In at the birth of Kiwi television drama, back in the days when it was “a three camera set up and repertory cast concept”, actor Irene Wood has been in the game long enough to have seen many big changes: from the switch from black and white to colour in the mid 70s – which she says some thought a passing phase, “like decimal currency” – to the arrival of high definition television, “which frankly does no one over 35 any favours”.
Wanganui-born and Lower Hutt-raised, Wood began acting at primary school: she has memories of singing “loudly and obliviously off-key” in a production of dance play Redcap in Fairyland. “I think it was the centre stage thing that got me,” she laughs.
Wood's versatility got her many gigs in the early days of Kiwi television. By the mid 60s she was writing and presenting on live children’s show Button On Button Off, singing live on Music Hall, and competing on quiz show Note for Note (and later, hit show Personality Squares). She also starred as Katherine Mansfield in one hour drama The White Gardenia. Directed by Douglas Drury and long predating 2011 telemovie Bliss, White Gardenia dramatised parental conflicts before Mansfield left New Zealand, including a romance with a young cellist (played by future theatre director Colin McColl “in a knickerbocker suit”).
By this point local TV producer Brian Bell had realised that if local drama output was going to grow, some training might be a good idea. Alongside Drury and Chris Thomson, Bell began running television workshops for actors and producers, and experimenting with a repertory style team of actors, Wood among them.
In 1967 Bell executive produced five one-off tele-dramas, stories which marked New Zealand television's first sustained burst of local storytelling. Wood featured in the two that won the keenest reaction from critics and audiences alike. Slipknot, based on a script by Dame Ngaio Marsh was a murder mystery set in the Auckland art scene. Wood’s performance was praised by NZ Herald critic Barry Shaw, who wrote that she "took the eye ... she made every word, every look count". Her second role was in the Warren-Dibble scripted Double Exposure, about two travellers who clash in a hotel.
Since then Wood has spent a year acting in Australia, and performed onstage at Mercury, Centrepoint and Downstage theatres. (It was at Downstage that she solved a lack of backstage space by hanging a box of props out the window, above a busy street.) Her stage impersonation (at Wellington's Circa Theatre) of then Green Party leader Jeanette Fitsimmons was reprised for a TV3 New Year’s Eve special.
She has also done time on the nursing roster of Shortland Street; her key big screen roles to date have been rest-home comedy Rest for the Wicked, and as mother and protector of a dodgy junkie (Brian Sargent) in movie The Shirt.
But Wood is most often recognised in supermarkets thanks to five seasons of Go Girls. Playing the straighttalking but slightly ditsy Nan McMann, great grandmother to barmaid Britta, she shared – and stole – many scenes alongside another Kiwi screen veteran, Annie Whittle.
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)
John Smythe, Downstage Upfront (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2004)