Fiona Samuel, MNZM, has worked prolifically across so many fields that she defies labels: aside from acting on stage and screen, she is a playwright (The Wedding Party), director (TV movies Bliss and Piece of My Heart), scriptwriter (Consent, Outrageous Fortune) and singer (musical revue Babes in the Mood).
The biggest challenges seem to offer the best personal rewards. Fiona Samuel
Funny As traces the history of New Zealand comedy through archive footage, and extensive interviews with local comedy talent. Debuting on TVNZ 1 in July 2019, the five-part series explores how Kiwis "have used comedy to navigate decades of profound cultural change". Funny As touches on everything from live and musical comedy, to pioneers of Kiwi screen humour (e.g. Fred Dagg, Lynn of Tawa) and the hit exports of later years (Flight of the Conchords, Rose Matafeo). The series was made by production/creative agency Augusto, and produced by comedy veteran Paul Horan.
When this popular TV One comedy-drama about misbehaving real estate agents debuted in 2013, it copped flak from real estate bosses for perpetuating negative stereotypes about the industry. Agent Anna follows Anna Kingston (played by Robyn Malcolm, who also came up with the series idea), whose husband has left her and their two teenage daughters. Needing work, Kingston turns to selling houses in Auckland's cutthroat market. The programme ran for two seasons. Theresa Healey (Shortland Street), Adam Gardiner (movie Hopeless) and Roy Billing (Old Scores) co-star.
Bliss is a portrait of the artist as a young woman. The award-winning telemovie follows Katherine Mansfield from boredom in Edwardian Wellington to liberation and love affairs in London, where she dares to dream of being a writer. Kate Elliott plays Mansfield as a spirited 19-year-old, hungry for experience. Bliss screened to acclaim in TV One's Sunday Theatre slot in August 2011. Listener reviewer Fiona Rae praised director Fiona Samuel's "excellent" script, and for allowing "her Mansfield to be witty, passionate and outspoken without belabouring the status of women in 1908".
Created by Outrageous Fortune’s James Griffin and Rachel Lang, this South Pacific Pictures-produced TV3 dramedy is about a family of Norse gods who wash up in 21st Century New Zealand. Emmett Skilton stars as Axl aka Odin, who must restore his brothers' lapsed superpowers and find his wife Frigg ("no pressure, then"). But he is thwarted by Norse goddesses and Māori deities. The combo of fantastical plot and droll Kiwi bloke banter won loyal fans, who successfully campaigned for a third (and final) season. Johnsons screened on the SyFy channel in the US in 2014.
From early teleplay The Evening Paper to the edgy Outrageous Fortune, this episode of 50 Years of New Zealand Television talks drama and comedy. Key players, from actors to executives, recall a host of signposts in the development of storytelling on Kiwi TV screens. John Clarke recalls 1970s sitcom Buck's House; Paul Maunder remembers the drama that likely helped introduce the DPB; and TV executive John McRae recalls worries about the projected cost of global hit Hunter's Gold, and mentioning the word 'placenta' on the first episode of Shortland Street.
Qantas-nominated 'dramedy' Rude Awakenings revolved around the conflict between two neighbouring families, living in the Auckland suburb of Ponsonby. Rush family matriarch Dimity (Danielle Cormack) has her eyes on climbing the property ladder, by acquiring the house next door (occupied by solo Dad Arthur and his teenage daughters). Created by Garth Maxwell (movie Jack Be Nimble), the 2007 series was produced by Michele Fantl for TV One. The Listener’s Diana Wichtel welcomed it as a rare contemporary satire on New Zealand television, but it only ran for a single season.
Who Laughs Last profiles Roger Hall, New Zealand’s most successful playwright. Three decades after the opening of Hall's Middle Age Spread became a hit, the original cast return for 2006 follow up Spreading Out. The Shirley Horrocks doco explores the secrets behind Hall’s successful brand of comedy (25+ stage plays, plus TV series and musical comedies) and closely explores the popularity of Middle Age Spread and Spreading Out. Among those interviewed are John Clarke, Ginette McDonald, the late Grant Tilly, and Hall himself.
