Keith Aberdein is a journalist turned scriptwriter, who has also done some acting. Aberdein dramatised historical conflicts between Māori and Pākehā at a time when Kiwi screen creatives treated the past as if it was a foreign country. Long conscious of a "deep injustice" within imperial systems, he was a writer on The Governor and Utu, two ambitious, trailblazing dramas about colonial conflict.
Born in London, Aberdein grew up partly in Africa and Northern Ireland, then worked briefly as a journalist in Hong Kong. At age 17, in Dublin, he co-starred as Vladimir in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot at one of Europe's oldest theatre festivals. Soon after he arrived in Wellington on a scholarship, and did a short stint studying law at Victoria University. Aberdein soon blew his first year's payment. "I ended up working in an all-night coffee bar. Pretty soon I was falling asleep in legal system lectures".
In 1963 he joined the news service of the NZ Broadcasting Corporation. Later he moved to the corporation's new television arm, as a reporter for magazine show Town and Around and current affairs slot Compass. In April 1968 he interviewed some of the survivors of the Wahine tragedy as they came ashore, an experience he writes about here, and is interviewed about in this documentary.
The following year Aberdein made this film about singer John Rowles, and was fired from Compass after refusing to rewrite a report on the Chatham Islands. Aberdein argues that the NZBC's "timid" executives were keen to catch anything controversial, before it got on-air. "The shows themselves were a bit like salmon that had to work their way up the rapids". In this case, there were worries about his claim that a crayfishing boom would provide little longterm benefit to Chatham locals. Aberdein found himself in the office of NZBC Director-General Gilbert Stringer, who offered to let things lie if he agreed "never again to refuse to rewrite a script when ordered". Aberdein's departure made the front page of The Dominion.
Aberdein spent time in advertising and public relations; in his downtime he was making his first venture into writing drama, on 1972 probation drama Section 7.
Aberdein has since concentrated largely on scriptwriting. Following episodes of pioneering bicultural drama Pukemanu and Ian Mune trade union series Moynihan, he wrote bicultural thriller Epidemic (1976). The four-parter features a small-town Māori doctor (Governor taonga Don Selwyn), who must choose between his Pākehā medical training and the ways of his ancestors. In this period Aberdein did a brief stint as a reporter (for Nationwide), and thanks to a cash injection from TV executive Bill Munro, he was able to accept a place on the NZBC's last producers' course. "That meant I was qualified to studio direct, which I did later on Close to Home, but I didn't hang around as an employee — I risked the freelance writing future."
Aberdein followed Epidemic with a landmark series in the history of New Zealand television: colonial epic The Governor. Based on months of research in archives, diaries, and discussions with Māori elders, the six-part miniseries set out to demolish the view that New Zealand governor Sir George Grey had been "the great peacemaker". After inheriting the show from Governor creator Michael Noonan, Aberdein decided to build each episode around a single theme, instead of taking a straight chronological approach.
Noonan, Aberdein and director/producer Tony Isaac were all well aware of the show's subversive potential. As Aberdein writes in this piece, the show was risky, ambitious and flawed. Growing up in places that had been afflicted by colonialism, he'd concluded that "there was a deep injustice at the heart of all imperial systems". He was keen to challenge the idea that New Zealand had a perfect race relations record. As he says near the beginning this making of documentary, "we're a very smug lot really about the way we handled colonial days."
The Governor won sizeable audiences, reviews that crossed the gamut, and two Feltex Awards, including one for Aberdein's scriptwriting. He also wrote a tie-in novel. Television executives were evasive about cost overruns, providing ammunition for Prime Minister Robert Muldoon to attack the show's budget before it even went on air. Aberdein later argued that The Governor had "become a symbol of what happens if you let the creative people in".
Aberdein may have been the first to show you could make a living as a scriptwriter in New Zealand. Hit soap Close to Home was a key factor in keeping him afloat. The show could be both dreary and brave, but he argues here that it's ratings success "held TV One's entire schedule together" for many years. Aberdein was in at the beginning in 1975, penning the third episode, and would work on literally hundreds more (including the 1983 final). He also script edited, directed, produced a season, and wangled an on-screen role in one episode.
In 1978 Aberdein penned moody psychological piece Rachel. The series starred expat Barbara Ewing (who won a Feltex Award) as a woman returning home to deal with her father's rural estate.
Over the next few years, Aberdein teamed up with his Governor colleagues Tony Isaac and Michael Noonan on a number of projects that come to nothing — partly due to fears they held little overseas appeal. The topics included politician Edward Gibbon Wakefield, conscientious objectors, and mining novel Coal Flat.
