We use cookies to help us understand how you use our site, and make your experience better. To find out more read our privacy policy.
Profile image for Michael Dean

Michael Dean

Presenter, Journalist

In an age where local television executives made a habit of calling in overseas experts to help show the colonials how to make programmes — sometimes with embarrassing results — Michael Dean set off in the other direction, and ended up with a high profile job amidst the fertile cultural scene that was 60s London.

Born in Palmerston North in May 1933, Dean was the son of GP Kendrick Dean and Mavis Holt, whose family's involvement in the timber industry dated back 60 years, to Lancashire immigrant Robert Holt (later the company would become part of Carter Holt Harvey). Aged eight, Dean joined his three sisters at a Quaker school in Whanganui, where in the words of a later colleague, Joan Bakewell, "he began to absorb the values of tolerance and hatred of injustice about which he would later become eloquent".

Dean began as a cadet journalist at Palmerston North's Manawatu Standard. Aged 20, after contracting TB he spent extended time in a sanitorium. So began a lifelong love of books and knowledge, spanning everything from poetry to sports.

Dean did a year as a sports reporter in Cape Town, South Africa, before returning to work in radio for the NZ Broadcasting Service. By 1960 he was presenting breakfast television on Channel 7 in Sydney, where a co-worker recalled the "impossibly good looking" Dean and co-host Ray Taylor consulting a dictionary after each broadcast, to "come up with an obscure word they could use in the show next day".

After three years in Australia, Dean moved to England. There he would make his mark on nightly discussion show Late Night Line-Up, on the recently launched BBC2. Originally intended to promote the programmes set to play each night, the show was soon rebuilt and rescheduled. Instead it began looking backwards, to discuss what had already screened. The show broadened to cover arts, from serious discussion, to appearances by emerging talents like Barry Humphries and Fleetwood Mac. Late Night Line-Up was pioneering in more ways than one; the idea that it might turn a critical eye towards other BBC2 programming saw complaints from some of Dean's colleagues. The end of evening timeslot also allowed discussions to run on, if the talk was on a roll.

Two presenters led each night's programme, taken from a pool. One was Dean. Another was Joan Bakewell, who later wrote that Dean "took ideas seriously, and admired talent without sycophancy". Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand both agreed to return if Dean handled their interview. The show's guests included Allen Ginsberg and composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Dean interviewed Gore Vidal, Peter Sellers and Peter Ustinov, with often revealing results.

Bakewell argued that Dean developed "a bold technique that we came to call 'the silent poisoner'". After getting an evasive answer to a straightforward question, "with sublime self-control he would simply remain silent and wait. It takes nerves of steel to do that on live television." As a result the panicked person "would blurt out anxiously whatever came into their heads. It was often the most revealing remark of all". 

In 1967 Dean was picked to lead a Late Night discussion on homosexuality in Britain, and whether it was appropriate to have mentioned it on television at 8pm. Late Night Line-Up also spawned at least four further series, including the Dean-presented music show Colour Me Pop (a precursor to the legendary The Old Grey Whistle Test), in which each band got half an hour to perform. 

When Late Night Line-Up was cancelled in 1972 — after eight years playing seven nights a week, and roughly 3000 editions  — Dean returned to New Zealand to make a documentary asking how the country had changed, in the time he'd been away. Subtitled 'New Zealand re-visited and re-assessed by Michael Dean', Where Have All the Wowsers Gone? saw him interviewing many key figures of the day, and wondering whether the country was still the land of a people "sensitive to criticism, ignorant of the arts, hostile to the nonconformist".  

Dean worked on further programmes in England before returning downunder, to present Dean on Saturday in 1975. Alternating each weekend with Edwards on Saturday, the live talk show soon bowed down under the success of Brian Edwards' more unpredictable late night show.

Dean moved on to Australia, and became one of Channel Nine's anchors for the 1976 Montreal Olympics. By 1980 he was back in England, where he reported for BBC shows Man Alive and 40 Minutes. In 1983 he returned to Aotearoa to present 'Māori - The New Dawn', an episode of BBC documentary series The World About Us. Reporting on the Māori renaissance and past injustice by Pākehā, he interviewed Derek FoxPatu! director Merata Mita, Pita Sharples and lecturer Pat Hōhepa. Dean later wrote of it "there had been 140 years of Pākehā propaganda, sometimes called 'history', so, wasn't it high time we had a little Māori propaganda?"

Back in the UK, Dean scripted 1990's The Transformers, about developments in education; a series of programmes on British Airways, and a Channel Four documentary on varied portrayals of Jesus Christ on film. The latter was one of a number of titles he worked on for series Synopsis.

A few years before he passed away, Dean was mentioned in the British press after someone attempted to rob him at a London cash machine. The former amateur boxer did not take it lying down. "I hadn't hit anyone in about 50 years," Dean told a reporter. "I threw my cap at him and hit him with a left hook and a right cross".

Michael Dean died on 5 October 2015. He was 82. Although suffering from dementia in his final years, he had not lost his curiosity. At one point he told a friend: "You know, this Alzheimer's is really something of an adventure."


Sources include
Joan Bakewell, 'Michael Dean obituary' - The Guardian, 20 October 2015
Joan Bakewell, 'David Attenborough called us his programme guerillas' - The Telegraph, 20 April 2014
Martin Blythe, Naming The Other - Images of the Māori in New Zealand Film and Television (Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, 1994)
Anthony Clark, 'Late Night Line-Up' BFI Screenonline website. Accessed 8 July 2016
Michael Roche, 'Story: Robert Holt', from The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara website. Updated 30 October 2012. Accessed 8 July 2016
Unknown writer, 'Britain is no a country for and omits to say "Goodbye" to an old and once revered TV broadcaster called Michael Dean' Britain is no country for old men blogsite. Loaded 11 October 2015. Accessed 8 July 2016