David McPhail impersonated nuns, politician Roger Douglas, and singer Tina Turner. But it was his take on former prime minister Sir Robert Muldoon that sealed his place in Kiwi popular culture — reducing, in the words of writer Steve Braunias, "the most terrifying man in New Zealand" to a goblin-sized joke.
McPhail first came to the attention of the Kiwi public with A Week of It, far and away the most successful New Zealand comedy show of the 1970s. He and comedic partner-in-crime Jon Gadsby went on to the long-running McPhail and Gadsby and Issues. In 2005, McPhail starred as a unenlightened teacher in black comedy Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby.
McPhail lived much of his life in his birthplace of Christchurch. His father was chairman of the NZ Rugby Union. At Canterbury University David began studying English, but dropped his studies to become a cub reporter on The Press. The newspaper sent him to Ashburton, despite his protests.
A job as a radio reporter soon led him into television; in 1968 he began reporting for regional magazine show Town and Around, before producing the first of many variety shows. In 1975 he acted in Roger Simpson docudrama Richard Pearse. But comedy was bubbling through.
Sent to Dunedin to direct a women's magazine show, he was invited to write a bunch of capping revue sketches at short notice. In 1976 TV presenter Derek Payne invited McPhail to help out on a New Year's Eve special. Next he joined Payne's "bizarre" sketch show Something to Look Forward to. McPhail had fond memories of his Dubronski Brothers sketches, which involved men standing on runways and attempting to jump into aeroplanes as they were about to land. As seen in this reggae number, the show marked the first time McPhail played Prime Minister Rob Muldoon on-screen. After collaborating with Payne, McPhail began injecting comic items into Christchurch magazine show The South Tonight.
The shift to comedy was sealed after he met former law student Jon Gadsby at a party. They talked for hours. The evening, wrote McPhail, "would define the next 20 years of my life". He found further collaborators in revue group The Merely Players, which included actors Annie Whittle and Peter Rowley, plus two "rather adventurous lawyers", AK Grant and Chris McVeigh.
Aware that there'd been little political satire on local television, McPhail proposed a comedy show to his television superiors, only to be accused of insanity. New Zealanders, he was informed, "do not have a sense of humour. They are very very staunch sensible people ... and they don't like laughing at themselves". McPhail had more luck with his idea after the launch of second channel South Pacific Television.
A Week of It debuted in 1977, with six episodes screening in a graveyard slot at 10 past 10. McPhail writes in this piece about the challenges of launching the show, and performing it live. Narrowly surviving cancellation, the show was moved to primetime in its second season, where it helped persuade Kiwi audiences that local comedy was not an oxymoron. Shot quickly in rough and ready style, against cardboard sets, it mixed political satire with potshots at Kiwi culture and sport — plus a beloved "Jeez, Wayne" pub sketch, where McPhail played straight man. "Although there was a censorship system in place, it was very, very loose."
As McPhail says in this TV interview, he was given the job of impersonating Rob Muldoon because no one else in the cast looked anything like him. McPhail would become iconic for his Muldoon impersonation, which spanned several different shows. Long fascinated by his political alter ego, he later shed the "crude caricature" of earlier days to write and star in 2003 solo play Muldoon.
A Week of It won Feltex Awards for Best Entertainment Programme in 1978 and 1980. As McPhail recalls in this extended interview, some of his fellow actors expressed disbelief when he took away the Best Actor Award after the show's first season, beating the cast of troubled TV epic The Governor.
McPhail, Gadsby and AK Grant were key figures in a run of successful comedies, including long-running skit shows McPhail and Gadsby and Issues, and 90s sitcom Letter to Blanchy. "They were called satirical shows, but in the true sense of satire, they never put the knife between the ribs," said McPhail of A Week of It and McPhail and Gadsby. "We didn't want people sitting there saying, ‘ooh, that's true.' We wanted them to laugh."
McPhail and Gadsby lasted an impressive eight seasons, despite a controversial debut in 1980. Basing each hour-long episode around a single theme was "a fundamental mistake", which was abandoned after the first season. McPhail got death threats after the religion episode went to air. A communion service sketch, where a churchgoer asked if chablis was available, proved one of the most controversial.
