Ross Jennings became one of New Zealand’s more prolific television producers — but his childhood ambition was to be an actor.
Born on 13 November 1944, Jennings grew up in Taihape and Hawera, where he joined the local repertory society. He was brought up by his mother; his father died in the army, during the Second World War.
Jennings spent time in touring companies Children’s Art Theatre and the New Zealand Players, as well as Wellington's Downstage Theatre. In 1963 he travelled to England, having scored a QEll Arts Council grant on his second attempt, to study acting (Kiri Te Kanawa is said to have beaten him first time around). He spent the next six years in repertory — three in the southern city of Salisbury — and got his first taste of directing, which he loved from the outset.
Around 1969 Jennings returned to New Zealand, and started as artistic director of Whanganui's Four Seasons Theatre. But television soon beckoned, and he started work as a floor manager in the NZ Broadcasting Corporation’s Drama Department, before training as a director and producer.
Jennings moved to sports and then Country Calendar, where he was responsible for New Zealand television’s first full frontal male nudity (musterers skinny dipping in mountain streams).
Drama directing was a logical extension of his skills and experience. Following the split of New Zealand channels into TV One and second channel South Pacific Television, he was part of Michael Scott-Smith’s TV One drama section based at Avalon Television Centre, which Jennings described as specialising in "raw, honest, New Zealand stories". A heady era for television drama, it meant permanent jobs for core cast and crew for the first time. They were "good days, important days — alive, vibrant and wonderful. We were encouraged to give things a go. There were no rules — so we couldn’t break them".
Highlights included New Zealand’s first soap Close to Home (made with "good heart and great determination" — alongside his work on the show as a producer, Jennings directed more than 150 episodes), Moynihan (a trade union drama starring Ian Mune), Rachel (starring Barbara Ewing) and two instalments of Mune's Feltex Award-winning children’s adventure The Mad Dog Gang.
When TV One and South Pacific Television amalgamated in 1980, Jennings became Head of Drama, charged with melding the competing departments back into one unit. Output needed to be maintained as budgets shrank, and, with fallout over the expense of The Governor still fresh, television drama remained under intense public and political scrutiny.
Following on from the success of earlier children’s dramas Hunter’s Gold and Children of Fire Mountain, Jennings oversaw the development of Under the Mountain and Sea Urchins. Jennings also gave the greenlight to Wayne Tourell's legal drama Hanlon, which Tourell had been pitching to TV executives for roughly 14 years. A hit in every sense, the series was purchased by American company Paramount after they'd viewed just one episode. Three Bruce Mason plays were also dramatised before the playwright’s death in 1983 — a series Jennings regarded as important, yet little mentioned.
In this period Jennings and kaumātua John Tahu were prime movers in the opening of a marae on the fourth floor at Avalon.
In 1983, Jennings resigned after working on the pilot for Inside Straight. He wanted fresh pastures, but also longed to be a hands-on producer again rather than mired in politicking. Australia was a logical destination. For several years, he'd spent time across the Tasman keeping up his directing, via dramas for Australian TV powerhouse Crawford Productions. After working on Prisoner and Carson’s Law (and developing 1985 telemovie I Live with Me Dad), he was appointed Crawford's Head of Development. His successes included sitcom Acropolis Now (based on hit stage play Wogs Out of Work) which ran for seven years.
In 1985 Jennings suffered his first heart attack. Citing reasons of "family, identity and peace of mind", he returned to New Zealand in 1988. Jennings was keen, he told The Evening Post, to raise a family and "rediscover a country where stability still seemed possible amid uncertainty". There was also an offer to work with Des Monaghan setting up South Pacific Pictures, but after six months Monaghan headed to Australia. For Jennings much of the allure of the job went with him. He resigned to go freelance.
In 1993, he earned an ignominious place in Kiwi television history as creator and producer of ill-fated TV3 sitcom Melody Rules — and, while happy to concede the show was "a complete and utter turkey", he seemed bemused at the venom that was long directed at the show.
Another of his productions for TV3 saw him reunited with producer Robin Scholes, who had been part of the Mad Dog Gang crew. his time they were part of a consortium competing for NZ On Air funding for a long-running soap opera. Their project, Homeward Bound, ultimately lost out to Shortland Street. Instead, Homeward Bound was funded for 22 weekly episodes (Jennings' contributions included directing this first episode). Jennings saw the series as paralleling his journey from "urban elitism to parish pump community", after having made a new home north of Auckland, overlooking the Kaipo Flats. He told The Evening Post of his fascination "with New Zealand’s sense of culture and country. We have this amazing affinity with the land which isn’t so in Australia".
From 1996 Jennings played a major role at prolific production company Communicado as an executive producer. He created and produced Middlemore, an early Kiwi reality show (it ran for 11 seasons) and Police Ten 7. After early negotiations to win the trust of hospital and police staff, both shows won extended runs. He also created and directed Strip Search, which followed the creation of a male strip troupe. The series concept sold to 25+ countries.
Jennings spent a year travelling around Aotearoa, researching and developing TVNZ’s 36-hour live Millennium broadcast (only to have an ambitious opening sequence linking mountaintops across the country derailed by inclement weather). Featuring footage taken in towns across Aotearoa, the broadcast rated highly.
In 2003 he was appointed Chief Executive of Screentime Communicado (later Screentime). Jennings held the role until he resigned in 2006, feeling he was "getting too old for the daily grind of running a big production company". The intention was to slow down and make the occasional show through his own company, Just the Ticket, run with second wife Carmel. Their productions included Life’s a Riot — a period drama based around the 1932 Queen Street Riots, directed by Ian Mune and funded by NZ On Air’s Platinum Fund.
Jennings was also heavily involved with Māori TV’s Anzac Day coverage. While at Screentime, he developed the inaugural Anzac Day programming in 2006, and later produced it through Just The Ticket for a number of years.
Ross Jennings died of cancer on Good Friday 2016, at age 71. Researcher Emile Donovan later paid tribute to Jenning's ability to open doors and persuade politicians to sign on for his final show, The Political Game (which goes inside Parliament). Donovan quoted Jennings: "We are here, he would say, to document and to de-mystify."
Profile written by Michael Higgins; updated on 30 November 2021
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Emile Donovan, 'Remembering Ross Jennings, the man behind Police Ten-7 and Middlemore' - The Sunday Star-Times, 1 April 2016
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime: A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
Ian Magan, 'Ross Jennings: an appreciation' Screenz website. Loaded 4 April 2016. Accessed 6 April 2016
Philip Wakefield, ‘Developing an Appetite for Local Drama’ (Interview) - Evening Post, 6 June 1992, page 14