From the late 70s to the 90s, when it came to the complexities of putting live events on television, Malcolm Kemp, MBE, was the man to call. Whether it was the mad one-upmanship of Top Town, a live concert, or the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, his gift was for putting the viewer in the best place to see the action.
Kemp was a keen trombone player, whose playing won awards and a place in the Rodger Fox Big Band. It was music that first led him into a television studio, when at the age of 17, a former music teacher asked if he could fill in on trombone on a TV show. There were cameras and gear everywhere, "and as soon as I went in I knew I wanted to work there."
Kemp joined the NZ Broadcasting Corporation in 1965 as a technician, then became a cameraman. His work on royal tours, studio productions and the 1974 Commonwealth Games gave him an eye for the power of the close-up, and the long shot.
In the mid 70s he was turned down for a directors' training course. One senior executive — presumably long retired — wrote "he'll never be a producer." Kemp got his break soon after, when producer Mark Westmoreland got him to direct some music clips for RTR forerunner Grunt Machine.
Kemp would go on to direct and produce a run of concerts and events-based shows, commanding election coverage, sports events, the Pacific Song Contest, Mastermind International, NZ Symphony Orchestra specials and five Miss New Zealands, as well as television staples A Dog's Show and This is Your Life.
Former boss Keith Catchpole, who worked with Kemp for over 15 years, called him "the only director I have worked with who is really competent in multi-camera directing ... a very fast thinker."
Kemp's tight planning and love of the word 'complex' became legendary. For one live Telethon show, he pre-scripted the entire 24-hour broadcast.
Kemp went on to become both TVNZ's Head of Entertainment (resurrecting Top Town in the process) and Head of Sport. He also recognised that a comic sketch as Lyn of Tawa by actor Ginette McDonald had the makings of something more substantial.
In the late 80s Kemp began to look overseas, partly out of frustration over a structure which denied managerial status to those who wanted to keep their hand in producing and directing. Kemp handled America's Cup coverage in San Diego, and spent two years living in Australia, where he handled television coverage of Expo 88.
In 1989 he returned home, to produce and direct coverage of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Auckland Commonwealth Games. TVNZ staff and equipment provided pictures of the ceremony and the games to a large international audience. Kemp was awarded an MBE soon after, and headhunted by the BBC. Kemp joined the organisation as a sports producer, splitting his time between London and Manchester.
Four years later he was appointed Executive Producer for BBC for the (soccer) World Cup held in the United States, one of the highest attended sporting events in American history.
Kemp became the BBC's executive producer for horse racing in 1997. That year he began covering the first of seven Grand Nationals, the year a bomb scare occured.
Kemp's expertise at using multiple cameras to capture live events was utilised for Princess Diana's funeral. Kemp helped organise coverage across multiple broadcasters, working on the day from a broadcast truck in Hyde Park, after successfully lobbying with the police for permission to film in the area. Kemp commanded 64 of 108 cameras, and later called it "the biggest thing I'd ever done", finding it in some ways "an extended version" of Sir Keith Holyoake's state funeral (for which he had earlier won a Feltex award).
In 1998 Malcolm was an advisor on coverage of the Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games; he also directed the opening and closing ceremonies. He went on to handle coverage of the 2002 games in Manchester, as director of ceremonies. As a result, he became one of the first New Zealanders to win a BAFTA award.
In 2004 Malcolm Kemp died from cancer, aged 57. BBC Director of Sport Peter Salmon praised his gifts and confidence as a director. "He has taught a generation of up-and-coming directors, and the many millions who watched the Grand National at the weekend witnessed his legacy."
Profile written by Ian Pryor; updated on 8 October 2020
Doug Coutts, 'In Memoriam - Malcolm Kemp remembered' - Onfilm, May 2004
Diana Dekker, 'Kiwi stage-managed Princess' funeral' (Obituary) - Dominion Post, April 2004
'BBC Sport Executive Producer dies' (Press Release) BBC website. Loaded 6 April 2004. Accessed 8 October 2020
Anonymous, 'Kemp returns' - The Evening Post, 9 March 1989