John Lye was born and educated in Christchurch, a second cousin to artist Len Lye. On the basis that he could draw and rule straight lines, the Post and Telegraph Department recruited him from school to train as a draughtsman, working on intricate plans mapping the city’s underground cabling.
After stints in Sydney and work as a designer for Hay's department store in Christchurch, Lye unsuccessfully applied to be a journalist with the NZ Broadcasting Corporation. Instead, he was offered a position in the staging and props department of the NZBC's Christchurch channel, CHTV-3. His television career began on 10 July 1967 (the day decimal currency was introduced). Two years later, he transferred to the studio camera section.
Lye then moved on to floor managing, where his first job was playing a fully-bandaged mummy on children's show Ooky Spooky. Floor managing provided an excellent grounding in studio television production. He could hear everything being said in the control room, and was their mouthpiece to cast and crew on the floor.
The road to directing and producing (the roles were seldom separated in those days) was Roy Melford’s six-week producer training course. A trial by ordeal, it tested more than taught. Lye failed the course, but with support from Stan Hosgood, the senior producer in Christchurch, began directing field stories for magazine show Town and Around.
Lye had floor managed the inaugural Telethon in 1975. A year later, he was asked to produce the Christchurch end of the second. Weeks of hard work were partially undone when a bomb threat closed proceedings down for two hours on the Saturday night; but Canterbury always took telethons to heart, and this one was no exception.
His career as a director and producer expanded to programmes as diverse as Talk Cars (a rather serious motoring show which included practical car repair demonstrations) and preschoolers’ series Romper Room.
Lye was attached to the entertainment department where he directed two music videos for Th’Dudes, who were at the peak of their rock’n’roll career and lifestyle. The nightclub-set video for Dudes classic Be Mine Tonight included a passerby plucked from the street to play the waitress. The other clip was That Look in Your Eyes.
More ambitious was a 1980 special with Christchurch-based jazz vocalist Malcolm McNeill. He was third choice as host after the first (Cat Stevens) encountered visa issues, and the second (Ricky May) tragically passed away. Malcolm McNeill … Singer was a show about a show, from pre-production to performance.
From 1977 to 1979, hit comedy show A Week of It was recorded in the Civic Theatre. Although not directly involved, Lye was one of many Christchurch staffers helping out, from cleaning to being part of the studio audience.
A Week of It talents David McPhail and Jon Gadsby returned in 1980 with their self-titled series, which would run for eight years, and win Lye and co two Feltex Awards for Best Entertainment Programme. Initially, Lye directed inserts shot outside the studio for the hour-long, themed episodes. The second series saw a format change to topical half-hour episodes. Lye came in as director/producer and became an integral part of the show’s production alongside McPhail, Gadsby and writer AK Grant. Lye and McPhail, in particular, came to have implicit trust in each other’s judgement of what would work.
For two series a year, McPhail and Gadsby was a six days a week exercise – from the pre-production meeting early in the week, to post-production the following weekend. Script details arrived by phone and taxi from the writers, beavering away elsewhere. Lye would ready the material for shooting and oversee its (stressful) progress — Lye details preparations and moments of near panic in this piece. Less topical, pre-recorded musical inserts were the domain of musical director Murray Wood, of whom Lye has written this heartfelt tribute (scroll down).
If McPhail and Gadsby was a construction site, Lye credits AK Grant’s ideas and words as providing the foundations. Gadsby added the blockwork and McPhail functioned as site supervisor/building inspector. The uncredited participant was the Christchurch station, where staff frequently went above and beyond the call of duty to deliver the show.
From 1981 to 1984 Lye also helmed the Christchurch studio's other high profile programme. After co-producing the second series of That’s Country, he took on the full role of producing from the third, and set about transforming the show’s musical direction. Dispensing with hay bales and wagon wheels, he moved it towards the more modern sounds of urban country music. That’s Country brought in acts from Australia and the United States (including Emmylou Harris) and received a major accolade when it became a flagship show for a new Nashville cable TV channel. In the same period, Lye also commanded coverage of the 1982 Miss Univese New Zealand ceremony.
The end of McPhail and Gadsby in 1987 coincided with the winding down of operations in Christchurch. It was suggested in no uncertain terms that Lye would need to relocate to Avalon if he wanted to continue producing and directing.
At Avalon, he was at the controls of a host of programmes including Sale of the Century, advice show Dilemmas, Crime Scene and The Krypton Factor. All of them had their challenges, but none more so than international co-production The Big Byte, a technology show which required him to direct presenters speaking in Mandarin Chinese.
McPhail and Gadsby returned for two series in 1998 but some of the spark was missing. Avalon was in decline, and lacked the flexibility Christchurch had offered during its heyday.
In 2000, Lye was made redundant as TVNZ wound down production at Avalon. His next role came through Australian producer Denis Spencer, who ran his own production company out of Avalon in the late 90s. Spencer was setting up the Australian version of Big Brother and invited Lye to come over and help direct it. The round the clock production was both fun and relentless for the six months he was involved.
Back in New Zealand, Lye directed Education Department videos for remote learning students. He then helped set up television broadcasting of Parliament, staying on as a director for seven years — before retiring in 2014 at the age of 70.
Profile written by Michael Higgins
John Lye, 'McPhail and Gadsby - Comedy on the go; the director/producer's perspective' NZ On Screen website. Loaded 31 March 2010. Accessed 27 September 2017
David McPhail, The Years Before My Death (Auckland: Longacre, 2010)