Over four decades, award-winning television producer Colin McRae has alternated between news and current affairs and making documentaries. He has worked for TVNZ, TV3 and Māori Television, and run his own company.
Colin McRae was born in Napier, where early visits to his local radio station inspired an interest in “broadcasting”. But a vagueness about what he hoped to do in the field left his careers advisor unconvinced. In 1969 McRae headed to Wellington to start a BA, but decamped to Christchurch after a year.
Following graduation, three months experience at The Timaru Herald helped win him a job back in Christchurch at Radio Avon. It was his second attempt; in 1975 he became an all-purpose reporter, sub-editor and newsreader. For three years he reported council meetings and chased fire engines but, after his future wife Margot got a job at RNZ, he resigned in 1977 to follow her up to Auckland. But a lack of local opportunities saw him joining TV2’s Wellington newsroom at Avalon. A reporter’s job in Auckland eventually followed, once he discovered the process could be expedited by filling in a transfer request form.
Two years later the couple headed across the Tasman. Channel Nine in Brisbane plunged McRae into the competitive world of nightly news and current affairs, in a four channel market — including covering the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain from Uluru/Ayers Rock. The Australian media mecca of Sydney was an inevitable next stop but ABC current affairs proved a disappointment. Following the birth of their first son in 1983, the couple returned to Auckland.
There was a job waiting for McRae as TVNZ’s chief reporter; he can be briefly seen trying to disguise a slow news day in Ian Mackersey’s 1985 doco Network New Zealand. The role had its stresses, with too many news and current affairs shows competing for a handful of camera crews. After 18 months he moved on to produce regional magazine show Top Half, which endeavoured to cover the entire area from Turangi to North Cape.
From there McRae moved to Eyewitness News. Though “great fun” for a year, the hours weren’t family friendly. With nothing else on offer at TVNZ, McRae resigned, attending his leaving drinks with no immediate prospects. Neil Roberts — who had recently founded Communicado — was in the bar, and offered him a job as a field director on That’s Fairly Interesting. Its mix of parish pump and kiwiana kitsch provided a chance to swap the office desk for the road, and a welcome respite from the pressures of daily news.
McRae’s next job took him back to network television in unexpected circumstances. In 1989, he pitched a sports show to the newly licensed TV3, only to be told they wouldn’t be commissioning independent programmes. Instead, they offered him the job of Head of Sport.
TVNZ had most of the major sporting rights locked up, but McRae believes TV3 changed the tone and style of sports presentation (and not only because a lack of paid advertising spots increased their reliance on music-driven highlights packages). Budget cuts hit hard after just a month on air and the depths of overseas content deals were plumbed. A lot of sumo wrestling began to appear in the sports schedules.
In mid-1990, he returned to TVNZ to produce troubled current affairs show Frontline, working alongside "a very strong team" including Richard Harman and Chris Harrington. The primetime, Avalon-based production had been moved to Auckland in the fall out from its controversial examination of links between business and the Labour Government.
By 1994 he was freelancing again, with his own company Landmark Productions. One rainy Saturday morning, a chance viewing of Ken Burns’ epic American documentary series The Civil War planted the seed for a similar project, about New Zealand’s land wars. Further investigation led him to historian James Belich. TVNZ expressed interest. A series of this magnitude and cultural complexity was a step up, but things fell into place. Whai Ngata, TVNZ’s head of Māori Programmes, and director Tainui Stephens proved invaluable in helping realise The New Zealand Wars, which aired in 1998.
The ratings surprised TVNZ (who possibly viewed it as more as a public service); The New Zealand Wars won Best Documentary Series at the 1998 Qantas Media Awards. Today, McRae regards it as a career highlight; “a privilege and an education”. Although broadcast technology has moved on he believes the storytelling and animation still stand up.
The show's success led to two further series, both produced in-house for TVNZ. Legends of The All Blacks chronicled NZ’s great rugby rivalries ahead of the 1999 World Cup. The series was a gift to sports enthusiasts but the documentary maker in him was equally gratified to hear non-rugby fan Kim Hill describe it as “Shakespearian”. Dreams of Gold, about Olympic champions, followed in 2000.
McRae also researched and wrote award-winning documentary Cave Creek: The Full Story of a National Tragedy, after wading through the original investigation report, and travelling to the West Coast to meet some of those affected.
After two years producing TVNZ’s Assignment, McRae founded Trilogy Productions with fellow TV veterans Chas Toogood and Richard Long. Though short-lived, the company won a 2006 Qantas Television Award for Best Observational Reality Series for Snotties, which followed the RNZ Navy’s officer training course.
In 2004, Māori Television commissioned McRae to make a documentary about the history of Māori involvement in NZ television. Tatau Tatou screened on the channel’s first day in March 2004. More projects with the broadcaster followed.
When current affairs show Native Affairs was launched in 2007, he was brought in to assist a new generation of journalists into longer form storytelling. An initial six week stint turned into six years, and a Best Current Affairs Series win at the 2011 AFTA TV Awards.
McRae’s 2007 documentary Nobody’s Heroes examined the experiences of Allied POW’s, like his father, captured on Crete during World War ll. McRae worked on the project with his wife Margot, shooting much of the footage himself. It was presented by his son Tom (now a TV3 journalist). The doco screened on TV One on Anzac Day in 2007.
From 2013, McRae began producing Māori TV’s Anzac day coverage. In 2017 he co-produced triple NZ Television Award-winner NZ Wars: The Stories of Ruapekapeka. Made for Radio New Zealand's website, the half-hour documentary revisits the pa where a remarkable battle occured.
Profile written and researched by Michael Higgins
Published on 31 March 2015; updated on 16 May 2019
'Colin McRae: Forty years of news, current affairs and documentaries' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 18 May 2015. Accessed 16 May 2018
Landmark Productions website (broken link). Accessed 31 March 2015
Network New Zealand (Television Documentary) Director Ian Mackersey (Ian Mackersey Productions, 1985)