Writer James Griffin has been pivotal in an eye-opening proportion of the successful TV comedies and dramas made in New Zealand since the mid 1980s. His credits stretch from Gloss to award-winner 800 Words and big screen comedy Sione's Wedding. Working alongside writer Rachel Lang, he also co-created Westie family drama Outrageous Fortune and hit show The Almighty Johnsons.
We don’t actually draw that much from our own experiences because if we had behaved like the West family in our lives, we probably would be in prison rather than writers on a TV show. James Griffin on writing for Outrageous Fortune
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.
TV3 series Outrageous Fortune had six memorable seasons. Award-winning prequel Westside takes the West family back to where it all began — to legendary safecracker Ted West (David de Lautour), and his fiery wife Rita (Antonia Prebble from Outrageous). Each episode of series one is set in a particular year of the 1970s. Season two moves to the 1981 Springbok Tour; the third, set in 1982, introduced a teen Cheryl West. Combining romance, crime and West family folklore with real life events, Westside was created by James Griffin and Rachel Lang, the duo behind the original.
A prequel to classic TV3 series Outrageous Fortune, Westside travels back in time to meet young Rita (Antonia Prebble), Ted (David de Lautour) and their son Wolf West, on the make in West Auckland. This first episode opens with Ted leaving Mt Eden prison, then sets him on a safe-cracking plot that is aided by the 1974 Commonwealth Games. Prebble played Loretta West in Outrageous, and first took on the role of Rita in flashbacks from season four. Devised by Outrageous creators James Griffin and Rachel Lang, Westside won acclaim: "all the hallmarks of a classic", said Stuff.
Twenty-four year-old barman Dave finds his life turned upside down when he meets the girl of his dreams — Cara, 14 years his senior, and the owner of three kids. Over two seasons, the light-hearted drama explored whether their live-in relationship could survive the weight of low expectations, and her unruly family. Created by Kate McDermott (This is Her), Step Dave starred Swedish emigre Sia Trokenheim (2014 film Everything we Loved) and Brit born Jono Kenyon. Interest in the format encompassed the Ukraine — which remade the show in 2016 — France, Hungary and Greece.
Described by co-star Neill Rea as the "little show that could", The Brokenwood Mysteries has screened in over 15 countries and and involved a long run of fictional murders. Each feature-length episode of this Prime TV crime drama is a standalone murder mystery, set in a small Kiwi town. Neill Rea (Scarfies) stars as veteran detective Mike Shepherd, who works alongside Detective Kristin Sims (played by Fern Sutherland from The Almighty Johnsons). Backing up the pair are Detective Sam Breen (Nic Sampson from Funny Girls) and Russian pathologist Gina Kadinsky (Cristina Ionda).
In this 13 episode series by veteran TV scriptwriters Rachel Lang and James Griffin (creators of Outrageous Fortune, The Almighty Johnsons) Outrageous stars Antonia Prebble and Siobhan Marshall are cast east into Auckland's CBD, where they team up to solve a murder. Along the way the odd couple (office temp and victim's best friend) unite to unravel dubious goings-on in the post-crash Auckland financial world, and team up the people working behind the scenes against the corruption. The 2013 series was produced by Chris Bailey for South Pacific Pictures.
In this 2013 murder mystery from writers Rachel Lang and James Griffin (Outrageous Fortune, The Almighty Johnsons), Outrageous stars Antonia Prebble and Siobhan Marshall are cast east to Auckland's CBD as a sleuthing odd couple. This opening 10 minutes of the TV3 series begins with a body floating in the Viaduct. Then temp Jane March (Prebble) finds more drama than stationary in her first day at a law firm: her predecessor — Rose — is dead rather than on holiday, and she meets Rose’s brassy best mate Linda (Marshall) when she barges in to collect Rose’s possessions.
In the five years since Sione's Wedding, the Duckrocker quartet have experienced marriage, children, Australians and the good lord. Then their minister reunites them on a quest to find Bolo (Dave Fane) — once their driver and conscience, now MIA. The sequel to the break-through PI-Kiwi hit reunites the original cast, and adds in a dodgy minister (Kirk Torrance) and a new director (Outrageous Fortune's Simon Bennett). On the burden of following Wedding, Stuff reviewer Steve Kilgallon adjudged: "seen on its own merits, it [Sione's 2] proves worth the wait".
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.
In the first 10 minutes of this TV3 comedy, Axl (Emmett Skilton) has a close shave outside the bottle store on the eve of his 21st birthday. But that’s nothing compared to the meteors, earthquake and a blood red Mission Bay that follow. By the end of the episode, Axl learns that he and his Kiwi bloke older brothers are also Norse gods. From Outrageous Fortune creators James Griffin and Rachel Lang, the light-hearted lad fantasy saga gained a loyal following and — in a rare example of a Kiwi TV export to the US — the three seasons screened on the SyFy channel from July 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.
