Wayne Tourell’s career defies easy categorisation. Glance through the awards accumulated from all the varied shows he has directed, and you'll find everything from documentaries to comedies to historical classic Hanlon, which he spent over a decade trying to get on screen. In the 80s, after a long period dominated by documentary and current affairs, Tourell concentrated increasingly on helming drama.
Tourell’s long directing career may owe something to his beginnings. The man Bruce Allpress once described as "an actor's director" originally wanted to act himself. While training at Canterbury Repertory Theatre he got the chance to appear in a 1963 adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, one of the earliest dramas made for NZ television.
Tourell was in love; but despite repeated door-knocking by the teen tyro, television didn't requite. Not one to turn a rejection into an excuse for moping, Tourell got busy acting onstage instead. Soon he was directing and writing plays as well.
In late 1967 Tourell successfully auditioned to present Well I Never, a kids show launching in Dunedin. After a “fantastic” year in front of the cameras, Rod Cornelius, the producer who’d offered him his TV break, gave him another. “With an hours training I was directing On Camera, a half-hour show that went out twice weekly.” As was the norm in those days, the next few years offered fevered on-the-job training in producing and directing: including live sports, music, and Town and Around.
After a brief try at being an advertising copywriter, Tourell spent the first half of the 70s directing for indie company Reynolds Television. Films for charities and varied educational-style campaigns were an inhouse speciality. Tourell directed two anti drink-driving films which played in primetime slots, including the Feltex-nominated On the Day. A reviewer for The Listener was so taken by the drama, he failed to notice the show was part of a drink/driving campaign.
Tourell had begun experimenting with a naturalistic, semi-improvised storytelling style shortly before joining Reynolds. 1970’s Hello Human Being, which predates Paul Maunder’s better-known Gone Up North for a While, dramatised cases of young women who were pregnant or widowed. Actors and non-actors performed together, on location and on the fly. Tourell developed the approach further for Salvation Army reunion tale Missing (1975). The result won a Feltex award.
Tourell’s talent won him a Queen Elizabeth ll Arts Council grant to study film and TV drama in the United States. Time on the Hollywood sets of Happy Days and other shows was "brilliant, creative and rewarding". A few years later Tahiti became basecamp for further filmmaking lessons. Originally set to direct a documentary about the salvage of Captain Cook’s anchor, Tourell instead found himself assigned as righthand man to director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia). Working under the mercurial Lean proved inspiring and debilitating, depending on prevailing moods and weather patterns. Lean even relocated the anchor to shallower water to enable better camera angles.
Though Tourell's QEII grant had coincided with a jump in Kiwi drama output, the drama departments at TV One and the new second channel remained "a closed shop". Not so the documentary department, and Tourell got busy indeed. In 1980 his film Moriori won the Feltex award for best documentary. Part historical primer, part personal journey, it followed two grandchildren of the last fullblooded Moriori on a pilgrimage to rediscover their heritage. The film's screening helped launch a revival of Moriori culture and overturn misconceptions, among them that the Moriori were a completely separate race from Polynesians.
Having told the story of the New Zealand landscape, Tourell turned his sights to the inner lives of its inhabitants. Although earlier projects had mixed drama and documentary elements, the early 80s marked the point where he seriously began to concentrate on directing drama. Sea Urchins, Steel Riders and The Shadow Trader (which he writes about here) all proved solid international sellers. Tourell also enjoyed the high fashion hijinks of Gloss, survived the sleep deprivation of commanding the Telethon '88 broadcast, and as producer, helped develop Open House. But the project that meant most was one he’d been pitching to TV executives for 14 years, before it finally got a sympathetic ear from then Head of Drama Ross Jennings.
Tourell and scriptwriter Ken Catran ignited water cooler discussion with their feature-length pilot, which offered a more sympathetic angle on infamous Southland 'baby farmer' Minnie Dean. US company Paramount pushed Hanlon into profit before launch by buying international rights for US$800,000, based on viewing a rough edit of this episode alone.
Accolades like "flawless", "a triumph", "moving" and "engrossing" peppered Hanlon’s reviews, and the series dominated the 1986 Gofta ceremony. Having run off with every major award, it was also nominated for an International Emmy for best drama. A planned follow-up series did not eventuate.
For Tourell the 80s had involved almost exclusively local stories. The following decade, reflecting wider developments in the industry, more co-productions entered the mix. The range of accents on set began to broaden as a result.
In the late 80s Tourell had helped produce a trio of family shows for South Pacific Pictures. Back behind the camera again, he got busy on a range of co-productions, many involving SPP and Canada’s Atlantis Communications. Alien encounter tale Boy from Andromeda (1990) proved another series with international appeal. An episode of anthology series Kurt Vonnegut’s Monkey House starring Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) and Kiwi Yvonne Lawley earned a US cable television award, and Tourell was nominated again for Shelley Duvall children's series Miss Piggle Wiggle. He also worked with then unknown actors Erik Thomson and Marton Csokas on anthology series Ray Bradbury Theatre.
The 90s marked a decade of firsts. Tourell was picked to direct the all-important first episodes of everything from Maggie’s Garden Show and White Fang to edgy urban drama City Life, a show he feels was compromised to fit its early evening time-slot. It was also the decade he directed the first of what would be 500 plus episodes of Shortland Street, and spent 23 joyful days shooting his debut movie.
Romantic comedy Bonjour Timothy (1995) stars Dean O’Gorman as a high schooler smitten by a French-Canadian exchange student. Tourell has great memories of hundreds of kids “rolling on the floor with laughter” while watching it at one of the largest children’s film festivals in the world. Further awards followed at children’s festivals in Belfast and at the Berlinale. Tourell’s work with the largely teen cast was recognised with NZ Film Award nominations for O’Gorman and future Pluto singer Milan Borich, plus screen Mum Sylvia Rands.
At the turn of the millennium Tourell returned south to spend four years as an executive producer (and occasional director) at powerhouse company NHNZ, before returning to the director’s chair. Two movies are in development.
Profile written by Ian Pryor; updated on 21 December 2020
'Wayne Tourell: Creating landmark television...' NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 19 August 2013. Accessed 19 August 2013
Kevin Brownlow, David Lean (London: Richard Cohen Books, 1996)
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime - A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
Keith Harrison, Review of Hanlon - In Defence of Minnie Dean - The Otago Daily Times, July 1985
Philip Wakefield, Review of Hanlon - In Defence of Minnie Dean - The Evening Post, 20 July 1985
Lee Winfrey, ‘On Cable: Vonnegut Stories and a Look At Serial Killers’ - Inquirer, 3 January 1993
‘Story: Moriori’ Te Ara website. Accessed 19 August 2013