McPhail and Gadsby got a second season, returning to the "firm ground" of political satire and a shorter running time. In 1983 it won a Feltex Award for Best Entertainment Show. The show's name stuck because no one could think of anything better. In 1998 the pair did a final season under the title McPhail Gadsby.
The duo were also foundation shareholders of TV3, working behind the scenes to help set up the new network. In the 90s they reteamed for Issues, a skit-based comedy series, which weathered a number of variations of channel and title. It marked a return to more of an ensemble approach, with a talent heavy cast that included Rawiri Paratene, Rima Te Wiata, Mark Wright and Alison Wall. En route, McPhail was assigned the title of creative producer/director, giving him a bigger hand in writing and performing decisions.
With Letter to Blanchy in 1994, the McPhail/Gadsby/Grant trio left the skit format behind. McPhail plays a straight-laced accountant caught up in Barry Crump-style mishaps with two down-to-earth mates (Gadsby and longtime offsider Peter Rowley). In McPhail's words, the characters "hit water mains with pick axes, chased crazed heifers through crashing glass houses and left a trail of holes across the landscape through the ill-advised use of gelignite". The show won keen audiences despite a "roller coaster" ride of rejections, some rocky scheduling and the bankruptcy of TV3. In the same period he took a straight role as finance minister Roger Douglas in miniseries Fallout.
A successful Letter To Blanchy play toured in 2008, based on an award-winning episode of the show.
In 2005, feeling like he was "in a straitjacket muttering broken Swahili", McPhail did gruelling auditions with Danny Mulheron and Tom Scott. The experience won him the starring role across two seasons of their "atrociously unconventional and outrageous" satire Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby. It was a role "any actor would kill to play": a relief teacher at a low decile school, with no time for political correctness. The Sydney Morning Herald called it "quick-witted" and "darkly funny". In the final episode cameras captured McPhail unprepared, as the actors playing his students surprised him with an emotional haka in his honour.
In 2006 McPhail played a judge in acclaimed mockumentary The Waimate Conspiracy In 2009 he acted in follow-up No Petrol, No Diesel!. In the same period he donned lycra and baggy Y-fronts for kids comedy The Amazing Extraordinary Friends, playing grumpy superhero the Green Termite. McPhail's son Matt was the show's director and co-writer. McPhail senior's own directing career included Pio Terei's 2000 comedy show The Life and Times of Te Tutu (about a 19th century Māori chief).
In the same period McPhail and Gadsby endured a meeting with a TVNZ executive who confused them with comedians Peter Rowley and Pio Terei. Wary of outstaying his screen welcome and keen for new challenges, McPhail concentrated more on stage acting — often at Christchurch's Court Theatre. His theatre work included starring as King Lear and Walt Disney, and directing acclaimed Barry Crump play Crumpy.
In 1995, McPhail received a Queen's Service Medal for service to the community. In 2008 he was made an Officer of the NZ Order of Merit, for his television and theatre work. In 2010 Longacre published his autobiography The Years Before My Death: Memories of a Comic Life. In a Listener review, comedian Michèle A'Court called it "a sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued dissection of his years in the limelight" — and also "the memoirs of a contented man". In 2019 McPhail sat down for nearly two hours, for this Funny As interview.
David McPhail died in Christchurch, overnight on 14 May 2021. He was 76.
Profile updated on 14 May 2021
David McPhail, The Years Before My Death (Auckland: Longacre Press, 2010)
'David McPhail - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 19 August 2019. Accessed 29 February 2020
David McPhail, 'Getting A Week of It off the ground' NZ On Screen website. Loaded 26 May 2017. Accessed 29 February 2020
David McPhail, 'A class of his own" - The Sunday-Star Times (Escape section), 1 May 2005, page 1
Michèle A'Court, 'Jeez, Wayne' (Review of The Years Before My Death: Memories of a Comic Life) - The Listener, 29 October 2010 (broken link)
Steve Braunias, 'Dear piggy' (Interview) - The Listener, 28 June 2003, issue 3294 (broken link)
Lesley Ann Low, 'tv previews' (Review of Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby) - The Sydney Morning Herald (The Guide section), 24 November 2005, page 14
Unknown writer, 'Amazing Extraordinary Friends' - The Press, 14 July 2008