Vincent Burke launched company Top Shelf Productions in 1988 (fellow Top Shelf company director Laurie Clarke first began contributing to the operation in 2002). Burke's resume as a producer includes more than 600 hours of non-fiction programming: from long-running consumer shows Target and What's Really in Our Food?, to media analysis show Media Take, (formerly Media7), and many one-off documentaries.
Burke was born in the South Island town of Waimate, but grew up largely in Hamilton and nearby Tokoroa. At Victoria University he studied music (Burke has played percussion in many Irish groups). He also discovered a passion for research and arts management. Having arranging tours of theatre groups and bands for universities, and done time as an arts administrator, he joined the NZ Film Commission and spent time as a policy advisor.
The job ignited a desire to work in film. As he told Capital Times in 1995, "it seemed to me that of all the areas of artistic endeavour, film was the one that involved the most elements. It seemed to be the most challenging."
In 1988 Burke set up his company Top Shelf Productions, learning on the job by working in various roles including as a runner and helping carry lights. The company began with short film Gordon Bennett, a shaggy dog tale featuring a priceless performance by Andy Anderson as an inept handyman. But their next production provided a better indicator of where Top Shelf would head.
I Want to Die at Home (1990) is the first of many Top Shelf documentaries directed by Burke's then partner Monique Oomen. It tells the story of the people who cared for a woman as she succumbed to liver cancer — and her decision to spend her final days at home. I Want to Die at Home won a jury award at a Montreal Womens Festival in 1991. Another tough topic was HIV-infected child Eve van Grafhorst, subject of 1994 award-winner All about Eve.
Around the same period, the British Film Institute celebrated a century of cinema by commissioning a series of 18 documentaries around the globe, in which selected filmmakers took a personal look at their nation's cinema history. The New Zealand leg of that journey went to Top Shelf, and directors Sam Neill and Judy Rymer. New York Times critic Janet Maslin praised Cinema of Unease as the highlight of The Century of Cinema series. It was invited to the Cannes Film Festival, and was judged Best Documentary at the 1996 NZ Film Awards.
Since then Top Shelf's documentaries have crossed the gamut — from programmes on theologian Lloyd Geering (The Last Heretic) and velvet painting (Sima Urale's Velvet Dreams) to rock band Th' Dudes, and social changes for New Zealand women (The Nineties), to early reality show Flatmates.
Burke has balanced more ambitious projects, such as 90s immigration series An Immigrant Nation, with popular staples like long-running consumer programme Target and Danny Mulheron-hosted car series AA Torque Show. The company's list of award-winners is equally varied. Weight-loss show Downsize Me won three international awards, while 1993 documentary Wahine: The Untold Story, presented by Brian Edwards, scored a Silver Medal at the 1993 New York Festivals Film and Television Awards.
In 2004 Top Shelf joined with producer Ray Waru of Te Reo Television to make documentary series Frontier of Dreams, under the combined banner of Whakapapa Productions. Ranking alongside Kenneth Cumberland's Landmarks as one of the country's largest scale documentary productions to date, the 13-part series used recreations of key events to examine New Zealand history, from New Zealand's geological formation to the new Millennium. Frontier of Dreams won awards at three US festivals.
In 2012 Top Shelf productions were announced as the major shareholder in new free-to-air channel Choice TV, with Burke and Laurie Clarke among the directors. The channel launched on 28 April that year with entertainment, information and lifestyle content. Top Shelf is no longer involved in Choice TV directly, though it still makes some shows for the channel.
Short films aside, Burke's has made few stabs at fictional drama to date. Co-production Flight of the Albatross (1995) centres on the relationship between troubled Māori teen and a visiting German. Scripted by Once Were Warriors scriptwriter Riwia Brown from a book by American Deborah Savage, it was shot on Great Barrier Island. Albatross was a co-production between Top Shelf and companies in Germany and the United Kingdom. Released unsuccessfully in Aotearoa as a feature film, it screened as a TV series in many overseas territories. Reviews crossed the spectrum; it was judged Best Children's Feature Film at the 1997 Berlin Children's Film Festival. Burke also has a credit on Jason Stutter's black comedy Predicament (2010), as co-producer.
Top Shelf also makes promotional, training and industrial films.
Vincent Burke is a past elected head of both SPADA (the Screen Production and Development Association of New Zealand) and the NZ Film and Video Training Board. SPADA named him Industry Champion for 2012.
Profile updated on 22 November 2017
'Vincent Burke: The power of local stories in film and television…' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside Loaded 22 November 2017. Accessed 22 November 2017
Top Shelf Productions website (broken link) Accessed 22 November 2017
Amanda Louise Foot, 'A Portrait of Vincent' (Interview) - Capital Times, 13 September 1995
William Mace, 'Freeview adds new channel' Stuff website. Loaded 10 February 2012. Accessed 22 November 2017