Laurie Clarke was a sixth former in Christchurch when he had his first taste of film production. One of his classmates wanted to film a historical reenactment of settlers arriving at Akaroa for a French assignment, and Clarke was among those drafted in as actors. But the whole palaver of camera shots, dinghies and period costume "took bloody ages. I remember thinking if it takes this long to make one simple film, no way am I interested”.
Clarke was born in Auckland, but grew up in Christchurch. He went straight from Linwood High School to tertiary study: a Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology. But any thoughts of being a zoologist ended there. Keen to save money for travel, he took a job that managed to combine the two, working in the kitchens of McMurdo Station in Antarctica.
Lured by the romance of the location, Clarke's time on the ice coincided with a major tragedy. “While I was there the Erebus crash happened. I have vivid memories of seeing the choppers flying back in from the crash site, and the sombre mood that descended on the base”.
Clarke left Antarctica for Australia's Far North, working in a hostel for Aboriginal children, before starting a Communications degree at Curtin University in Perth. Originally attracted by the journalism papers on offer, he chose film studies as one of his courses and discovered he loved it — both the theory and practicalites of filming and editing.
Two and a half years into his studies he was recruited by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and joined their in-house training programme. “The ABC had a regular intake who were trained in everything from manning a radio desk to editing film for the news, to manning the cameras on aussie rules games. It was a three year internship covering the mechanics of TV, radio and film production."
When the internship finished in 1985, Clarke started as an editor in the news and current affairs department of the ABC in Perth, with a two month stint on location as a camera assistant on landmark wildlife series The Nature of Australia. After two years Clarke returned to New Zealand for a holiday. While there he was offered a job in Christchurch with TVNZ as an editor, working on shows like Fast Forward, What Now and Spot On, and also as a tape editor on the news.
In 1989 Clarke and his boss Chris King were poached by Mark Jennings to join fledgling channel TV3. The next four years were exciting ones, as a small team of reporters, camera operators and editors competed with the far better resourced state television in the South Island.
Clarke returned to Melbourne in 1993, to work as a director and editor on corporate projects. But his heart wasn’t in it. Looking to return to New Zealand, he was soon back in news and current affairs — this time as a producer for 20/20 from 1994 to 2002. Clarke reels off a list of “amazing journos” he worked with over this time; Melanie Reid, John Campbell, Amanda Millar, Anna Kenna and Genevieve Westcott. Clarke loved the variety of subject matter that current affairs offered, the close working environment and the privilege of being allowed into people’s lives to tell their story.
By the early 2000s he felt restless. “I remember having conversations with other freelancers about making the move from TV3 to going out on my own. They generally said ‘you’re crazy to leave’.
Crazy maybe, but Clarke left in 2002, to join Top Shelf Productions as producer of long-running consumer affairs show Target. “From then on, I kind of entrenched myself here — having come from the fairly formulaic world of current affairs, I relished the opportunity to work on a tremendous range of programmes both as a producer and a director”.
Today he shares the role of company director with Vincent Burke, who created Top Shelf in 1988. Clarke feels a sense of pride in helping keep Top Shelf ticking along on a day to day basis — a skill set he didn’t realise he had. “I'd be the first to admit that my training and previous experience didn’t really lend itself to managing people and running a company.” Having Burke as a business partner makes it all possible. "Our skills are very complementary and our opinions on the types of programmes we want to make are very similiar".
Clarke has often jumped into projects as producer and/or director. Sometimes it's when the story or concept grips him; at others "it's because production costs need to be kept down, so it makes financial sense for me to do it". Clarke loves the craft of pulling stories together in post-production. His skills as an editor make him “probably the most annoying person to be in the edit suite with”. Having directed almost 100 stories during his time with 20/20, Clarke went on to direct programmes like The Gangs (2008) — three high profile Inside New Zealand documentaries narrated by Pam Corkery — and an episode from Prime Television's historical series Making New Zealand.
As a producer, he worked on documentary Leaving the Exclusive Brethren (which won a Silver Award at the 2006 Houston International Independent Film Festival) and Th’ Dudes- Right Second Time (2007) which sees the legendary band reuniting for a national tour. He executive produced Saving Face (2009) about two ground-breaking WWI surgeons.
Clarke has also executive produced many episodes of weekly media commentary show Media Take, hosted by Russell Brown and Toi Iti. Currently screening on Māori TV, the programme has had previous incarnations on TVNZ7 and TV3.
In 2012 Top Shelf Productions was a key player in the founding of free-to-air channel Choice TV, with Clarke part of the management team. Although the company is no longer involved in the Choice TV operation, it continues to make programmes for Choice; including the channel's first NZ On Air-funded series Heritage Rescue, presented by archaeologist/conservator Brigid Gallagher (Time Team ). Clarke argues that the show lets viewers in on the excitement of uncovering stories about artefacts and small town characters, that might otherwise be lost. As the producer, and one of two directors, Clarke enjoyed visiting and helping small struggling museums like Cromwell Museum.
Clarke has no one show that he would single out as his proudest achievement. “I try to give it everything on each show we do. I still love the industry I work in, and the people I work with”.
Profile written by Gabe McDonnell
Top Shelf Productions website. Accessed 29 November 2016
William Mace, 'Freeview adds new channel' - The Dominion Post, 10 February 2012
Keith Sharpe 'Former Time Team expert sets out to rescue New Zealand’s heritage’ - TV Guide, 29 July 2016
Saving Face (Television Documentary) Director John Hagen (Top Shelf Productions, 2009)
Leaving the Exclusive Brethren (Television Documentary) Director Kathleen Mantel (Top Shelf Productions, 2005)