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Profile image for Michael McDonald

Michael McDonald

Writer, Director

The third day of March 1967 remains a special date for Michael McDonald. It was his first day at Victoria University, and the day he met future broadcaster and director Simon Morris, future ‘genius’ maths professor Rob Goldblatt and John Clarke — henceforth known as 'Nobby'. "How wonderful that year was...the best year of my life. We all unleashed each other". The trio were to remain firm lifetime friends.

McDonald’s father was a GP. During WWll, while on leave in London from the NZ Army Medical Corps, he met Joan Legg, a Chelsea art student. The couple married, and settled in New Zealand. Joan was a painter who imported a bit of "exotic glamour" into staid Wellington. Michael is the second child of seven. They all attended Catholic schools. "But my parents weren’t really religious; we were 'tribal Catholics'". McDonald had little trouble academically, but mostly found school tedious. His younger sister felt the same.

Ginette was hugely bright but failed School Certificate because she couldn’t be arsed. She was a complete handful from day one. Our main education came from home. We had a huge library, we talked about everything at the dinner table, and you had to get your facts right.”

McDonald’s friendships at university proved important. In 1969 he, Clarke and Morris "took over" extrav, the annual university capping revue. “We were pretty arrogant. We thought we'd just go on stage and be amusing, and the world would fall at our feet. It was a critical disaster but a financial triumph, mainly because we didn't spend any money. Our family and friends loved it —  but they would, wouldn't they?"

McDonald soon headed overseas, while Clarke joined Ginette McDonald and other thespians like Paul Holmes, performing in a late night revue at Downstage Theatre. One night Ginette adopted a twangy Kiwi voice over the PA, calling herself ‘Lynn’ and seeking advice from a talkback host. Joan McDonald was the inspiration. "My mother and Bruce Mason would be on the phone, speaking in funny accents to each other."

In the early 1970s McDonald and Clarke flatted together in London. Ginette soon followed, keen to make it as an actor. Michael's memory is that Ginette urged an "almost supine" Clarke to audition for a cameo in Aussie comedy The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. "He loved his first experience of film, and never looked back."

McDonald returned to Wellington in 1974, and immediately regretted it. Back at university he got a Master of Arts in English Literature, with Honours, to "fill in time" while deciding what to do. At a party he was surprised to hear the words "I hear you're the funniest man in Wellington". It was Lesley Stevens, a researcher/reporter at the NZ Broadcasting Corporation. The conversation led to his first TV job, writing sketches for Brian Edwards’ high profile magazine style show Edwards on Saturday.

In 1977 McDonald was part of the team, again fronted by Edwards, that birthed long-running consumer rights show Fair Go. From it came McDonald's first directing credit: the Fair Go Funnies, short comic sketches which provided information on consumer rights. The same year he cameoed as Gav the Dalgety Man in Dagg Day Afternoon, the only big screen outing for John Clarke's beloved alter ego Fred Dagg. The pair dreamed up the role over drinks, the night before filming: it was "less than sober, unprofessional and unscripted". 

McDonald gained more directing experience on current affairs show Dateline Monday. In 1978 he joined magazine style programme Good Day. Occasionally he was dragged into the presenter’s chair.

“I was just bunged in front of the camera by Tony Hiles. This was live TV. Sitting on that couch, waiting for the light to go red, beaded with perspiration. I was always wearing something too hot. But Hiles gave me a great interviewing tip: "no one is interested in what you had for breakfast". We’d get a lot of breaking news, we produced documentaries, and there were other idiocies. We could do absolutely anything. And we did."

One such 'idiocy' was this satirical 1979 celebrity pot roast for TV personality Judith Fyfe, which saw Lynn of Tawa making her screen debut. McDonald appeared as the host, and Ginette was asked to play Fyfe’s fictional school friend. She asked her brother for character advice. "I said 'what about your Lynn voice?' She said ‘write me a script'. So I produced about ten lines. She delivered it brilliantly”.

