English-born Roger Hall says he is "most definitely a New Zealand writer". Alongside more than 40 plays, Hall has written, performed and acted on Kiwi television, and created Gliding On, the country's most successful sitcom. Celebrated — and sometimes attacked — for his uncanny ability to reflect the concerns of the Kiwi middle class, Hall has chronicled marriage, parenthood, ageing, rugby, farming and the sharemarket.
Hall was born in Woodford Wells on the edge of London, shortly before World War ll began. Most of his childhood was spent in a leafy suburb on the Metropolitan line, where his parents instilled a love of comedy, theatre and books. Hall became a fan of humour "that is balanced very delicately between comedy and tragedy". He followed his father into insurance. Keen to avoid having to "guard a haystack" for two years as part of his national service, he sailed to New Zealand in 1958, on an assisted passage scheme for migrants.
New Zealand struck the 19-year-old as "a solemn little country". He recalls Wellington having one restaurant and one cafe. While attending Wellington Teachers' College and Victoria University, Hall edited and wrote for student magazines at both institutions. He also began writing and performing on-stage — including university capping revues, and a late night show at Downstage Theatre, which introduced beloved character Lynn of Tawa.
In the early 1970s success arrived, then as quickly departed again. Asked to come up with "an emergency fill-in" for a university capping revue at short notice, he rang his wife on the opening night and told her to stay home, worried it was going to be terrible. One in Five featured Catherine Downes, Helene Wong, John Clarke performing an early version of Fred Dagg, and Dave Smith impersonating an entire band. Hall supplied an impression of Prime Minister Keith Holyoake (which can be seen seven minutes into this clip). Clarke described it as the template for all the Holyoake impressions to follow.
After three sellout seasons and an album, the show was redeveloped for a national tour, as The Brian Edwards Travelling Road Show. It was a disaster. The stress of trying to organise ferry bookings and accommodation almost gave Hall a nervous breakdown.
Hall had begun writing his first plays and stories for children when he spent three years as a primary school teacher. Then his flatmate Terry Bryan invited him to write for a TV series showcasing "fantastic" actor/writer Joe Musaphia. In View of the Circumstances (1969 - 1970) was New Zealand's earliest sketch show. It won a Feltex Award. Writing sketches proved valuable: it taught Hall about crafting dialogue, "and where to place the laugh in a line". Hall also appeared on-screen, alongside Grant Tilly and Ken Blackburn.
Hall decided to go freelance. He and Musaphia wrote sketches for world fair Expo '70, and got some accepted across the Tasman for show Noel Ferrier's Australia A to Z. They also contributed scripts to 1974‘s Buck House, New Zealand's first sitcom. Written with a strong local flavour, the black comedy revolved around a group of people (including John Clarke) living in a rundown Wellington flat.
Hall recalls that the NZ Broadcasting Corporation was still wary of satire at this point. In 1972 a satirical radio show he worked on was unexpectedly cancelled because it was election year; a pilot for a satirical TV show featuring Brian Edwards never went to air. Hall diversified. He did everything from live interviews to reports on antique fairs for On Camera, wrote an episode of pioneering small-town drama Pukemanu, and wrote and presented a well-reviewed Survey documentary about obesity.
Teleplay Clean-Up (1973) involved a cleaner who secretly writes a novel. The following year the NZBC launched Spotlight, a series of one-off plays. Hall wrote three of the 12: The Bach, The Reward, and Some People Get All the Luck. After all were nominated for Feltex Awards, he won an Arts Council grant to study TV screenwriting in England and the United States. Returning to his editing job at the Department of Education, he learned that his scripts for soap Close to Home had been rejected because the dialogue was "too literate".
Hall's life was transformed in 1976 with Glide Time. Hall calls it "the big break that allowed me to become a full-time writer". The comedy became one of the biggest hits local theatres had yet seen (soon after its Wellington debut, the waiting list exceeded 1000). Revolving around an office of public servants, Glide Time reflected an era when many Kiwis had a "comfortable, cozy job that was secure for life". Hall felt sure it was a natural for television. "The only people that didn't recognise it were people who worked in TV". After a one-off TV adaptation, Gliding On finally became a TV series after a half-hour pilot screened as part of a season of one-off comedies. Hall writes about the show's birth here.
Gliding On hit television in 1981. Knowing the characters gave Hall "a huge running start". The result was the first bona fide Kiwi sitcom hit. When Hall called it quits after five seasons, it was number two in the ratings, and a Kiwi institution. In the late 90s, Hall updated Gliding On's characters for "the brave new world of management" in play and award-winning TV series Market Forces.
