand from being abandoned, after early editing difficulties.
When he wasn't working, Wickstead loved growing roses. He can be glimpsed in Roseworld ’71, the NFU film on an international rose convention, preparing his blooms for the judges in Hamilton.
ickstead looked forward to the NFU relocating from its ageing and cramped quarters at Miramar to a new building much closer to his home in Lower Hutt. But, when he retired in October 1977 after 32 years at the NFU, the new studios were still a year away from opening.
Wickstead moved to Hawke’s Bay during his retirement. He died on 7 September 2002, aged 88.
Profile written by Clive Sowry
Originally published on 12 May 2015; updated on 9 October 2020
That Was New Zealand (Documentary) Director Hugh Macdonald (Hugh Macdonald Productions/Archives New Zealand, 2013)
Toogood Tales (Documentary) Directors Hugh Macdonald and David Sims (Memory Line Productions, 1994)
‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ – The Waikato Times, 8 November 1971, page 1
‘Permanent Records of the Royal Tour’ – The Listener, 29 January 1954 (Volume 30, no 758), page 6
'Claude Gerald Wickstead' Auckland War Memorial Museum website. Accessed 15 September 2020
'Wickstead, Claude Gerald' (Death Notice) – Hawke’s Bay Today, 9 September 2002, page 13