Scriptwriter Gavin Strawhan seems to have worked on every New Zealand show with two words in its title — from five seasons of Go Girls to Filthy Rich, Jackson's Wharf, Mercy Peak, Nothing Trivial, and Kaitangata Twitch. He also penned scripts for (and co-produced) two What Really Happened dramas, which recreated events leading up to the Treaty of Waitangi, and the introduction of voting for women. In 2013 Strawhan won Best One-Off Television Drama from the NZ Writers Guild for the latter script, the same year he was nominated for an episode of Go Girls.
Strawhan reverses the normal trend of Kiwis working in Australian TV. Adelaide-born, he studied biology at Adelaide's Flinders University, but ended up turning it into an honours degree in theatre direction and performance. After writing some political theatre, he headed to Sydney to score a job as a trainee script editor at soap giant Grundy Television.
Strawhan honed his craft on Grundy's long-running soap Neighbours, before emigrating to New Zealand at the start of the 90s, to help train writers and script editors for a new soap called Shortland Street (he would also do a year as a producer). Initially he found it a challenge to find writers whose scripts reflected the way New Zealanders actually spoke. One of the reasons Strawhan had come downunder was because Shortland producer Caterina De Nave had made it clear she wanted the show to reflect Aotearoa's multi-cultural nature. Strawhan's attempts to introduce an Asian family to Neighbours had met no success.
It was on Shortland Street that Strawhan first worked with longtime writing partner Rachel Lang. The pair soon began creating the first of many shows together, with Jackson's Wharf and Mercy Peak — plus a project based around undercover cop John Lawless (played by Kevin Smith) which ended up being made as a trio of TV movies.
Strawhan was also one of the creators on 90s mini-series The Chosen, starring Cliff Curtis. Strawhan was intrigued by the subversive idea of suggesting "maybe a cult wasn't a bad alternative to growing up in an oppressive country town".
In the late 90s, he spent three years as head of development at John Barnett's South Pacific Pictures. It was a busy period: As well as helping develop a run of movies (including Crooked Earth, Whale Rider, and Jubilee) Strawhan was working with Rachel Lang on creating and scripting TV series Jackson's Wharf, which centred around the rivalry between a small town policeman, and his city slicker brother.
Follow-up show Mercy Peak premiered in 2001. Mercy's success would spawn 60 episodes, placing it amongst New Zealand's longest running drama shows. The ensemble series revolves around a doctor (Matariki's Sara Wiseman) who moves to a small town medical practice. Strawhan worked on many episodes in the first series; one won him best script at the 2002 NZ TV Awards. He also reteamed with Chosen scribe Maxine Fleming to help create another award-winner, genre-bending kidult show Being Eve. The show won multiple awards, and sold to more than 40 territories.
In 2000 Strawhan exited to London to become a development executive at multi-national FremantleMedia (which had recently purchased Grundy Television). He then relocated to Berlin to develop two German TV dramas. He continued writing for his BBC series Living It, set largely in a London playground, after returning to New Zealand in 2003.
Other shows aimed at younger viewers from this time were period adventure The Lost Children and Margaret Mahy fantasy Maddigan's Quest, a Brit-Kiwi co-production that sold to many international territories. The post-apocalyptic tale centred on a travelling circus troupe; Strawhan was invited on board partly because he'd worked at a number of circuses in Australia. Later he would help adapt Mahy's novel Kaitangata Twitch into an award-winning 2010 TV series.
Strawhan had not stopped writing for adults. He created the format for Prime's first police drama, the short-lived Interrogation, and contributed many scripts to Outrageous Fortune. He also took key roles behind the scenes on two female-skewed drama comedies: Burying Brian and hit show Go Girls.
Burying Brian is a serio-comic tale of four women and one dead husband. Originally Strawhan was set to assist the show's creator Maxine Fleming; but when she unexpectedly had to withdraw from the project, he took on a larger role, writing most of the scripts and even getting a say in casting and design. Strawhan was proud to write "meaty roles for four really good, experienced actresses to sink their teeth into".
Hit show Go Girls was born out of a desire to highlight optimism and kindness, instead of villians. The programme originally revolved around three female friends on a mission to be rich, married or famous within a year. After four seasons, following the gradual departure of most of the core cast, a final season in 2013 introduced a new cast of 20-somethings. The Go Girls concept sold to a number of overseas territories, including America. Among the positive reviews, Sydney Morning Herald critic Michael Idato praised the writing and humour.
July 2010 saw the premiere of ambitious near future thriller This is Not My Life, which Strawhan has described as "quite a departure". This time the Strawhan/ Rachel Lang team worked in tandem with Jason Daniel. The series began from the idea of "this guy who wakes up in his place and doesn't know who he is" — neither his name, nor his wife and children. Strawhan and Lang set up their own production company, and chose directors Rob Sarkies and Peter Salmon. Strawhan has argued that the drama is set in a recognisable but changed New Zealand, where freedom is an illusion and personal and social information is controlled electronically, and open to manipulation.
In the same period Strawhan and Lang created Nothing Trivial. This ensemble tale of five friends who meet at a regular pub quiz ran for three seasons, followed by a wrap-up telemovie. The duo went on to write World War 1 mini-series When We Go to War (2015), alongside Briar Grace-Smith. Strawhan was also one of the producers.
Two more Strawhan/Lang series debuted in 2016: Australian crime show Hyde & Seek did not go beyond a first season; Kiwi drama Filthy Rich did. The rich meets poor tale centres on three people who discover they have inherited money from a father they never knew, after the death of a business tycoon. In 2017 Strawhan became a rare screenwriter to publicly criticise the quality of New Zealand reviewers, following a critique of Filthy Rich by Duncan Greive.
Strawhan-penned feature film Matariki premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010 (it was his second film credit; back in 2001, he had been part of the scrum of scribes behind Crooked Earth). NZ Herald veteran Peter Calder praised Matariki for "delivering a touching series of intersecting stories" about love and the fragility of life. Calder argued that Strawhan's script, about eight people whose lives are affected by an act of violence, was "dramatic and affecting without ever being forced". Strawhan worked with Jubilee writer Michael Bennett through more than 20 drafts; Strawhan talks about the writing process, and other topics, in this video interview.
Published on 20 October 2009
Updated on 4 December 2017
'Gavin Strawhan - writing the favourites' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 8 February 2011. Accessed 12 June 2013
Peter Calder, 'Movie Review: Matariki' (Broken link) - The NZ Herald, 18 November 2000
Nick Grant, 'Doing the spadework' (Interview) - Onfilm, July 2008 (Volume 25, number 7), page 13
Michael Idato, 'Friday TV: The story of Playboy' (Review of Go Girls) - The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 September 2009
Fiona Rae, 'Interview: Rachel Lang and Gavin Strawhan' - The Listener, 24 July 2009
Maddigan's Quest press kit