John Banas first emerged in the late 60s as a creative force in Wellington’s professional theatre scene. Raised in England and Taranaki, Banas was part of a brash, emerging generation that included some soon to be illustrious contemporaries. “Every young man wants to change the world”, he said later. “I was convinced we had to do something exciting and interesting, and make people think about things”.
In the mid 1970s, Banas appeared in New Zealand's first sitcom, Buck House. With its larrikin irreverence and shared flat setting, it anticipated shows like The Young Ones by a decade. Banas played a flatmate who moved in for the show's second season, alongside John Clarke, soon to win national fame as Fred Dagg. The two would work together again, creating a Dagg special for Country Calendar, with Banas playing one of the many farmers named Trev.
Concentrating his efforts in Wellington’s Downstage Theatre, Banas had already begun to make his mark, first as an actor, and later as a writer/director of everything from environmental epics to rock operas, to shows for children. His production of Macbeth polarised audiences. It was futuristic, with the opera house stage lined in silver, and moving silver towers. “A lot of people hated it, but a lot of people really loved it”. Venerable playwright and critic Bruce Mason dubbed the production ‘Macbeth Galactica’; later Mason was one of those raving about the "superbly inventive" hit Full Marx, which Banas co-wrote and co-directed.
Banas says he wanted to rethink the stage experience, “confronting the audience” with bold stage innovation. Today, he reflects, the value of formal innovation is less obvious to him. “Whether it achieves anything, I don’t know”.
This is a pragmatic accommodation with the central truth of his long and successful career. Banas is drawn to audiences, and has a showman’s instinct for satisfying them. But there is an inevitable tension between art and commerce; his first year as artistic director at Downstage (1983) proved an outstanding commercial and artistic success, but the next year reversed the trend as commercial failure overtook artistic ambition.
The audience for theatre, never large, declined markedly in the 1980s, shrinking hopes for a viable professional career. With a young family to support, he had to seek work in other fields. Banas developed skills as a fight choreographer, and acted occasionally on screen (including a central role as a photographer in moody Geoff Steven feature Strata). But it was his talent for arranging words that pointed the way ahead. As he put it, “there is money in TV and film that there isn’t in theatre”.
After writing twenty hours of radio drama, he began capitalising on the burgeoning NZ screen production renaissance of the 1980s. Banas wrote for drama series The Immigrants, detective series, Mortimer’s Patch and medical drama In Their Hands; and wrote and acted in quirky children’s drama special, Nearly No Christmas.
The apex of this prolific period came with a pair of two-part writing projects, a quirky couples's guide to pregnancy for the heath department (which he also acted in), and two radio plays for the Duet series. Both projects won awards.
But regular worthwhile work was hard to come by. Perhaps a leap across the ditch to Australia was inevitable. New Zealand was a small goldfish bowl by comparison, and compatriot John Clarke had already shown what might be possible. "The joy of writing is you can write anywhere," says Banas."The pain of writing is, you can write anywhere”.
He quickly proved himself a master of episodic scriptwriting, knocking out numerous episodes of gritty urban soap opera E Street (which he ended up helping produce). Banas went on to write himself deeper into Aussie TV history with stints on much loved, long-running shows Blue Heelers and Water Rats. More popular series followed, including medical drama All Saints, and episodes of undercover police show Stingers.
The time hasn't all been spent in front of a keyboard. Banas had begun directing television while working on E Street. Next he signed on to direct Australian mini-series Emma, Queen of the South Seas, which featured Bond actor Barbara Carrera as pioneering real-life trader Emma Coe. He went on to helm multiple episodes of Aussie-NZ children's fantasy Mirror Mirror, whose cast included his daughter Michala. Though he enjoyed directing "immensely", Banas missed the lack of rehearsal and character development, compared to theatre. "Moving to writing seemed like a natural progression".
From 2005 to 2010 Banas joined forces with Water Rats creator John Hugginson; together they created City Homicide, which over five seasons, became one of Australia’s most successful police dramas. Between them, Banas and Hugginson wrote over 70 episodes.
The balance of craft and art can be tricky to find in the hothouse atmosphere of television production. Banas focuses on dramatic fundamentals, and how best to work within the limitations of the medium. He says he has always responded to “the challenge of structuring the writing. The discipline of crafting dramatic or compelling moments to keep audiences interested through ad breaks”.
Writers in the TV industry traditionally enjoy less respect but have marginally more influence than they do in cinema, and it can be a difficult arena in which to operate.
"There can be a difference of opinion about how things are written, and how they are translated on screen. You don’t have ultimate control, so it depends very much on the producers and directors. Some are respectful, and others treat scripts like clay. When you work on long series, you sometimes get editors who think they’re the scriptwriter. I have occasionally read an edit and had my name taken off a script”. Despite taking the occasional pseudonym (“some great names - I was Bloggs once”), Banas is pragmatic and philosophical about the nature of his business. “In the end, you have to give it away, and hope it’s going to be what you want it to be”.
More recently, Banas has taken on some projects with a significant Kiwi component.
He wrote 2012 tele-movie Siege, a true life account of events in Napier when gunman Jan Molinaar ran amok. Banas says “the challenge was to stay true to the facts. The experiences of real people are raw”. The result won a NZ television award for best telemovie. Napier newspaper Hawke's Bay Today praised the “excellent script” for among other things explaining police protocols, and respecting its topic.
Also drawn from real events was Underbelly New Zealand: Land of the Long Green Cloud, an offshoot of the Australian ‘Underbelly’ franchise. The series told the story of NZ drug dealer Marty Johnson, whose murder eventually led to the unraveling of the Mr Asia drug syndicate. Although the show involved a degree of dramatic licence, producer Ric Pellizzeri has described how one of the veteran policemen advising the team found the script so convincing, he asked whether Banas had an informer feeding him information.
Underbelly was followed by further Screentime telemovies: Safe House, and in 2014, two more true crime stories, Venus and Mars and How to Murder Your Wife (later he was nominated for an NZ Television Award for a different kind of investigation: Rainbow Warrior tale Bombshell). Murder Your Wife, a black comedy in seven chapters based on a grisly 1968 Wellington murder, was nominated for six awards at the New York International Film Festival, and won three, including best comedy.
Banas went on to write series Dear Murderer, spanning several decades in the life of famed barrister Mike Bungay, and telemovie Resolve, based on a 2014 case of witness intimidation.
Despite the evidence of his CV, Banas wryly deflects any notion he is fascinated by crime. “The fascination of crime? It’s not mine. It’s the audiences”. He agrees he has done a lot of crime shows, but says,“it’s like being typecast. You’d like to think you were good at writing – romance, horror, or whatever. But TV loves doctors, lawyers, and policemen”.
Profile written and researched by Costa Botes
'John Banas: Underbelly NZ' (Radio Interview). Radio New Zealand National website. Aired 27 August 2011. Accessed 12 June 2015
'John Banas - Writer' Linkedin website. Accessed 12 June 2015
Roger Moroney, 'Review: ‘Siege’ got it right’ - Hawke’s Bay Today, 18 June 2012
Fiona Rae, 'Ric Pellizzeri interview' - The Listener, 17 August 2011
John Smythe, downstage upfront (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2004)