English-born Michael Scott-Smith began his long career in good company. Studying acting at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in the mid 1950s, his classmates included Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole. O’Toole later called it the most remarkable class the Academy had — "though at the time we were all considered dotty”.
At the age of 23 Scott-Smith joined the BBC, where he worked his way up from the production floor to directing and producing. Scott-Smith made documentaries about Carry On comedian Sid James. He also produced cult talk show Late Night Line Up the night it became the second programme in UK television history to broadcast the ‘f’ word on air.
In 1966 Scott-Smith relocated to Christchurch, and began at the NZ Broadcasting Corporation as a production supervisor. "Television was in its infancy here," he said later. "And I wanted to be part of that wonderful, mindblowing time when it really connected with its audience."
By 1968 he had taken over the reins of at times controversial current affairs show Compass, where he managed to secure the first extended TV interview with Prince Philip. The royal interview was seen as such a coup, it was printed in full in The Dominion newspaper the next morning. Scott-Smith also produced and directed documentaries about horse breeding (Coming into Line), marathons, and the Feltex-nominated Making of an All Black.
Compass successor Survey went to air in 1970. Scott-Smith worked on the show variously as a reporter, producer and director. He remembered Survey as “a time when the locally-made documentary stood tall. It was experimental, popular and expanded our horizons”. It also gave Scott-Smith the “privilege” of commissioning pieces from a run of talented independent filmmakers — including John O’Shea, Barry Barclay, Tony Williams and Roger Donaldson (whose first encounter with DIY motorcyclist Burt Munro was screened on Survey).
Screen historian Roger Horrocks has credited Scott-Smith as one of the few local TV administrators to recognise the originality that indie filmmakers could offer. Fellow historian Trisha Dunleavy argues he played “a pivotal role” in developing the NZBC’s relationship with the independents. Tony Williams, one of the indie directors who Scott-Smith invited into the fold, recalls him as "a breath of fresh air at a time when New Zealand TV had been bogged down with mediocre, somewhat amateurish local programmes". Williams argues that Scott-Smith introduced the BBC school of documentary filmmaking to Kiwis, which bypassed on-screen journalists and formulaic voice-overs in favour of a "pure documentary style, which allowed the audience to discover their own intrepretation as images unfolded".
Roger Horrocks has described the 1971-1974 period as a golden age for independent filmmakers, arguing that Scott-Smith gave his Survey contributors "a great deal of freedom and a relatively large budget (approximately $12,000 to $15,000 per programme)”. Scott-Smith also helped shepherd cutting edge social drama Gone Up North for a While, which won accolades for the vision of director Paul Maunder.
Amongst his own work for Survey, Scott-Smith counted as personal highlights pieces on runaway Children (Concern for Safety), foster care, gambling (Are you a Gambler) and loneliness. He also won a Best News/Current Affairs Feltex Award for his coverage of the 1972 election, the year Norman Kirk swept into power.
By 1975, the rush of new productions was seeping through into drama, alongside other transformations in local television. That year the NZ Broadcasting Corporation was split into two, initially competing, channels. Scott-Smith recalled it as a golden age, where the old schisms between management executives and producers began to break down. Two former producer/directors became director general, and Scott-Smith himself was named TV1’s new head of drama (opposite John McRae, who commanded drama at the new second channel).
Earlier Scott-Smith had helped instigate depression-era serial The Longest Winter, one of a trio of dramas from the talented Michael Noonan/Tony Isaac team. Now the trio inherited the task of launching pioneering soap Close to Home. The show went on air two nights a week, after Scott-Smith managed to talk down superiors who told him they wanted “a soap, and we want it seven days a week”.
By the end of the new channel’s first year, TV1 had already produced more drama than had gone to air in the entire previous decade. Scott-Smith fought internal battles in his attempts to win continued input from independent filmmakers like Roger Donaldson and Dave Gibson. Meanwhile local shows Close to Home, The Governor and Rachel all rated in the top 10. Scott-Smith was an executive producer on all three. Having helped push the ambitious Governor forward, he also found time to direct episodes of Close to Home and Keith Aberdein’s Epidemic, whose killer virus plotline incorporated a bicultural thread.
Further change hit in 1979, with the two channels becoming more unified, and also getting a new overall title (Television New Zealand). Unsure who to put in charge of drama, and perhaps playing it safe after Sir Robert Muldoon’s spirited attacks on The Governor‘s budget, TVNZ administrators canned drama Coal Flat after two years of preparation, and made Scott-Smith Head of Information Programmes. There he oversaw a programme output of 40 hours a year, including documentaries from the Natural History Unit.
During this period Scott-Smith produced and directed on Legacy, a semi-dramatised series about Aotearoa's rich immigrant history. It won an International Bicentennial award in Australia. He produced Crimewatch during the show's first four years, noting how initial reservations fell away after it aided in the capture of some violent offenders. Scott-Smith was also proud of directing an episode of 1981's Agenda for a Small Planet. Co-ordinated by the United Nations, the series examined the impact of television on emerging nations, in this case using examples from the South Pacific.
In 1993 Scott-Smith was appointed manager of new projects for company Kotuku Productions, the production arm of Avalon Studios. He also directed for production company Cloud Nine, including this episode of A Twist in the Tale, and a series based on stories by Enid Blyton. He also helmed 26 episodes of puppet show Bingo and Molly, made for America's Learning Channel.
Retirement in 1998 freed up more time to marvel at the music of Mozart, and enjoy the odd game of golf.
Michael Scott-Smith passed away on 11 March 2018. He was 85.
Profile originally published on 13 August 2010; updated on 14 March 2018
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime: A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
Roger Horrocks, ‘Surviving in Films - The Career of a New Zealand Film-maker,’ in Islands 20. Editor Robin Dudding. December 1977, page 136
John O’Shea, Don’t Let it Get You - memories - documents (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1999)