In 2017 Ken Blackburn was the third recipient of the Equity Lifetime Achievement Award, which acknowledges long-serving New Zealand actors. The award was just recognition for a stage, screen and radio career that spans 50+ years, from 60s teleplay All Earth to Love to breakthrough 80s sitcom Gliding On, to The Brokenwood Mysteries.
Born in Bristol in 1935, Ken Blackburn attended Clifton College there from 1948 to 1952, before finishing school in New Zealand. His youthful experiences in World War II England are recounted in his autobiographical book Blitz Kids, in which two wartime refugee children, aged seven and nine, repeatedly run away from their billets across the West Country, while trying to return to their mother and grandmother in Bristol. The book was published by the BBC in 1995, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of VE Day.
In the mid 50s Blackburn acted in St Joan, one of the first productions by pioneering theatre company The New Zealand Players. Blackburn soon headed back to England, but found his way back to New Zealand after a year acting in Liverpool under American director Sam Wanamaker.
Downunder, professional theatre had yet to become sustainable. Blackburn spent five years as a high school teacher, before the launch of Wellington theatre Downstage in 1964 allowed him to act fulltime (over the next decade he acted in and directed a run of Downstage productions; he once watched as a fellow actor completely forgot his lines, said "over to you Rosencrantz" to him, and departed the stage).
Blackburn's first television role was in the same period. Teleplay All Earth to Love screened in 1963. It was the earliest drama written for local television. Filmed largely in a cramped Wellington studio, the romance was set late one night in a North Island train station. Blackburn had a small role as a young conscripted soldier.
In 1975 he appeared briefly on pioneering Kiwi soap opera Close To Home, as antagonistic lawyer Clive Foster. He recalls that his still-English sounding voice didn’t fit with the homegrown feel of the show. "At that stage I quite enjoyed playing the baddie", recalls Blackburn in this video interview.
Blackburn's voice — adept at conveying supremacy and disdain —has often been called on to portray authority figures, from detectives to judges, to a good share of villains. It has also been heard narrating documentaries on everything from Manapouri Power Station to Jonah Lomu.
The 70 also saw Blackburn playing a central role in Hunter’s Gold, an ambitious costume drama set in the Otago goldfields and shot largely on location. Blackburn fondly recalls working with Molly G, a Clydesdale horse. The ambitious series sold extensively around the globe; years later, a friend of Blackburn’s was surprised to see it on TV during a business trip to Mongolia.
Blackburn featured in two series in 1977: Australian drama Glenview High, in which he played high school teacher Mr Phillips (years later he returned to Australia to play a resistance fighter on sci fi show Farscape); and Kiwi drama Moynihan, which starred Ian Mune as a carpenters' union secretary.
Blackburn’s movie profile was also on the rise. In 1978 he appeared in a lead role in Skin Deep. The small town satire chronicles the emotions stirred up when a massage parlour opens. Blackburn plays the president of the town's Progressive Association, who encourages the local gym owner to import a city masseuse, then tries to get some extra massage action on the side. Variety called it "New Zealand's long-awaited breakthrough film".
Blackburn's best-known screen role is surely office comedy Gliding On, which ran from 1981 to 1985. The first New Zealand sitcom to become a major hit, the show was set in an unnamed government office, and based on Roger Hall's hit play Glide Time. Blackburn played the boss of the office, who "epitomised the public service", and personified "every headmaster I'd ever operated under, who was sitting on a superannuation job and didn't want anything disturbed". On one episode the character even competed on Mastermind.
The same decade Blackburn found himself playing angry boss to Hollywood screen legend Robert Mitchum, in mini-series Brotherhood of the Rose. Blackburn found the famous straight-talking actor a delight to work with. Other small screen roles include Sea Urchins (as a pilot), acclaimed cop show Mortimer’s Patch (as a detective), The Adventures of Swiss Family Robinson, and dog and boy tale White Fang (for which he also contributed some scripts).
In the early 90s he appeared sporadically on soap Shortland Street, playing Sir Bruce Warner, womanising father of heartthrob doctor Chris Warner. Blackburn worried that the character was so abrasive as to be unbelievable.
On the big screen Blackburn acted in Bad Blood, the story of West Coast serial killer Stan Graham. He also appeared in period drama Pictures, and cameoed as a doctor in The Frighteners (1996). He was happy to join the impressive, marginally over 40 ensemble in 2011 comedy Rest for the Wicked, which felt "like a reunion" of old acting friends. The same year director Danny Phillips invited Blackburn to appear in short film Danny's Secret, then asked him to star in his half-hour drama Life is for Living (2015). The film has won multiple awards, at festivals from Oklahoma to Jakarta. Blackburn plays a man whose lifespan has been unnaturally extended by medical experiments forced on him as a child.
In the same period, he appeared in two movies that were partly shot in New Zealand by overseas directors: acclaimed Western Slow West, and period drama Sunset Song, from BAFTA-nominated English director Terence Davies.
Blackburn’s stage CV is long. He has appeared around New Zealand in a wide variety of plays, including self-devised show An Evening with Dickens. He has toured with the NZ Symphony Orchestra as narrator for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 1999 he won the Best Actor award at the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards for his performance as Vladimir in Waiting for Godot.
In 2005 Blackburn was awarded an New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen's Birthday Honours List. In late 2017 he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award from actors' organisation Equity New Zealand. President Jennifer Ward-Lealand praised him as a "beloved and respected member" of the performer community, who had contributed many "hapless, bumbling and sometimes downright sinister characters".
Profile updated on 30 November 2017
'Ken Blackburn: Always the bad guy' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Uploaded 26 March 2012. Accessed 30 November 2017
'Ken Blackburn'. Auckland Actors website. Accessed 30 November 2017
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime - A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
John Smythe, Downstage Upfront - the first 40 years of new zealand’s longest-running professional theatre (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2004)
Unknown writer, 'Ken Blackburn honoured with Equity Lifetime Achievement Award' (Press release) Equity New Zealand website. Loaded 17 October 2017. Accessed 30 November 2017
'Actor Ken Blackburn's Lifetime Achievement' (Radio interview) Radio New Zealand website. Loaded 26 November 2017. Accessed 30 November 2017
Unknown writer, Review of Skin Deep - Variety, 4 October 1978