Shirley Francis Whitley Maddock Easther was a writer, an actor and a trailblazing broadcaster. In what she later called "one of those little victories that I look back on with a certain amount of female satisfaction", she was the first woman in the nation to officially hold the title of Television Producer, a rank that state broadcasting had previously reserved for men. Maddock later recalled that by then she'd already been producing television for some time, under the ungainly credit ‘Devised, Written and Arranged by Shirley Maddock.’
Born in 1928 into a theatrical family in Wellington, Maddock’s first love was the stage. She sailed to London at the age of 19, and worked in weekly repertory, which meant simultaneously performing one play, rehearsing a second, and learning a third, so the company could present a new play every week. Ironically, it was television that ended her acting career – her debut in England coincided with the post-war launch of the new medium. Small theatre companies folded now that people were able to enjoy an evening’s entertainment at home.
Upon her return to New Zealand in 1952, Maddock successfully auditioned to work in radio. She began as an assistant on Woman’s Hour in Wellington, did a stint as a ‘Shopping Reporter’ in Hamilton, and over the next few years covered events ranging from the 1953 Royal Tour to the inauguration of Whangarei’s first traffic light.
Recognising that television would arrive in New Zealand as it had in Britain, Maddock headed to the United States to learn about the new medium for herself. Offered a Fulbright fellowship and places in some of the first university-level courses in television, she made her way instead to New York to seek industry experience. There she found a job in what transpired to be a shady company kept afloat by money borrowed from the Mob. This enterprise produced very little television, but would provide much of the raw material for her 1963 novel With Gently Smiling Jaws; in these unorthodox circumstances she learned the craft of scriptwriting.
While in New York, Maddock continued to work as a radio correspondent, sending reports from New York, interviewing celebrities, and covering the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh as they toured the United States. On her return, these broadcasts earned her a ‘Special Assignments’ position in radio, reporting on major events around New Zealand and setting her on the path to documentary-making.
When television arrived downunder at last, she was perfectly positioned to help develop the new medium. Maddock may well have been the first person to write news for New Zealand television; she began writing and commentating news items culled from overseas newsreels, soon after TV officially began transmitting in June 1960 (initially to Auckland viewers only). She also became one of the nation's earliest TV interviewers, joining Ian Watkins that year for On Our Doorstep. When television began expanding to other centres in 1961, Maddock was one of those tasked with training up Wellington staff.
She also helped discover one of the world’s first celebrity chefs: Graham Kerr, who went on to build an international career as The Galloping Gourmet. Winning fans after being called in to help out on an episode of On Our Doorstep, he was encouraged by Maddock to make his first series, Eggs with Kerr.
Maddock’s work, both on and off camera, gave free rein to her natural curiosity about people and places. She liked to joke that in the early days of New Zealand television you could film someone digging a hole in the road, and people would watch it. One of her gifts was the ability to transform the humblest material into engaging programming.
Much of that early work has been lost, as tapes were frequently recycled. One of the missing documentaries is The Distant Shore (1963), about the Gallipoli landings. Maddock told the Anzac story using contemporary photos, panning across the static images to bring them to life (a technique now identified with filmmaker Ken Burns), with artful narration and, in her words, "a complex soundtrack of WW1 — armaments, bangs and crashes and suitable music". The Distant Shore won Best Documentary at New Zealand’s inaugural television awards event in 1964.
That same year, Maddock wrote, produced and presented New Zealand’s first documentary series, Islands of the Gulf, which ran for five half-hour episodes and further established her as a household name. The series was followed by a best-selling book of the same name, which was reprinted many times. Read today, it stands the test of time as a portrait of people, places and lived history going back to the 1800s.
On another programme, she had negotiated access to shoot footage at parliament of MPs filling into the house, when "I was informed that I would not be allowed to direct from the floor, because I was a woman". Maddock ended up attempting to direct without the use of words, from a position high up in the press gallery.
In 1965, Maddock married and moved to Hamilton to be with her doctor husband Michael Easther. She continued to work in television through 1966, when she completed her last major series The Tall Trees and the Gold, about the mining and logging history of the Coromandel and Far North. By the end of filming, the cameraman had to work around the fact she was visibly pregnant with her first child. As she told a later interviewer, in 1966 motherhood and television were not easily reconciled.
From the late 1960s, while raising three children, she turned to writing as a way to bring New Zealand history to a wide audience. Her best-known books from this period are These Antipodes, about early European settlement, and Far as A Man May Go, an account of Captain Cook’s New Zealand landings (and not, as she was fond of pointing out, an etiquette manual). She also wrote an award-winning play for Auckland’s 150th anniversary, Prospect from the Park.
Maddock’s on screen career did not come entirely to an end; she made frequent appearances throughout the 1970s and 80s, guesting on Hudson and Halls, Master of Arts, and Beauty and The Beast, and fronting a Lookout documentary that revisited Islands of the Gulf for its 20th anniversary. Her voice continued to be heard on radio as a book reviewer and commentator, although her output slowed as a result of heart disease suffered in 1987. Maddock was made an Officer of the Order of New Zealand Merit in 1999, for her services to broadcasting.
After her death on 10 October 2001, Max Cryer paid tribute to the benchmark Shirley Maddock had set; he called her one of television's "most respected producers" and credited her "background in radio and theatre, combined with her extreme intelligence". Maddock's body of work was celebrated anew in February 2018, with an updated series of Islands of the Gulf, presented by her daughter Elisabeth Easther.
Shirley Maddock - Unpublished autobiography
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Max Cryer, ‘TV’s leading lady a pioneer of history’ (Obituary) - The Sunday Star-Times, 14 October 2001, page C7
Jennifer Hawkes, ’Far as a woman may go’ (Obituary) - The Waikato Times, 13 October 2001
'Interview with Shirley Maddock' TVNZ Oral History project (held at Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision)