Richard Thomas has a passion for documentary. After directing for the BBC's legendary doco series Man Alive, he moved downunder and became head of Television One’s information programme department. Following a short spell as Director of Television at the ABC in Australia, he settled in New Zealand to make some compelling television documentaries — and inspire others to do the same.
Although I began my broadcasting life as a social documentary maker, battles with autocratic managements convinced me that finding different ways to organise the creative process was crucial. Richard Thomas
Ice Worlds was a three-part series from company NHNZ, about the two frozen ends of the globe. The parts were 'Life at the Edge', 'Polar People', and climate episode 'Secrets of the Crystal Ball'. Narrated by Dougal Stevenson, they covered everything from the hibernation and breeding habits of polar bears to the unique properties of the Antarctic cod (also known as the Antarctic toothfish). The people who live and work on the poles are acknowledged, as is the role the unique climate has played in developing such a unique environment.
The first episode of Ice Worlds explores animal life at the poles, both North and South. At the North Pole American scientist Steve Amstrup tracks polar bears, from their hibernation during winter, to seeking food out on the tundra during summer. Down south, Antarctica's emperor penguins are studied by Gerald Kooyman, physiologist Arthur Devries catches Antarctic cod, and biologist Brent Sinclair seeks the continent's largest land animal — a tiny insect called a springtail. Ice Worlds was narrated by former news anchor Dougal Stevenson.
First Hand was a series of mid 1990s documentaries made for TVNZ. Newbie filmmakers were armed with consumer cameras, aiming to capture “natural human behaviour” with the new technology and minimal crew. This edition, directed by David Ambler, profiles 23-year-old Newstalk ZB late-night talkback host Mike Yardley, and introduces regular callers from his nationwide audience of 150,000: service station worker Lucas channels Oprah, Petone radio poet George rhymes about detached organs, and Merle dances to an organist. Radio veteran Marcus Lush narrates.
Anne and Gordon left high school unable to read or write to a basic level. This documentary follows their progress with the Auckland Adult Literacy Scheme, and culminates with the pair sitting the written and oral exam for their drivers' licence. Anne found innovative ways around the kids' bedtime stories, but froze when it came to filling in forms. Gordon has been driving illegally for years; he wants to ace his drivers' test and finds an acceptance within the Adult Literacy Scheme he never did at school. The First Hand series has a stripped back style, using small cameras and crews.
This extended episode of First Hand sees a couple at an economic crossroads, and making the decision to move into self-employment. After finding their jobs in Auckland compromised, Alec and Sheena McDonald set out to find and buy their own dairy in a small North Island town. They end up in Awakeri, near Whakatāne. The lifestyle transition is far from trouble-free, as the couple must negotiate the worlds of bureaucracy and banking to insure their new business stays afloat. The documentary provides insights into running a small business during a time of economic reform.
Bruce Graham, wife Lynn and son Mark are in the funeral business, serving the people in the Waikato town of Tūākau at their darkest times. This episode of First Hand takes place in the aftermath of local man Athel Parsons' death, from collecting his body to his funeral and cremation. Athel lived alone but was from a large family. He contributed to his town through his love of sports, in particular indoor bowls. As Bruce organises Athel's farewell we learn about both men's lives, and how the most common of events can affect a small community.
Thinking that documentaries would benefit if film crews were much smaller, TVNZ producer Richard Thomas proposed that emerging directors take over much of the filming themselves, using consumer video cameras. Thomas organised camera workshops for First Hand's directors, and overcame opposition that this more intimate style of making documentaries wouldn't meet broadcast standards. The result gave early opportunities to a host of emerging filmmakers, including award-winners Leanne Pooley and Mark McNeill, and production executive Alan Erson.
The St Heliers Bowling Club is the setting of this episode of First Hand, a series dedicated to giving young directors a shot at making documentaries. A triples team from the Remuera Bowling Club have made the short journey to the Auckland seaside suburb, and aim to prove their superiority on the club’s fast greens. The documentary takes time to observe the culture of the club throughout the day’s play, from the variety of whites the players wear and the backgrounds of the members, to their lunchtime rituals and the role of women at the club. It’s all in a lively day’s play.