Rocked the Nation launched in 2008 with six one hour-long shows. Production company Satellite Media ransacked the archives and interviewed protagonists, to survey 100 key moments in Kiwi music history: including smash hits, riots, TV talent shows, and sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Hosted by Karyn Hay, the series screened on C4 during NZ Music Month, and was the channel’s highest-rating series to that date. Follow-up series counted down 100 New Zealand Pop Culture Stories (2009, hosted by Rhys Darby) and 100 New Zealand Sporting Moments (2011, hosted by Dai Henwood).
Sione's Wedding is a feel-good feature comedy about four 30-something guys who must each find a girlfriend before their best friend Sione's wedding — or be left out in the cold. Through the efforts of these bumbling blokes to get the girl(s), the film brought to life the colour and humour of the urban Samoan community in Auckland, the world's largest Polynesian city. A breakthrough PI-Kiwi film, Sione's broke box office records when it opened in cinemas throughout New Zealand in March 2006. Actor Oscar Kightley co-wrote the script with James Griffin.
This first episode of NZ's most popular and critically acclaimed drama series revolves around Wolf West being sentenced to four years in prison — and his wife, Cheryl, deciding it's time for her and her children to get out of the "family business". Wolf and the local police are dubious. But even this early in proceedings, it would be foolish to underestimate Cheryl. Whether she can take her daughters (ditzy wannabe-model Pascalle and the cunning Loretta) and sons (yin and yang twins Van and Jethro) with her is another matter altogether. And so begins a dynasty.
This children's post-apocalyptic fantasy series follows a circus troupe, Maddigan's Fantasia on their quest to save the world's only remaining city, Solis. The show was created by children's writer Margaret Mahy, developed for television by writers Gavin Strawhan and Rachel Lang for South Pacific Pictures, who produced the 13 x 30min series for TV3. Award-winning and successfully exported, it marked a debut lead performance from Rose McIver (future Tinker Bell in US TV show Once Upon a Time) acting with Michael Hurst, Peter Daube, Tim Balme and Danielle Cormack.
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 season saga of the Westie dynasty. Hugely popular (beloved by public, critics and awards givers alike), Outrageous Fortune was a flag-bearer for TV3 and New Zealand television drama. The series proved — in all its grow-your-own glory — that television in Aotearoa could mield comedy and drama, and be so much more than overseas stories pasted to a local setting.
This hit animated TV comedy follows the adventures of five kids growing up in the Auckland suburb of Morningside. This rugby-themed episode starts with God praising George Nepia (with Jesus weeping because he’s no good at sports), before heading down to Morningside for a lesson on teamwork. As the Sylvester 1st XV face up against a superstar team which includes Tana Umaga and Stacey Jones, Mack pulls a sicky so that his mates won't find out how little he knows about the game. Michael Jones is the Savages' inspirational coach.
Serial Killers pokes fun at a group of characters that write for a Shortland Street-esque TV soap called Heart of Hearts. Around the "table of pain" sit irrational Pauline (Robyn Malcolm, who claimed a 2005 Qantas Award for her performance), in the midst of a messy divorce from series co-creator Alan (John Leigh); boozy ex-nurse Simone; name-dropper Matt (Oliver Driver); and ditzy ingénue Elaine. Created by prolific writer James Griffin (Outrageous Fortune, Gloss, Mercy Peak, Shortland Street etc) and based on his award-winning play, it screened in 2005.
This animated hit follows the adventures of five kids growing up in the Auckland suburb of Morningside. The show's fearless, un-PC wit was developed from the poly-saturated comedy of theatre group Naked Samoans. In bro'Town's very first episode, Valea gets hit by a bus and wakes up a genius, allowing him to demonstrate that his school is not just full of dumbarses after the boys compete on a school quiz show. The Simpsons-esque celebrity cameos start strong, thanks to Robert Rakete, Scribe, Prime Minister Helen Clark, David Tua and "marvellous" John Campbell.
Working from a kind of 'play within the play' premise, comedy series Serial Killers, cleverly satirises the lives of a group of TV soap writers, actors and the industry they all work for. Featuring Pauline (played by Robyn Malcolm) the permanently stressed-out screenwriter of Heart of Hearts, and her ex-partner/co-worker Alan (John Leigh), these excerpts from the 2005-screened series include the pair trying to reason with their producer (a preternaturally calm Tandi Wright) who demands the writers re-introduce a character they'd formerly killed off.
It's election time in this special episode from the topical weekly satire series about a PR firm (written by James Griffin, Dave Armstrong, Tom Scott and Roger Hall). Giles Peterson and Associates will take on any client - even if it means trying to update Helen Clark's wardrobe, speechwriting for Winston Peters, offering succour to fading National and Alliance MPs, brokering a coalition deal between the Greens and Labour, or helping candidates master the intricacies of The Worm. Meanwhile, elements of the Catholic Church feel they haven't apologised enough.
