When one door closes, another door opens. That saying never rang more true than for television producer Janine Morrell-Gunn. In 1998 she was the executive producer of TVNZ's Children's Unit in Christchurch. But when the unit relocated that year to Avalon Studios in Wellington, she was determined to keep her family in Christchurch and start up her own business.
Soon after, she and husband Jason Gunn set up Whitebait Productions (now Whitebait Media). There were four staff, counting them. By 2009 the company employed 140 staff, and was building a $7 million studio facility. In 2004 the company revamped New Zealand's longest-running children's programme, What Now?, and has dominated Kiwi children's TV with weekday shows like The Erin Simpson Show and The 4.30 Show.
Morrell-Gunn has never shied away from a challenge. Back in 1981, in her last year of studying a Bachelor of Arts at Canterbury University, she was also the full-time president of the Students' Association. "1981 was the Springbok rugby tour, and that was massive," she told The Press in 2009. "I was arrested for obstructing a carriageway on the corner of Hereford Street and Colombo Street. My kids can't believe it now."
After graduating, Morrell-Gunn landed a job at TVNZ's Christchurch office as a trainee director and producer in 1985. She was a "news junkie" who had "visions of changing the world" by working on Eyewitness News and Foreign Correspondent. But Morrell-Gunn soon found reality didn't match her dreams — she felt that people were disinterested in news, and she didn't enjoy producing stories about cats stuck up trees.
Morrell-Gunn also worked on science and technology programme Fast Forward, and agony aunt show Beauty and the Beast. One of Morrell-Gunn's jobs was to hold up cue cards for Selwyn Toogood to read on Beauty and the Beast. She was starstruck by Toogood and his female panellists. "They were so stroppy and strident, and confident," she says in this video interview. "I just thought they were brilliant."
Morrell-Gunn worked with presenter Phil Keoghan on popular children's magazine show Spot On. She recalls field directing a story at Coronet Peak where Keoghan stayed the night in a snow cave. Morrell-Gunn was meant to film the sunrise, but she and the crew slept in. Her editor saved the day by reversing a shot of the previous day's sunset; the boss was none the wiser.
Her first show as producer came after she created LIFE (Life in the Fridge Exists) in 1989, a magazine show for teens. Listener's reviewer David Hill praised Morrell-Gunn for constructing "a commendably accessible programme. LIFE works very hard not to be the sealed, seamless and sterile thing television often is."
Morrell-Gunn rose up the ranks to become Executive Producer of TVNZ's Children's Unit — a position she held for seven years. It was in this role that she met her future husband, Jason Gunn. The exuberant presenter was her employee, working on kids' shows, After 2 and After School. It was Morrell-Gunn's idea to create The Son of a Gunn Show, featuring Gunn's beloved sidekick Thingee.
When the Children's Unit was relocated from Christchurch to Wellington in 1998, Morrell-Gunn and Jason Gunn set up their own company, Whitebait Productions. Later renamed Whitebait TV, it is now known as Whitebait Media.
Whitebait's first commission was Bumble, a preschool series about a bee and his friends. The first actor to wear the Bumble suit was Gunn. Whitebait Productions also produced bite-sized episodes of Jessie.com, about a teenager sharing her diary entries (which sold to Disney in Australia); interactive talent quest Wannabes for TV3; and Tūhono, a youth hip hop show for Māori Television.
In 2004 Whitebait Productions won the tender to relaunch children's staple What Now? and bring production of the show back to Christchurch (TVNZ had shut down its Wellington-based Children's Unit the previous year).
Morrell-Gunn admits to being a control freak, but says this attitude helps her stay on top of an intense work schedule and four children. "Ask any of our children — I run quite a tight ship. But I think they all appreciate that we get to do a lot and pack a lot into our lives, and having them organised is a good way to go."
Two of Morrell-Gunn's children, Grace and Eve Palmer, are also involved with the screen industry: Grace is an actor who starred in Shortland Street for nearly three years, while Eve presented several youth shows, including The Adam and Eve Show.
Profile written by Natasha Harris
Published on 28 June 2018
'Janine Morrell-Gunn: Committed to children's television...' (Video interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 25 May 2010. Accessed 28 June 2018
Whitebait Media website. Accessed 28 June 2018
Shaun Bamber, 'Celebrating 25 years of Son of a Gunn, a triumphant union of Jason Gunn and Thingee' (Interview) - The Sunday Star-Times, Updated 26 November 2017
David Hill, 'Flying fragments' (Review of LIFE) - The Listener, 17 June 1989, page 60
Tina Law, 'Of Gunns and chandeliers' (Interview) - The Press, 18 May 2009
Rosa Shiels, 'Janine Morrell-Gunn' (Interview) - The Press, 14 April 2009
Unknown writer, 'Dynamo Entrepreneur Janine Morrell-Gunn' (Interview) - WIFT-NZ magazine, Spring 2009, page 11