Mental health care is profiled in this 1992 episode of First Hand. Wayne Hussey is a member of the South Auckland Community Treatment Team, who is followed over the course of a day seeing his patients. They vary from a young woman struggling with bipolar disorder, to a woman living with schizophrenia, and a man who has adapted to independent life in the community. Kingseat Psychiatric Hospital becomes the voluntary home of one patient. The hospital was closed in 1999, and parts of the complex were controversially used for haunted house attraction Spookers.
Karen and Mark, who are both intellectually disabled, are expecting a child. In this episode from stripped back documentary series First Hand, the couple become a family when baby Terry arrives. Terry's birth means the usual support they receive from IHC must be ramped up, and a new caregiver steps in to help Karen and Mark cope with the 24/7 responsibilities of parenthood. It's a story full of hope and love, but no one close to the couple is under any illusions about the amount of support needed to successfully parent Terry.
One day each summer, some of the oldest sailing ships in New Zealand gather at Sullivans Bay (also known as Otarawao) to take part in a race that dates back to 1858. The race is the premiere event of the Mahurangi Regatta. It's also a day when the community gets together to take part in sand sculpture competitions, running races and a hotly contested tug of war, usually resulting in triumph for the whānau from nearby Opahi Bay. First Hand captures the organisational dramas preceding the fun, and the community spirit inspiring this regular get together.
After being made redundant, Mike James becomes one of thousands searching for a new employer in Auckland. This episode of documentary series First Hand chronicles the instability faced by the accountant and his family. With their savings dwindling, plans for kids' sports teams and wife Margaret’s prospective tertiary study must be seriously reconsidered. This episode was directed by Seth Keen, who directed further television documentaries (Godzone Sheep) before going on to lecture in new media at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
Director Leanne Pooley heads to a struggling Hawke's Bay farm as part of a documentary series made by newbie filmmakers. The Hallgarths are selling up after years of financial difficulty at their 600 acre sheep farm, which has been in the family for three generations. Pooley interviews a sad yet optimistic Arthur and Helen Hallgarth as they prepare to leave, and on the day they depart. Within a year of filming this show, the family returned to farming on a small property nearby. Pooley later directed Topp Twins:Untouchable Girls and 3D Mt Everest ascent saga Beyond the Edge.
Composed of one-off episodes, each by a different director, First Hand was an opportunity for up-and-coming filmmakers to try their hand at making documentaries. This instalment from director Alan Erson looks at ‘dusties’ — the men who collect Auckland’s rubbish. Their rewards and career pathways are considered, alongside the hard physical nature of the work. Just as important is what happens during time off. There are visits to local pub The Bellbird, and the café where they stop for cups of tea — plus sucker for punishment Manu heads to rugby league training.
For 10 years Sister Joan Timpany served as the Catholic chaplain at Paremoremo Prison, where the country's most dangerous criminals are incarcerated. The cheerful nun is interviewed in this First Hand documentary by new director Leanne Pooley (Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls). Prisoners adore Sister Joan; many call her a mother figure. An inmate called Julian performs a song he wrote for her, with the lyrics: "There’s no other here to listen, I can always count on her to be a friend." Sister Joan was awarded the Queen's Service Order in 1993 for her community service. She died in 2006.
Houses have long been central to New Zealand's identity, from the whare to the quarter-acre pavlova paradise, to The Block and the 2000s Auckland bubble. This TVNZ ‘home show’ looks at the obsession, circa the early 90s: exploring contemporary grand designs, renovation dilemmas, and meeting Kiwi personalities of the era in their homes. The first of four series was presented by actor Jennifer Ward-Lealand and builder (and future Dunedin mayor) Dave Cull. Jim Hickey and Jude Dobson later joined Cull. The show spawned a 1994 book written by Cull and Stuart Niven.
This TVNZ ‘home show’ explores 90s grand designs and their architects, renovation dilemmas and Kiwi personalities in their houses. This debut episode is presented by actor Jennifer Ward-Lealand and builder (and future Dunedin mayor) Dave Cull. Ward-Lealand visits architect Roger Walker in his pastel pink and green Tinakori Road home, intros a “70s Cinderella” bathroom do-up, and drops in on DJ Kevin Black’s arts and crafts-style mariner’s cottage. Cull tests a non-stick frying pan and a barn house. Date stamps include denim shirts and a saxophone theme tune.
