Actor John Bach still remembers the shock of arriving in sunny Blenheim in 1956, at age 12. "I’d never seen anything like it. So green! And hot. We had fruit trees in our garden."
Bach's family had emigrated to New Zealand, from a dying mining town in Wales. John and his sisters soon moved to Christchurch, and John attended Linwood High School. A bookish teenager, he got involved in the school’s active drama department. More theatre roles were to follow: mostly serious, occasionally comical. Bach credits teacher John Kim as a strong influence. "He ran weekend drama classes — he was great".
Bach (pronounced Baytch) got the acting bug back in Wales, in his very first role as Father Christmas. After tripping over his gumboots, "everyone laughed, so I did it again". His arrival in New Zealand was well-timed; Bach would become one of the most recognisable actors in the country's early TV and film industry.
Two years were spent travelling around England in an experimental theatre group, before a return to New Zealand in the early 1970s. His earliest screen appearance was as a blundering henchman on 1974 kids fantasy series The Games Affair, a role that required shaving off his beard and flowing locks — and his eyebrows. Summoned to Wellington for another gig, he tried out for new soap Close to Home. Bach remembers his audition as "shocking", as he'd rarely acted in front of the camera. In 1975 he made his appearance on TV One as school teacher Tom Hearte.
"For the first few weeks we filmed the episodes live, which was the scariest bloody thing on earth. Up till then I’d only ever done stage, and I was using a stage voice. The lovely Tony Issac pulled me aside one day and said 'you don’t have to shout — it's not the stage'. But you had to get it right; not only actors but the crew too."
Bach made the transition from stage to screen actor by observing camera movements and fellow actors like Ilona Rodgers (playing Vivian Hearte) — who "got it right away".
The characters of Tom and Vivian Hearte were cut relatively early on, but Bach’s character returned for Close to Home’s final episode in 1983, by which time Bach had acted in a host of early Kiwi films. He was drawn to the group of buzzing creatives who made up the Blerta collective: he sneaked off the Close to Home set to play a "toothless barman" in Geoff Murphy’s quasi-feature Wild Man. Roles followed in Murphy’s breakthrough features, smash hit Goodbye Pork Pie and ‘colonial western’ Utu. Pork Pie allowed Bach to let loose with his "gimme the flags" cameo as "outright freak" Snout.
Bach got to release his inner crazy again alongside Bruno Lawrence in the cult "Kiwi Mad Max" Battletruck — maybe a bit too much. "There was word that we weren’t allowed too many scenes together." Bach embraced Murphy and Blerta’s egalitarian approach to making films.
This DIY ethos defined early 1980s Kiwi film sets; Bach remembers the Waiouru set of Wild Horses (1984). "Back then there was less rigid demarcation between jobs. On Wild Horses the actors often gave the grips a hand hauling gear across the hills." The film was loaded with action scenes. "We all got a lot better on our horses by the time the film wrapped."
That decade Bach's career took off; he won roles in gritty drama Pallet on the Floor, and comedies Carry Me Back and Graham's Mum and the Goulden Tour. His work in John Laing's Arthur Allan Thomas drama Beyond Reasonable Doubt led to his first leading role. "I played a cop and apparently something small I did in one scene left an impression on John".
Laing picked Bach to play good/evil twin brothers in his second feature, moody psychological thriller The Lost Tribe (1983). An immersive actor anyway, Bach threw himself body and soul into the roles of Edward and Max Scarry. Afterwards he found the experience tough to shake off.
"I wanted to give my arse on it because John had given me the lead, and I wanted to be as good, as real as I could be … I was Max and I’d gone too far." The Lost Tribe largely sank and years later Bach feels for director Laing. "It’s a much better film than he got credit for."
In 1985 Bach played truck driver Mick Roche in TV One series Roche. The urban drama rated well and Bach embraced the role of a hard-working, passionate man running a family business with his larrakin younger brother (Andy Anderson). As with his horse-riding, Bach was normally behind the wheel; "I loved every minute of driving that truck. I even started listening to country music, which seemed to fit the truck."
