Although best known for his cartoons, Tom Scott’s career has also included scripts about teachers, adulterers and neurotic dogs, and documentaries chronicling politicians and mountaineers.
Born in England, Tom Scott grew up in varied parts of the Manawatū. His Irish parents (one Catholic, one Protestant) would later inspire acclaimed stage plays The Daylight Atheist and Joan. After an accident put Tom's leg in calipers for six months, he discovered that if he exaggerated his limp, he could make people laugh. Caricatures of his teachers got the same result. At Massey University he studied to be a vet, but soon downgraded to physiology after getting busy with his "real education as a cartoonist and writer".
Scott almost appeared on Kiwi television as early as 1969, when current affairs show Gallery invited him to discuss Masskerade 69, the capping magazine he'd edited. A priest wanted it banned. The university's student union persuaded Scott not to go on-air, fearing they couldn't help with legal costs if his comments resulted in a lawsuit. In 1974, when Nationwide covered the Labour Party conference, Scott helped his friend John Clarke write some comical asides. Arguments over whether the Nationwide crew ought to be removed as punishment were overheard after the conference microphones were accidentally left on.
In 1973, after selling some cartoons to The Sunday Star, Scott joined the new cadre of talent emerging at The Listener. Editor Ian Cross, failing to be put off by the fact Scott's dog had just vomited over the sample cartoons he'd brought in, suggested Scott should write, as well as draw. Alongside a weekly political column, he was soon contributing the occasional cover cartoon. Scott was the only member of the parliamentary press gallery with shoulder-length red hair and platform shoes.
In 1979 Scott was successfully sued for defamation by Prime Minister Rob Muldoon. Scott says some "key details were incorrect" in the article in question. Muldoon soon cemented Scott's fame, after trying in vain to ban him from joining a press tour to China, then later had him removed from a Beehive press conference. Scott believes he couldn’t handle “any form of mocking”. He says that Muldoon later mellowed; he praised Scott’s press gallery comedy Press for Service, and "was quite pleased” with David Lange miniseries Fallout — “he knew it was honest”.
In 1984 Scott was lured to The Auckland Star. Three years later he began an extended run with The Evening Post (later The Dominion Post). En route he has lampooned roughly a dozen Prime Ministers, though none have approached the "heady heights" of Muldoon and Lange. In the 1990s Scott won the Qantas Award for Cartoonist of the Year six times.
Scott first tried his hand at scriptwriting in the late 1970s, after state television asked if he had any ideas. He recalled an anorexic student he'd encountered while he was a student volunteer at a psychiatric unit. Half-hour drama Inside Every Thin Girl (1979) featured Jane Brimblelcombe, Peter Hayden, and Rawiri Paratene.
Partly inspired by his encounter with Muldoon, Scott satirised life in the press gallery for 1982‘s Press for Service, made for anthology series Loose Enz. Reborn in 1986 as a short-lived series, Press for Service was a loose cousin to Gliding On, and shares some of the same cast.
Early in the 1980s, cartoonist Murray Ball invited Scott on board to turn comic strip Footrot Flats into a movie script. Ball considered Scott New Zealand’s funniest writer, and the two had both spent time in the rural environs of the Manawatū. Says Scott in his autobiography Drawn Out: "We both knew the sound sheep make when they cough at night, and the creak macrocarpas make in the wind".
The pair developed the Footrot Flats - The Dog’s Tail script over two years, in-between other projects. Rolling a white sheet along the wall of Scott’s living room, they built their basic plotline from a series of highs, lows and pencil sketches. Scott argues that his major role was paring back the flood of material; Ball would "sketch out on the spot more sight gags" than could ever be used. Scott talks about Ball and the film in this making of documentary, and this extended interview for 2019 TV series Funny As — including Ball's suggestion that Scott's neurotic ways made him a perfect candidate to voice the dog.
The successful partnership gave Scott "the courage to write feature screenplays and stage plays of my own". He would mine his experience in the press gallery on two notable projects inspired by legendary leaders: Fallout (1994) and Reluctant Revolutionary (2004). He talks about both projects in this interview. Two-part miniseries Fallout dramatised events leading from Muldoon's 1984 call for a snap election, to David Lange going anti-nuclear. Realising it was "too complex, sprawling and ambitious an undertaking" to write alone, Scott enlisted Greg McGee's help. Their script won a 1995 NZ Television Award. The duo were also victorious after being sued by Barrie Everard and Rob Fenwick, who were unhappy at being sacked after being early producers of the project. A lawsuit by David Lange was eventually settled out of court.
Later TVNZ asked Scott to write, direct and present Reluctant Revolutionary. The documentary marked 20 years since Lange had become Prime Minister. After persuading many of Lange's colleagues and former foes to front up for interviews, Scott found that "awe and affection were mixed up with exasperation and sorrow."
