After cutting his teeth on South Pacific Television soap Radio Waves, Christchurch-born Grant Morris went on to write comedy (The Billy T James Show) and children’s classic Count Homogenized — plus help create drama series Heroes and Inside Straight. Morris has continued to write since relocating to the United States in 1985, and is now a DJ on radio station It's New Orleans.
There were no other TV channels to watch so there wasn’t much pressure on anybody to perform — which was maybe why the shows were by and large pretty good. Grant Morris, on writing for Kiwi television in the 70s and early 80s
Gerard Smyth's acclaimed documentary about the Christchurch earthquakes is the story of people coping — for better or worse — with the huge physical and emotional toll that the quakes, and continuing aftershocks, inflicted on them, their homes and their city. It began as a home movie while the devastation of September was surveyed (with thanks given that no-one had been killed); but, as shooting of the recovery continued, the February quake compounded the destruction and claimed 182 lives (including their researcher and 16 colleagues at CTV).
Billy T’s unique brand of humour is captured at its affable, non-PC best in this compilation of skits from his popular 1980s TV shows. There’s Te News (“somebody pinched all the toilet seats out of the Kaikohe Police Station...now the cops got nothing to go on!”) with Billy in iconic black singlet and yellow towel; a bro’s guide to home improvement; skits about first contact, and a take off of Miami Vice. No target is sacred (God, the IRA, the talking Japanese sketch) and there are classic advertising spoofs for Pixie Caramel’s “last requests” and Lands For Bags’ “where’d you get your bag”.
Michael Firth's follow-up to his 1977 Oscar-nominated ski documentary Off the Edge, but this time with a plot and scripted dialogue. Canadian Matt hitches from Auckland to meet a bunch of Kiwi extreme thrill-seekers at a southern ski field. They throw themselves off volcanoes, glaciers, mountains and into an Iron Man with "get more go" abandon. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh's first feature shoot — "I was relatively cheap and I could ski" — is notable for its action sequences (set to an 80s pop soundtrack) and Billy T James as a mad pilot.
Armed with laser beam-firing crutches and computerised wheelchairs, 'The Kids' are a crime-fighting duo of physically-disabled teenagers working for O.W.L. (Organisation for World Liberty) to defeat the evil S.L.I.M.E. (Southern Latitude's International Movement for Evil!). Directed by Kim Gabara, this opener for the second series of the fondly-remembered show sees the kids foil a kidnap, enlist a new member, and steal a dangerous weapon: the 'Stickling Solidifier'. Neon alert: aficionados will note the early use of graphics from Apple 2 and Apple 3 computers.
Heroes followed a band trying to make it in the mid-80s music biz. Teen-orientated, the show marked a first major role for Jay Laga’aia (Star Wars), and an early gig for Michael Hurst (with blonde Billy Idol spikes). Band keyboardist John Gibson co-wrote the series music; he later became an award-winning film composer. Margaret Umbers (Shortland Street, Bridge to Nowhere) was a non-musician in the cast (with Hurst), but since has sung regularly in a jazz band. A second series follow in 1986.
Long before the comedy of Flight of the Conchords, Heroes followed the triumphs and pitfalls of a band trying to make it in the mid-80s New Zealand music biz. It marked the first major role for Jay Laga’aia, and early leading parts for Michael Hurst and Margaret Umbers. In this first episode the band gets together as Dave (Hurst) ditches his covers band, flunks a TV audition, and hooks up opportunist flatmate Ron (Laga’aia), synth player Peter (John Gibson, who co-wrote the series music) and bass player Maxine (Umbers). Synth and leopard skin abound.
Shot on location in Wellington, often after dark, Inside Straight helped usher in a new era of Kiwi TV dramas, far from the rural backblocks. This Minder-esque portrait of Wellington’s underworld was inspired by writer Keith Aberdein’s experiences as a taxi-driver and all night cafe worker. Phillip Gordon (soon to win fame as a conman in Came a Hot Friday) stars as the former fisherman, learning the ways of the city from veteran taxi driver Roy Billing. A solid but unspectacular rater over 10 episodes, the show was scuttled by the launch of trucker’s tale Roche.
