Dean Parker argued that “every time you write for one medium, you find yourself getting better in others. Write for film and you realise the peculiar strengths of radio. Write for TV and you realize how the stage works.”
Parker was in a position to know. His resume included generous quantities of all the above, plus many opinion pieces as well. In later decades he worked from "a tiny office space" at Auckland Trades Hall, where he did "regular office hours" on a computer without a modem (so he couldn't be distracted).
Parker grew up in Napier. In his 20s, he spent time in London, and hung out with "acid-dropping hippy-trippers, and hard-edged and extremely drunk Irish civil rights activists" (which later inspired his play Tonite Let's All Make Love in London). So began his long involvement in socialist and Irish republican movements. Back in New Zealand, Parker began writing for radio in 1973. By 1975, five of his radio plays had hit the airwaves — including drama Smack, which doubled as his stage debut. Seven more radio plays followed by 1980.
But television paid much better rates, especially after the NZ Writers Guild (for which Parker was a longtime delegate) managed to double the going rate. Parker’s first television work was an episode of edgy mixed-flatting comedy Buck House, and two scripts for anthology series 30 Minute Theatre. The first, The Touch of Class, was a comedy about an aging boss handing over his workplace to his staff. Rugby Burns examined the pros and cons of firebombing a rugby park, as a form of Springbok tour protest.
In 1978 Parker did his first screen adaptation for Ngaio Marsh Theatre, which was the first Kiwi television drama to screen in the United States. Opening Night was a murder tale set in London’s theatre world. Parker followed it by writing for police drama Mortimer’s Patch and half a dozen Close to Home's, and also scripted classic hopeless bloke short Gordon Bennett. The television work paid for a decaying house near Auckland's Ponsonby Road, which became a valuable bolthole against the challenges of making a living from writing.
For his first movie, Parker worked alongside director Ian Mune on an exuberant 1984 adaptation of Ronald Hugh Morrieson novel Came a Hot Friday. It was Parker who penned that all-important opening line “there is money to be made”. The line was originally meant to remind the filmmakers of the movie's main theme. A major local hit, Came a Hot Friday scooped the 1986 Gofta Awards, and won rave reviews (“a major advance in Kiwi comedy” said Variety). Author Nicholas Reid praised Parker and Mune for preserving “the essentials of Morrieson's yarn while extensively remoulding it".
Two separate Parker adaptations of Morrieson’s later novel Predicament failed to get the final go-ahead; Parker was especially keen on the version that transformed bad influence Mervyn Tobeck into a fiery, religiously conflicted teenage girl.
In early 1984 Parker and fellow scribe Greg McGee were asked if they had any ideas for a drama series. The result was Roche, starring Andy Anderson and John Bach. According to McGee the show was “mainly Dean’s idea”. It was inspired by two brothers who ran an Auckland trucking firm: socialists “running a highly competitive capitalist enterprise, who had been involved in protests and all kinds of scrapes with the law”.
Author Trisha Dunleavy has argued that despite its light tone, Roche offered "depth and diversity" and explored issues of gender and race. The characters included a womanising trucker, his Pacific Island wife and the sister that helps hold the trucking firm together. McGee, Parker, and Simon O’Connor penned three Roche episodes each; Parker’s set included the all-important debut episode. Scripts for a second series were in train, when Roche was taken permanently off the road in favour of a new show.
In-between scriptwriting sessions, Parker invited McGee into the Halt All Racist Tours (HART) soccer team. As he writes in autobiography Tall Tales, McGee was impressed by Parker’s wit, wide knowledge and talent for knowing where to place narrative beats — plus occasionally the soccer ball.
The 80s were busy for the Parker/McGee team. At one point they were on a $1200 weekly writing retainer from South Pacific Pictures, "the highest wage" Parker had got. Various projects rose and fell after the stock market crash, including a contract to retool Roche for Australia, and a proposed Came a Hot Friday TV series.
Parker returned to the theatre, although he would reconvene with McGee for a number of TV projects: rugby tale Old Scores, period goldmining series Gold (co-created with Chris Hampson), episodes of hit show Street Legal, and the cross-cultural creative bunfight that was Greenstone (1999).
