Although Roger Simpson has spent most of his career making television in Australia, his early work includes a trio of children's dramas which created an international demand for New Zealand product.
Since leaving Aotearoa in 1971, Simpson has been a key player on dozens of television projects, including kids' classic Hunter's Gold, cop series Stingers, and 21 Halifax f.p. telemovies. Along the way he has toiled on scripts that were wanted yesterday morning, seen his shows yanked around time slots while he struggles to play catch up, and watched dream deals disappear before his eyes. He has also stacked up at least 17 awards. The frenetic pace has likely been a good motivator — Simpson prefers television over feature films, arguing that a project can be written, sold and finished in the time it takes to get a movie off the ground.
Born in Dunedin, Simpson originally planned to be a lawyer. But while completing his law degree at Auckland University, he got caught up in comedy: he and friend Stewart Ross ended up writing five seasons worth of student revue. After catching Simpson on stage, TV producer Kevan Moore invited him to write patter for music presenter Peter Sinclair and a Ricky May special.
In 1968 Simpson began at law firm Russell McVeagh, but he'd already been bitten by television. He quit in 1971 and headed to Australia, "since I couldn’t get any writing work in drama, even part-time. In those days it all happened out of Wellington." Simpson's last gig as a lawyer was pro bono, representing varied creatives at an inquiry over who should run a second channel. "My legal career was probably sealed there and then," says Simpson, "irritating the QC for the NZBC, Robin Cooke [future president of the NZ Court of Appeal] with my constant interruptions".
Legendary producer John O’Shea had advised Simpson to cross the ditch, after stuttering a tongue in cheek warning to "be c-c-careful, they’re st…still in chains". Simpson soon got a break writing cop shows for Crawford Productions. In 1976 he was one of four scribes on the epic ABC adaptation Power Without Glory — "Australia’s answer to The Forsyte Saga".
Despite setting up shop in Melbourne, he also got busy on Kiwi projects. First came award-winning teleplay Richard Pearse (1975), about the Canterbury farmer who was desperate to fly. Then Simpson scripted two episodes of early Kiwi TV landmark Winners & Losers. The anthology series marked the first time state television had handed a primetime drama slot to outsiders — directors Roger Donaldson and Ian Mune.
Simpson's episode Big Brother, Little Sister sparked debate over portrayals of Māori. Adapted from a Witi Ihimaera short story, it followed two neglected children, and included scenes of domestic violence. Writer Trisha Dunleavy calls it "the first TV drama to explore the alienation of Māori in a contemporary urban setting", and easily the most powerful episode. Simpson's other contribution, Shining with the Shiner, was drawn from John A Lee's tales of legendary vagabond Ned Slattery.
In 1975 New Zealand's second television channel finally launched, and TV2 head of drama John McRae presented him with "an irresistible challenge: a big budget children’s series with a period setting — with cameras rolling in less than six months."
As Simpson describes in this piece, the Otago-raised writer quickly settled on a gold rush setting. So began an exhilarating burst of productivity, creating Hunter's Gold, the tale of a boy seeking his father, who has gone missing on the goldfields. A solid local hit, the series proved so successful internationally, wrote Trisha Dunleavy, "it opened the door to an export industry in New Zealand-made children's serials". Many were created by Simpson.
TV2 head of drama John McRae had cleverly spotted a market for children's dramas that were set in the past. Soon he messaged Simpson: "we want another one". Gather Your Dreams (1978) and then Children of Fire Mountain (1979) followed — "big serial stories with lots of cliffhangers, always involving the kids as central characters".
Each show was inspired by a new location and period: depression-era Coromandel, for the travelling vaudevillians in Gather Your Dreams; the Rotorua thermal area at the time of the Tarawera eruption, for Simpson's personal favourite Children of Fire Mountain, "with the land speaking for Māori rights". By 1980 he had written a fourth: far north WWll coastwatching tale Raider of the South Seas finally got made in 1989, as a Kiwi-Canadian co-production.
After his early rush of Kiwi work, Simpson needed to remind Australia he was available for hire. He tackled an Aussie legend for teleplay The Trial of Ned Kelly (1977) before writing three-part divorce drama Players in the Gallery, directed by Kiwi Brian Bell. Simpson and John Clarke's script for a Fred Dagg movie stretched to 160 pages, before expiring.
Around this point, another Roger enters the story. Simpson had actually met Roger Le Mesurier back on the day they both began working at Crawfords. Le Mesurier was a script editor, but Simpson thought he had the makings of a producer. So he introduced him to John McRae. McRae knew that Crawfords hammered its staff on the importance of working to budget; he let Le Mesurier produce Gather Your Dreams.
