As a 14 year old, Craig Little was voted most likely to succeed. Within 10 years, he was a TV star but the presenter’s role didn’t offer quite enough and the celebrity’s loss of privacy became too much.
Little was born in the Waikato town of Ngaruawahia in 1948. His family moved to Auckland when he was a small child and he later attended Sacred Heart College. His first brush with fame came at age 14, when the Auckland Star voted him their delivery boy of the year and 'Most Likely to Succeed'. The award counted for little as his application to be a cadet reporter was rejected by the paper a few years later.
After working for six months in an ice-cream factory, he was accepted as a news trainee by the NZBC. “At first it seemed like the most exciting job imaginable,” Little told The Listener.”Just after I started, the Mount Eden jail riot occurred and, a little while later, the Lawson quins were born. I was rushing film to the airport, manning phones and having a whale of a time."
Three years later, much of the novelty had worn off. Disillusioned with the NZBC, he handed in his resignation. Bob Irvine, the Auckland district announcer in charge, caught wind of his plans and offered retraining as an announcer. After a stint as a DJ at 1ZB, he moved into news reading and reporting for the Auckland version of regional news TV programme Town and Around and its successor This Day.
In 1970, This Day presenter John Charlton suddenly departed for Radio Hauraki. Little was out in a radio car at Orewa when he was summoned back to temporarily fill the vacancy. From modest beginnings, he made the job his own, but found himself transformed into a television star in the process. The public attention quickly palled. “I had enough of an ego to think how wonderful it was to be famous. It was a feeling that lasted about two weeks before the novelty of fame wore off”, he told newspaper 8 0’Clock.
Viewership of This Day grew steadily with much of the success attributed to Little and to his friendly on-screen feuding with reporter Rhys Jones. There was also a serious side. On Christmas Eve 1970, Little had to announce that the deaths of three of his colleagues in an NZBC film crew after a plane crashed into the Waitemata Harbour.
If Little was now a household name and face in Auckland, his appeal was lost on Listener journalist Tony Reid who later damned him with very faint praise in a 1976 profile as “a personable young man without any special wit or brilliance… his success with the public was as undeniable as its cause was indefinable. Long-serving NZBC news chief Bruce Crossan had a very different take, describing him as the best frontman he had seen on NZBC TV.
He was voted Top Male Performer at the Sunday News/Kensington Carpet TV Awards in 1973 and 74, but his enthusiasm was dimming. The relentless public spotlight was wearying, Rhys Jones had returned to Wales removing much of the show’s excitement, and Little was growing disillusioned with the lack of creative input his role allowed.
Some had seen the writing on the wall much earlier. “I remember Bob Irvine saying I wouldn’t find it a satisfying challenge and he was right. After a while it became repetitious and just too easy. That might sound arrogant but it’s also true”.
In December 1974, at the age of 26, Little made front page news when he walked away from what many perceived as a dream job. One elderly woman who had just renewed her TV licence was reported to have immediately returned to the Post Office to demand a refund after seeing the headlines.
Little had no clear plans of what to do next. Friends had assured him job offers would roll in, and there were 21 within hours of the announcement. However, 19 were from insurance companies and the other two were to manage a pub and a liquor store. He was unimpressed. “They obviously thought I was a drunk or a con-man and I rejected them all”.
As he contemplated a return to his holiday job of truck driving, he received a call from Bob Owens, Mayor of Tauranga and Mount Maunganui, and owner of a major transport and travel company. He accepted a role as a PR executive with the Owens Group.
The new job allowed some time for television appearances and he compered talent series Studio One -New Faces in 1974. It was his first foray into entertainment programmes and he frequently had his hands full trying to control a judging panel not short of opinions and all too willing to share them.
In March 1975 his position at the Owens Group was disestablished. It was a sobering experience for someone who had never been fired before. He started his own company organising conferences and conventions (with Owens as an investor) and returned to TV work.
He co-fronted a series of Top Town with Country Calendar regular Frank Torley, read TV1’s northern news, and presented The Entertainers (which had replaced New Faces) and the news compilation Sunday’s World. As the demands of his business grew, he resigned the newsreading job. On his last night, his old sparring partner Rhys Jones (now signed to TV2) could be seen creeping around the studio as Little did his best to keep a straight face.
Little wound up his company in 1978 and did relief news reading with TV2 and 1ZB. He then moved to private radio, working on the breakfast shows at Radio Hauraki and Radio Pacific. He also did some part time communications for the Auckland Regional Authority.
In 1985, he became an elected member of the ARA. He later chaired the Auckland Regional Services Trust (and its successor Infrastructure Auckland) overseeing the redevelopment of the Viaduct Basin ahead of the America’s Cup defences. Alongside his service to local government, he became a JP and marriage celebrant.
Profile written by Michael Higgins
Bruce Jesson, ‘Little goes a long way’ – Metro, July 1997
Graeme Kennedy, ‘Television must come second now’ (Interview) – 8 O’Clock, 6 September 1975
Tony Reid, ‘A New Face at Studio One’ (Interview) – The NZ Listener, 24 August 1974
Robin Turkel, Little has quit the NZBC’ – The NZ Herald, 14 December 1973
‘Craig Little justifying Star prophecy’ – The Auckland Star, 15 January 1971