Peter Coates began developing his musical and artistic skills early, learning piano and performing in local theatre productions. Inspired by his mentors at Wellington Teachers College in the late 1950s, Coates in turn impressed head of art Doreen Blumhardt with his “marked artistic talents”. In the 60s he taught at primary schools in Wellington (where he taught Lee Tamahori), London and Sydney, and also lectured on art education to teachers in all these cities.
In 1963 Coates was selected as an understudy and chorus member for the New Zealand Opera Company. Throughout the 60s he performed nationally and internationally in various operas, and considered a singing career. His practical art skills as a set designer graced 50+ stage productions throughout the 60s and 70s. As a painter Coates has produced work for both solo and group exhibitions, and during a 50 year membership of the NZ Academy of Fine Arts.
Coates’ varied experience of music and visual arts would provide perfect grounding for the many arts and music based programmes he was soon to be making. “A lot of things came together,” he says, “I found myself using all these skills in television.” All in all Coates has worked on more than 400 programmes. He began in 1970 as a production trainee, after producer Roy Melford offered him a ten day ‘hire or fire’ contract, where either party could walk.
Soon Coates was directing for magazine series Town and Around. He passed courses in producing and directing, and began making films for “revolutionary” TV slot Survey. From 1971 to 1975 he directed and produced a range of short documentaries and dramas, many local historical stories: like War in the North (about the first NZ land war), ambitious docudrama Hunt’s Duffer (which recreated a goldfields riot), and Prince of Nosey Parkers (a natural history piece on keas). His ‘poetic realisation’ of Kapiti Island through the poetry of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell was described as “a remarkable contribution to NZ television” by Listener critic David Weatherall; it also won an award at a festival in Italy.
This focus on New Zealand artists and thinkers would continue on series Impressions, short documentaries which featured Māori artist Selwyn Muru, among others. From 1976 to 1984 Coates used his teaching skills in-house as TVNZ’s own lecturer in film production and direction.
Coates’ career in television was gaining attention. In 1975 he won a QEII Arts Council Broadcasting Award, allowing him to travel overseas and study TV drama and documentary techniques at institutions like the BBC, Bayerischer Rundfunk in Germany (where he began shooting a documentary about opera singer Donald McIntyre) and NHK in Japan.
He also took up an invitation to make a documentary in Russia. After arriving in customs, aware his cache of unexposed film was technically illegal, Coates found himself being drilled by both New Zealand and Russian officials over whether he was making pro or anti Russian propaganda. Deciding he wanted to “humanise the Russian people”, Coates and his Russian crew would capture varied Moscow citizens for the impressionistic The Fire and the Snow. Another proposal, for an independently made series on Russia, soon faltered after the bank promising the money began demanding editorial input.
Returning to New Zealand in 1976, Coates joined the TV One Drama Department, then under the direction of Michael Scott-Smith. Here he was an early producer and director on a 26-episode block of soap Close to Home. “Amongst the only episodes that remain is one I made with TV Wales, involving the return of one of the cast to his homeland. I made two programmes for the series outside of New Zealand — the other one was in Sydney”.
Closer to his heart was The Wakefields, a historical drama series that never saw the light of day; Coates says it was a casualty of political infighting over 70s historical epic The Governor, and remembers it as “one of the most frustrating projects I have ever been involved in.” He argues The Wakefields “would have defined New Zealand’s early days”.
Far less controversial was Coates’ contribution to a national obsession. Between 1974 and 1986, in conjunction with the NZ Rugby Union, Coates produced a series of seven rugby coaching films, and contributed artwork to coaching materials. One of the films, A Running and Passing Game, won an award at a sports film competition in La Spezia, Italy.
In 1992 the NZRFU celebrated its centenary, and as part of their celebrations Coates came on board to direct and script Men of the Silver Fern, a special production chronicling the local history of the game. Men of the Silver Fern contains archive footage, interviews with players, officials and historians, plus dramatic re-enactments. Originally planned to screen on television, it was ultimately released as a four-part special on video. Coates also directed a short lived rugby comedy series, If You Can’t Beat ‘em.
