Profile image for Keith Aberdein

Keith Aberdein

Writer, Actor

Keith Aberdein is a journalist turned scriptwriter, who has occasionally been known to act.

Born in Britain, Keith Aberdein grew up partly in Africa and Northern Ireland, then worked as a journalist in Hong Kong. Arriving downunder in the 60s, he studied law at Victoria University in Wellington. After dropping out, he tried a variety of jobs, including running an all-night coffee bar, an experience that later helped inspire TV series Inside Straight.

The second half of the 60s saw Aberdein working as a reporter on nightly magazine show Town and Around, and current affairs programme Compass. In April 1968 he was one of those called in to report on the Wahine tragedy unfolding in Wellington Harbour, an experience he describes here. The following year Aberdein was fired from Compass for refusing to change a script he had written for a programme about the Chatham Islands. After the powers-that-be alleged the script lacked balance, it was rewritten by others. Aberdein was dismissed after refusing to provide a voiceover for the rewrite.

After some time in public relations, Aberdein returned to television — both as a reporter, and with his first work in television drama, writing for the second season of landmark series Pukemanu.

Aberdein wrote prolifically over the course of the 70s, often on themes involving bicultural relations. His work included episodes of short-lived probation drama Section 7, Ian Mune trade union series Moynihan, and Aberdein's ambitious bi-cultural thriller Epidemic (1976) in which a Māori doctor (Don Selwyn) must choose between his Pākehā medical training and the ways of his ancestors.

Aberdein followed Epidemic with a key series in the history of New Zealand television: colonial epic The Governor, based on the influential and controversial governor Sir George Grey. The six episodes were based on exhaustive primary research, and eschewed a chronological approach in favour of a thematic one. Aberdein, series creator Michael Noonan, and producer Tony Isaac were well aware of the show's subversive potential. For Aberdein, The Governor was partly designed to challenge myths about "New Zealand smugness about what good chaps we were towards ‘our' Māoris."

The Governor won sizable local audiences, reviews that crossed the gamut, and a Feltex award for Aberdein's scriptwriting — plus controversy, after Prime Minister Robert Muldoon attacked the show for its expense. Later Aberdein argued that the programme had "become a symbol of what happens if you let the creative people in".

The programme that showed Aberdein screenwriting might actually earn him a regular living was long-running soap Close to Home, based around an extended middle-class family. Aberdein was there at the beginning in 1975, penning the third episode, and would go on to write literally hundreds more, as well as directing, producing for an entire season, and occasionally appearing on screen.

In 1978 Aberdein penned moody psychological piece Rachel. The programme starred Barbara Ewing as an expat 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, thanks partly to fears they had little overseas appeal — among them a planned trilogy on WWI, and an adaptation of Bill Pearson's mining novel Coal Flat.

Stage two of Keith Aberdein's career was about to kick off: 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 the movie adaptation. This early Kiwi screen comedy won good audiences and positive reviews, with Variety praising Aberdein's "fine screenplay". He went on to join the writing team for yokels-in-the-city comedy Carry Me Back, then worked with director Geoff Murphy crafting 1983 colonial epic Utu (Aberdein has argued that he tried to introduce some contemporary echoes to the script, including allusions to the 1981 tour).

Director Roger Donaldson saw other talents in Aberdein. After working with him on the script of kidult romp Nutcase, and impressed by Aberdein's on-camera confidence as a  reporter, Donaldson gave him an acting role in an episode of rural TV drama Jocko. Next Aberdein was offered a role in Donaldson's classic relationship drama Smash Palace, despite Aberdein having prevously written a report making clear how little confidence he had in an early draft of Donaldson's script. Aberdein played opposite his old friend Bruno Lawrence, as the policeman who is accused of betraying Lawrence's character.

Aberdein would be seen again on-screen in testosterone-heavy feature Wild Horses, and Aussie TV soap Return to Eden.

By 1982 and 83 everything seemed to be happening at once: aside from Wild Horses and the scripts of Utu and Carry Me Back, directing his one-off sex farce The Venus Touch (starring Grant Tilly and a topless Angela D'Audney) and helping write two other TV projects. The first saw him joining Tony Isaac to research and explore the life of writer and foreign correspondent Iris Wilkinson, better known by her pen name of Robin Hyde. TV movie Iris combined re-creations of Wilkinson's life with a framing story involving a team of filmmakers bringing her story to the screen. Australian actor Helen Morse (Picnic at Hanging Rock) starred.

Aberdein was also co-creator — with Grant Morris — of colourful after-dark drama Inside Straight. Set in a world of criminals and hustlers, the series followed a young man (Phillip Gordon) who is taken under the wing of a streetwise taxi-driver (Roy Billing).

Wary of becoming part of the establishment, and keen to escape, Aberdein exited for stage three of his career: Australia. After joining soap kings Crawford Productions as a staff writer on period tale Carson's Law, he was soon drafted in to help produce the show as well. Aberdein went on to toil largely in Australian television, including rushing to ready scripts for Return to Eden, the series follow-up to the mini-series of the same name, and writing for hit series Medivac and AFI award-winning newspaper tale The Paper Man.

In 1994 Aberdein reteamed with Middle Age Spread director John Reid for Kiwi-American feature The Last Tattoo. Aberdein scripted this complex tale of a WWII murder investigation involving brothels and US marines. The cast included Kerry Fox and American veteran Rod Steiger.

Sources include

Keith Aberdein
Merrill Coke, 'Aberdein's Escape to Eden, Etc' (Interview) - Onfilm, October 1986, page 12 (Volume 3, Number 6)
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime - A History of New Zealand Television Drama  (Auckland University Press, 2005)