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Profile image for Tony Isaac

Tony Isaac

Director, Producer

Director and producer Tony Isaac — who died in 1986 — was passionately committed to making programmes that reflected a New Zealand voice.

Tony Isaac joined the New Zealand Broadcasting Service in the 60s. He won awards for his writing for radio and theatre, acted himself at Wellington's Downstage theatre, and spent time as a cameraman and editor. Isaac also made a number of proposals for television programmes involving a strong Māori component, only to be told they were too ambitious.

By the late 60s Isaac was working as a producer and director, on everything from music to current affairs, to writing this ambitious documentary about the state of New Zealand. But his interests lay mostly in drama, and on many TV dramas to come he would take on the dual role of director/producer.

In 1971 Isaac worked on Pukemanu, the country's first ongoing drama series. Set amongst a bicultural community of mill workers in a North Island forestry town, Pukemanu proved a creative hothouse for a number of emerging Kiwi talents, both on and off screen. As well as producing, Isaac directed four episodes, including the second episode and the double Feltex award-winning Charlie's Rock, which ended the first series. The episode explores what occurs when a tribal landmark gets in the way of plans to expand the mill. 

Pukemanu was important in another respect: it marked the beginning of an enduring collaboration between Isaac and scriptwriter Michael Noonan. The duo would work together on The Longest Winter, Richard John Seddon - Premier, pioneering local soap Close to Home and historical epic The Governor.

Following Pukemanu, Isaac went on to direct for probation officer drama Section 7. According to an obituary written by Noonan in 1986, Isaac was then kicked out of the NZBC drama department, after refusing to direct plays by foreign writers, and arguing that New Zealand should concentrate on "finding its own voice and its own images".

It must have partly come out in the wash, because Isaac's next productions were Feltex award-winners: 1973‘s Richard John Seddon - Premier, a documentary based on the long-serving Prime Minister, and three-parter The Longest Winter, based on New Zealand's experience of the Great Depression.

Over three episodes, The Longest Winter personalised the social impact of the depression, thanks to a cast of characters who were involved in a jewellery business and a boot-making factory.

Close to Home, New Zealand's first soap opera, launched in May 1975. The initial proposal was to make a five nights a week flagship soap. But in the end, two nights a week seemed more realistic. Michael Scott-Smith, head of drama at the newly born TV One, offered the project to the Isaac/Noonan team. They agreed to devise a concept and create the first 26 episodes, on one condition: they got to make a historical series about Governor George Grey in return.

Noonan and Isaac's "friendly blackmail" would result in one of the landmark series in the history of New Zealand television: The Governor. The six-part epic examined the life of controversial Governor George Grey, using multiple perspectives and timeframes. Isaac worked closely on the show with Noonan and scriptwriter Keith Aberdein.

The Governor was partly intended to challenge long-held myths about New Zealand's history and egalitarian ideals. Aberdein later recalled: "I don't think Tony or I ever pretended this was only entertainment...we both believed that the best writing, the best drama, was subversive".

Aside from the demands of producing a series whose battle scenes and general scale had few Kiwi precedents, Isaac also directed two key episodes — 90-minute opener The Reverend Traitor, and fourth episode He Iwi Ko Tahi Tatou, which most fully realised the aim of incorporating Māori perspectives into its making and telling. The episode marked one of the earliest times a New Zealand TV drama made extensive use of te reo (1974's Uenuku was probably the first). Hugh Macdonald, who directed two of the other episodes, remembers Isaac as "a lovely guy" who sometimes literally worked all night while hardly eating.

The Governor ignited all manner of reaction. As Isaac told The Auckland Star, "we have had letters, phone calls, reported conversations in buses and trains and people telling us what they'd heard at their work. The ratings revealed that at its peak The Governor rated higher than any other New Zealand production, and averaged 50% of the viewing population, the sort of rating you normally only get for rugby tests or Olympics."

The show also entered the political arena when Prime Minister Robert Muldoon launched an attackbefore its debut over cost overruns, which he used to further his argument that TV One and South Pacific Television should be amalgamated. When Television New Zealand replaced the semi-independent TV One and SPTV corporations with a complementary two-channel system in 1980, Isaac was passed over as head of the new drama department. Keith Aberdein argues the decision may have been partly out of fear that Isaac would keep "pushing at them with ambitious, important and therefore troublesome projects".

The off-screen battles over The Governor did not keep Isaac down for long. The year after its debut he produced the series All Things Being Equal and directed episodes of Keith Aberdein's rural drama Rachel, starring Barbara Ewing. He was also encouraging Māori playwright Rowley Habib in writing his first works for television. In 1980 Isaac produced and directed Hapipi's teleplay, The Gathering  — the first time Māori had written directly for the screen. The drama explored conflicts over where a Māori woman should be buried. Close to Home actor Jim Moriarty featured.

In 1981 Isaac began work on a series of one-off dramas for television, grouped together under the title Loose Enz. The dramas ranged from the comedic yet controversial The Venus Touch to The Protestors, a story about Māori activists under pressure. He would also take turns directing episodes of popular dramas Inside Straight and Roche.

For many years, Isaac had worked on an ambitious television project based around themes of war and pacifism, based on some Kiwi written accounts of WWI. One of the books was Robin Hyde's Passport to Hell. None of these projects would make it to the screen. But working with writer Keith Aberdein, Isaac took some of his research and directed a tele-movie bio on Hyde herself, a woman whose short life encompassed spells as a war correspondent and time in a mental hospital.

Iris (Robin Hyde was a pseudonym) starred Helen Morse and John Bach. The 1984 tele-movie included a modern day framing story which explored some of the challenges of dramatising another person's life. The following year Isaac wrote a guest editorial for Onfilm, recalling his first encounter with television, and critiquing the "petrified pragmatism" and lack of vision of modern day TV administrators.

Tony Isaac died on 4 May 1986, of cancer. That year he was made recipient of the Rudall Hayward award at the GOFTAs, for "outstanding achievement".

Says Tony's wife Joan: "Tony's drive was to tell New Zealand stories — why do anything else? Not a popular view back in the day, when the cultural cringe was strong and our television drama models came from the United Kingdom or America. But The Governor changed that." 

- This profile is drawn partly from an Onfilm obituary by Michael Noonan; last updated on 31 March 2022

Sources include
Joan Isaac
Tony Isaac, 'Guest Editorial' - Onfilm, June 1985, page 2 (Volume 2, no 4)
Hugh Macdonald
Jill McCracken, 'Pukemanu - Mirror of Our Society' - The Listener, 30 August 1971, page 5
Michael Anthony Noonan, 'Tony Isaac' (Obituary) - Onfilm, June 1986, page 28 (Volume 3, no 4)
Barry Shaw, 'Governor Man" How Can PM Judge Without Looking?' (Interview) - The Auckland Star, 7 November 1977