In 1981 the two Rogers formed production company Simpson Le Mesurier Films. Simpson called their partnership "a happy accident", where they complemented each others strengths. They began — atypically — with a movie, Squizzy Taylor. Simpson had first heard about "the little pipsqueak" 1920s gangster while researching Power Without Glory. Squizzy did modest business, after being chosen to open the 1982 Sydney Film Festival.
For the next three years, Simpson and Le Mesurier pitched a variety of screen projects. Australia's 10BA tax incentives finally opened the door. Introduced in 1981, the tax breaks saw a deluge of production, and made Aussie mini-series viable. In 1986 Simpson Le Mesurier hit pay dirt with Sword of Honour, one of the first downunder productions to tackle the Vietnam war. The eight-hour mini-series involved an Aussie soldier and his anti-war girlfriend. Simpson wanted to call it Vietnam, but Channel Seven, worried about mentioning the war, opted for the 'safer' title.
Next came a "compelling" mini-series (The Sydney Morning Herald) about WWll legend Nancy Wake, and Darlings of the Gods (1989), a co-production with Thames Television. "Then it all went bang ... like all booms there came a crunch".
Simpson and Le Mesurier survived. The partnership endured because "once a show was off the ground, Roger Le Mesurier would produce it, and I would go start writing the next idea." A long run of TV movies and TV series followed, including 21 telemovies built around a forensic psychiatrist Jane Halifax. Halifax f.p.was born after Channel 9 chose not to renew their big-budget series Snowy, instead asking Simpson for another idea that could feature Snowy cast member Rebecca Gibney. "There is only one truism in television: one day the show will end. So we always had a few ideas on the boil ... in this case, what about a cop without a gun? Originally we were only going to make six..."
Beloved country soap Something in the Air faced a rockier run. After two seasons and 300 episodes, it was felled by timeslot changes, a forced three month layoff, and deteriorating relationships with ABC management, including the network's reluctance to let castmember Eric Bana go act in Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down. In the 2001 Australian Film Institute Awards, the show filled three of the four nominations for Best Episode in a Drama Series.
Undercover cop show Stingers was a rare title that Simpson didn't initiate. Dissatisfied with the original premise, Channel 9 approached the company to rejig it and make a pilot, in just three months. The show ran eight years. En route, the Rogers partnered with distribution company Beyond International, and became Beyond Simpson Le Mesurier. They also managed to sneak a few quirky projects through the system: namely AFI-winning crime and drycleaning tale Good Guys Bad Guys, and a trio of Dogwoman telemovies, created by Kath & Kim actor Magda Szubanski.
Running three seasons and winning a stack of awards, cable TV drama Satisfaction was set in a high end brothel. Simpson argued it was about the clients, as much as the escorts. He told The Age, "it's really about men and women, human beings and sex. It's about the prostitute in us all."
In 2009 Simpson was offered a dream first look deal with company Fremantle International. His American agent turned it down. "It was either the output deal or my US agent," says Simpson. "I probably made the wrong call."
By the time Simpson began writing and producing Satisfaction in 2006, with his new company Lonehand, his old mate Roger Le Mesurier had left him to it. The 25 year partnership — "Roger making them, me developing them" — was over.
Although Simpson is no longer working at the same frenetic pace that once saw four projects shooting in a single year, he is loathe to retire. Next on the list: writing his first stage play (about painter Gauguin) for the Melbourne Theatre Company, and co-producing a movie about transgender politician Georgina Beyer, written by his wife Sally Irwin.
Profile written by Ian Pryor; published on 29 June 2016
Roger Simpson and Philippa Mansfield, Hunter's Gold (Auckland: Heinemann Educational Books NZ, 1976)
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Lucy Clark, 'A true tale of courage and resistance' (Review of Nancy Wake) - The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 November 1987
Brian Courtis, 'Roger and out' (Interview with Roger Simpson and Roger Le Mesurier) - The Age, 21 May 2006
Paul Davies, 'Looking for the Story Engine: Breakfast with Roger Simpson' (Interview) - Metro magazine (Australia) no 135 (Winter 2003)
Andrew Dodd, 'Life goes on after a bad Air day' (Interview with Roger Simpson and Roger Le Mesurier) - The Australian, 23 August 2001
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime - A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
David Stratton, The Avocado Plantation - Boom and Bust in the Australian Film Industry (Sydney: Pan Macmillan Publishers Australia, 1990)
Unknown writer, 'The Operation of 10BA' Screen Australia website. Accessed 29 June 2016