After working at the National Film Unit, the BBC and Canada's National Film Board, John Laing made his feature film debut as a director with Arthur Allan Thomas drama Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1980). Since then he has directed another six features, and many television shows and tele-movies. Laing has also produced for both Outrageous Fortune and Mercy Peak.
We used to talk about making features, but it had seemed impossible then. John Laing, recalling the state of the film industry in the 1970s
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.
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.
Nothing Trivial was a dramedy that kept score on the lives and loves of five friends in a pub quiz team called Sex on a Stick. The cast of City Lifers shifted to the suburbs and nearing middle age was led by Shane Cortese, Tandi Wright, Nicole Whippy, Debbie Newby-Ward and Blair Strang. Created by Rachel Lang and Gavin Strawhan, (the veteran writers behind Go Girls, Maddigan’s Quest, and Mercy Peak) the popular South Pacific Pictures production screened for three seasons on TV ONE. A fan-driven campaign saw NZ On Air fund a tele-movie to wrap up the series.
Rachel Lang and Gavin Strawhan created Go Girls out of a desire for an upbeat show about "people who liked each other". Audiences liked the characters too: the show ran five seasons, after introducing us to a group of 20-something friends, each aiming to make a major life-change in the next year. Over five series various romantic adventures ensued, and the core cast of Anna Hutchison, Alix Bushnell, Bronwyn Turei, Jay Ryan and Matt Whelan were joined by others — before finally departing altogether, with one final season revolving around a new cast of wanna bes.
Orange Roughies was a 'border security' drama series following a Police and Customs task force led by Danny Wilder (Australian actor Nicholas Coughan). Made for TV One, the ScreenWorks production was likely inspired by Australian television hit Water Rats. Set in and around Auckland Harbour, it featured storylines involving drug busts, child trafficking, undercover ops and plenty of land-sea chase action. The show was created by Rod Johns and former policeman Scott McJorrow. The script team was rounded out by Kristen Warner and series writer Greg McGee.
Orange Roughies was a 'border security' drama series following a Police and Customs task force in Auckland. Storylines included drugs busts, undercover ops and plenty of motorised chase action. In this excerpt from the first episode, customs officer Jane Durant (McLeod's Daughters actor Zoe Naylor) boards a ship suspected of trafficking children from China. The TV One series was devised by ex policeman Scott McJorrow and Rod Johns, for production company ScreenWorks.
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-series long saga of the Westie dynasty. Hugely popular at home (beloved by public, critics and awards-nights alike), and imitated overseas, Outrageous Fortune has been a flag-bearer for TV3 and contemporary NZ telly drama; the series proved — in all its grow-your-own glory — that genre TV in NZ could be so much more than overseas stories pasted to a local setting.
Produced by John Laing and featuring a star-studded cast (Sara Wiseman, Tim Balme, et al), South Pacific Pictures' award-winning 'seachange' series Mercy Peak hit just the right note with its down-home sincerity and quirky-but-complex characters. In this excerpt from the first episode, Doctor Nicky Somerville (Sara Wiseman) discovers the cheating ways of her partner (a deliciously oily Simon Prast) and decides it's time to get out. On her way to finding her bliss in the tiny town of Bassett she has an inauspicious beginning: a minor collision with the town's iconic pig.
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.
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.
Duggan stars John Bach as brooding Detective Inspector Duggan, attempting to solve murders amid the tranquillity of the Marlborough Sounds. New Zealand's answer to Inspector Morse, the show was conceived by Marion McLeod, and scripted by Donna Malane and Ken Duncum. Eleven episodes of the Gibson Group series were made, following on from introductory tele-features Death in Paradise and Sins of the Father. The turquoise waters of The Sounds make for an evocative setting in this sharp, classy Kiwi whodunit. Rachel Davies writes here about Duggan's birth.
Greenstone is the tale of a beautiful, missionary-educated Māori woman (Simone Kessell) whose romantic life is subject to the shifting loyalties of her father, Chief Te Manahau (George Henare). The cross-cultural elements of this ambitious colonial bodice-ripper were reflected off-screen as well: created by Greg McGee in response to a call by TV One for a local drama 'saga', the series saw major English creative input through being developed as a co-production with the BBC. After the withdrawal of BBC funding, the Tainui Corporation helped fund the eight-part series.
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.