After her husband is jailed, matriarch Cheryl West (Robyn Malcolm) decides the time has come to set her family on the straight and narrow. But can the Wests change old habits? So begins the six-series long saga of the Westie dynasty. Hugely popular at home (beloved by public, critics and awards-nights alike), and imitated overseas, Outrageous Fortune has been a flag-bearer for TV3 and contemporary NZ telly drama; the series proved — in all its grow-your-own glory — that genre TV in NZ could be so much more than overseas stories pasted to a local setting.
This episode of arts show Mercury Lane features legendary musician Bill Sevesi, and poet Sonja Yelich (mother of musician Lorde). Sevesi takes centre stage: various musician friends join him to reminisce about packing Auckland dance halls in the 50s and 60s (at least until the arrival of 10 o'clock closing). After celebrating his 79th birthday, Sevesi is still as upbeat and music-obsessed as ever, especially when it comes to his beloved steel guitar and ukulele. In the final clip, Sonja Yelich performs her poem Teeth, with wry accompanying visuals from director Fiona Samuel.
Director Murray Keane was inspired to make this documentary after his wife Fiona Samuel focussed exclusively on women for her earlier doco about the loss of virginity and its effect on lives. The companion film features seven men aged from 20 to 80 talking candidly about their different experiences of 'the first time'. Keane illustrates these very personal stories with quirky, colourful visuals as his participants muse on an event that few were really prepared for and which was transcendent for some, confusing for others and a nightmare of abuse for one of them.
A TV network hires actor Kevin Smith to front a documentary about a town divided by an unusual discovery. Gooey Duck — a shellfish with reputed aphrodisiac qualities — has appeared off Ureroa. The quota is owned by a local couple but the rest of the town, big business, the government and the local iwi all have their own ideas. Smith's involvement gets complicated when he innocently consumes the mollusk while watching Prime Minister Jenny Shipley on TV. Writer Stephen Sinclair satiries television, celebrity, gender, politicis, small town New Zealand and penises.
With its mix of quirky characters, lush scenery, and medical drama, Mercy Peak proved to be a winning formula. Produced by John Laing for South Pacific Pictures, and starring a host of NZ acting talent (Tim Balme, Jeffrey Thomas, Renato Bartolomei, et al), Mercy Peak follows the highs and lows of Dr Nicky Somerville (Sara Wiseman), who leaves the big city after discovering her partner’s infidelity. Taking up her new role at the hospital in the tiny town of Bassett, Nicky soon learns that life is full of complexities no matter the population.
Actor, writer and director Fiona Samuel explores the loss of virginity in her first documentary. Seven women — aged from 19 to 89 — talk frankly about their 'first time' and how it affected their lives. For some, it was a rite of passage for better or worse, but for others there have been life changing consequences. Expressive recreations provide texture for stories that are compelling but never voyeuristic. In a rare example of a conjugal screen one-two, Murray Keane, Samuel’s husband, explored the same topic with seven men for a companion piece in 2002.
Described as a “tour of duty at knee height” this short film sees a bunch of boys playing war games confronting reality on a rural New Zealand ‘battlefield’. Actor turned director Murray Keane described the film as an atonement for putting a rubbish bin atop a local war memorial when he was a boy. It was nominated for Best Film and Best Script at the Nokia NZ Film Awards. The young cast includes Daniel Logan (young Boba Fett in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones) Tyler Read (Shortland Street’s Evan Cooper) and Elliot Lawless (The Bridge of Terabithia).
