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John McRae

Producer, Executive

John McRae did three stints working as a Head of Drama in New Zealand television, after producing a run of award-winning dramas for the BBC. A key figure in bringing Kiwi TV drama to the attention of international programme buyers, McRae believed that in a small country, drama should reconcile localness with international appeal. His CV is dotted with ambitious shows that won audiences and awards — from his BBC adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans, to Hunter's Gold, Hanlon and Erebus - The Aftermath.

Former TVNZ employee Philippa Campbell argues that McRae employed a diverse group of producers, gave them freedom, found money, "and fought for them so that they could make very different sorts of programmes". Among the varied talent encouraged by McRae was Peter Muxlow (Roche), Caterina De Nave (Erebus), Janice Finn (Gloss), Ginette McDonald (Peppermint Twist), Liddy Holloway (Open House) and Fiona Samuel (Marching Girls).

McRae grew up in Timaru. Later, after getting a job with a community theatre, he spent four years touring with pioneering professional theatre company The New Zealand Players. Aged 24, he began directing stage musicals for Timaru's South Canterbury Drama League. In the late 1950s he moved to England, where he worked as a stage manager on West End musicals. 

He joined BBC television in 1962, and began producing drama in 1965. United!, which followed a second division soccer team, was one of the earliest; but McRae would specialise mainly in producing adaptations of classic novels. Six of them would be nominated for Emmy awards. Tom Brown's Schooldays and The Last of the Mohicans were both nominated for Outstanding Drama/Comedy in 1973 (Tom won). Children's drama Ballet Shoes (1975) won both an Emmy and a BAFTA Award. 

Back in New Zealand, Kiwi TV drama was about to move to a much higher gear, after the splitting of the broadcasting service into two semi-competitive channels. In 1975 McRae was invited back from England to become Head of Drama for the new second channel, South Pacific Television. 

The new channel offered many challenges. While TV One drama head Michael Scott-Smith inherited key drama personnel and a new studio complex, McRae got a skeleton staff, and aging equipment and studios; after first sighting the shoebox-sized studio his heart "stopped for about five minutes". 

McRae's was aware of a demand for historical dramas and quality children's serials. By the end of 1975 he had commissioned feature-length murder mystery The Park Terrace Murder (starring George Henare) and children's drama Hunter's Gold, set during the Otago goldrush. 

The country's most expensive local drama production to date, Hunter's Gold won healthy audiences. McRae produced; In the second clip of this episode on the history of Kiwi TV drama, he talks about facing resistance from on high to the $600,000 budget (director Tom Parkinson and writer Roger Simpson offer their own thoughts here). Hunter's Gold would sell for years to come. Its international success encouraged McRae to commission a run of successful children's serials set in the past, including Gather Your Dreams, about a vaudeville troupe in the 1930s, and 13-part Feltex award-winner Children of Fire Mountain

McRae also secured part-foreign funding for historical serial The MacKenzie Affair (1977), a co-production with Scottish TV. He followed it with Ngaio Marsh TheatreBased on Marsh's murder mysteries, the four dramas featured an English detective in 1930s New Zealand. Praised by local reviewers, the telemovies were purchased by American public broadcaster PBS, making it the first Kiwi TV drama to screen in the United States. 

When Ian Cross announced that the semi-independent TV One and SPTV would be replaced with a unified two-channel system, McRae was not keen. In April 1979 he departed for Australia, telling The Listener that the reshuffle unnecessarily meddled "with something which artistically was going very well". 

In Australia McRae directed and produced episodes of long-running soap Prisoner, and produced decade-spanning miniseries Water Under the Bridge, which won multiple awards. 

In 1982, he returned home to become Head of Drama for Television New Zealand. Ourselves in Primetime author Trisha Dunleavy argues that thanks partly to using economies of scale, McRae achieved "an impressive volume of material". Between 1984 and 1986, TVNZ screened eight adult drama series, and five children's serials, all made in-house. 

McRae approved Wayne Tourell's series inspired by Dunedin lawyer Alf Hanlon, which had been turned down multiple times previously. Hanlon (1985) earned its first million dollars in sales before editing was complete. The first episode was the first Kiwi TV drama to be nominated for an Emmy Award.

McRae cancelled long in the tooth soap Close to Home, and commissioned a return season for cancelled police show Mortimer's Patch. He had helped develop Mortimer during his earlier tenure. But the show had then been canned, ironically shortly before unscreened episodes scored impressive ratings.

McRae was a fan of giving shows time to develop and improve, citing the example of Aussie police show Blue Heelers (which ran for 13 years). He remarked that "it took three seasons for that to become successful". In the early 1980s he commissioned 71 episodes of Kiwi period drama Country GP, a significant sign of faith in a country which had a long history of cancelling shows after the first season.

Ambitious, award-winning docudrama Erebus: The Aftermath (1987) was born after McRae read book Verdict on Erebus, by former judge Peter Mahon. He also greenlit further children's dramas, including The Fire-Raiser and Steel Riders. Attempts to secure British funding for an adaptation of Maurice Shadbolt's novel Strangers and Journeys proved unsuccessful.    

In 1987 John McRae moved into a programming role, as controller of TV2. Soon after he became head of new drama company South Pacific Pictures, which was initially created as an in-house subsidiary of TVNZ.  McRae stayed at the helm when the company went independent in 1991, and worked extensively on SPP's flagship show Shortland Street as executive producer (he talks about censorship of an early Shortland episode in the fourth clip of this documentary).

In 2000 McRae returned to TVNZ one more time, as Head of Drama and Comedy, the same year the government announced a public service charter that aimed to increase the amount of local drama. 

After retiring, John McRae directed plays at the South Canterbury Drama League, where his career in the arts had began years before. On McRae's shelf sat a 1990 Commemorative Medal for services to broadcasting — and an OBE. He died on 31 October 2020.

Profile updated on 5 November 2020

Sources include
John McRae
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Louisa Cleave, 'Back to the rockface for TVNZ drama head' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 21 September 2000
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime - A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)