This documentary, made by TVNZ’s Natural History Unit (now NHNZ), charts the progress of the nor'west wind from its formation in the Tasman Sea across the Southern Alps to the Canterbury Plains and the east coast of the South Island. Along the way it dumps metres of precipitation on West Coast rain forest and snow on the Alps, then transforms to a dry, hot wind racing across the Plains. The film shows the wind's impact on the ecosystem and farming and muses on the mysterious effect it can have on humans. It screened as part of the beloved Wild South series.
In the mid 1970s the Chatham Island black robin was the world's rarest bird. With only two females left, the conservation ante was extreme. Enter saviour Don Merton and his Wildlife Service team. Their pioneering efforts ranged from abseiling the birds (including the 'Eve' of her species, 'Old Blue') down cliff faces, to left-field libido spurs. This 1988 Listener Film and TV award-winner united two earlier Wild South documentaries, and updated the robin’s rescue story to 1987. It originally screened on Christmas Day 1987, before being modified for this 1989 edition.
TVNZ’s Natural History Film Unit was founded in Dunedin around 1977. The first Wild South documentaries began filming a year later. The slot's initial focus was on New Zealand’s perilously endangered birds, eg the Chatham Island black robin (then the world’s rarest bird). The results won local and international notice, and a loyal audience. Wildtrack was a sister series showcasing natural history for young viewers. Wild South ended in 1997 when the Natural History Unit was purchased by Fox Studios; it later became internationally successful production company NHNZ.
In this fifth episode from his personal examination of New Zealand at the end of the 70s, Ian Johnstone explores the then new suburb of Massey in West Auckland — the latest instalment in what seemed, at the time, like an unending march of urban sprawl (which had already produced seemingly far-flung suburbs like Otara and Porirua). For Johnstone, Massey is an "infestation of houses", bafflingly lacking in community amenities. By turns wry, considered and accusatory, this masterful performance would have made him few friends in town planning circles.
In the third episode of Johnstone’s Journey, broadcaster Ian Johnstone meets three generations of the Wendelken family. The episode is framed around an interview with matriarch Elsie, 85, then living in Timaru — her daughter Rae and grandson Ivan farm nearby. Son John is a public servant in Wellington; granddaughter Anne is a mother in suburban Wellington. Topics span from world wars, depression, farming and inflation, to shifting values. Says Elsie: “There are two things that have been left completely out of today’s young people: one is obedience, and the other is discipline.”
An old woman (Olive Bracey) recounts to her nephew (actor Martyn Sanderson) memories of her life in Hokianga. The film is a mix of personal return journey for Sanderson and an affectionate record of his spirited aunt (she's "the one who ate wheatgerm" in the family). Autumn Fires mixes conversations, photos, and dramatisations of romantic letters. Sanderson rambles on the farm, picks mussels in bull kelp sandals, muses on industrial agriculture and on the "unambitious peaceful life". Directed by Barry Barclay, the elegiac film screened in TV1's Scene series.
Popular consumer affairs show Fair Go is one of New Zealand TV's longest-running series. It began in 1977, devised by Brian Edwards and producer Peter Morritt. The TVNZ programme mixes investigative reporting (daring to "name names" and expose rip-off merchants everywhere) with light-hearted segments. Its roster of presenters has included Edwards, Judith Fyfe, Hugo Manson, Philip Alpers, Kerre McIvor (nee Woodham), Carol Hirschfeld, Gordon Harcourt, and longest serving host, Kevin Milne. A perennial favourite segment is the round-up of the year's ad campaigns.
Seven Days was designed by producer Des Monaghan to bridge the current affairs gap between the NZBC and TV One. As well as putting the heat on local politicians, it turned its attention to major international events. Major stories included Ian Fraser’s trip to Vietnam to cover the last days before the fall of Saigon and Ian Johnstone’s three-part look at apartheid-era South Africa ahead of the 1976 All Back tour. For its third and final year, the focus changed to observational documentaries and laid the groundwork for TVNZ’s in-house documentary unit.