This series centred on a weekly TV current affairs programme in mid-90s Wellington. Katie Wolfe stars as stroppy journalist Amanda Robbins: lured back from Australia for her tabloid style in an effort to boost the show's ratings. Tackling timely storylines and shot ‘handheld’ in the NYPD Blue-inspired style, the TV3 series was well reviewed but faced its own ratings struggles (a later series screened on TV One). It was Gibson Group’s second foray into producing a TV drama series, after Shark in the Park. A pre-Lord of the Rings Fran Walsh was a series writer.
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.
In 1992 Australian soap star Craig McLachlan (Neighbours) landed in NZ, to tackle one of his only starring roles in a movie to date. McLachlan plays Ed — a WWll soldier who goes AWOL — in a story 74-year-old writer James Edwards drew from his own life. When Ed is shipped overseas with no leave, he feels obliged to make sure that his recently pregnant wife Daisy (Katrina Hobbs) is OK before he departs. But then the days become weeks. For director John Laing the road movie offered a chance to explore changing gender roles, as women discovered life beyond house and family.
Director John Laing followed acclaimed romance Other Halves with an equally stylish but very different big city tale: a thriller in which three orphans plan an international heist to avenge the killing of one of their fathers. The expected diet of shootings, skulduggery and globetrotting accents is enlived by side trips to Geneva, songs from romantic interest Jennifer Ward-Lealand, and a cast of villains to die for (Peter Bland, Ian Mune, Anzac Wallace, Grant Tilly). When Dangerous Orphans was sold in Europe it set an early record for a New Zealand film.
Shot on location in Wellington, often after dark, Inside Straight helped usher in a new era of Kiwi TV dramas, far from the rural backblocks. This Minder-esque portrait of Wellington’s underworld was inspired by writer Keith Aberdein’s experiences as a taxi-driver and all night cafe worker. Phillip Gordon (soon to win fame as a conman in Came a Hot Friday) stars as the former fisherman, learning the ways of the city from veteran taxi driver Roy Billing. A solid but unspectacular rater over 10 episodes, the show was scuttled by the launch of trucker’s tale Roche.
Anthropologist Max Scarry goes missing in Fiordland, while searching for a fabled Māori tribe. The local policeman believes Max broke local tapu. Max's partner Ruth sets off with his twin brother, murder suspect Edward, to try to unravel the mystery. John Laing's second feature attempts an ambitious Hitchcockian plot, and the cast — especially John Bach's terse doppelganger performance — testifies to the talent on hand in the early days of the Kiwi film renaissance. Atmospheric camerawork makes the most of damp Wellington, and remote bush settings.
Australian producer Antony Ginnane brought this $6 million romp to New Zealand, after Aussie union Actors Equity objected to the four lead roles going to foreigners. Deer hunting heroes Donald Pleasance (Halloween) and Ken Wahl (six years before becoming TV's Wise Guy) race around in helicopters and jet boats, after discovering a half-sunken WWll plane. This opening excerpt indicates the film's mixture of action, comedy and Southern scenery. Zephyr helped establish Aotearoa's reputation as a place to film; Ginnane and Kiwi John Barnett produced further projects together.
TVNZ arts show Kaleidoscope visits the production of the 1980 feature film about “New Zealand’s greatest and most controversial murder” — the 1970 killings of Jeanette and Harvey Crewe at Pukekawa. As much a look at film making as the film itself, the documentary features extended visits to two locations. Interviewees include director John Laing, producer John Barnett and the recently freed Arthur Allan Thomas — who spent nine years in prison after being convicted of murdering the Crewes. Beyond Reasonable Doubt was based a book by David Yallop.
Beyond Reasonable Doubt reconstructs the events surrounding a notorious New Zealand miscarriage of justice. Farmer Arthur Allan Thomas was jailed for the murder of Harvey and Jeanette Crewe. Directed by John Laing, and starring Australian John Hargreaves (as Thomas) and Englishman David Hemmings (Blowup, Barbarella), the drama benefitted from immense public interest in the case. Thomas was pardoned while the film was in pre-production, and he saw some scenes being made. It became New Zealand's most successful film until Goodbye Pork Pie in 1981.
This short film evokes a day fishing from Karioitahi’s black sand beach: balloons are tied to bait lines then sent out, and the fisherman yarn, drink Fanta, and reel in the catch. Expressively shot by Lynton Diggle in black and white, and backed by an accoustic guitar score, the narration-free Pictorial Parade marked an early entry for director John Laing (Beyond Reasonable Doubt). In 2001 Laing proudly recalled his NFU employers' outrage at the film's “pseudo-Japanese bullshit.” He left the Unit shortly after; ironically the film would win him a job at Canada’s National Film Board.