Veteran actor Glenis Levestam began her screen career with the first drama written for local television: she had a small role in 1963 teleplay All Earth to Love. Levestam is better remembered for her role as Dot Paget, across 650 episodes of pioneering soap opera Close to Home. She played bossy sister to Maisie in 1988 TV comedy Bert and Maisie, narrated on series Pioneer Women, and has also appeared on TV's Country GP and big screen comedy Black Sheep.
In real life Glenis is an apparently merry and flexible woman whose sparkling sense of humour has been in no way dashed by the vicissitudes of the actor's life. New Zealand Woman's Weekly article, 13 June 1988, page 24
A mutant lamb escapes from the lab after dodgy genetic experiments, and herds of sheep are turned into bloodthirsty predators. Three hapless humans are stranded on the farm as the woolly nightmare develops. They discover a bite from an infected sheep has an alarming effect on those bitten. With his first feature, director Jonathan King (Under the Mountain) provides splatter thrills and attacks a few sacred cows. Black Sheep was invited to 20+ international festivals, where it scored acclaim and multiple awards. The interviews include King, Weta's Richard Taylor, and the cast.
Solo mum Leeanne Rosser (Jean's Kate Elliott) is rejected by her Christian mother. She tries to stay close to her brother Brent (Jared Turner), unaware of his secret life as a thief. One day a burglary goes wrong, and a woman is badly injured. The incident causes repercussions for all the members of the two families, and relationships begin to fracture. Based on Maurice Gee's novel Crime Story, Fracture was the second feature directed by Larry Parr. Its release was delayed by the collapse of Parr's company Kahukura in 2002. The Press called Fracture "competent, confident and complex".
City Life follows a tight-knit group of apartment-dwelling twenty-somethings (lawyers, bartenders, drug dealers, art dealers, et al) on the emotional merry-go-round of urban living. Created by James Griffin, the television series was an effort to create popular drama relevant to contemporary Auckland city life and to appeal to a Gen X demographic – to inject Melrose Place into Mt Eden. A bevy of Kiwi acting talent drink, dramatise and prevaricate to a soundtrack of contemporary NZ pop.
Classic Kiwi play Joyful and Triumphant followed the Bishop family over four decades, from 1949 to 1989. Written by Robert Lord, it charted changes in New Zealand society by focusing on the minutae of Christmas Day family dynamics. The play was first performed to sellout audiences in 1992, a month after Lord died. It won multiple Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards. Directed by Peter Sharp (The Fire-Raiser), this TV adaptation features Robyn Malcolm and Goodbye Pork Pie's Tony Barry — plus Catherine Downes and Bruce Phillips, who both appeared in the original production.
After his mother gets infected by a bite from a deadly Sumatran rat monkey, Lionel (Almighty Johnson Tim Balme, in an award-winning performance) has to contend with a plague of the living dead while attempting to woo the love of his life. Peter Jackson had already been tagged with the title ‘The Sultan of Splatter’ after his first two features, but this was the film that confirmed it. Armed with a decent budget, he takes a Flymo to fusty 1950s New Zealand and takes cinematic gore to a whole new extreme in the process.
One of a select few Kiwi dramas about filmmaking, The Footstep Man centres on a man whose job is creating footsteps and sound effects for movies. Lonely, toiling under a demanding director, Sam (Brit Steven Grimes) gets trapped between real life and reel life. Cinematographer Leon Narbey’s second movie is a portrait of the strange pressure cooker of creating films, a luminous film within a film — with Jennifer Ward-Lealand as muse to painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec — and a reminder that for all the technology involved, moviemaking is about the human touch.
Created for television by author Maurice Gee, The Fire-Raiser pits a quartet of smalltown school kids against a balaclava-clad figure with fire on the brain. In this episode, the children sneak onto the property of the man they suspect of terrorising their town. The police arrive after Kitty is trapped inside a room that has tragic memories for the suspect’s mother, the memorably moody Mrs Marwick. This WWI-era gothic adventure went on to score four Listener TV awards, including best drama; and Gee’s accompanying novel was published both here and overseas.
The Country GP (Lani Tupu) takes a back seat in an episode set in the first week of 1950, which centres around the arrival in Mason’s Valley of the parents of local teacher Tim Bryant (Duncan Smith). The discovery that Tim’s father Sid (played by Vigil scriptwriter Graeme Tetley) is a unionist and paid up member of the Communist Party shatters the township’s apparently relaxed way of life. Sid has come to warn his son of difficult times ahead that could see him back in prison, but his presence inflames some of the locals and leads to a questioning of the true meaning of freedom.
Country GP was a major 80s drama series that charted the post-war years 1945 to 1950 in a rural central South Island town. Using fast-turnaround techniques that anticipated later series like Shortland Street, 66 episodes of Country GP were shot in 18 months at a specially built set in Whiteman’s Valley, Lower Hutt. It was groundbreaking as the first NZ series to cast a Samoan in a title role (Lani Tupu as Dr David Miller); but it also provided a nostalgic look back to an apparently kinder, gentler time than mid-80s New Zealand with its major social reforms and upheavals.
The Feltex-winning series Pioneer Women dramatised the lives of groundbreaking New Zealand women. This episode looks at the story of controversial safe-sex campaigner Ettie Rout. In World War I she travelled to Egypt to care for Kiwi soldiers; there she found venereal disease was rife, and recommended that prophylactic kits be issued and that brothels be inspected for hygiene. To the establishment her pioneering ideas on health, sex and gender were ‘immoral’ and received with hostility; while the RSA and some doctors considered her a “guardian angel of the ANZACs”.
This episode in the Pioneer Women series dramatised the story of Hera Ngoungou. In 1874 in Taranaki, Māori kidnapped an eight-year-old Pākehā girl — Caroline “Queenie” Perrett — possibly in retribution for her father breaking a tapu. Her family didn’t see her again until she was 60, when she was a grandmother and had spent more than 50 years living with, and identifying as, Māori. A moving (Feltex award-winning) performance from Ginette McDonald (aka Lyn of Tawa) mixes stoicism with an acknowledgement of good times and a sense of loss for what might have been.
This episode of Pioneer Women dramatises the life of Waikato leader Te Puea Herangi: from prodigal daughter to leader of the Tainui people. Te Puea helped establish the Kingitanga movement, and led Tainui to prosperity through wars, confiscation of their land, and an influenza epidemic. Future TV3 newsreader Joanna Paul plays Te Puea. Produced by Pamela Meekings-Stewart, the Pioneer Women series screened in a high profile slot on TV One, and challenged the view that white male statesmen were the only noteworthy figures in New Zealand colonial history.
This episode of The Deep End asks whether a navy captain has the skill set to direct television. Aided by Royal NZ Navy officer Peter Cozens, navy veteran Ian Bradley agrees to direct a teleplay starring an occasionally troublesome team of Kiwi actors. Bradley's mission had its roots in an earlier episode, where he forced normal Deep End host Bill Manson to walk the plank of the frigate HMNZS Waikato. The result is a rare behind the scenes glimpse into local TV production — and a chance to witness the grace under pressure of both Bradley, and veteran TV Production Assistant Dot LePine.
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.
Pioneering series Pukemanu (the NZBC’s first continuing drama) followed the goings-on of a North Island timber town. The series was conceived by former forester Julian Dickon (who quit the series and was replaced by Listener critic Hamish Keith as writer). Producing two seasons of six episodes was a key step in industry professionalisation, and many of the cast became stars (Ginette McDonald, Ian Mune). It offered an archetypal screen image that Kiwis could relate to: rural, bi-cultural, boozy and blokey; and reviews praised its Swannie-clad authenticity.