Soon TVNZ Head of Entertainment Malcolm Kemp was asking ‘Lynn’ to appear in variety shows. The plucky character became a family business, with Michael writing and directing, and Ginette acting. This Lynn of Tawa Special aired in 1980, followed by a 1982 series which featured monologues, dance numbers and interviews with celebrities like Michael Parkinson, Elton John and even Rob Muldoon. Mervyn Kemp — then Mayor of Tawa — was not so amused, claiming Lynn was lowering property values in the borough.

In the early 1980s McDonald was directing episodes of Country Calendar. But a story about the annual Hawke's Bay hunt proved bittersweet. "In those days Country Calendar ran at 15 minutes. We edited 'The Hunt' down to 25 minutes and I told producer Frank Torley 'I don't want to take out any more'. He agreed to a longer run time. Then, because the images told the story, I said 'no narration'. Frank to his credit agreed. When it went to air, lots of people were offended by the hunting."

Torley submitted McDonald’s episode to a documentary festival in Berlin, and it was accepted. Then the official word arrived; TVNZ had pulled the entry, as it wasn’t considered 'New Zealand' enough. McDonald felt the decision was "stupid and parochial. Having tired of TVNZ's internal politics, he sought work in the more lucrative advertising world, freelancing as a writer, director and producer of campaigns for TV, radio and print.

In 1987 McDonald wrote material for country music show Dixie Chicken and was called on for occasional TV writing and directing projects over the next few years, including election night coverage in 1981 and forgotten game show Paddy's Market. In 1990 he appeared in this episode of series Magic Kiwis, discussing Lynn of Tawa’s comedic beginnings.

In 1991 McDonald directed an episode of ‘ex-pat’ documentary series The Grass is Greener, interviewing his longtime friend John Clarke in Melbourne. His next directing gig was high rating documentary series Heartland, including episodes exploring Haast and Hokitika.

Tawa’s most notorious talent embraced the new decade. In 1991 McDonald directed Ginette across ten episodes of travel/comedy series Visual Symphonies six in Australia and four in New Zealand. En route, Lynn explored the deep south and the Outback, and took on the bright lights of Auckland and Sydney. The Otago episode features cameos from American Leeza Gibbons (of Telethon fame) and Sam Neill, who Lynn mistakes for Bruno Lawrence. It was another career highlight for McDonald, and a ratings winner for TVNZ.

Lynn of Tawa - In Search of the Great Kiwi Male followed in 1994. Lynn quizzed rugby players, business leaders, deer cullers and gay ten-pin bowlers about the good, keen man myth. The one-off special was similar in approach to Visual Symphonies and another hit. Under McDonald’s direction Lynn roamed free, trading quips and gags with a diverse range of male subjects.

McDonald’s CV also includes more serious stories. In 1999, while working with his then wife Amanda Robertshawe on a promo for the Mary Potter Hospice, he met musician Jane Devine, who was living with a terminal cancer diagnosis. Struck by her compelling personality, Robertshawe and McDonald quickly assembled a crew to tell Jane’s story in documentary My Name is JaneIt won a New York film prize and Robertshawe took away a Best Director award back home. Behind the scenes McDonald had battled to get NZ On Air funding to finish the film. The documentary was repeated several times. Waikato Times reviewer Paul Thompson praised it as "one of the year's most memorable programmes".

The duo teamed up again for Inside New Zealand documentary The Dark Side of the Moon (2001); it chronicles an outwardly successful father and businessman who spiralled into heroin dependency.

McDonald has been a freelance creative all his working life, and views his years making New Zealand television as special. "It was a terrific time to be involved in the industry”.

Profile written by Gabe McDonnell; published on 14 July 2023

Sources include
Michael McDonald
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Ian Pryor, 'Brian Edwards' NZ On Screen website. Updated on 17 January 2023. Accessed 14 July 2023
Ian Pryor, 'Ginette McDonald' NZ On Screen website. Updated on 13 January 2023. Accessed 14 July 2023
Paul Thompson, 'Jane's story an intimate tear-jerker' - The Waikato Times, 24 April 1999