In 1979 John Charles, TV One’s Head of Entertainment, picked Coates as the best person to produce operas and classical music broadcasts for the channel. Over the next few years Coates produced NZSO music specials and the first of six operas (two more were left incomplete, when TVNZ got out of opera). His version of Die Fledermaus was praised by Herald music critic LCM Saunders as “an artistic triumph ... brilliantly conceived for the television medium”.
Coates soon found himself shared between two departments: the Entertainment department, and the Documentaries and Special Projects department. A string of music programmes and arts documentaries followed, including a musical portrait of the NZSO in Hong Kong — made sans dialogue, or narration — and shows featuring Malvina Major and Tony Benfell. In 1981 Coates represented TVNZ at an Opera on Television Symposium, in Australia.
Next came a significant first — an OB, or outside broadcast of a performance of Handel’s Messiah from Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre, the first ever simulcast by TVNZ using Radio NZ’s stereo channel. Coates won further praise for another complex production which had to simultaneously please both live and TV audiences: an NZ Arts Festival production of Igor Stravinsky musical play The Soldier’s Tale. Dominion critic John Button called it “brilliantly successful”, and praised Coates’ “clever, but simple” direction. Evening Post critic Owen Jenson wrote of the aplomb with which Coates had adapted a theatre piece for both an arena-sized venue and for television.
During this period Coates also produced three series of Louise and Friends, featuring Kiwi soprano Louise Malloy.
In 1984 Coates set up an Arts Unit within TVNZ’s Features Department, where he fought resistance over his attempts to make arts show Kaleidoscope less Auckland-centric, and introduced Inspiration, a well-reviewed documentary series which saw him directing essays on Witi Ihimaera, potter James Greig, and photographer Brian Brake. “Brake challenged my ideas,” says Coates, who savours the experience.
Inspiration addressed what Coates saw as TVNZ’s "lack of in-depth material" on national artists. He was unapologetic in championing the artist over input from critics, a decision that grated with Listener reviewer Camille Guy in her summation of Kaleidoscope’s first episode of 1986.
Guy was "choked to learn that anti-intellectual blather was official new Kaleidoscope policy"; that one Peter Coates doesn’t like ‘those awful people who get in between the artist and the public; the so-called critic, the specialist, who is able to verbalise all the joy out of things.’”
Coates would make many more hours of arts programming for Kaleidoscope, 10am, Sunday and Festival. The departmental merry-go-round ended in 1993 with redundancy. Coates took his family overseas, and arrived back to new horizons. He formed production company On Air Productions with ex TVNZ executive Ian Richards, and in 1995 became a pioneer again, developing, writing and producing Get Together New Zealand’s first programme to focus on those with disabilities. Sponsored by IHC, the series was screened by TVNZ. Subjects covered included housing design, transport and riding for the disabled.
In 1996 Coates formed the Long White Cloud Production company, but continued to work for programmes 4 in 10 and disAbility. He took the further step of inviting people with disabilities to develop a new show, then trained them up in television production techniques: so Inside Out was born. Coates wrote and produced for the series throughout the late 1990s, until 2004.
In 2004 Coates travelled to Burma, to work as a consultant to MRTV-3, a state-run, English speaking channel, where he found fear tended to constrain innovation. Another coup ended that adventure. Back home he became a support worker for the Refugee and Migrant Service, and has paintings exhibited in Wellington, Beijing and Mexico City. In March 2014 Coates celebrated his 77th birthday with a retrospective of his painting and film work at All Saints church, in his longtime home suburb of Hataitai, Wellington. He continues to work on further arts-based documentaries — including Serendipity, about theatre designer Raymond Boyce and the post-WWll theatre scene in New Zealand.
Profile written by Gabe McDonnell
Jim Chipp, ‘Pukerua Bay Poet celebrated’ (Interview) - The Wellingtonian, 14 April 2011, page 10
Camille Guy, ‘The bottom of the class’( Review of Kaleidoscope), The Listener, 3 May 1986, page 39
Nikki Papatsoumas, ‘Art a response to lifelong work’ - Cook Strait News, 10 March 2014
‘Inspiration' NZ On Screen website. Accessed 30 June 2016