In 1967 David Pumphrey boarded a plane for Mount Cook, accompanied by a small television crew. They were about to film For the Hang of it, for TV series Landscape. The documentary accompanies high altitude climbers Lynn Crawford and Peter Farrell during a weekend climb up Mount Alack. As Pumphrey wrote at the time, "the climb was for climbing’s sake, not a first ascent of some virgin peak — the sort that could be done by these professionals over a long weekend.
Filming proved a challenge (see photo here); the team endured bad weather and conditions, and inadequate clothing. While the climbers demonstrated their skills, arguably the real troopers were producer/director David Pumphrey, sound operator Graham Johnson, and cameramen Charles Biggin and Frank Oakeshott. Each climbed with bulky camera gear; Oakeshott got pleurisy, and was allergic to the only available medicine. The three day shoot ended up spanning 13. The New Zealand TV Weekly praised the result, arguing that "the whole production looked marketable overseas".
Like many in the early days of New Zealand television, David Pumphrey started in radio. He began working as a cadet for state radio in September 1953, mailing records to various radio stations. Soon he got a radio announcing job at 2ZB in Wellington, before transferring to 2ZA, 'The Voice of the Manawatu'.
In 1956 Pumphrey travelled to the United Kingdom with two school friends. Much to his delight, he got a job at the BBC as a relief stage hand in their Production Management Department. He was "so far down the pecking order that I had to wear grey coats so as not to be seen". Although the BBC was broadcasting in black and white, he "managed to wangle a shift" at Alexandra Palace in London, where the BBC were experimenting with colour.
Although offered the chance to stay on fulltime at the BBC, Pumphrey chose to come home after three years. He made a brief return to radio, with Whanganui's 2XA. But with the rare advantage of having television experience, he was soon recruited by state television's first channel, AKTV-2 in Auckland. Pumphrey arrived at work in June 1960, on the second day of regular transmissions.
"In those days we did just about everything non-technical — floor-managing, directing, producing, compiling the news". The news bulletins combined both overseas and locally shot items. With his experience in radio, it was David who recorded the voiceover "from north, east, west and south" heard at the beginning of the main primetime bulletin. He also recalls one news presenter literally dying during a news broadcast.
After roughly a year in Auckland Pumphrey was offered a senior producer position at the newly formed Christchurch channel CHTV-3, which was just about to go on air. In April of 1962, Pumphrey was sent to Australia along with two other Kiwi producers, to attend a producer training course.
Pumphrey produced a variety of programmes in Christchurch including children’s show Judy-Anne and the Fang Family (1962-63), game show Sixty Seconds, Please (1967), Canterbury Museum series Towards the Past (1966) and In the Garden, presented by David Combridge (1963-67).
With the arrival of Christchurch's first outside broadcast van, Pumphrey worked on large scale outside broadcasts like the 1963 Christmas Carol Service in Christchurch Cathedral, which required 16 crew, eight microphones and 26 lights. Pumphrey also remembers coverage of a Canterbury A&P Show as “something special”, even though "two of our three cameras went down on us and cameramen were collapsing from the heat”.
Pumphrey also worked on noteworthy On Our Doorstep, produced by Ian Watkins, the show that brought celebrity chef Graham Kerr to television screens. At the time, in 1960, Graham Kerr was food advisor for the Royal New Zealand Air Force— he appeared as a guest on the show in his air force uniform. His debut gig was to show how to cook an omelette, a demonstration that Kerr repeated to television audiences over the following weeks. Lack of resources meant Kerr had to supply his own cooking equipment and eggs. The positive reaction led to his own slot, The Graham Kerr Show, which Pumphrey helped produce. Kerr later won international fame as a TV cook.
Another highlight for Pumphrey was being asked to produce Christchurch magazine show Montage. Less about news, and more about people and places, it was made as a trial to see if a show aimed specifically at a local audience could "fly". Says Pumphrey: "It was very popular with the audience, and proved to head office that Town and Around was a good idea." Local versions of Town and Around later ran on each of New Zealand's four television channels.
A few years later Pumphrey narrowly averted disaster, after he and colleague Des Monaghan refused to turn up when required. "We were both posted to Wellington on a Tuesday, and told to be there on Friday am. We declined, and just as well — we would have been on the Wahine when she went down."
Instead the two flew up the following Monday. Pumphrey's success with Montage had won him a gig directing on both Compass, and later Gallery. Both programmes where front runners in current affairs programming. In the early 1970s he won a Feltex Award for an episode of science series Tomorrow Today (aka Search for Tomorrow), about industrial pollution. The series took him to unheard parts of New Zealand, including "whale chasing off the South Island, following the mating habits of hares in the Harper Valley, and pine tree cloning". He also worked on early media analysis show Column Comment, and did long days trying to wrangle shots of cattle for Country Calendar.
Later, while he was producing The Motor Show, an item was broadcast on "what viewers might expect" after buying an imported car. An importer who felt his product was being maligned then threatened a $3 million lawsuit. During two hours of negotiations, the defence of honest opinion was mentioned. "So in the end it cost us a lunch in the Avalon conference room for him and his legal team, and some drinks at the TV One Club".
In 1980 Pumphrey finally left directing and producing, for a stint liasing between television production staff and management. His last job before leaving TVNZ was as public relations officer for Avalon Television Centre, where he had worked on so many shows previously. His mandate was partly to ensure that Avalon kept a distinctive identity, and that "we were not overshadowed by Auckland".
His work as narrator includes science show Tomorrow Today, 1977 mountaineering documentary The Little North Face, trade union history Shattered Dreams (1990), and episodes of Country Calendar.
Profile written and researched by Blake Smith
Published on 23 February 2018
'David Pumphrey' (Interview) TVNZ Oral History project. Conducted in 1985. Available via Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision
Unknown writer, 'Channel Check' (Review of Landscape - For the Hang of It) - NZ Television Weekly, 16 December 1968