The first movie written and directed by playwright Anthony McCarten is a portrait of a family melting down under the media spotlight. The comedy/drama stars Danielle Cormack in two roles — as a swimmer on the cusp of Olympic glory, and as the twin sister back home, looking on as her family descends into spats and bickering as they find the pressure to perform too much to bear. Via Satellite showcases a topline cast, including Tim Balme, Rima Te Wiata, and a scene-stealing and heavily-pregnant Jodie Dorday, who won an NZ TV and Film Award for her work.
Intergenerational warfare, mad aunts, bored teens, affairs, abortions and the ache of regret are on the menu in place of sausage rolls in Home Movie. A christening is the crux around which a family does its best to pull apart at the seams. Performances and a script attuned to the details of domestic disturbance don't hold back (America's Funniest Home Videos this ain't). Directed and written by Fiona Samuel, it was part of TV One's Montana Sunday Drama series. It won best actor, actress and TV drama at the 1998 NZ Film and TV Awards. Samuel writes about making Home Movie here.
This short film is one of writer/director Fiona Samuel’s first directorial efforts, and is a stylish and quirky tale of a plain woman with a beautiful voice who is trapped in a difficult life caring for her cranky elderly father. The singer waiting to bloom is beautifully played by actual singer Janet Roddick (Six Volts) in a rare on-screen role, and Desmond Kelly puts in a strong performance as the cantankerous Dad. The film won the Golden Mikeldi at 1997's Bilbao International Festival of Documentary and Short Film.
Bitch is a tale of "infidelity among friends" which explores trust and romance, and stars three people and a dog. Isabel (Inside Straight's Joanne Simpson) recalls a trio of relationships — one with a man in the middle of discovering he is gay, one with a man who doesn't like the smell of Isabel's pet dog, and the last with her friend Ruth (Carol Smith). Creator Fiona Samuel (TV's Marching Girls) intended the short, one of her earliest as a director, to combine two perspectives: the world as the main character perceives it, and how things might appear to the casual observer.
Written by Fiona Samuel (Marching Girls, Bliss, Home Movie) and produced by Ginette McDonald for television’s Montana Sunday Theatre, Face Value is a trilogy of monologues delivered by three separate women. While each woman’s story and background are vastly different, they are all united by their shared quest to find happiness amidst personal trauma. In A Real Dog, Carol Smith’s performance is spot-on as Lynette, a conflicted new-age hippie who struggles to recreate harmony when a new flatmate (and her estranged boyfriend) moves in.
Written by Fiona Samuel, Face Value was a trilogy of monologues by three women with different stories to tell but who all share a quest for inner happiness. Ginette McDonald plays Steph, the pampered wife of a wealthy advertising executive in Her New Life. The action centres on Steph’s preparations for a friend’s daughter’s wedding while her husband is away on a business trip. The script cleverly subverts viewer expectations; and McDonald's performance delivers a fair dose of pathos from it. Her New Life was a finalist at the Banff and New York TV Festivals.
Written by Fiona Samuel and produced by Ginette McDonald, Face Value is a series of monologues by three women with very different stories to tell, but who share a quest for inner happiness. In House Rules, the inimitable Davina Whitehouse gives a poignant performance as Miss Judd, a housekeeper of 22 years who is forced to reassess her life and situation after her employer’s death. Propriety at all costs is the rule of the day. House Rules is another example of Samuel’s ability to create memorable and subtly complex female characters.
In this award-winning Montana Sunday Theatre drama, Cliff Curtis plays Jim, a grungy rocker who can’t (and doesn’t want to) commit to a straight life with his misguidedly hopeful girlfriend Sina (Sarah Smuts-Kennedy). A night of emotional turmoil in the city ensues as Sina does her best to avoid the reality of her situation (as well as home invasion and Jim’s dodgy manager). Fiona Samuel's darkly funny script and top-notch casting underpin this look at the not-so-delicate nature of relationships amongst a group of Generation X Aucklanders.
