Richard Thomas had a lengthy career in broadcasting, as a director, producer, executive and educator.
Thomas arrived in Aotearoa in the mid 1970s, seconded from the BBC to become Head of Information Programmes for TV One. Raised in the English city of Newcastle, he’d started at the Beeb in radio, before moving into television in 1965, where he worked on documentary series Man Alive. Within a year he went from research to directing. "I directed probably 20 or 25 of them", Thomas recalled. Next came a jobs show, which focused on "ordinary people doing ordinary jobs".
The offer of a secondment to Avalon was timely. A staunch union member, Thomas had been on a picket line when BBC Managing Director Huw Weldon singled him out. "He walked across and said ‘You’ll regret this’," recalled Thomas. "So when I saw an opportunity to go somewhere else for two years, I thought 'Richard, you’d be wise to get out'."
Preconceptions of New Zealand as some kind of South Seas multicultural paradise were quickly dispelled. "I discovered the most senior Māori in the company was a floor manager. I said 'you can’t say you’re a multicultural broadcaster in a multicultural society, and only have one brown face in the place'. They said 'we just don’t have the money'. So we had to find the money."
A new recruitment programme saw each channel hiring a dozen Māori and Pasifika people, and training them to be producers. A second scheme saw Thomas selecting a group of "creatively intelligent people" from outside of television, to bring new perspectives to making shows. "It was easier for me to come in and change things, because I was an outsider. It was much harder for people who had lived with that system for the whole of their broadcasting lives."
The system worked, despite initial scepticism from some broadcasting careerists. Many of the 'Richard Thomas Lot' enjoyed long and successful careers in the business, e.g. Derek Wooster and Robert Pouwhare.
In the same period Thomas set up what he later described as the country’s first social documentary unit, Seven Days. "We set up a workers' cooperative to make documentary programmes, in an attempt at industrial democracy. We couldn't have done that at the BBC. Battles with autocratic managements convinced me that finding different ways to organise the creative process was crucial."
In 1977 Thomas was key in the launch of long-running consumer affairs show Fair Go. "While I was at the BBC there’d been a very good consumer affairs programme which had become overly personality-driven. I thought it shameful that a public service broadcaster didn’t have a really hard-hitting consumer programme; and now I was heading the relevant department of another public service broadcaster, we would have one!" Thomas persuaded Brian Edwards to present it, after convincing Edwards that his show Edwards On Saturday "was running out of oomph".
There is debate over who came up with the title. Thomas recalled that as a new arrival he was fascinated with the local lingo, and noted down some for possible programme titles. "Fluffy Ducks, Good As Gold and Fair Go were on my list. So when the conversation started about a title I was a strong advocate for Fair Go."
At the end of his two year stint, Thomas returned to the BBC to join a new documentary unit. But by the time he got there, another rethink meant the role had disappeared. Then he was asked to run the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney. After three years, Thomas applied for the Director of Television role at the ABC network. "I thought there was no way I’d actually get it, being a foreigner and not having enough managerial experience."
But he got the job, appointed in 1984 by another Englishman, Geoffrey Whitehead, who'd recently been hired as the ABC’s Managing Director. There was some resistance to the new imports — The Sydney Morning Herald ran a story headlined “Are Australians too stupid to run the ABC?” Undeterred, Thomas set about reorganising the channel, increasing local content in primetime, and involving staff more in decision making. "I wanted everyone in the organisation to have the chance of putting forward and developing ideas."
Thomas soon ran foul of right wing factions in the Labour government, who were used to influencing what went on air. "My attitude, when the premier’s office rang, was if they thought there might be something wrong with an item, they had a perfect right, like any member of the audience, to write a protest. They weren't used to this. I didn’t last very long!" In fact Thomas lasted two years. Taking a few months off to recover from a major heart attack in 1986, he returned to work at the ABC to find he was out of a job.
Back in New Zealand, after returning to TVNZ, Thomas initiated a new style of documentary series: First Hand. "In those days we were still sending six-person crews out on documentaries. I said it’s nonsense because you don’t need six people, and you don’t get natural human behaviour, because people are going to perform for all those people. Camcorders were starting to become available, and I saw them as the future of documentary."
Thomas and Michael Stedman, then TVNZ’s Director of Production, organised training workshops for young directors on how to use Hi8 cameras. "We said 'here’s a camera, now find a story, and then you point the camera at it'." Three pilot films were made, all favourably received. "They were all usable, and people said that First Hand was not only an enormously sensible thing to do, but a marvellous training system."
Others weren’t quite as accepting — TVNZ's camera department questioned whether the Hi8 camcorders were broadcast quality. Said Thomas: "So I’d just transfer to beta and no one would ever know. TVNZ was the first major broadcaster in the world to use those consumer camcorders as a broadcast tool."
When Stedman moved to Dunedin and set up the Natural History Unit, Thomas soon followed. He spent ten years with the company, where his work included producing Wild Asia, a 10-part series on the natural history of Asia. Thomas argued that the show would "long hold the record as the largest, most expensive documentary series originated in this country".
Later, while searching for new ways to make cost effective Kiwi dramas, Thomas came up with the idea for 2008 show Table Plays — a Mãori TV anthology series where each story was built from a single location, and four main characters.
In 2011 Thomas produced one-off documentary Inside Child Poverty, with director Bryan Bruce. Believing that child poverty was "a shameful blight on New Zealand", Thomas worked unpaid to help it get off the ground. The result provoked strong reactions and debate. It also reflected his belief in the importance of "campaigning" documentaries.
Back in England, the idea of joining the BBC had originally been rejected by his careers teacher, since Thomas was from an ordinary state school. While appearing in a TV debate, he asked the producer for advice, and was told: "It’s very simple: get yourself to Oxford, get a first or a good second degree, and you’ll be on the list of people we can consider as possible trainees."
Once at Oxford (thanks to a state scholarship), Thomas gained "the standard degree for people who wanted to work at the BBC — politics, philosophy and economics. Without that piece of background which my folk ensured I got, I wouldn’t have had the marvellous and stimulating career that I’ve had, making films and developing TV programmes — and enabling others to do the same."
Richard Thomas passed away in September 2020.
Profile written by Doug Coutts. Updated on 21 September 2020
Ken S Inglis, Whose ABC? The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1983 - 2006 (Melbourne: Black Inc, 2006)
Geoffrey Whitehead, Inside the ABC (Ringwood: Penguin, 1988)