By 1990, Billy T James, NZ’s most loved comedian, was recovering from a heart transplant - and trying his hand as a sitcom actor. His career was based on one liners and stand-up gags - but this Billy T James Show was a series of 26 half hour family based comedies with a clear debt to The Cosby Show. Billy was cast as a radio DJ with an Australian wife (Ilona Rodgers) and two daughters - but the trademark giggle was absent, the humour was gentler and the series never captured the public imagination. It was to be his last TV series — Billy T James died in 1991.
This seven-part documentary series examines New Zealand as a nation of migrants. The original idea behind the show was to concentrate on upbeat personal stories. But many of the completed episodes go wider, balancing modern day interviews with a broader historical view of each group's immigrant experience down under. Immigrant Nation saw camera crews travelling to Europe, China, Sri Lanka and Samoa. Stories of escape, longing and prejudice are common - along with a feeling of having a foot in two worlds. An Immigrant Nation screened on TV One.
This three part mini-series is loosely based on the remarkable tour by the NZ Natives rugby team which played 107 games in Australasia and Great Britain in 1888-89. At its heart is a cross-cultural love story between Pony — the grandson of a chief and one of the side’s stars — and Charlotte: the granddaughter of an English Earl (Ian Richardson of House of Cards fame). The tour provided the first exposure to Māori for many in the UK. The interaction could be uncomfortable but even more so when affairs of the heart threatened the cultural divide.
Keith Aberdein devised Epidemic after being given the brief to write a drama about “disease coming into New Zealand”. Set in a small North Island town where race relations are strained to breaking point, this four part virus outbreak thriller revolves around Māori tāpū and an archaeological dig which locals are worried will disturb the graves of their ancestors. An accomplished cast (Martyn Sanderson, Don Selwyn, Cathy Downes) helped the series break bicultural-themed TV drama ground as European education and culture, and Māori tradition and spirituality collide.
Presented by Phil Keoghan shortly before he left for the US (later to achieve fame as host of Amazing Race) Short Sportz was a early 90s TV3 sports show encouraging kids to get involved in sports. It looked at sports news and science and profiled established and rising stars (including young Wainuiomata rugby league star Tana Umaga). Keoghan often kitted up himself Paper Lion-style, to capture the thrill of the game, including hurtling down the luge, paragliding, taking pitches from the Black Sox, and cycling with future ironman champion Cameron Brown.
The Governor was a television epic that examined the life of Governor George Grey in six thematic parts. Grey's "Good Governor" persona was undercut with laudanum, lechery and land confiscation. NZ TV's first (and only) historical blockbuster was hugely controversial, provoking a parliamentary inquiry and "test match sized" audiences. It won a 1978 Feltex Award for Best Drama. Auckland Star reviewer Barry Shaw trumpeted: "It has made Māori matter. If Pākehā now have a better understanding of the Māori point of view [...] it stems from The Governor.
Launched in February 1974, Spot On was an award-winning education-focused magazine programme for children. Presenters who got their break on the beloved show included Ian Taylor, Danny Watson, Phil Keoghan and Ole Maiava. Keoghan went on to global fame as host of The Amazing Race; Taylor now heads up Taylormade Productions and Animation Research Ltd. The show was created by Murray Hutchinson. Producer Michael Stedman later became head of the Natural History Unit. Peter Jackson and Robert Sarkies entered Spot On’s annual Young Filmmaker competition.
Life in the Fridge Exists was a late 80s/early 90s teen magazine show that ranged from celebrity interviews to profiles of young artists and athletes, and health education (presented by Dr Watt, aka radio presenter Grant Kereama). The Christchurch-based show saw early appearances by comedian/actor Oscar Kightley (in his screen debut), Amazing Race presenter Phil Keoghan, future Lotto host Hilary Timmins, and broadcasters Kerre McIvor (née Woodham) and Bernadine Oliver-Kerby. Life in the Fridge Exists was also the name of a short-lived Wellington band.
Asia Downunder was a weekly magazine programme for and about the Asian population in New Zealand. The long-running series featured a range of stories from news and issues to profiles, arts, sport, business and travel. Asia Downunder was produced and presented by Korean-born Melissa Lee (later a National Party MP) and a small team of reporters. Asia Downunder began screening on TV ONE in 1994 and ran for 19 seasons, until 2011. Later producers included Chris Wright and Kadambari Gladding.
Long-running travel series Intrepid Journeys took Kiwi celebrities (from All Blacks to music legends to ex-Prime Ministers) from the comfort of home to less-travelled paths in varied countries and cultures. The Jam TV series debuted in 2003 on TV One. With its authenticity and fresh, genre-changing take on a travel show (focusing on personal experience rather than objectivity), Intrepid Journeys was a landmark in local factual television. It managed to achieve the rare mix of high ratings and critical acclaim.