A young man suffering from mounting sexual frustration (Skitz regular Michael Sengelow) wakes up one day to find incredibly strange things happening between his legs. A comic fable about personal gardening, male organs, and finding the perfect partner, Prickle marked the directorial debut of one-time actor Murray Keane. Keane would showcase his talent for comedy again, when he directed episodes of Outrageous Fortune and Diplomatic Immunity.
Christine Jeffs made her directing debut with this lush, high end (35mm film, Dolby sound) short film. Dorothy (Fiona Samuel), a lone swimmer, luxuriates in tranquil bliss at a deserted pool — only to have her solitude rudely interrupted by a squad of swimmers. A wordless, strikingly choreographed conflict ensues as Dorothy attempts to assert herself against the dehumanised aggression of the swimmers. Stroke was invited to international festivals including Cannes and Sundance; and Jeffs went on to direct feature films Rain and Sunshine Cleaning.
Created by Fiona Samuel, The Marching Girls follows a Taita social marching team who decide to have a crack at the North Island champs. In the first episode of this feminist-Flashdance-in-formation 80s classic, young whippersnapper Leonie tries to modernise the girls' routine by getting them to march to the heavy metal tunes of Ironlung ("they're really big in Australia!"). This proves too much for Mahara (Patupatu Ripley), who's got enough on her plate with her new role as hesitant union spokesperson for her fellow workers down at the factory.
In 1986 Footrot Flats: The Dog's (Tail) Tale and its theme song ‘Slice of Heaven’ were huge hits in New Zealand and Australia. The adaptation of Murray Ball's beloved Footrot Flats comic strip marked Aotearoa's first animated feature. There were a lot of big questions to answer: Will Wal become an All Black? Will Cooch recover his stolen stag? Will the Dog win your hearts and funny bones? Punters answered at the box office. This John Toon-shot trailer doubled as a promo for the Dave Dobbyn-Herbs song, and smartly leveraged both. Tony Hiles writes about the film's making here.
Stunt driver Judd (US Oscar winner Cliff Robertson) and his mechanic Casey (ex child star Leif Garrett) are in NZ racing 'Shaker' — their pink and black Trans-Am — when they're enlisted by scientist Dr Christine Ruben on a fast and furious dash from Dunedin. Unknown to the Yanks, Ruben (Lisa Harrow) has stolen a deadly virus that she's aiming to smuggle to the CIA, and away from the NZ military — who plan to use it for bio warfare! Touted as "fantasy car violence", the chase and stunt-laden Run was one of dozens of films sped out under an 80s tax break scheme.
After hitting Wellington for a Ranfurly Shield game, two brothers from the sticks (Grant Tilly and Pork Pie's Kelly Johnson) have to sneak their abruptly deceased father back home. If the body isn’t buried there, they won’t inherit the family farm. Set back when "blokes were blokes and sheilas were their mums", director John Reid’s shaggy dog tale — a Weekend at Bernie's, reeking of stale beer and ciggies — both lauds and satirises the Kiwi male. Among the six clips, the final clip sees Tilly's character getting things off his chest, now that Dad is finally unable to answer back.
It's April 1966 when young Massey student Peter (Michael Hurst, sporting period mop and moustache) makes a surprise visit back home at the farm during study break, and is quickly put out by the archaic social mores: "ya taken to wearing a bra as well?". It's also Anzac Day, and his newfound pacifism and career plans soon put him on a collision course with his veteran father (Peter Vere-Jones) in a surprisingly potent TV drama that pulls no punches — literally — in its depiction of a generation gap that proves irreconcilable.
Pioneering soap opera Close To Home first screened in May 1975. For just over eight years, middle New Zealand found their mirror in the life and times of Wellington’s Hearte clan. At its peak in 1977, nearly one million viewers tuned in twice weekly to watch the series, which was co-created by Michael Noonan and Tony Isaac. They initially only agreed to make it on condition they got approval for The Governor. The popular family saga carved a regular niche for local drama on screen; the demands of creating a regular show helped develop the skills of Kiwi actors and crew.