John Bates was born in Saltcoats, a town in Scotland where Glaswegians used to take many seaside holidays. Travel is a continuing theme for Bates: his father's job in an oil company resulted in a number of relocations. John spent time near Manchester, in London and in the Turkish capital of Ankara. At boarding school, a rugby injury saw him excused from sport, and he began twice-weekly trips of another kind: to the local cinema.
Bates was working in the London offices of British Airways when he met a New Zealander named Karen. He counts himself as one of the strays that Kiwis often bring back from other places. After marrying in London, the couple spent time in Perth (the one in Australia), then a year taking the Asia overland route by van. News of Margaret Thatcher's election put paid to any ideas of returning to the United Kingdom. They arrived in Auckland in 1979 on Bastille Day, in time to witness the French beating the All Blacks at Eden Park.
To help fuel the travelling, Bates has done time as a clerk, freezer hand, bus driver, taxi driver and trainee hotel manager. In the 1980s he did a part-time degree in Asian History at Auckland University, alongside seven years in a writing and research job for the university's Students' Association. He wrote for student magazine Craccum, and helped organise demonstrations against the Springbok Tour. He also hosted a jazz show on Campus Radio, which made him realise that he preferred being behind the scenes.
After completing Auckland University's Diploma in Broadcast Communications in 1988, Bates spent a few years making horse racing shows and corporate videos for hotshot independent company Communicado. "It was exciting for a while," he says. "They made solid commercial television, but after a few years I realised that if I wanted to make the sorts of stories that really interested me, I'd have to do them myself."
Fresh from further travels, Bates joined the Audiovisual Department at Auckland University in 1992. The same year, he directed his first documentary. Originally the idea was that going behind the scenes on an opera might make a nice item for arts show Sunday. Instead Bates managed to win interest from TVNZ and NZ On Air for his first hour-long documentary, The Dutchman: The Making of An Opera.
Bates followed The Dutchman with Sense of Place: Robin Morrison Photographer. He was given the go-ahead to make it after cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano) signed on. The result was named Best Documentary at the 1994 NZ Film and TV Awards. Morrison was captured revisiting the sites of some of his most iconic photographs, shortly before his death in March 1993. Bates talks in detail about the project in this video interview. Alongside 2001 documentary 1951, Bates ranks Sense of Place as the doco that gives him the most satisfaction.
Bates went on to direct censorship documentary Banned, this Immigrant Nation episode about Scottish migrants downunder, and motoring show Motormania. Such projects helped cement an enduring working relationship with editor Bryan Shaw and Bates' wife Karen, who has variously contributed as writer, researcher and sometime director.
1951, the team's exploration of the 1951 waterfront dispute, won Best Documentary and Best Director at the 2002 NZ Television Awards. Bates wanted to give voice to those who weren't heard during the tense nationwide dispute, when media coverage was strictly controlled. The doco, he argues, shows "how easy it is for the media to perpetuate a lie". Those locked out were labelled communists, but few fitted the label. "By and large, all they were were people who wanted their share of the pie, and they weren't being given it."
The following year Gang Girls took the Qantas Award for Best Documentary, and was nominated in the same category at the NZ Television Awards. Bates assisted newbie director Paula Jones (Hip Hop-eration). The documentary features interviews with seven women who spent time in gangs.
Another collaboration, New Faces Old Fears, was a finalist for Best Documentary at the Qantas Media Awards in 2004. Directed by Bates and Chinese-born author and academic Manying Ip, it looks at the history of prejudice against Asians in New Zealand.
Bates' directing partner on Artsville episode Reflections - Gretchen Albrecht (2006) was his wife. Their portrait of the veteran Kiwi abstract artist was selected for both New Zealand's Documentary Edge festival, and Rome's Festival of Art. The duo co-directed a 2009 Artsville documentary on artist Christine Hellyar. To make a documentary about an artist, says Bates, "what you're actually just trying to do is put a frame around a person or a person's work that makes it approachable, or understandable".
Bates' most ambitious project to date was his 2010 series tracing a half century of Kiwi television. Mixing archive footage, the occasional recreation, and scores of interviews, 50 Years of New Zealand Television can be watched in full on NZ On Screen. As well as producing, Bates directed six of the seven episodes (the episode on Māori broadcasting is directed by Tainui Stephens). Bates thinks the project benefitted from being made independently of TVNZ, whose history dominates much of the narrative; the show debuted on Prime Television. Again, Bates was nominated for Best Documentary Director.
Perhaps related to his Scottish background, Bates has long had an interest in land rights. In 2015 he directed Hikoi: The Land March, about the legendary 1975 march from Northland to Parliament, protesting the loss of Māori land. Says Bates "When we talked to the people involved face to face you begin to get more of an appreciation of the depth of feeling, the passion of the movement that built around the idea that if they didn't do something, then there'd be nothing left."
Profile updated on 29 June 2019
'John Bates: Documenting New Zealand...' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 5 July 2011. Accessed 14 May 2019
Kerry Harvey, 'Hikoi: The Land March - new footage revealed' (Interview) - TV Guide, 10 January 2016