The Strip centres around 30-something Melissa (Luanne Gordon), who sheds a legal career to set up a male strip revue. Created by Alan Brash, The Strip played to a certain demographic's desire for ogling naked men (warmed up by 1987 play Ladies Night and 1997 film The Full Monty), but with a focus on female characters, as Melissa juggles business with raising a teenage daughter. Taking cues from Ally McBeal (with fantasy sequences to match) the Gibson Group tale of g-strings, feminism and red light romance screened for two series on TV3 and sold internationally.
This quirky, upbeat comedy-drama looked at teen life through the eyes of 15-year-old Eve (Fleur Saville). Something of an amateur teen anthropologist, Eve questions everything in her world, musing on life to the camera. The series' fresh, self-aware style appealed directly to media-savvy teenagers. The TV3 series launched Saville's TV career, fostered young directing and producing talent, won many awards (including Best Drama Series at the 2002 NZ TV Awards) and was nominated for an International Emmy. It sold to over 40 territories, including the United States.
Mataku was a bilingual series of half-hour dramatic narratives steeped in Māori mystique. Described as a Māori Twilight Zone, Mataku was produced by Māori writers, directors and actors, and was a strong international and domestic success. Each episode was introduced Rod Serling-style by actor Temuera Morrison. This excerpt from the first episode, which screened on TV3, portrays two young sisters (Nora and Naera) who are playing in the forest when events take a tragic turn; mysterious putapaiarehe (fairies) are implicated and haunt a troubled grown-up Nora.
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.
Set in a high flying PR firm, Spin Doctors was a topical, fast turnaround satire — in the tradition of John Clarke’s The Games. No client is too grasping, no issue too unsavoury for Giles Peterson and Associates, and a team including a ruthless Australian (Mark Ferguson), a boozy trout (Elizabeth Hawthorne) and the office liberal unsuccessfully battling his conscience (John Leigh). Each episode was written and produced in just five days — allowing the writers (including James Griffin, Roger Hall and Tom Scott) full license with the week’s issues.
Over four seasons, Street Legal’s slick Kiwi take on urban crime and law genres racked up a stack of award nominations - including a 2003 NZ TV Award for best drama series. Although initially wary that the Auckland setting might alienate viewers, writer Greg McGee chose a Samoan lawyer (Jay Laga’aia) as his main character, to exploit the show’s inner-city Ponsonby setting (where cafe society bumps into Pacific Island immigrant culture). Other key characters included Silesi’s lawyer ex-girlfriend Joni, and her new partner Kees, an overstressed sergeant.
Created by Gavin Strawhan and Rachel Lang, Jackson’s Wharf was set in a fictional coastal town and revolved around a sibling rivalry between brothers Frank (the town cop) and Ben Jackson (a big smoke lawyer). Returning with his family, golden boy Ben has controversially inherited the local pub from his recently deceased father. Produced by South Pacific Pictures, the one hour popular drama screened for two seasons. Writer James Griffin and director Niki Caro worked on the show, alongside much of the talent who would later create Mercy Peak and Outrageous Fortune.
Lawless saw Kevin Smith in one of his biggest roles: as undercover cop turned private investigator John Lawless. The character's career arc was told across three tele-movies. In this self-titled debut, Lawless struggles with divided loyalties while working for a dodgy drug lord (Joel Tobeck). Next thing, a robbery leaves Lawless framed by the good guys. This stylish Kiwi take on American crime shows won good reviews and a stash of awards, including gongs for Tobeck, co-star Angela Dotchin, director Chris Martin-Jones and best drama programme.
Double Booking was a one-off comedy about a bloke (Kevin Smith), reluctantly celebrating his stag night, and a woman (Theresa Healey) who is less than happy at her hen's party. When the titular double booking happens their paths collide. The two are starstruck at the Ocean Moon restaurant; wedding days are threatened and much ado occurs. The cast is a virtual Gloss reunion. Double Booking was one of a series of comedy pilots for TVNZ. A series didn't ensue, but it did win James Griffin a Best Comedy Script gong at the 1999 New Zealand TV Awards. Griffin writes about it here.
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.
City Life screened from 1996 to 1998 and made a direct appeal to New Zealand's Gen X apartment-dwelling demographic. Following the lives of a tight-knit group of friends, and featuring racy shots of Auckland's K-Road and nightlife set to contemporary Kiwi pop music, the show was Aotearoa's answer to Melrose Place. In this excerpt from the first episode, the friends are thrown into conflict when one of their own (played by Kevin Smith) decides to marry outside the circle. Complications ensue when Smith shares a brief, but notorious, screen kiss with Charles Mesure.
