Tom Parkinson has produced a run of popular television comedies, in the process helping launch the television career of comic legend Billy T James. His extensive screen resume includes the long-running skit show Issues, teenage feature film Alex, and the internationally-successful goldrush serial Hunter's Gold. In the process, Parkinson has become one of Australasia's most prolific producers of international co-productions.
Tom Parkinson was born in the Indian city of Jabalpur. His parents were British citizens who had stayed on in India, after moving there during World War II. Parkinson went to choir school in England. A number of his extended family had relocated to New Zealand, and Parkinson considered moving there. Instead he began studying fine art and art history in London, then in 1961 began working as a runner at nearby Shepperton Studios.
Parkinson worked his way up the filmmaking ladder, mostly on the production side. His interests in comedy and music were evident from early on. In his 20s he was writing material for a hit West End theatre show featuring comedy troupe The Alberts. He went on to produce for the theatre and for TV music series Supershow, and was one of the original members of cult ensemble The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.
In 1970 Parkinson produced a documentary on champion Canadian race horse Nijinsky, narrated by Orson Welles. Two years later he made his directorial debut with the horror movie Disciple of Death, a failed star vehicle for British DJ Mike Raven.
Parkinson moved down under in 1975, the year that the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation was being reborn as two channels. His first New Zealand show was a ten-minute comedy show called Clobber Shop. Surprised that the number of Māori working at Avalon television centre was so few, he enlisted actor, singer and headmaster Don Selwyn to front a comedy sketch for the show, set in a Māori television station (as he writes here, Parkinson also began working in the South Pacific Television newsroom, fielding complaints from political parties about fair coverage).
Parkinson's friendship with Selwyn would span more than thirty years, and see him appearing on Parkinson-produced shows ranging from Issues to Kiwi Concert Party, and directing the 1991 Isambard Productions' short Don't Go Past With Your Nose in the Air.
In 1976 Parkinson directed family adventure series Hunter's Gold. Set in 1860s Central Otago, this tale of a boy searching for his prospector father was one of the most expensive television dramas yet made in New Zealand. Parkinson remembers the production as both exhausting and fun. The show's international success — the BBC screened it in primetime — helped spawn a long trail of antipodean kidult serials, including Parkinson's next drama series Gather Your Dreams, which followed a 30s-era vaudeville troupe (he feels the show was less of a success than Hunter's Gold, because it went behind the showbusiness facade).
In December 1978, local talent agents Eddie and Elaine Hegan invited him to a show at the Avondale Rugby League Club. Parkinson watched with trepidation and increasing admiration as a rowdy, inebriated audience were conquered by cabaret performer Billy T James. As Parkinson writes here, the audience were "eating out of his hand" within a couple of minutes.
Parkinson put Billy T into 80s variety TV show Radio Times, which was born after Parkinson heard original recordings of pre-50s Kiwi radio shows. Parkinson, whose family had owned music halls back in England, created the part of dashing compere Dexter Fitzgibbons especially for James, knowing he had a gift for accents. It was all part of a long term Parkinson-plan that saw James graduating to his own iconic song and skit show.
Parkinson also worked with celebrity chefs Peter Hudson and David Halls, and remembers that when the two were on screen "they had an instinctive sense of showbusiness".
In 1978 Parkinson had been appointed head of entertainment for Television New Zealand. The period both before and after the appointment saw him producing and supervising 250 hours of programming a year, from McPhail and Gadsby, Gliding On, Mastermind, Opportunity Knocks and That's Country, to wrestling hit On the Mat. He also began working on international co-productions, including a 1983 special featuring Gene Kelly and the Royal NZ Ballet.
Parkinson quit to initiate and lead the team that applied for, and gained, New Zealand's first commercial television licence. He appears briefly in the closing minutes of TV3's very first prime time bulletin, on 27 November 1989. That year he set up Isambard, a studio and production company, initially as an in-house arm of TV3. Isambard's output combined locally-aimed content with international co-productions (a Black Beauty series with London Weekend Television, educational show Magic Box, The Black Stallion, High Tide). Parkinson argues in this video interview that in the period leading up to TV3's launch, TVNZ threw major legal resources behind attempts to delay the channel's launch, aware that each day the channel hadn't gone on air meant an increase in TVNZ's profits.
Aside from acclaimed but shortlived ensemble drama Homeward Bound, much of Isambard's local output was comedy-based: long-running sketch show Issues, Pete and Pio, and the sitcom version of The Billy T James Show. Letter to Blanchy (which he occasionally directed) took a while to go to air, as the show got caught up in the collapse of TV3.
In the 90s feature films entered the Isambard picture, thanks to two co-productions with Australia. Action comedy Cops and Robbers (featuring Issues performers Rima Te Wiata and Mark Wright) made no splash. The other movie was an adaptation of Tessa Duder's bestseller Alex, about a 15-year-old swimmer trying to compete at the 1960 Olympics.
Having been offered the project by TVNZ's international department, Parkinson saw in Alex the makings of a "terrific" film for teenagers. Reviews crossed the gamut, though Sunday Times critic Mark Knowles wrote that the film's dominant impression is "of something that's simply, remarkably likeable".
In 1995, Isambard announced its part in a $120 million international co-production deal, involving a series of 12 family-orientated feature films. Ultimately only one of the planned movies would emerge from the increasingly troubled company: The Climb, an awardwinning rite of passage tale set in Baltimore, and shot around Auckland. Brit veteran John Hurt starred.
In 1997 Parkinson was appointed chief executive of Australian longstayer Crawford Productions. Among the many international co-productions he worked on in this period were popular children's shows The Saddle Club and Guinevere Jones, World War II-era mini-series Tribe, and a TV version of Nevil Shute's end of the world novel On the Beach.
In 2002 Parkinson established his own Australian-based company, Avoca Media Holdings, which buys and sells rights to film and television productions. He continues to pursue a number of interests, including the development of video games.
Parkinson's went on to work on a feature-length documentary about Billy T. Directed by Came a Hot Friday's Ian Mune, Billy T: Te Movie opened in August 2011, at the top of the local box office charts.
'Tom Parkinson (I)' (Screenography) The Internet Movie Database website. Accessed 27 April 2015
Matt Elliott, Billy T - The Life and Times of Billy T James (Auckland, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2009)
'Isambard to make 12 feature films' - NZ Herald, 5 January 1995