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 classic legal drama Hanlon — which he spent over a decade trying to get on screen. In the early 1980s, after a long period dominated by documentary and current affairs, Tourell began concentrating increasingly on helming drama.
The quantity of drama work littering Tourell's CV likely owes 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 New Zealand television.
Tourell was in love; but despite repeated door knocking by the teen tyro, television initially looked the other way. Not one to turn a rejection into an excuse for moping, Tourell got busy acting onstage. 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 had offered him his TV break, gave him another. "After an hour's 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: the work ranged from live sports to music and Town and Around.
After a brief try at advertising copywriting, Tourell spent the first half of the 70s directing for indie company Reynolds Television. Films for charities and varied educational-style campaigns were an in-house speciality. Tourell directed two anti drink-driving films which played in prime time slots, including the Feltex-nominated On the Day. A reviewer for The Listener was so taken in by the drama, he failed to notice it was part of a drink-driving campaign.
Tourell had begun experimenting with a naturalistic, semi-improvised storytelling style shortly before joining Reynolds. Hello Human Being (1970), 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 scored him his first Feltex Award.
Tourell won a grant from the Queen Elizabeth ll Arts Council to study film and TV drama in North America. Visits to the Los Angeles sets of Happy Days and M*A*S*H* proved "brilliant, creative and rewarding". A few years later Tahiti became base camp for further learning. Originally set to direct a documentary about the salvage of Captain Cook’s anchor, Tourell was instead assigned as right hand man to legendary director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia). Working under Lean proved inspiring and debilitating, depending on prevailing moods and weather patterns. Lean even relocated the anchor to shallower water to get better camera angles.
Although Tourell's American trip 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; so Tourell got busy. In 1980 Moriori won the Feltex Award for Best Documentary. Part historical primer, part personal journey, it followed two grandchildren of the last full-blooded Moriori on a trip to the Chatham Islands to rediscover their heritage. Tourell's doco helped launch a revival of Moriori culture and overturned misconceptions, including that Moriori were a completely separate race from Polynesians. Tourell writes here about recreating a Moriori village, hair-raising boat trips, and locals both helpful and wary.
Another influential documentary followed, when Tourell travelled the nation with Professor Kenneth Cumberland directing five of the 10 episodes of Feltex winning epic Landmarks (including this episode).
Having looked at New Zealand's landscape, Tourell turned his sights to the inner lives of its people. Although earlier projects had mixed drama and documentary elements, the early 80s marked the point where he seriously devoted himself to 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 TVNZ's Head of Drama Ross Jennings.
Hanlon covers 20 years and six cases in the life of Dunedin barrister Alf Hanlon. A rare post-Governor historical drama made on a big budget, the 28 week shoot involved 160 speaking parts. Tourell and writer Ken Catran ignited water cooler discussion with their feature-length pilot, which offered a more sympathetic angle on infamous Southland 'baby farmer' Minnie Dean. American 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 the reviews, and the series dominated the 1986 Gofta Awards 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 1980s had involved almost exclusively local stories. The following decade, reflecting wider trends in the industry, more co-productions entered the mix. The range of accents on-set began to broaden.
In the late 80s Tourell helped produce a trio of family shows for South Pacific Pictures. Back behind the camera again, he got busy directing a range of co-productions. Many involved SPP and Canadian company Atlantis Films (he also produced the first SPP/Atlantis co-pro, soccer drama All For One). Alien encounter tale Boy from Andromeda sold well overseas, while the 'Fortitude' episode of anthology series Kurt Vonnegut’s Monkey House won three US cable TV awards. Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) and Kiwi Yvonne Lawley featured. Tourell was nominated again for Shelley Duvall kid's show Mrs. Piggle Wiggle; on the award-winning Ray Bradbury Theatre he worked with then unknown actors Marton Csokas and Erik Thomson.
The 1990s 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 in order to fit its early evening time slot. It was also the decade he directed the first of 500+ episodes of Shortland Street, and spent 23 joyful days shooting his only feature.
Bonjour Timothy (1995) stars Dean O’Gorman as a high schooler smitten by a French-Canadian exchange student. The movie won awards at the Berlin Film Festival and a children’s festival in Belfast, and Tourell has great memories of hundreds of kids "rolling on the floor with laughter" at Giffoni in Italy, one of the world's biggest children’s festivals. Tourell’s work with a 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.
Profile written by Ian Pryor; updated on 21 November 2022
'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