Tony Trotter was arguably the key person in the evolution of Country Calendar from the show it was when it first began. Producer Frank Torley, who spent decades working on the rural show, credited Trotter as being the person who shaped it into the form it has kept for more than 40 years. Trotter steered the programme out of the studios, and aimed it more towards general audiences; he also instigated Country Calendar's beloved spoof episodes, and chose the theme music that has opened the show for decades.
Anthony Alexander Sinclair Trotter came to television late, after time on the farm. The son of a country doctor, Trotter grew up in the North Otago town of Herbert. After time flying planes for the Royal New Zealand Air Force — he joined in 1943, at age 18 — Trotter would spend another two decades farming in the province.
In 1965, around the age of 40, Trotter realised it was time to make a decision. The farm was never going to be a world beater. A newspaper advertisement for a radio job in Timaru provided a signpost to another career. A year later after arriving in Timaru, he moved on to spend two years as a rural broadcaster in Invercargill.
During this period Trotter began writing scripts and contributing items to television show Country Calendar, which Fred Barnes had launched in 1966. "I used to go out with a local cameraman, and we’d shoot all sorts of things," Trotter recalled. After a year or so, Barnes told Trotter he better come on up to Wellington. Once there, Trotter mixed work on the show with a live midday interview slot on the National Programme.
Derek Morton did a number of years producing Country Calendar in the late 60s, and found himself as boss to the "older, wiser" Trotter. Morton remembers him as "calm, decent, alert, inquisitive and often funny" — typifying the Kiwi quality of doing solid work with little fuss or publicity seeking. "He became a consummate screen storyteller with a clear no-nonsense style, reflecting the sound no-nonsense people who were the subjects, and setting the tone of the show."
In the 70s change was in the air. Avalon studios were being built on the edge of Wellington, and Country Calendar was set to be one of the first local shows to screen in colour. Realising that the state broadcaster wa about to split radio and television, Trotter signed up for an in-house producer’s course. Afterwards, as Trotter put it, he "left radio overnight and became a producer".
In 1974 Trotter was assigned to Country Calendar as “righthand man” to producer John Whitwell. Within a year Whitwell had moved on to other projects, leaving Trotter in sole charge. He then made the "fairly big call" to aim the show more towards a general audience, shifting from its former style of being a studio based magazine show aimed at farmers. From then on the show devoted each episode to one story, and rarely returned indoors.
Frank Torley, who would later take over the Country Calendar reins from Trotter in the 1980s, described the change like this: "The premise up till then was that we were supposedly the experts, we told the story. But Tony Trotter said: 'No, let's talk to the farmers, let's get their point of view and let them tell the story.' It worked, and that's what we're still doing.”
After a search in the Avalon music library, Trotter also introduced long-running theme tune 'Hillbilly Child', an instrumental written by Brit Alan Moorhouse.
Trotter felt that many Country Calendar stories changed on their way to the screen: whether during filming, or later, in the editing suite. "You’d go down thinking you were shooting one story and find another one. If I had any skill at all, it was in standing still and thinking 'what is the real story, what exactly is this programme saying'. Very often the story ended up being the farmer, rather than the farm or the muster."
In 1977 Trotter also came up with the idea for the first of Country Calendar's famous end of year spoofs, inspired by farming memories of being able to "strum a newly wired fence and make it hum" — although he made it clear that reporter Peter Hayden and cartoonist Burton Silver deserved the credit for bringing the show to life. Silver later remembered Trotter as "a great producer with a mischievous mind".
Trotter felt that talent always told in the long run. "Anyone that was good, it soon showed up. It was very hard to teach." One such talent was Country Calendar reporter John Gordon. Trotter got him in to provide the shrewd, colourful commentary for unexpected hit show A Dog’s Show, based around a farmer and sheepdog facing off against some sheep. Said Trotter: "You don’t let talent like that go to waste".
Trotter left rural programmes in the early 80s. Among a wide variety of producing and executive producing roles, he worked on documentary slot Contact, Tipene O'Regan presented documentary series Mana Whenua - Natural World of the Māori, and spent time in children’s programming (which he "enjoyed tremendously"). In this period Trotter headed down to Dunedin to become executive producer at the Natural History Unit (later NHNZ), where he won two Feltex awards as producer of NHU flagbearers Wildtrack and Wild South.
Tony Trotter retired in 1989. He died in Dunedin on 9 March 2016, at the age of 91.
Profile written by Ian Pryor
Chris Trotter, 'Antony Alexander Sinclair (Tony) Trotter: 1924 - 2016' Bowalley Road website. Loaded 9 March 2016. Accessed 29 March 2016
Infofind - Radio New Zealand Library
Scott Kara, 'That's country' – NZ Herald (Time Out pullout), 5 March 2005
Kathryn Stewart, 'Rural yarns turn into longest running TV show' (broken link) TVNZ website. Accessed 20 May 2013
Frank Torley, 'The Producer's Perspective' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Loaded 9 October 2009. Accessed 29 March 2016
'Hyndai Country Calendar' TVNZ website. Accessed 29 March 2016