Hall's second full-length play Middle Age Spread was completed back in 1978, during his time as a Robert Burns Fellow at Otago University. Like much of his work, this tale of a deputy school principal having an affair blended comedy and pathos. Hall was compared to Anton Chekhov, Tony Hancock and Alan Ayckbourn.
In 1979 Middle Age Spread was adapted into a movie (not by Hall — who was too busy — but by writer Keith Aberdein). Director John Reid, who had acted in the original stage play, shot it in only four weeks. Among the rave reviews,The Auckland Star called the result "funny, yet poignantly honest". Variety compared lead actor Grant Tilly to "an antipodean Woody Allen". Hall rewrote the play for London's West End, with Richard Briers (The Good Life) in the lead role. It ran in London for 17 months, and was named Comedy of the Year.
In the same period, Hall helped form watchdog group Monitor, which pressured state television to make more local children's shows, and criticised the violence in shows like The Dukes of Hazzard.
TV series Neighbourhood Watch (1990) was based on two hit plays about the 1980s sharemarket frenzy, The Share Club and After the Crash. The tale of nosey neighbours included Gliding On's Michael Haigh (as a romantically inept lecturer) and Dorothy McKegg (an acerbic teacher). Hall also began developing Bed Time, about a couple whose relationship is affected when the woman starts to earn more than her husband.
After the Bed Time pilot was filmed and approved, Hall was given only nine weeks to write five episodes. He refused. Instead the idea debuted on-stage, as Conjugal Rites (1990). After a second TV proposal was rejected, Hall sold the idea to England's Granada Television instead. So began a busy year abroad, juggling Conjugal Rites scripts with a series about Kiwi shearers in the UK, which ultimately never got made. Conjugal Rites starred Brits Michael Williams (A Fine Romance) and Gwen Taylor (Heartbeat). When it debuted in 1993, 10.5 million people watched: "more people than all my plays put together". A second season followed.
Hall talks about his career in detail in 2006 documentary Who Laughs Last, in this extended interview for TV series Funny As, and in his 1998 autobiography Bums on Seats (he describes the title of the book as "both a tribute and a sneer"). In Bums on Seats, Hall tallies up his output to date: an output that includes 20 stage plays, one unmade film script (a spin-off of his unmade shearers project), and 68 episodes for television.
Since writing those words, Hall has finished roughly 20 more plays and a guide to writing (Best Playwriting Book Ever); he has shared an NZ Television Award for his work on public relations satire Spin Doctors, and gone rafting on the Nile for this episode of Intrepid Journeys; he has initiated NZ Writers' Week (in 2003) and New Zealand Theatre Month (in 2018), and lectured in the United States on movies inspired by Kiwi literature.
Hall has a Master of Arts from Victoria University. His many honours include being named a Companion of the Queen's Service Order in 1987, and Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2019. In 2015 he became the first playwright to receive a Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement.
Profile updated on 17 March 2020
Roger Hall, Bums on Seats (Auckland: Penguin Books, 1999)
'Roger Hall - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 14 October 2019. Accessed 17 March 2020
'Helene Wong - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 3 October 2019. Accessed 17 March 2020
'Roger Hall' Playmarket website. Accessed 17 March 2020
Roger Hall, 'Gliding On - A Writer's Perspective' NZ On Screen website. Loaded 9 October 2019. Accessed 17 March 2020
Roger Hall, 'Before the Office, there was Glide Time' Public Address website. Loaded June 8 2006. Accessed 4 June 2019
Roger Hall, 'Memoirs of a Middle-Aged Satirist - The Listener, 3 September 1973 (broken link)
'Roger's Hallmarks' (Radio interview) Radio New Zealand website. Loaded 10 April 2016. Accessed 13 March 2020
Felicity Anderson, 'We look at us again' - The Auckland Star, 22 June 1979, page 7
Nick Barnett, 'Ordinary is marvellous' (Interview) - The Dominion, 2 August 2001, page 17
Richard Corballis, 'Hall, Roger' Read NZ website. Accessed 13 March 2020
David Cohen, 'Roger Hall - Funny Business Can Be No Laughing Matter' (Interview) - The Evening Post, 31 December 1988, page 13
Graham Ford, Getting Laughs the Hard Way' - The Listener, 17 August 1985 (broken link)
Mike Nicolaidi, 'Middle Age Spread' (Review) - Variety, 31 December 1978
Noel O'Hare, 'Suburban Reptiles' - The Listener (TV Times pullout), 8 October 1990, page 32 (broken link)
Matthew Peddie, 'Roger Hall: Life in the US' (Interview) - Victorious, Autumn 2004, page 11