Shortland Street is a fast-paced serial drama set in an inner city Auckland hospital. The long-running South Pacific Pictures production is based around the births, deaths and marriages of the hospital's staff and patients. It screens on TVNZ’s TV2 network five days a week. In 2017 the show was set to celebrate its 25th anniversary, making it New Zealand’s longest running drama by far. Characters and lines from the show have entered the culture — starting with “you’re not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata!” in the very first episode. Mihi Murray writes about Shortland Street here.
Marlin Bay was a drama series following the comings and goings of a far-north resort and casino. Andy Anderson, Ilona Rogers, Don Selwyn, Pete Smith, Katie Wolfe and others made up the cast of earthy locals, wealthy foreigners, and city weekenders. Created by writer Greg McGee, Marlin Bay was one of the first primetime drama series from South Pacific Pictures. Kevin Smith received a 1995 Best Supporting Actor nod for his role as villain Paul Cosic.
On the heels of Issues (1990), More Issues offered more of the same satirical takes on local and international current affairs. It pokes fun at the advent of news-presenting personalities like Judy Bailey, Richard Long and Paul Holmes - such a prominent feature of NZ TV at the time. Politicians Ruth Richardson and Robert Muldoon also featured regularly, and celebs such as Oprah Winfrey and Rachel Hunter made appearances. Issues of the day included Martin Crowe's upcoming nuptials, the first Gulf War, and Māori land claims.
A continuation of the classic 70s UK TV series cherished by herds of horse-loving girls, the New Adventures follow Vicky Denning (Amber McWilliams) who has emigrated to the antipodes with her step-mother, where she is captivated by a mystic black horse. The co-production was set in NZ, produced by Tom Parkinson and features many Kiwi names in front of and behind the camera (Illona Rodgers, Ken Catran). Key original cast and the famous original title sequence and tune are reprised, but now with Beauty galloping along a west coast beach. Two seasons were produced.
On a holiday to Mt Tarawera, teenager Jenny (Katrina Hobbs) finds an odd shard of metal. In this third episode of the kids sci-fi series she meets its owner: 'Drom' — a survivor of an alien mission to deactivate a planet-annihilating space gun (aka Tarawera itself). They find themselves under siege from a Predator-like 'Guardian' of the gun. If Drom and Jenny and local kids Tessa and Lloyd (future What Now? presenter Anthony Samuels) can't defeat the mechanoid, catastrophe is imminent! The South Pacific Pictures series found international sales and cult repute.
This sci-fi telefeature for kids follows the adventures of runaways Peter (Toby Laing) and Maggie (Toni Driscoll), who meet when Maggie’s attempt to get Picnic bars on a five finger discount go awry and "rich brat" Peter is on the lam on a 10-speed. After falling into a grave of golden light at a farm cemetery, they wake up in the house of the strange Piper family. Laing is now trumpeter for Fat Freddys Drop, and a young Kerry Fox appears briefly as a policewoman in the opening. Scripted by veteran Ken Catran, the telefeature was re-cut from a four-part series.
A selection of sketches from this award-winning skit based comedy series featuring Willy de Wit, Ian Harcourt, Peter Murphy and Dean Butler (with occasional animation by Chris Knox). The Hoons display their all of their charm and tact at the beach — but cruising for action (in a car truly worthy of them) results in a heated confrontation with one of their rivals. The classic Norman the Mormon also features, alternative Dunedin bands of the 1980s are lampooned and Lucy Lawless makes her TV debut in an ad spoof that anticipates her future role in Spartacus.
Funny Business (Ian Harcourt, Dean Butler, Willy de Wit and Peter Murphy) emerged out of the Auckland comedy scene in 1985, taking some of their cues from mid-80s UK shows like The Young Ones. An association with producer/director Tony Holden and writer James Griffin led to a series for TVNZ in 1988 which won three TV Awards. A second series made in 1989 screened in 1991. Avoiding topical satire, they specialised in character based skits and music parodies — and hoons, buying lounge suites and mormons on bicycles would never be quite the same again.
Gloss was a popular Kiwi television drama series made by TVNZ that screened in the late 80s; it combined a wealthy family, the Redferns, with a lucrative high-fashion magazine business. Yuppies, shoulder-pads and méthode champenoise abound in this cult "glamour soap". New Zealanders wanted to see themselves as less bottom of the world and more "here we come and we are sailing" (as the infamous Cup campaign song warbled), and Gloss was just what the era demanded.
BMX bikes, motorcycles, and home computers — as the opening titles demonstrate, this children’s adventure series features all the hardware an 80s-era kid could want. In the first episode, Sandra, Mike and their father move into the city, arriving just in time for two jewel thieves to crash into their lives after a daring heist at Auckland Museum, and a chase through the city. Scripted by Kiwi kidult king-turned-novelist Ken Catran (Children of the Dog Star), Steel Riders was later shortened to movie length for American video release, as Young Detectives on Wheels.