A second season of Roche never eventuated; the cast were getting too busy elsewhere. Bach was being invited across the Tasman. His first big Australian role was playing the leader of a criminal gang in 1986 miniseries The Great Bookie Robbery, alongside a host of Kiwi talents: Bruno Lawrence, Andy Anderson, Catherine Wilkin, Rebecca Gibney and Gary Day.
Other high profile Aussie TV roles followed, like hit WWll drama The Heroes, then in 1990 the plum part of media mogul Philip Cromwell in miniseries The Paper Man. Bach relished the story of Cromwell’s calculated climb up the media ladder, and the high adrenaline challenge of playing Cromwell across 30 years. But again he tipped the scales too far. "The director mentioned he wanted a skull like appearance for the elderly Cromwell, so yeah I went and lost a little too much weight…"
The following year Bach starred as inventor Alexander Graham Bell in award-winning Kiwi-Canadian production The Sound and The Silence, and returned to Wales for rugby romp Old Scores. Given a rare chance to play comedy, he won an NZ TV Award. The 90s were a fine showcase for Bach's versatility: from controversial gynaecologist Herbert Green (in TV movie Clare) to Captain Nemo (Mysterious Island), to an Aussie cop in a series of Feds TV movies, to an award-winning role as an enforcer in Kiwi film The Last Tattoo.
In 1996 he was offered arguably his most famous Kiwi TV part: Duggan. Bach was attracted to the role of grumpy, recently bereaved Detective John Duggan by Donna Malane and Ken Duncum’s tight scripts. "It was based in Wellington and the Sounds…great stories. The writers always made sure that there were clues for the audience, present in the action. I still get approached about that show."
Despite awards, good ratings and warm reviews, Duggan died after two TV movies and a series, a decision motivated by TV One's desire to attract a younger demographic. Bach was disappointed. "This was quality TV drama from Gibson Group. TVNZ wanted to take the money and make stuff in Auckland."
Around this time Bach returned to theatre work — he'd starred in Greg McGee’s classic play Foreskin's Lament back in 1981 — and found the challenge "terrifying". His stage highlights include The Year of the Rat (as writer George Orwell), Amadeus (as Mozart's rival Salieri), and Blackbird (as a former sexual abuser).
Since the turn of the millennium, Bach has continued to rack up screen roles: from being award nominated for light-hearted mystery Rest for the Wicked to historical/fantasy series Spartacus (as Roman magistrate Titus Calavius), to a mysterious role in sci-fi thriller This is Not My Life.
In 2014 he hit the books to research his role as "crazy but heroic" General Sir Ian Hamilton in Australian miniseries Gallipoli. He was nominated for a Supporting Actor Award at the 2015 AACTA awards. Unsure if he'd succeeded in the role, Bach was relieved when the show's producers approached him on the final day of the shoot, to thank him for his performance.
Bach went on to play an Aussie senator in TV series Jack Irish, and father to the title character in law drama Janet King. In 2020 he was back in Marlborough, this time playing Canadian mogul Frank Cabbott in mystery series The Sounds. Later he joined Rebecca Gibney for vineyard comedy Under the Vines.
Bach's desire to honour his characters and the story is matched only by his rejection of all things starry. "The audience should only be seeing the character, not me," he says. "What’s important is the work — it should be magical. Well that's the aim anyway."
Profile written by Gabe McDonnell; published on 26 November 2021
'Episode 4: John Bach on Acting and King & Country' (Interview) Anchor FM website. Loaded 3 October 2018. Accessed 26 November 2021
Chris Bourke, 'Public profession: private person' (Interview) - The Listener, 6 July 1985, page 14
Mark Cubey, 'Truckin On' - OnFilm, April 1985, page 31 (Volume 2, number 3)
Graeme Tuckett, 'The Sounds: It’s John (Bach) to the Future as Kiwi legend stars in new thriller' Stuff website. Loaded 6 September 2020
Joanna Wane, 'Odd Man In' (Interview) - The Listener, 18 March 1991, page 64
Unknown writer, 'Acting is a way of life' (Interview) - The Rotorua Daily Post, 4 June 1985