Simon Morris was 13 when his family moved from England to Wellington. He was glad to leave England’s "bizarre" class system behind. Simon was born in Holland to Kiwi parents; his dad Alan was completing a BBC training course at the time. Originally the family left Holland for New Zealand when Morris was a baby, but they were lured back to England after Alan got another job with the BBC. When the family settled downunder, Simon enrolled at Onslow College.
Alan Morris had some experience in radio and television. In the 1975 he became chief executive at TV One. Like many teens, Morris had a "lack of interest" in pursuing whatever his Dad did for a job. Rock music was more his thing. He picked up guitar and bass, playing first in a high school covers band, then in a long list of rock and pop groups including Tamburlaine, The Heartbreakers, Original Sin, Mammal and Blerta forerunner Acme Sausage Company. Morris admits "pretentious folk groups" might also have been on the list. He was in and out of bands for roughly a decade.
He also did time at Victoria University, where he admits to spending more time in the cafe than in lecture halls. As he says in this Funny As interview, he befriended fellow cafe dweller John Clarke, performing alongside him in a student extravaganza — he recalls Clarke being "rivetting" and "astonishing", despite the "chaos and carnage" of the show.
Music would provide the entry point for Morris into film and television. In 1969 Morris helped compose the jazzy soundtrack for this National Film Unit ski film. Four years later, director Barry Barclay invited Morris and his band Tamburlaine to provide the music for his experimental documentary All that We Need.
In 1978 Morris got his first TV writing gig from future Gloss creator Rosemary McLeod — penning scripts for "alleged comedy" All Things being Equal. The show was a broad satire on 70s gender politics, starring Ginette McDonald and an unpredictable Bruno Lawrence. Initially it was broadcast live on Friday nights; Morris recalls Lawrence ambling onto the set one night "tripping his head off. McDonald was not impressed. To be fair, neither was the audience”.
Morris managed to marry music with scriptwriting to advantage, while writing for soap Close to Home. The first line he wrote was the direction 'Liddie goes into the studio where they’re recording her song'. Morris provided the song in question, so got paid for his script, then as a musician to record the song (‘Close to the Bone’)."I got royalties when the thing became a hit, then a performance fee when we did it on Ready to Roll. I never was paid as well again, worse luck”.
In 1981 Morris was approached by friend and fellow musician Peter Blake to take up a reporting and directing role on late night music show Radio With Pictures. One of his earliest RWP gigs was traveling to Australia for My Kind of Town, which saw him checking in with Dragon and other Kiwi imports (including Mi-Sex, riding high with ‘Computer Games’). Morris covered various regional and international acts, and profiled emerging talents like Shayne Carter and The Chills for RWP's 1982 Dunedin episode. In his Wellington report of the same year, Morris mentioned his “impression that Wellington wants an audience, but doesn’t want to be seen to be trying too hard to get one”.
Working on the iconic show for roughly seven years, Morris relished the chance to meet some of his idols — like a "grumpy but impressive" John Cale — and to add his knowledgeable and off-the-cuff style to the ‘must see’ music show.
Morris also has good memories of directing music videos for such stone cold classic hits as 'Maxine' by Sharon O’Neill (who had mimed his Close to Home song in a black wig), 'Victoria' by The Dance Exponents ( trying to get Jordan Luck to "smoke properly" was the biggest challenge) and 'Beatnik' for The Clean. “The videos were often fun, mostly when I had great camerapeople — like Mike Single on 'Victoria' and Waka Attewell on 'Maxine'. I loved doing 'Beatnik' with The Clean. All those keen Flying Nun people and me trying to do a gag on every single line of the song”. In 1987 he produced coverage of a live concert featuring Hamilton hard rockers Knightshade.
After directing episodes on the final season of classic comedy Gliding On, Morris joined the writing team on the short-lived Peppermint Twist, a dreamy portrait of 60s teens. Each episode referenced a classic pop song. Next he wrote for cop show Shark in the Park. He also worked on a pilot for Funny Business (he says the comedy group "were just two years too soon") and contributed sketches to Public Eye, Gibson Group’s answer to English puppet satire Spitting Image, but didn’t enjoy the process much.
In 1996 TVNZ launched a drama series aimed at a ‘Gen X’ demographic; Morris was one of the writers. City Life took its cues from American show Melrose Place with a young, good-looking cast (including Kevin Smith) and betrayals aplenty.
In 2000 Morris stepped in to narrate Numero Bruno, a ‘warts’n all’ documentary about his old colleague, cultural provocateur Bruno Lawrence.
There is one long-running TV series that is synonymous with the word ‘soap’ in New Zealand: Shortland Street. For the show's first five years, Morris was one of the freelancers writing dialogue. It began well. "Shorty was great," he says, "all care and no responsibility. They’d send you the scene breakdown and you’d write the dialogue. I got fired when it became clear I never actually watched the programme”.
By the early 2000s Morris was tiring of the freelance television scene. An old flatmate suggested he give radio a go. Taking her advice, he instantly felt a connection. Initially Morris wrote and presented "quirky, biographical" music shows on Radio New Zealand. He'd always loved films. When film reviewer Jonathan Dennis passed away, Morris decided to apply for the job. "I thought I don’t know much about the movies, but I have seen an awful lot of them".
Morris began presenting At the Movies in 2001. He soon added another "good part-time job" to his CV, as a producer for RNZ's The Arts on Sunday. Morris continues in both roles to this day. During the holiday seasons he and old Radio With Pictures colleague Phil O’Brien often delve into pop’s more eclectic moments, as hosts of ‘love it or loathe it’ summer radio show Matinee Idle.
Profile written by Gabe McDonnell; updated on 25 September 2019
'Simon Morris - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 25 September 2019.Accessed 25 September 2019
Michelle Coursey, 'Simon Morris' (Interview) - The Listener, 30 December 2006
Lucy Revill, 'Resident #89: Film Critic And Radio New Zealand Stalwart Simon Morris On His ‘Life At The Movies’ (Interview) The Residents website. Loaded 24 May 2017. Accessed 25 September 2019
'Radio with Pictures - Wellington 1982' (Television documentary, TVNZ, 1982)
‘Victoria’ (Music video) Director Simon Morris (TVNZ, 1982)