Roger Mirams' screen career spanned multiple countries and six decades; seven, if you include the first film he made as a teen. Born in Christchurch in 1918, Mirams manifested his love of moviemaking early. While at high school he directed short film When the Gangsters Came to Christchurch, which was screened at a local cinema. Mirams played baddie Karl Von Skunk. The tale of robbers and ransom climaxes with a horse chase across Hagley Park.
Aged 20, Mirams had a brief involvement with Russell Rankin's distribution company Action Pictures (NZ). When World War ll began soon after, he worked in an Egyptian military hospital. After being posted to Italy, he got a job as a cameraman. As Truth newspaper put it in a 1949 article, "he became an official newsreel cameraman attached to NZ Public Relations". Clive Sowry details some of Mirams' WWll filming experiences here.
After the war Mirams joined government filmmaking body the National Film Unit, and spent almost three years there, as a senior cameraman. He shot items for over 70 NFU films, most of which featured on NFU newsreel Weekly Review. He travelled across Asia to capture an epic mail run for Kiwi forces stationed in Japan, and recorded the Tokyo war crimes trials (for Weekly Review 313). Back home he worked alongside cameraman Randal Beattie on Margaret Thomson's beautifully-framed Railway Worker, and shot Thomson's favourite Kiwi film, The First Two Years at School.
The Pacific Film Unit (later Pacific Film Productions) was launched early in 1948 by Mirams and another NFU colleague, writer/director Alun Falconer. Both had been disappointed to have ideas for films turned down by the NFU as too controversial. A generous offer from the local arm of 20th Century Fox encouraged them to go independent: free film and ongoing use of a Cineflex camera, to make newsreels for Fox Movietone news. A number of the newsreels featured hunting and skiing footage (some of them can be seen on compilation DVD A Time to Remember). Mirams also had help from the Amalgamated Theatre chain, in which 20th Century Fox had a controlling interest. There would be continuing turf wars for Pacific in trying to screen films at rival chain Kerridge.
The NFU continued to contract Mirams to film NFU projects. Some of his footage for Fox Movietone was reused in NFU films — including Sportsmen's Playground New Zealand — which he is credited with directing.
In March 1949 Falconer exited Pacific Films for China to work on a doomed project about New Zealander Rewi Alley. Soon after, John O'Shea, the name most often associated with Pacific Films, first enters the story. Mirams had originally brought O'Shea aboard to help with ideas for a documentary about Māori. O'Shea later wrote: "I agreed to write the Māori film for Roger only if it was to be a feature drama and I could co-direct it it with him. He agreed."
Using borrowed money, Mirams and O'Shea set about making Broken Barrier (1952), a drama about the relationship between a Pākehā journalist and a young Māori woman. It was the first New Zealand feature since 1940, and one of only three to emerge until 1970. All were made by Pacific Films, though not all by Mirams and O'Shea. The two can be seen talking about the film in the first clip of O'Shea documentary Breaking Barriers.
Mirams made use of a newsreel camera, and a dolly (mobile camera platform), which he'd built himself. With only one day of sound recording, the pair constructed the film so that each character's thoughts were heard as a voice-over. The film was distributor Kerridge's most successful title that month, outgrossing some high profile films from Hollywood. Reviews were positive, though some viewers were offended by the topic of racial mixing.
For the most part though, Pacific survived hand to mouth on a mixture of newsreels, rugby coverage and varied promotional films (some were tourism films which saw them filming across the globe). Years later O'Shea described Roger's strengths: "Roger was a producer, ideas man and cameraman and manager, and we were quite well teamed". Occasionally the company would find itself fielding multiple offers by virtue of being one of the only operators in town.
When the Queen toured New Zealand and the Pacific in late 1953, Pacific got eight different requests to provide newsreel coverage. Mirams managed to satisfy multiple clients by setting up a special tripod that held multiple cameras, thereby guaranteeing each company supposedly exclusive footage. In 1956 Pacific was called in to provide official newsreels for the Melbourne Olympic Games. It was one of the last times that the pair worked together. Late that year it was agreed that Mirams would leave to set up a new branch of Pacific in Melbourne. Mirams said he "wanted to make entertainment", and he saw potential in making shows for Australian television.
Mirams took a lot of the company's gear and £2,000 with him. Although the branch didn't last long, Mirams would become a pioneering maker of Australian TV series, often with the involvement of overseas companies. Many were aimed at children. He said in an interview: "I find I enjoy trying to get into kid's minds and finding out what they like".
In 1959 he began producing The Terrific Adventures of the Terrible Ten, one of the first Australian series to sell to multiple territories overseas. Revolving around a group of children who create their own make-believe town, it ran for over 100 15-minute episodes. In 1964 came Terrible Ten movie Funny Things Happen Down Under, which featured Miram's daughter Joanna, performer Howard Morrison, and the big screen debut of Olivia Newton-John.
By now, Mirams was growing increasingly ambitious. The Magic Boomerang, about a boy whose boomerang stopped time, sold to England and Canada. In 1965 Mirams got backing from a Columbia Pictures subsidiary to make The Adventures of the Seaspray. Following a widower and his children on the ocean, filming took place across the Pacific, including eight months based in Fiji, and on the Tasman Glacier. It was a rare production to feature a native Fijian (Leone Lesianawai) in a major role (as one of the crew). Seaspray's ambition — shooting in colour and on location — meant that Mirams made little on the deal, despite healthy global sales.
In 1966 Mirams moved to Sydney, and formed Roger Mirams Productions. Soon after he was invited to produce Woobinda (Animal Doctor), which sold to at least nine countries. In the 70s he did a deal with Paramount Pictures to make TV series Spyforce — he aimed to show that WWll "was not entirely won by America". It was inspired by a real life Australian espionage unit, which had operated behind Japanese-held lines during the war. Paramount wouldn't pay up until "you put a can of film on their desk". Lacking the finance to cover his end of the deal, Mirams sold his share of Spyforce back to Paramount to cover his debts. A young Jack Thompson starred; one episode ('The Saviour') featured a brief appearance by Russell Crowe, in what is thought to have been his screen debut.
A run of co-productions followed, including shipwreck tale The Lost Islands (1976) and part French-funded miniseries Runaway Island (1982). In 1977 Mirams was invited to "eat regularly" by joining Aussie programme factory The Grundy Organisation. He continued to produce children's productions at Grundy's until shortly before his death. His South Pacific Adventures series of telemovies cost AU$4 million.
Later Mirams tried retirement, but got bored "just sitting on the veranda, so I came back to work and got on the phone". One of his last shows to air was long-savoured project Escape of the Artful Dodger (2001), which saw him sharing script credits with Charles Dickens.
Roger Mirams died in Sydney in February 2004. He was 85. Fourteen years later, John Reid's book about Pacific Films, Whatever It Takes, added a feast of new detail on Mirams' career.
Profile written by Ian Pryor; updated on 8 August 2020
Classic Australian TV website. Accessed 27 February 2019
'Mirams, Roger Holden Eastgate' (Death Notice) - The Dominion Post, 2 March 2004, page C17
Mark Juddery, 'Forty years of children's adventures' (Obituary) - The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 2004
John O'Shea, Don't Let it Get You - memories - documents (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1999)
John Reid, Whatever It Takes - Pacific Films and John O’Shea 1948 - 2000 (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2018)
Unknown writer, 'Monopolistic State Refuses Ex-Kiwis Business Loan' - NZ Truth, 5 October 1949, page 7
Unknown writer, 'Roger Mirams - Film and television producer Milesago website. Accessed 27 February 2019
Unknown writer, Interview with Roger Mirams - TV Week, 7 August 1971