Roughly four years after debuting on A Haunting We Will Go, Count Homogenized made a memorable re-entrance in his own series. This fifth episode has the simplicity of a good cartoon: disguised as a movable charity bin, the vampire endeavours to trick or talk his way past the local dairy owners, on his endless mission to make it to the milk supplies. Aside from Russell Smith in full comic flight as the Count, Lynda Milligan takes the New Zild accent in dramatic new directions as no-nonsense shopkeeper Rhonda Dearsley.
The immortal Count Homogenized, a vampire with a white afro and cape and a lust for milk, lodged himself in the hearts of a generation of Kiwi kids. After first portraying the vampire in A Haunting We Will Go, actor Russell Smith took centre stage in 1983's It is I Count Homogenized. This follow-up series transfers proceedings from the haunted house trappings of the original to a suburban dairy, where Homogenized continues his mission to get his teeth into what matters: the milk. Trivia: the series was made in association with the NZ Milk Promotion Council.
Introduced by a pilot called High Country, Jocko was an early 80s attempt by TVNZ to build a series around a travelling swagman character. Jocko (Bruce Allpress) is a maverick musterer and rural jack-of-all-trades in the tradition of the Australian swagman and the American cowboy. But the setting is a contemporary one: in the South Island high country where old and new methods of farming are coming into conflict. Two series were made, written by Julian Dickon (Pukemanu), and co-starring Desmond Kelly as Jocko’s off-sider and travelling companion, China.
After turning "Jeez Wayne" into a national catchphrase with the sketch show A Week of It, comedy duo David McPhail and Jon Gadsby (plus third writer AK Grant) followed with McPhail & Gadsby, which aired on TVNZ for seven seasons — plus a reprise in 1998 and 1999. After a sometimes controversial debut season in which each episode was devoted to a specific theme (religion, sex etc), the show settled into a steady diet of political satire, spoofs and impersonations of public figures — including McPhail's famous caricature of PM Robert 'Piggy' Muldoon.
Mortimer’s Patch was a popular drama series following Detective Sergeant Doug Mortimer (Terence Cooper) at work in the town of Cobham. Mortimer plays a city cop returning to his rural roots; Don Selwyn is Sergeant Bob Storey. The series was NZ’s first police drama, and a rare local drama to top ratings. Mortimer's Patch was made when the archetype of the ‘community cop’ everyone knew was still a powerful one, and it was a counterweight to the faceless riot policing of the Springbok Tour. Three series were made.
By the mid 1970s, Kiwi entertainer Ray Woolf was a regular television presence as a performer and host. After a stint co-hosting chat show Two on One (with Val Lamont and later Davina Whitehouse), the show morphed in 1979 into Woolf’s own singing and talk slot: The Ray Woolf Show, where he interviewed international stars, and sung and filmed clips around the country. After a season the show was reformatted to focus on music as The New Ray Woolf Show, and ran for another two years. In this period Woolf was awarded Best Television Light Entertainer multiple times.
In 1979 entertainer Ray Woolf went from co-hosting Two for One to his own chat show. This wide-ranging 'best of' episode from the end of the first season takes in bloopers, the victims of the Amityville Horror, Doctor Who Jon Pertwee, Gomer Pyle Jim Nabors, Norman Gunston, Alan Whicker, Frankie Howerd, Derek Nimmo, Diana Dors, Austin Mitchell, poet Pam Ayres, humorist Erma Bombeck and singer Billy Daniels — plus Kiwis Ricky May, Ian Fraser (on piano), Tina Cross, Selwyn Toogood and Precious McKenzie. Woolf, was judged 1979 TV Light Entertainer of the year.
Radio Waves charted the “lives and loves” of a commercial Auckland radio station in the age of Bee Gees and flares. Grant Bridger (‘Win Savage’) and Andy Anderson played DJs with Alan Dale as station manager; it was Dale’s screen debut, before fame in Australia (Neighbours) and the US (24, Ugly Betty). Devised by Graeme Farmer, Waves was an effort by SPTV to best TV One’s flagship soap Close to Home. While producer Tom Finlayson’s first drama was short-lived, its metro Auckland context — peopled with upbeat urban strivers — signaled a changing NZ on screen.
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.