By now television was keeping him busy indeed. The same year Reluctant Revolutionary debuted (2004), Scott provided the comical script for Hurricane Brash, which provided a fly-on-the-wall glimpse of Don Brash’s first 100 days leading the National Party. The previous year Scott wrote and presented documentary Cartoonists Inc, and made his directorial debut with documentary Hillary on Everest, a shortened international version of A View from the Top — the award-winning four-parter he'd written in 1997.
As Scott details in his autobiography, his involvement with Edmund Hillary began out of the blue, when the two were invited to a 1990 sesquicentenary event in Australia. Within a day Hillary offered him the rights to his life story, having turned down many other contenders. Scott was "staggered, thrilled and terrified". He tried pitching a movie version to four studios in Hollywood, and won interest from director Peter Jackson.
Meanwhile TVNZ programme commissioner Mike Lattin told Scott that a four episode documentary on Hillary made far more sense than one. Scott would travel with Sir Ed in North America, the South Pole and his beloved Nepal, where Hillary survived a serious bout of altitude sickness.
Ultimately the movie version became a six-part miniseries. In 2017 Scott was nominated for an NZ Television Award for Best Script, for the Danny Mulheron directed Hillary.
Mulheron and Scott were old friends; they'd set up production company Direct Hit back in 2003. Clutching at ideas to excite TVNZ executive Tony Holden, they finally managed to get him laughing thanks to Mulheron’s un-PC character Mr Gormsby. The result was schoolteacher tale Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby. Co-written by Mulheron, Scott and Dave Armstrong, it was a rare Kiwi comedy show to win an Australian TV slot. The Sydney Morning Herald called it “quick-witted" and "darkly funny”. Scott and Mulheron were also behind two Moa-nominated TV movies: Rage and The Kick, about the legendary final of the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
Scott wrote Rage with brother-in-law, policeman Grant O’Fee. The two had previously co-written 1998 police telemovie Tiger Country, which at one point looked like it might become a TV series. O’Fee was a Detective Sergeant during the Springbok tour, while Scott campaigned against apartheid at high school. Said O’Fee: "I think that's what we've both achieved: both the perspective of protesters and the perspectives of police are shown. Ultimately the villain of the story is apartheid.”
In 2009 a script Scott had been developing for over two decades finally became his second movie, Separation City. Directed by Paul Middleditch, the comedy-drama examines what happens after a married couple (Australian actor Joel Edgerton and Danielle Cormack) fall out of love. Scott credits the film’s funding to the dogged enthusiasm of Aussie producer Mark Overett. Scott and the cast talk about the movie here.
Scott has also spent time on the writing team of McPhail and Gadsby, puppet show Public Eye, and political satire Spin Doctors. In 1990 he demonstrated comedy was not his only talent, after winning an award for scripting a promotional film about Electrocorp, Our Future Generation.
Scott has varied scripts on the go, including a movie adaptation of his play The Daylight Atheist. As he told North and South in 2017, "I'll have to live to 105 to finish everything I want to do".
Profile written by Ian Pryor; updated on 18 January 2021
Tom Scott, Drawn Out (Auckland: Allen & Unwin, 2017)
'Tom Scott - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 23 August 2019. Accessed 31 March 2020
'Tom Scott - from portraits to production' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen Website. Director Ian Pryor Loaded 27 August 2009. Accessed 30 January 2020
Tom Scott, 'Sir Ed: big man, good man' - The Dominion Post, 15 January 2008, page B5
Jane Bowron, ‘Orthodoxy and the cult of Gormsby’ (Review of Seven Periods with Gormsby) - The Dominion Post, 2005
Lesley Ann Low, ‘tv previews' (Review of Seven Periods with Gormsby) - The Sydney Morning Herald (The Guide section), 24 November 2005, page 14
Bess Manson, 'Doing right by Sir Ed' (Interview) - The Dominion Post, 20 August 2016, page C2
Joseph Romanos, ‘The Wellingtonian interview: Tom Scott’ - The Wellingtonian, 8 April 2010
Kimberley Rothwell, '1981 Revisited' (Interview) - The Dominion Post, (TV Week section) 30 August 2011, page 4
Lesley Stevens, Footrot Flats The Dog's (Tail) Tale - The Making of the Movie (Lower Hutt: Inprint Limited, 1986)
Pamela Stirling, 'Back to the front' (Interview) - The Listener, 22 April 1995
Joanna Wane, 'Tom Scott' (Interview) - North & South, December 2017, page 77
'Tom Scott -Cartoonist/writer' Arts Foundation website. Accessed 30 January 2020
'Tom Scott' Creative Giants of Palmerston North website. Accessed 30 January 2020
'Something to offend everyone - Masskerade 1969' - Massey, April 2002, page 15