Greenstone was originally developed as a co-production with the BBC. The colonial era drama follows a missionary-educated woman (Simone Kessell) whose romantic life is subject to the shifting loyalties of her chiefly father. Old Scores, a lighthearted tale of ageing All Blacks refacing their Welsh enemies, won the pair a NZ Film and TV scriptwriting award — plus a Kiwi cinema release, even though it was made for television. A lasting regret was shooting down McGee’s idea for a soap set in one of the new private accident and emergency clinics.
Parker won another TV award for 1997 Montana Sunday Theatre drama Share the Dream. It starred Joel Tobeck and Luisa Burgess (Shortland Street) as lovers who meet on a factory assembly line, only to be parted by the demands of the market. Reversing the stage to screen norm, Parker then turned it into a play.
Parker co-directed 1990 documentary Shattered Dreams, alongside journalist Francis Wevers. It examined industrial conflict in New Zealand, in the years before the 1951 waterfront lockout.
Conflict was also at the heart of 2009's Life's a Riot, which saw Parker rejoining director Ian Mune. Set during the Great Depression, the TV movie revolves around Jim Edwards, who Listener writer Fiona Rae described as "a gloriously flawed figure who was king of the unemployed, a mob leader and orator who defended the poor and jobless, but neglected his own family". Parker was nominated for Best Screenplay at the 2010 Qantas Film and Television Awards.
In 2018 the Parker-scripted TV movie A War Story debuted on TVNZ 1. Based on another true story, it follows Kiwi-born CNN correspondent Peter Arnett as he sets out to score an interview with Osama bin Laden.
Parker made no bones about injecting his politics into his plays. Baghdad, Baby! (2005), set in a a cafe in occupied Iraq, won enthused reviews from The Listener, Theatreview, and The Sunday Star-Times. The latter argued “you would be hard pressed to find a more intelligent, humane piece of theatre.” Later he adapted Nicky Hager’s bestselling expose The Hollow Men, (and later, his book Other People's Wars) finding the task “a gleeful honour”. Theatreview's John Smythe said that the play had "enduring value as an enquiry into the nature of politics itself.”
Parker's 50+ plays also included hit Midnight in Moscow (The Press dubbed it “one of his best”), the "highly entertaining" Man that Lovelock Couldn't Beat, plus works on Muldoon (Slouching towards Bethlehem) and protester Blair Peach (Who Killed Blair Peach?), and adaptations of Shakespeare, Kafka and novel Man Alone.
In October 2013 Parker was presented with a prestigious Laureate Award from the Arts Foundation of New Zealand. In 2017 he finished his first novel Johnson, a sequel to Man Alone.
Dean Parker died on 14 April 2020, the day after finishing another play.
Written by Ian Pryor; updated on 10 January 2022
Dean Parker, ‘Work and Income according to writer Dean Parker’ - Playmarket News, Spring 2006
Laurie Atkinson, 'The reality of romance' (Review of The Man that Lovelock Couldn't Beat) - Dominion Post, 8 April 2008, Page B7
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime: A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
Natasha Hay, 'Dean Parker's The Tigers of Wrath' (Interview) - The Listener, 26 October 2012 (broken link)
Greg McGee, Tall Tales (Some True) (Auckland: Penguin Books, 2008)
Ian Mune, Mune - An Autobiography (Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2010)
Nicholas Reid, A Decade of New Zealand Film - Sleeping Dogs to Came a Hot Friday (Dunedin: James McIndoe, 1986)
Fiona Rae, 'NZ drama about the 1932 Queen St riot' - The Listener, 14 August 2009 (broken link)
John Smythe, ‘The Hollow Men’ (Review) Theatreview website. Accessed 30 August 2019
'Dean Parker' Playmarket website. Accessed 14 April 2020
Unknown writer, The Hollow Men (Programme) Circa Theatre, 2007
Unknown writer, 'Dean Parker Obituary' - Scoop website. Published 14 April 2020. Accessed 15 April 2020