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Ken Duncum


Ken Duncum's creative career is defined by music, and the city of Wellington. It was in Wellington that Duncum witnessed his first rock concert (The Clash), met many future collaborators, and began writing plays in which music plays a vital role.

Duncum arrived in Wellington in the early 80s, after studying social sciences at Waikato University. Though never a punk — he remembers nervously entering Sex Pistols movie The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle in a suit, after a day on the job as a computer programmer — he became a devoted fan of punk music.

By the mid 80s the programming had been jacked in to study theatre and film at Victoria University. "It might be our imaginations," Duncum later recalled, "but it seemed to be a special time in terms of the people who cropped up at the same time. People like Tim (Balme) and Michael (Galvin), Simon Bennett [who would direct a number of Duncum's plays], Katie Wolfe, Erik Thomson — people who are quite major name actors and directors now."

At Victoria Duncum won a place on Bill Manhire's creative writing course. Dreams of becoming a poet (he was published as Ken Edlin) were swiftly overtaken by theatre. After writing a number of short plays together, Duncum and student Rebecca Rodden created hit Jism (1988), about siamese twins encouraged to market perfume made from monkey sperm.

Nationwide success followed with Duncum's Blue Sky Boys, in which Michael Galvin and Tim Balme personified duelling musical duo The Everly Brothers. The play's undoubted success had its speed bumps — like when Duncum lost $10,000 staging a rejigged version of the show in Auckland.

Blue Sky Boys marked the first of a loose trilogy of plays in which popular music from overseas intersects with New Zealand society: the others were John, I'm Only Dancing (as yet unstaged, partly out of fears of clearing the necessary rights to Bowie's song catalogue), and Waterloo Sunset, a play about punks, mods and marriage under stress.

Running parallel to his burgeoning theatrical career, Duncum had began writing for television. In 1988 he contributed sketches to a comedy show made by Wellington's Gibson Group: puppet show Public Eye would lead in turn to Away Laughing, then Skitz. By now Duncum had began three stressful years scripting almost two seasons worth of Cover Story, for which he won his first television award. Critically acclaimed but unable to find an audience, the drama series went behind the scenes of a weekly current affairs programme, where the tabloid contributions of one highflying journalist (played by Katie Wolfe) conflicted with other members of the team.

In the late 90s Duncum joined future thriller writer Donna Malane to plot crime stories for detective John Duggan (John Bach). Tele-movies Duggan: Death in Paradise and Duggan: Sins of the Fathers later spawned a Duggan series. Sins of the Fathers was nominated for a NZ script award. Duncum also wrote for time-travel tale Mirror, Mirror, and joined the scrum of writers on historical potboiler Greenstone.

By 2001 Duncum was head writer on hit comedy series Willy Nilly, in which Mark Hadlow and Sean Duffy played mollycoddled farmers, struggling to deal with life without their mother. That year he was appointed director of the MA Scriptwriting programme at Victoria University's Institute of Modern Letters.

Duncum continues to write, as well as encourage — including awardwinning play Flipside, inspired by the four men who spent months trapped in the hull of the Rose Noelle, James K Baxter meets Ronald Hugh Morrieson comedy Horseplay, and a stage adaptation of The Great Gatsby (The Dominion Post called the latter "an amazing achievement"). In 2010 he spent time in the French town of Menton, after winning the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship.

Sources include
Laurie Atkinson, 'Hollow lives given substance' (Review of The Great Gatsby) — The Dominion Post, 3 August 2010, Page B7
Tom Cardy, 'On the horizon' (Interview) — The Dominion Post, 29 March 2001, Page 19
Tom Fitzsimons, 'Ken Duncum is bringing back the magic' (Interview) — The Dominion Post, 26 January 2012
'Ken Duncum' Playmarket website. Accessed 15 August 2012