Derek Payne’s velvety voice and English accent won him his first job in television. In Dunedin in the late 60s, standards in television presentation were set by a NZ Broadcasting Corporation newsreader — "an ex-British military officer named George Speed" who ensured presenters stuck close to the sound of Mother England.
Payne was born in 1943 in Buckinghamshire, England. His father was a navy man. When Derek was nine, the family of four arrived in Auckland on a new posting. Soon the Payne family settled in Dunedin for good. There were plenty of books in the house, and his English grandmother tried to teach him the piano. Payne attended King Edward Technical College, which was big on music. He played clarinet in the school orchestra and remembers his music teacher — "an inspiring little Welshman" — leading the school in rousing singalongs.
Payne liked writing and performing skits at school. When he started at Otago University he wrote and performed in the uni's annual capping revues. Payne and his friends were heavily influenced by the British satire boom as seen in stage revue Beyond the Fringe, and Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s sketch show Not Only ... But Also. Monty Python's Flying Circus would also be a big influence.
Hal Weston — a producer at Dunedin station DNTV-2 — asked Payne to audition, probably after seeing him in action at a capping revue. Soon the 20-something Payne was sitting in a "fairly basic" TV studio, presenting and reporting for the region’s most popular TV show.Town and Around screened five nights a week, in four regional editions. Payne and his team served the lower South Island.
In 1970 the Dunedin-based show was reborn as The South Tonight (Christchurch's new regional show was also given the same title). One of Payne’s spur of the moment ideas proved a hit. "A story fell through at the last moment, and we were running out of time to get the night’s show done. I said 'look, I’ll go and walk an invisible dog around the Octagon'. We shot it and raced to the editing suite, and that was the slot filled". Payne’s inspired improvisation inspired bags of mail. Payne introduces it here, 11 minutes into The South Tonight‘s final show in 1975.
In 1973 producer Hanafi Hayes asked Payne to join him as a reporter and director on Christchurch current affairs show Focus. Payne’s report on a dodgy pyramid scheme was picked up by the national news team.
In 1974 producer Maurice Smyth invited Payne to take over as presenter for Auckland regional news show Look North, after a run of staff changes. Ratings rose and Payne won praise. The Auckland Star's Barry Shaw wrote that "finally Look North seems to have found a safe pair of hands", while The Herald on Sunday namechecked "the gentle and well mannered" presenter. The show reflected times of change — most of the reports were still in black and white, and regional programmes were about to be put out to pasture for a while. In 1975 the NZ Broadcasting Corporation was split into two channels, TV One and South Pacific Television.
Payne's comic instincts were about to be unleashed, after he joined the new second channel as a writer/ performer in their light entertainment department. In 1975 Payne headlined an hour long New Year's Eve special, And Finally Payne. It impressed SPTV executives enough for a full series to get the green light.
Payne invited producer David McPhail (who shared his comic sensibilities) onto the Finally Payne team. The two had leading roles on the new series, Something to Look Forward to (1976). Payne was given free reign on a tight budget. Also featured were cabaret performer Marcus Craig (aka Diamond Lil), cartoonist Peter Bromhead and teacher/actor Alistair Douglas. The show offered a wild mix of the absurd and the surreal, including a male marching team, two brothers who liked to leap into low flying aircraft, and this reggae number which features McPhail’s first known TV impersonation of Rob Muldoon.
Reviews crossed the gamut. The Listener praised the show's "new twists", and quick-fire sketches that "move from the ridiculous to the insane". At this point Kiwi comedy generally only made it on-screen as part of other types of programming, e.g. variety shows. TV executives were nervous, especially about political satire. Payne says that he and his team really wanted to use comedy to comment directly on the issues of the day. McPhail managed to do that when pioneering comedy hit A Week of It debuted the following year. McPhail was keen to include Payne, but the budget for the show's pilot left little room to invite out of town talent.
Meanwhile Payne reunited with Marcus Craig for TV2's Top of the World. The variety show featured both live and prerecorded acts. Visiting singers like Cliff Richard performed with the show's dance troupe. Payne and Craig co-presented.
In 1978 Payne played stressed station boss Terry Wyman in early TV2 soap Radio Waves, set in the cut n’ thrust world of Auckland radio. In 1980 he joined Radio Times, a variety series inspired by the glory days of 1930s and 40s radio. Led by an ascendant Billy T James, the show was a hit, and sold overseas. Payne wrote the scripts across three seasons, and also featured in an ongoing radio serial that he created. Then he had the "gall" to ask for a modest pay rise from the $175 a week he was getting for writing and acting. "Surely I could ask for a little more? Alas, it was wishful thinking. They fired me."
Payne was presenter and reviewer and interviewer for film show Flicks. He moved into dramatic territory as scriptwriter for dramatised documentary The Ross Conspiracy (about con man Sydney Ross), and later, puppet series Space Knights.
In the 1980s Payne moved into the radio world for real, taking on a role at Radio Hauraki writing commercials and comedy pieces. In 1983 he helped set up New Zealand’s second FM station, 89FM. He also worked extensively in advertising, working for the Kiwi branch of advertising giant McCann Erickson, where he wrote and strategised campaigns for major companies like Coca Cola, Gilette and Nestle. Then came a three year run at agency McHarman Ayer; he helped relieve any residual guilt by working on a number of social awareness campaigns, including safe sex, crime prevention and anti-family violence campaigns.
Payne's CV of dramatic and comedy bit parts spans four decades — including Fred Dagg short film Dagg Day Afternoon, Ngaio Marsh Theatre, Letter to Blanchy, multiple episodes of Street Legal (as a judge), TV movie Skin and Bone and Australian miniseries The Other Side of Paradise. On adventure show Jack of All Trades, he cameoed as father to co-star Angela Dotchin.
In 2011 Payne appeared on acclaimed, bone-dry comedy Hounds, as president of the local greyhound track. The series mixed emerging talents like Josh Thomson with veteran character actors like Payne and Mick Innes.
In recent years Payne and his wife Liz moved to Whanganui — where Liz is more likely to be watching television than him.
Profile written by Gabe McDonnell; published on 29 July 2020
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
David McPhail, The Years Before My Death (Longacre Press, 2010)
Frances Parkin, 'The 'Something' 300: start with four, then add some...' - The Listener, 21 August 1976, page 14
Frances Parkin, 'Entertainment is serious' - The Listener, 23 April 1977, page 14
Anthony West - 'All they need is a bit of colour' (Review of Look North) - The Sunday Herald, 22 September 1974, page 42
The South Tonight - 1975 Final Episode (Television Programme, NZ Broadcasting Corporation, 1975)