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It's been described as iconic, "the jewel in the crown of New Zealand television", and it's been around for over four decades. Yes, we're talking about Country Calendar.
In reality, the programme is something of an enigma. There's no electronic editing enhancement, background music is minimal, the pace is bordering on slothful. Yet, even after 40 years on air, Country Calendar still attracts a large audience. It's been voted the most popular New Zealand programme by viewers for the past four years.
But ask people which programmes they remember, and inevitably the answer is "the spoofs"; the radio-controlled dog; the farmer who played the fence; the overtly gay couple who ran a "stress-free" flock of sheep. Before we go any further, it's necessary to debunk one popular myth. Country Calendar did NOT screen 'Turkeys in Gumboots'. That accolade should be laid at the feet of Town and Around where it rightfully belongs.
So how did this leg-pulling reputation get established?
To answer that, it's necessary to step back in time, to the 60s. Within the old NZ Broadcasting Corporation was a group known as the Rural Broadcasters, who were scattered throughout New Zealand and responsible for producing the daily farming programmes. They were an independent lot with perhaps a little too much time on their hands. Or perhaps the job attracted a certain calibre of talent with an eye for the ridiculous. Whatever, they regularly broadcast such items as haggis farming, macaroni growing and mouse farming, to name just a few.
Now, push the fast-forward button and stop at the mid 70s. By then, the old NZBC had been disestablished and in its place were the two separate entities, Radio New Zealand and Television New Zealand, the latter based at Avalon Studios. Heading the now well-established programme Country Calendar was Tony Trotter, one of those ex Rural Broadcasters; a delightful man, with a quirky sense of humour.
Now enters Burton Silver who meets with Tony Trotter. Burton had already established himself as the cartoonist behind the very popular Bogor cartoon strip, featuring a pot-smoking hedgehog!
It was a liaison based in heaven, or was that hell? Regardless, out of that meeting came the fence-playing farmer (which screened on 18 December 1977) — and the beginning of a series of spoof programmes that got the whole country talking. Then followed the radio-controlled dog, stress-free farming, rural fashions, and more...
Screening these programmes was not without incident. The viewing public was happy to have their legs pulled by the fence-playing farmer, but there was just a little too much reality in the programme about the radio-controlled dog. