In the first half of the 60s, local drama was all but invisible on New Zealand television — some argue that up until the end of 1965, the total number of locally-written TV dramas was as low as two. Plans to turn things around involved an ambitious scheme led by producer Brian Bell. As this documentary from the time reveals, fellow drama producers Douglas Drury and Chris Thomson were standing just behind him.
The scheme showed immediate results: at least 10 locally-written television plays went to air between 1966 and decade's end. Drury played a key part in four of them. When the new decade began he was appointed second in command of the NZ Broadcasting Corporation’s drama department, where he and drama head Bill Austin successfully launched a TV series that was arguably the first to take New Zealand stories to a wide television audience: Pukemanu.
The son of an Auckland medical practitioner, Drury had a long interest in acting. A scholarship got him to London in 1954, to study diction and drama at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Judi Dench was a year ahead of him. Drury did a short stint as an assistant stage manager at the Apollo Theatre, then returned to Auckland, where he quickly got busy on and off stage — including stage directing two tours by The New Zealand Players.
Drury did one more stint in British theatre in the early 60s, before returning to New Zealand and beginning his television career. Joining the NZ Broadcasting Corporation in 1962, he spent time as a studio floor manager, before moving into producing and directing, where he would make his mark in drama.
In the mid 60s, someone realised that if local drama output was going to develop, some training might be a good idea. In 1966 WNTV-1 Production Supervisor Brian Bell organised a seminar for actors and producers. The following year, actors' workshops took place in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch, led by Bell, Drury and Chris Thomson. 400 actors applied for the 170 positions. As Landfall put it at the time, the workshops “attempted to discover the special needs of television drama, to educate actors in television work and to encourage New Zealand writers to write for television. This was learning by doing, with all the inherent difficulties.”
Five teleplays emerged from the workshops, plus a documentary that went behind the scenes. Screening in late 1967, they marked New Zealand television's first sustained burst of local storytelling, in the process introducing new talents like Murray Reece and Michael Anthony Noonan. Drury commanded one of them: The Tired Man. Playwright Peter Bland's suburban satire concerned a man (played by Ray Henwood) who refuses to leave his bed, despite the efforts of those around him. The NZ Herald called it “zany and enjoyable”; both Landfall's Patricia Roddick and future playwright Robert Lord praised its comic appeal, but found awkwardness in the execution.
Plans by Brian Bell for the NZBC to go straight into another series of one-off plays, plus a drama series, would only half come to fruition (with six-part thriller The Alpha Plan). In 1968 Bell left for Australia. Before the Actors Workshop plays had gone before the cameras, Drury produced Down by the Cool Sea. The teleplay's Wairarapa locations likely mark the first time state television left the studio to shoot drama (see these behind the scenes photos). Maurice Shadbolt wrote the script; future Close to Home actor Glenis Levestam co-starred.
Drury worked on two further teleplays before the decade's close. The NZBC seem to have had worries about A Joker in the Pack. It eventually screened on a Sunday night in January 1969, and won some positive reviews. Meanwhile Drury's The White Gardenia — featuring Irene Wood as a young Katherine Mansfield — was one of the earliest local docudramas to screen on New Zealand television.
At the start of 1970, the NZBC’s drama section was reorganised. Drury became executive producer, under drama head Bill Austin. Hoping to stimulate new writers, the two invited "everyone we could think of" to talks in Wellington and Auckland, and ran a scriptwriting competition which drew 400 entries. These initiatives helped give "some idea of who was capable of writing for television,” as Drury put it.
“Before we actually hit on the idea of Pukemanu we had decided we wanted to do something bigger than The Alpha Plan, which had been the biggest thing the NZBC had tried.” Drury spoke of wanting to produce a show with wide appeal, “perhaps less esoteric than some of our earlier plays”. There was also a desire to “achieve a documentary effect combined with drama: something New Zealanders could see themselves in”. Depending on which version you trust, the idea of setting Pukemanu in a forestry town started either with Drury and Bill Austin, or with scriptwriter Julian Dickon, who was tasked with developing the concept and the characters.
Pukemanu won solid ratings, praise for the show's strong local voice, and a second season. Napier's Daily Telegraph called it "our only completely unique programme". The NZ Herald argued that each episode of the first season "introduced a new theme, mood or slant on the town", with the pieces fitting together "to form a satisfying final whole".
Although publicly Drury talked about the beginnings of “a New Zealand acting style” on Pukemanu, behind the scenes there were tensions between those who favoured bringing a more naturalistic, local voice to the show, and those keener on British TV formulas. Noting the Kiwi success of British imports like The Power Game, Drury was keen to add a plotline involving power battles between the brothers who run Pukemanu's timber-milling business. Unhappy with such changes, Dickon left the series. Noel Trevarthen, playing one of the brothers, unexpectedly followed soon after; the power battle angle was soon dropped.
Drury and Bill Austin went on to launch probation service drama Section 7 (1972). Made partly in the hope of winning an overseas audience, the show's cast included Ian Mune and Ewen Solon, an expat Kiwi with experience in the UK. Although not a hit, the show explored new areas for NZ television, especially in its portrait of urban life. As Trisha Dunleavy writes, Section 7 was “the first local TV drama to acknowledge an urban criminal demi-monde”.
Drury also initiated the first Kiwi sitcom, Buck House, which debuted in 1974. Featuring a strong local flavour, the late night comedy revolved around a mixed flat of university students. Risky for its era, the show's plotlines included alcohol, escorts and some coarse language. The cast included Paul Holmes, and in the second season, John Clarke.
Douglas Drury emigrated to Australia in 1977, initially to Sydney. Over the next few years he took small acting roles in Australian shows The Sullivans and Cop Shop. In the mid 80s he commuted to New Zealand to work as a script editor on post-war drama Country GP. Douglas Drury died in Melbourne on 5 February 2016.
Infofind - Radio New Zealand Library
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime - A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
Robert Lord, ‘Cheers for tele drama’ (Review of Actors’ TV Workshops) - Salient (Volume 30, Number 14), 1967
Jill McCracken, ‘Pukemanu - Mirror of Our Society’ - The Listener, 30 August 1971, page 5
Francis Parkin, ''Pukemanu'- Satisfying Whole Well Built Out Of Loose Ends' (Review) - The NZ Herald, 15 October 1971
Patricia Roddick, ‘Four Television Plays’ - Landfall no 84, December 1967, page 366
Warwick Roger, ‘Our Telly Favourite May Come to Life Again - The talents behind Pukemanu’ - The Sunday Times, 31 October 1971, page 37
'Telly Ho', 'Many more credits than debits in "Pukemanu"(Review) - The Daily Telegraph, 14 October 1971