Ken Catran left school in the early 1960s with no qualifications, and a secret desire to write. By the early 1990s he was one of New Zealand's busiest writers of television drama.
Born in Auckland, Catran grew up in Auckland and Wellington with three sisters. It was a "fairly normal suburban family", aside from having an Air Force squadron leader as a father. School held little interest to him, but in the early 60s not having sat School Certificate proved no impediment to getting a job.
Catran worked for the Post Office, but concentrated his energy on reading and writing. As he told Sunday magazine, "there was really nothing else I wanted to do." Catran had begun writing short stories around the age of 10, but was initially too shy to show them to anyone.
He got his writing break in the early 1960s, after joining the NZ Broadcasting Corporation as a radio journalist. Among the staff was novelist Arthur E Jones, who "taught me a lot about stories and structure". But efforts to sell work to television ran into a brick wall. Catran found the TV scene in Wellington a closed shop, and felt his lack of connections and university education were counting against him.
In 1964 Catran left broadcasting. Soon he began a job that would keep him busy for many years — selling typewriters door to door. "I had lived a lonely life and was fairly shy," he said. "It was good to meet people, to find out about them. Television is all about people, communicating with them and finding out how they communicate back."
In 1973 he decided it was time to get serious about writing. "Television was the place I wanted to be". With a second TV channel on the horizon, state television was gearing up for expansion. Yet Catran still couldn't get in the door and sit the test that would demonstrate if he could write passable dialogue.
Catran made his screen debut in 1976 with an episode of historical drama The Immigrants. His script for The Spanish Lady followed one theory of how the influenza epidemic arrived in New Zealand in 1918. Then he was invited to join Roger Simpson on hit goldmining tale Hunter's Gold. Working alongside a more established writer helped Catran "learn a lot very quickly".
Most importantly for Catran's career, the show's global success spawned a long line of Kiwi-made kidult dramas. Catran wrote many of them. In the meantime, he contributed multiple episodes of pioneering soap Close to Home (including this first episode), and two failed South Pacific Television efforts at a hit soap: A Going Concern, set in a factory, and radio station drama Radio Waves.
Arguably Catran's most acclaimed screen project is Hanlon (1985), inspired by Dunedin lawyer Alf Hanlon. Director Wayne Tourell nurtured the project for over a decade. Catran wrote all seven episodes, each based on a different case; he won a GOFTA scriptwriting award for the first, a feature-length episode on the Minnie Dean case. Nominated for an International Emmy, Hanlon won high local ratings and impressive overseas sales, partly on the strength of the Minnie Dean episode. After Hanlon, Catran had little scripting work for 12 months, after being told by a local TV executive that he'd already earned enough for a scriptwriter that year.
Catran had won his first solo kidult credit in 1981, when he penned a beloved, Feltex Award-winning adaptation of Under the Mountain, Maurice Gee's novel of slimy aliens and volcanoes. Catran followed it in 1984 by creating Children of the Dog Star — another tale of children encountering alien cultures. This time he incorporated some Māori elements. Catran won a Feltex Award for his efforts.
He kept his hand in science fiction topics, creating four-parter Night of the Red Hunter (whose cast reunited Smash Palace's Bruno Lawrence and Greer Robson) and contributing scripts to The Boy from Andromeda and puppet romp Space Knights.
By mid 1990 Catran's work was everywhere. TV3 were screening the Kiwi-shot New Adventures of Black Beauty in primetime, while TVNZ had All For One, about a mixed gender soccer team. Star Runner was going before the cameras, and Catran was busy writing scripts for The Boy from Andromeda. Star Runner was created by Catran with British veteran Richard Carpenter (Robin of Sherwood). The Canadian-Kiwi drama involves a young drifter who becomes the jockey to a mysterious horse. After early days when Catran was struggling to pay the rent, he was proud of having broken the "six-figure barrier".
Catran's script work also includes kidult adventures Hotshotz and Steel Riders (plus the novelisation), as well as Country GP and cop show Mortimer's Patch. In 1988 he wrote First Lady of Law, a documentary about New Zealand's first woman lawyer, Ethel Benjamin.
Only one feature film has been released with Catran as scriptwriter. Alex (1993) is the tale of a teenage girl who competes in the swimming section of the Olympics. It was adapted from the award-winning series of books by Tessa Duder. Duder and Catran talk about the process in documentary Book to Box Office.
By the time Alex went into production, Catran was turning his focus towards novels. To date he has written more than 50; many are of a fantastical or historical bent. Deepwater Black (1992), the first of a trilogy, is set in a spaceship that has escaped a virus-ridden planet Earth. It was adapted for a short-lived American TV series (not to be confused with Kiwi series Deepwater Haven, to which Catran contributed some scripts).
Most of Catran's books are aimed at teens. Aided by his experience of writing for television, he makes sure that his books move at a fast pace — since teens can "get distracted more easily". His books have competed multiple times in both the NZ Post Book Awards and Storylines' annual list of notable books. In 2001 Voyage with Jason, inspired by Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece, was named Book of the Year at the young people's section of the NZ Post Book of the Year Awards. In 2003 he had three titles shortlisted for the awards. The same year saw publication of The Tribe - Mall Rats, based on the hit sci-fi series.
Catran met his wife Wendy when they were both part of the original writing team on Shortland Street.
Profile updated on 30 July 2020
'Catran, Ken' Read NZ website. Accessed 30 July 2020
'Ken Catran' Storylines website. Accessed 30 July 2020
Denis Edwards, 'Watch Out Wilbur Smith' (Interview) - Sunday, 12 August 1990, page 10
Geoff Taylor, 'A man of many genres' (Interview) - The Waikato Times, 31 January 2009