Though best known for his satirical cartoons and columns, Tom Scott’s career has also included scripts about neurotic dogs and infidelity, and screen projects involving legendary Kiwis Edmund Hillary and David Lange.
Born in England, Tom Scott, escaped to the Manawatū as a toddler. His Irish parents would later inspire acclaimed stage plays (The Daylight Atheist and Joan). At Massey University he studied to be a vet, but soon downgraded to physiology because he was busy with his "real education as a cartoonist and writer", on various student publications.
Scott almost made a television appearance in 1969, after an invitation to go on current affairs show Gallery to discuss one of the capping magazines he'd edited, Masskerade 69. A Hawke's Bay priest was campaigning to have it banned. Massey's student union recommended Scott not go on air, informing him that if he got sued as a result of his appearance, they couldn't help with legal costs. Later, when current affairs show Nationwide covered a 1974 Labour Party conference, Scott helped his friend John Clarke write some words that took the mickey. Labour Party bosses argued over whether the film crew should be evicted from the hall.
In the 1970s, after selling some cartoons to The Listener, he was among the cadre of talent who became regulars in the magazine thanks to incoming editor Ian Cross. 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, for a piece on which some "key details were incorrect". Muldoon would soon cement Scott's fame, after trying in vain to ban him from joining an overseas press tour. Muldoon's decision won widespread media coverage and criticism. Muldoon later had Scott removed from a Beehive press conference. Scott believes he couldn’t handle “any form of mocking”, though he later mellowed; Muldoon praised Scott’s press gallery comedy Press for Service, and "was quite pleased” with David Lange mini-series Fallout — “he knew it was honest”.
In the 1980s Scott spent time at The Auckland Star, then in 1987 began an extended run with The Evening Post (later the Dominion Post). During the 1990s he won the Qantas Award for Cartoonist of the Year six times.
Scott’s first go at scriptwriting occured after the BCNZ asked him if he had any story ideas. Scott remembered a manipulative anorexic student he had encountered in a psychiatric hospital, while doing night shifts during his university studies. Half-hour drama Inside Every Thin Girl (1979) revolved around life inside a psychiatric unit, and featured Jane Brimilcombe, Peter Hayden, and Rawiri Paratene.
In the early 80s cartoonist Murray Ball asked Scott to help him turn comic strip Footrot Flats into a movie script. The two were both familiar with the rural environs of the Manawatū, and Ball considered Scott New Zealand’s funniest writer. The pair developed the Footrot Flats script over two years, between other projects. Rolling a length of white sheet along the wall of Scott’s living room, they literally built their screenplay from a series of peaks, troughs and pencil sketches. At one point Scott spent six weeks transferring it into a written script, in the process discovering enough material for two and a half films.
By the time Footrot Flats - The Dog’s Tail finally became a big-screen hit in late 1986, Scott had scripted further small-screen projects. Partly inspired by his encounter with Muldoon, he satirised life in the parliamentary press gallery in 1982‘s Press for Service, part of anthology series Loose Enz. It was later reborn in 1986 as a short-lived series. The show can be seen as a loose cousin to Gliding On, and shares some of the same cast-members.
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 would mine his press gallery experience on two notable projects inspired by legendary Prime Ministers. The first was two-part mini-series Fallout, which dramatised events leading from Muldoon calling a snap election in 1984, up to Lange going anti-nuclear. Realising it was "too complex, sprawling and ambitious an undertaking" to do alone, Scott enlisted the help of playwright turned script-writer Greg McGee. The duo won a 1995 TV Guide Television Award for their work. They were also victorious after being sued by Barrie Everard and Rob Fenwick, who were unhappy at being sacked as potential producers of the project. Directed by veteran Chris Bailey, Fallout entailed one of the largest casts of any local production yet made. Ian Mune was also awarded for his portrayal of Robert Muldoon.
Later TVNZ asked Scott to write, direct and present 2004's Reluctant Revolutionary, to mark 20 years since Lange had become Prime Minister. Scott managed to persuade many of Lange's colleagues and former foes to front up for interviews. He found that "awe and affection were mixed up with exasperation and sorrow." By now television was keeping him busy indeed. The same year he provided the comical script for Hurricane Brash, which provided a fly-on-the-wall glimpse of Don Brash’s first 100 days as National Party leader. In the same period Scott wrote and presented documentary Cartoonists Inc, and made his directorial debut with Hillary on Everest, a shortened international version of A View from the Top, the award-winning, four-part series he'd written in 1997.
As Scott details in 2017 memoir Drawn Out, his involvement with Edmund Hillary had begun out of the blue in 1990, when the two met en route to a sesquicentenary event in Australia. Within 24 hours Hillary had offered Scott the rights to his life story, having already turned down many other contenders. Scott was "staggered, thrilled and terrified all at once". He flew to Hollywood to try to win interest in a proposed movie version; director Peter Jackson expressed interest. Scott was on a plane when a fellow passenger, TVNZ programme commissioner Mike Lattin, told him that a four episode documentary on Hillary made far more sense than one. Scott would follow Sir Ed to North America, the South Pole and his beloved Nepal, where Hillary had a worrying bout of altitude sickness.
Ultimately the dramatised version of Hillary's life would come to the screen as a mini-series. In 2017 Scott was nominated for an NZ Television Award for Best Script, for the Danny Mulheron directed Hillary.
Mulheron and Scott had set up production company Direct Hit way back in 2003. Casting around for a project to excite TVNZ executive Tony Holden, they managed to get him laughing thanks to Mulheron’s un-PC character Mr Gormsby. The result was school-set comedy Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby, co-written by Mulheron and Scott, a rare Kiwi television comedy to win an Australian TV slot. The Sydney Morning Herald called it “quick-witted" and "darkly funny”.
2009 saw the completion of a circle — the feature film script Scott had been developing for over two decades finally came to the screen as Separation City. Directed by Paul Middleditch, the comedy-drama examines what happens when a married couple (Danielle Cormack and Australian actor Joel Edgerton) fall out of love. Scott credits the film’s funding to the doggedness of Aussie producer Mark Overett.
Scott, now named an ONZM, went on to work on 1981 tour tele-movie Rage with brother-in-law Grant O’Fee, the ex policeman he'd collaborated with on the writing of unsuccessful 1998 cop story Tiger Country. O’Fee had been a detective sergeant during the Springbok tour; Scott campaigned against apartheid back at high school. After years debating the tour, Scott suggested the two make a drama out of it. Said O’Fee: "I think that's what we've both achieved: both the perspective of protestors and the perspectives of police are shown. Ultimately the villain of the story is apartheid.”
Profile written by Ian Pryor
Published on 18 February 2009
Updated on 30 March 2018
'Tom Scott - from portraits to production' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen Website. Director Ian Pryor (Uploaded 27 August 2009). Accessed 19 January 2011
Tom Scott, Drawn Out (Auckland: Allen & Unwin, 2017)
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)
'Tom Scott -Cartoonist/writer' Arts Foundation website. Accessed 30 March 2018
'Tom Scott' Creative Giants of Palmerston North website. Accessed 30 March 2018
'Something to offend everyone - Masskerade 1969' - Massey, April 2002, page 15