For over a decade, Lynton Diggle was the only Auckland-based cameraperson employed by the government's National Film Unit. Diggle would go on to capture images of snow, shipwrecks and communes falling apart under the strain.
Born in Paeroa in 1936, Diggle grew up in Rotorua, Auckland and later Otorohanga. As a child he had no idea what he wanted to do for a job; he was more interested in "making stink bombs, learning violin and trying to play rugby". Encouraged by his mother to get a bank job, Diggle failed to make it inside the front door for his job interview, "freaked out" by the idea of working in banking. A former English teacher suggested radio might be of more interest.
Aged 17, Diggle began working at the NZ Broadcasting Service, at Hamilton radio station 1XH. The job involved writing scripts and helping compile music programmes. It was "sheer joy". He also joined the local orchestra as a second violin — "although I really should have been only a fourth one". His boss at 1XH saw photos Diggle had taken during expeditions into the Waitomo Caves, and mentioned there was a vacancy at the National Film Unit.
As Diggle writes here, he "knew nothing about films", apart from watching Saturday matinees. But the idea of travelling appealed.
In 1957 Diggle began as a cameraman in Wellington. It was a city he grew to loathe. Although the unit lacked formal training, he soon learnt on the job. "The only specific advice I ever received on how to shoot films was from producer Oxley Hughan: 'Remember, long shot, mid shot, close-up.' I never forgot." Four years after Diggle arrived, he heard that National Film Unit manager Geoffrey Scott was keen to have an NFU cameraperson based in Auckland. Diggle threatened to leave the organisation unless he got the job.
Though he shot some items for television, much of Diggle's work was for Pictorial Parade, magazine shorts which screened before the main attraction in cinemas. He was a prolific director and camera operator for the monthly series. Diggle also directed this early film on athlete Peter Snell.
In the mid 1960s, working with staff from the government's Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (aka the DSIR), Diggle designed a see-through housing for what was likely New Zealand's first 35mm underwater camera (see photo). The longtime diver used the camera and housing for a winter shoot in Lake Taupō.
Later he joined legendary British filmmaking team David Lean and Robert Bolt (Doctor Zhivago) in Tahiti. The Tahiti project was Lost and Found (1979), which chronicled the salvage of one of Captain Cook's anchors. Lean went to great lengths to capture a memorable image; he even had the anchor relocated to shallower water, so he could get better angles. Lean put an arm around Diggle's shoulder at the end of one day's filming, and said "you know Lynton, I hope the moneymen never find out, but I would pay them to allow me to do what I do". Later Diggle would direct this film on a replica of the HMS Bounty. The ship had originally been built for a planned David Lean version of the Bounty story.
The mid 60s saw Diggle taking a year's sabbatical from the NFU, to work at Canada's National Film Board as a camera operator and director. His first job was filming in the Arctic. In the years following his return, Diggle directed Pictorial Parade pieces on potter Barry Brickell and art restoration (Art Surgeon). Both won international awards.
In the early 1970s a number of NFU directors — including Paul Maunder and Sam Pillsbury — began trying new styles, breaking out of the familiar NFU diet of upbeat, often tourist-oriented fare. Diggle found himself along for the ride. He shot Pillsbury's acclaimed doco on artist Ralph Hotere, and collaborated with both Maunder and Pillsbury on kitchen sink drama Gone Up North For A While, and follow-up One of Those People that Live in the World.
Gone Up North won controversy, and a Feltex Award as the year's best television drama. Director Maunder later praised Diggle's masterful handheld camerawork on the production, and his "wonderful feel for the actor, which with improvisation is absolutely essential".
In 1975 Diggle was behind the camera on his only feature-length drama — Maunder's Landfall, an edgy, downbeat portrait of communal living in disintegration. The cast included fellow NFU filmmaker Sam Neill (who Diggle would work with on ski film Flare) and Jonathan Dennis, who later founded the NZ Film Archive (now Ngā Taonga).
Soon after directing Antarctica, Diggle left the National Film Unit in the early 1980s, after 24 years. He formed production company Film New Zealand, where he directed and produced a number of shorts, and documented shipwrecks for salvage companies. Three of his shipwreck films (Waigani Express, The Duke, President Coolidge) won international awards. Waigani Express, which screened on TV slot Lookout, took a certificate of merit at a 1000-film strong industrial film festival in Chicago. It records the salvage of a container vessel hanging off a coral reef near Papua New Guinea. Diggle also made this 1986 documentary, which followed dive teams into the downed Mikhail Lermontov.
Diggle also continued to work on the occasional NFU production — including heading the on location crew for 1983 Antarctic series The Big Ice.
After retiring from filmmaking around 1990, Diggle joined his sometime sound recordist wife Edith on research into shipwrecks. In 2007 the couple co-wrote (with Keith Gordon) a 550 page edition of New Zealand Shipwrecks, the definitive book on the topic. Companion book Shipwrecks of New Zealand was published in 2009.
Lynton Diggle passed away on 23 November 2018, in Edith's arms.
Profile written by Ian Pryor
Originally published on 5 July 2009; updated on 28 November 2018
Lynton Diggle, Edith Diggle, Keith Gordon, Charles Ingram and Percy Owen Wheatley, New Zealand Shipwrecks (Auckland: Hodder Moa, 2007)
Costa Botes, 'Making Gone Up North for a While'. NZ On Screen website. Loaded 20 September 2008. Accessed 28 November 2018
Kevin Brownlow, David Lean (London: Richard Cohen Books, 1996)
Unknown writer, 'Salvage Film Gains Award' -The NZ Herald, 1983 (date unknown)