Reporter, researcher and oral historian Judith Fyfe once used her hometown of Martinborough as subject matter. The World, Population 1300 is a collaboration with her partner’s company City Associates, the title a nod to the fact that the town's population has hovered at that mark since her birth. One side of Fyfe’s family is dotted with lawyers, but she left her single-sex private school at 15, looking for something else. She gravitated towards the newly launched 2ZD radio station in Masterton, where she thinks she "probably started out as a receptionist”. Soon she was moved to roving shopping reporter. The job entailed a "solid half hour of ad-libbing, which was very good training"’.
Radio was a good gig to get as it moved Fyfe around the country, from the North Island to the South and back again. After a stint in Dunedin, Fyfe travelled back to Masterton's 2ZD to present Person to Person — the first in a new line of ‘women’s programmes’ on local radio stations, and a pioneer of ‘talkback’ radio shows. Fyfe started to carve out a niche for herself in these slots and soon made the jump into ‘women’s’ programming on television. “The good thing about being involved in these women’s programmes," she says, "is that they left you alone”.
One early interview with music legend Count Basie for On Camera during his 1971 tour of New Zealand still makes her cringe. “Oh god. You see the smoke drifting across the screen. I gave up smoking as a result of that interview”. Other memorable interviews included Germaine Greer and anthropologist Margaret Mead.
Fyfe kept working throughout her pregnancy, doing live interviews for magazine style shows. Her bump would receive a range of ‘interesting’ reactions. In 1978 she joined the line-up of now legendary consumer affairs show Fair Go in 1978, after working behind the scenes as a researcher. “Word went round they were looking for a new presenter, and I indicated an interest. Someone higher up had the opinion that I didn’t have 'the right looks’ for the role, so that put me off. But eventually I got the job”.
Fair Go combined "everything" Fyfe liked about her work in journalism and broadcasting.
At this stage of her career Fyfe made the decision to go independent, and become a contractor for TVNZ. In the early 80s she was one of the reporters for documentary series The Beginner’s Guide to... Each episode was devoted to a particular topic, and Fyfe presented episodes on plastic surgery and becoming a nun.
Fyfe’s career took on another bent when she began writing scripts — the first, she thinks, was likely for soap Close to Home. Fyfe has better memories of "terrific" 80s comedy/drama series Marching Girls, and writing 35 episodes of the quirky Peppermint Twist. “Marching Girls stands out to me because it was driven and run by women, and many of the crew were women," says Fyfe. "I loved working with script editor Philippa Campbell”.
Peppermint Twist remains a genuine Kiwi TV oddity. Only one series made it to air. Fyfe and writer/actor Simon O’Connor came up with the concept of the fictional 60s town of ‘Roseville’. Fyfe's memories of its conception are of "being shut away for a weekend", after being asked to "come up with something".
Fyfe’s career began to turn away from a TV focus. Working on a project with her former Fair Go colleague Brian Edwards, she was doing a research interview with one-time Air New Zealand boss Morrie Davis and found it more productive to let the tape run and the stories come out. “I found it such a liberation, not to have to collect material ‘on the record’. What I found interesting about oral history was the opportunity for people to look back and identify turning points in their lives...we only ever understand anything in hindsight”.
Fyfe and colleague Hugo Manson won Fulbright Scholarships to study oral history in the United States. They also co-founded the NZ Oral History Archive (now the Oral History Centre at the Alexander Turnbull Library). Fyfe began teaching at Portland State University in Oregon. One of Fyfe’s class resources was the film and book War Stories.
In the late 80s filmmaker Gaylene Preston had asked Fyfe to interview her mother about her wartime memories. This one interview would evolve into a long-range oral history project, focussing on the lives and experiences of ordinary Kiwi women during WWll. “Gaylene was creating a resource she felt needed to exist". Preston selected some stories for a film, and War Stories became a feature-length documentary, which garnered international praise.
Fyfe's third career overhaul was prompted by a chance conversation with a man in Idaho. “He said he was ‘so happy’ to be going back to work, and I needed to know why”. The man was gathering research and evidence for a law firm. When Fyfe returned to New Zealand she enrolled at Victoria University, and like many in her family line turned to law.
“I was in my 50s by now. I was what you’d call a steady C+ student, not the mature student cliché at all. I think they passed me because it was embarrassing to have the eldest student fail.”
In the late 90s Fyfe and fellow barrister Kerri Doherty set up a 'forensic' law practice, which provided research and evidence for a range of clients. Fyfe has carried on in that role since Doherty's passing in 2012; she also represents prisoners seeking early release on parole.
In 2008 Fyfe was awarded a New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to oral history and journalism.
Profile written by Gabe McDonnell; updated on 5 May 2020
Jane Westaway 'Extraordinary Ordinary Lives' - Paper Clip, October 1990
Peppermint Twist (Television Programme) (TVNZ, 1987)
Fair Go (Television Programme) ( TVNZ, 1979 - onwards)
'Kerri Doherty - 26 August 1964 - 22 December 2012' Council Brief issue 421, February 2013, page 1