Aberdein also took a brief sidestep into cinema. It began in 1979 with what he described as quite an easy job — turning the 10 scenes of Roger Hall's "excellent" play Middle Age Spread into the 54 scenes of this movie adaptation. This early Kiwi comedy won good audiences, and praise from Variety for the "fine screenplay". Yokels-in-the-city caper Carry Me Back followed.
Geoff Murphy — the first director to make a screen drama entirely in te reo — realised Aberdein and his Governor research could be useful in the writing of colonial epic Utu (Murphy even had hopes he might help produce it). Set in the 1870s, the film followed a charismatic Māori warrior who leads a rebellion against the colonial government. Aberdein strove to introduce some contemporary echoes to the script, including allusions to the 1981 tour. French paper Le Monde found Utu "unique, astonishing". American critic Pauline Kael praised its audacity and complexity, and the way Aberdein and Murphy skewered viewer expectations.
Roger Donaldson saw other talents in Aberdein. The two worked together on kids romp Nutcase in 1980. Impressed by Aberdein's on-camera confidence as a reporter, Donaldson offered him an acting role in this episode of rural TV drama Jocko, then a bigger role in Donaldson's classic break-up movie Smash Palace — despite knowing Aberdein had expressed little confidence in an early draft of the script. Acting opposite his Tank Busters colleague Bruno Lawrence, he played the cop who betrays Bruno's character. Aberdein writes here about the film's success, despite his efforts, and here about Bruno's importance to the Kiwi film industry — an industry with "maybe only three leading men".
Aberdein would act again in testosterone-heavy feature Wild Horses — "my casting was widely acknowledged as a mistake by all concerned" — short film Hooks and Feelers, overheated Australian drama Return to Eden, and classic Greg McGee play Foreskin's Lament.
By 1982 and 83 everything seemed to be happening at once: aside from Wild Horses, TV series Inside Straight and co-writing Utu and Carry Me Back, he took a rare stab at directing, with teleplay The Venus Touch. The comedy of manners starred Grant Tilly as a sexologist, and a controversially topless Angela D'Audney as his dissatisfied wife.
Aberdein co-created colourful after-dark romp Inside Straight with Grant Morris. Set in a Wellington awash with criminals and hustlers, it followed a man (Phillip Gordon) who is taken under the wing of a streetwise taxi-driver (Roy Billing). The Listener's David Hill found it a "fast, frothy and funny fantasy". In this period Aberdein also wrote TV movie Iris, which explored the life of writer and foreign correspondent Iris Wilkinson (aka Robin Hyde). The framing story involved a team of filmmakers bringing her story to the screen. Australian Helen Morse (Picnic at Hanging Rock) starred.
Wary of becoming part of the establishment, and keen to escape, Aberdein then crossed the ocean himself. After joining Australian soap kings Crawford Productions as a staff writer on period tale Carson's Law, he was asked to help produce it as well. Although there was a brief return to New Zealand, Aberdein decided he "hadn't given Australia a fair chance". From then on he toiled largely in Aussie television, including rushing to ready scripts for Return to Eden (which followed on from a miniseries of the same name), hit series Medivac and AFI winner The Paper Man (which featured Kiwi John Bach as an Aussie media mogul).
In 1994 Aberdein reteamed with Middle Age Spread director John Reid for Kiwi-American feature The Last Tattoo. Sometimes he's asked if really wants to include this khaki-coloured murder mystery on his CV. But as Aberdein says, "when you write a screenplay and Rod Steiger puts up his hand, you don't hide it — however sad the outcome".
Profile written by Ian Pryor; updated on 4 April 2022
'Keith Aberdein: Scripting NZ classics..' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 20 July 2010. Accessed 4 February 2022
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Merrill Coke, 'Aberdein's Escape to Eden, Etc' (Interview) - Onfilm, October 1986, page 12 (Volume 3, Number 6)
Karl du Fresne, 'du Fresne on Saturday: At long last - 'The Governor' ' - The Evening Post, 1 October 1977
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime - A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
David Hill, 'Straight talking' (Review of Inside Straight) - The Listener, 20 October 1984, page 39
Pauline Kael, Review of Utu - The New Yorker, 15 October 1984
Hugh Nevill, 'Good Governor Grey' - The Listener, 1 October 1977, page 38
Mike Nicolaidi, Review of Middle Age Spread - Variety, 31 December 1978
Unknown writer, 'That 'Grey' Series - Has It All Been Worth The Cost?' - The Evening Post, 7 September 1977
Unknown writer, 'Drama 1982', in 1981 Listener TV Annual, page 39 (Wellington: Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand, 1981)