Playwright Roger Hall has written of Robert Lord that he "loved to write. Always there were scripts on the go: for television, for theatre, for radio, for films". After Lord's death in 1992, Hall wrote in North and South that his career had combined great success — including several plays produced overseas — with near-misses and "never enough luck". The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature called Lord "New Zealand's first professional playwright".
Born in Rotorua in 1945, Lord studied arts at Otago and Victoria Universities. In 1969, he won the Katherine Mansfield short story contest, but soon shifted his attention to writing stage plays. He was also working as a primary school teacher. Lord's students helped inspire his first work for the screen. The freewheeling Day We Landed on the Most Perfect Planet in the Universe spun off interviews where his students talked about freedom. Lord wrote it with Michael Heath. It screened on television's Survey slot in 1971.
From 1971 to 1975, five of Lord's plays debuted in Kiwi theatres, including 1974 hit Well Hung, one of a number of his dramas to feature a policemen character. That year, he headed to the United States for a 13 year stay, and more plays.
The evolution of Bert and Maisy, Lord's sole TV series, illustrates the ups and downs of the writer's life. Begun as a stage play, it was rejected by theatres then critics, after a season in Christchurch under the title Unfamiliar Steps. An award in the United States helped turn things around. Lord felt that his gentle satire of an older couple might make a "funny and touching" movie. Producer John O'Shea agreed, but the NZ Film Commission was unconvinced. A radio version was cancelled while Lord was still writing it. Thankfully TVNZ drama boss Brian Bell read the scripts, and approved a TV series. Lasting just one season, it starred Grant Tilly and Alice Fraser, who'd played Bert and Maisy on stage.
Lord had already worked with O'Shea on the script for feature film Pictures, inspired by 19th century photographers the Burton Brothers. After a gruelling location shoot, it won an award for humanism at the 1981 Moscow Film Festival.
Lord also wrote four episodes of 60s-set series Peppermint Twist (the show was cancelled before two of the episodes could be shot). He argued that the show would have benefited from more time in development. He also admitted that writing an episode featuring 8000 rabbits may have been pushing things too far. Roger Hall has argued that Peppermint Twist was "admirably suited to his style of humour: different, stylish, offbeat".
Robert Lord died of an AIDS-related illness on 7 January 1992. Joyful and Triumphant, often seen as his greatest achievement, debuted at the Wellington Arts Festival the following month. Chronicling a family — and changes in Kiwi society — over 40 years of Christmas days, it toured Australasia, and was adapted for television in 1993.
Profile written by Ian Pryor
Published on 17 December 2018
'Robert Lord 1945 - 1992' Playmarket website. Loaded 17 December 2018
Merrill Coke, 'Lord's Busy Year' (Interview) - OnFilm, December 1987, page 49
Simon Garrett, 'LORD, Robert' in The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature. Editors Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1998)
Roger Hall, 'Robert Lord - Last Lines' - North and South, April 1992, page 14
Howard McNaughton, 'Drama' chapter in The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English, Editor Terry Sturm (Auckland: Oxford University Press, Second Edition, 1998)
John Reid, Whatever It Takes - Pacific Films and John O’Shea 1948 - 2000 (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2018)
Special correspondent, 'Story about old people 'funny and moving' - The Star (TV Guide pullout) - 28 July 1998, page 6
Circa 1976 - 1996 Editors John Reid and Ruth Jeffrey (GP Print: Wellington, 1996)