John McRae has had three separate stints working as a head of drama in New Zealand television, alongside producing in Australia and at the BBC. In his television work, McRae sought to find a careful balance between local and the universal - thanks to his belief that especially in a small country, television drama should reconcile localness with international appeal.
McRae grew up in Timaru. After leaving school he got a job with a community theatre, then spent four years touring with the New Zealand Players. Aged 24 he began directing stage musicals for Timaru's South Canterbury Drama League. In the late 50s McRae moved to England, working as a stage manager on West End musicals.
He joined BBC television in 1962, where he began producing drama in 1965. Football drama United! was one of the first; but McRae would specialise mainly in adaptations of classic novels. Five were nominated for Emmy awards. Tom Brown's Schooldays (1971) won McRae his first, for outstanding drama-comedy. 1975 children's drama Ballet Shoes won both an Emmy and a BAFTA award.
Back in New Zealand, Kiwi TV drama was about to step up a gear, after the splitting of the broadcasting service into two semi-competitive channels. In 1975 McRae returned from England to become head of drama for the new second channel, South Pacific Television.
While TV One drama head Michael Scott-Smith inherited key drama personnel and a new studio complex, McRae found himself working with a skeleton staff, and aging equipment and studios; after first sighting the shoebox-sized studio his heart "stopped for about five minutes".
McRae's international TV experience meant he 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; Tom Parkinson directed from Roger Simpson's script. The show's international success encouraged McRae to commission a run of successful children's serials, including 30s-era vaudeville piece Gather Your Dreams, and multi-Feltex award-winner Children of Fire Mountain.
McRae also secured part-foreign funding for historical serial The MacKenzie Affair (1977). He followed it with Ngaio Marsh Theatre, a series of 30s-era tele-films based on Marsh's murder-mysteries. Praised by local reviewers, the four shows were purchased by PBS, the first Kiwi TV drama to be screened in the USA.
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 left 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 was the producer of post WWI mini-series Water Under the Bridge, which won more than 20 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 86, TVNZ screened eight adult drama series, and five children's serials, all made in-house.
McRae approved Wayne Tourell's series based on 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.
He cancelled the by then low-rating Close to Home, and commissioned a return season for cancelled police show Mortimer's Patch. McRae had helped develop Mortimer during his earlier tenure, but the show had then been canned, ironically shortly before unscreened episodes went on to score impressive ratings.
The ambitious docudrama Erebus: The Aftermath was born after McRae read Verdict on Erebus, written by former judge Peter Mahon. Attempts to secure British funding for an adaptation of Maurice Shadbolt's novel Strangers and Journeys proved unsuccessful.
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 were Peter Muxlow (Roche), Caterina De Nave (Erebus), Janice Finn (Gloss), Ginette McDonald (Peppermint Twist), Liddy Holloway (Open House) and writer Fiona Samuel (Marching Girls).
In 1987 John McRae moved into a programming role, as controller of TV2. Two years later he became head of new drama company South Pacific Pictures, created as an in-house subsidiary of TVNZ. McRae stayed at the helm when the company went independent in 1991, and worked extensively on the company's flagship show Shortland Street as Executive Producer.
In 2000 McRae returned to TVNZ one more time, as Head of Drama and Comedy, in the same year the Government announced a public service charter that aimed to up the amount of local drama.
Now retired, John McRae directs plays at the South Canterbury Drama League, where his career in the arts began long before. On McRae's shelf sits a 1990 Commemorative Medal for services to broadcasting - and an OBE.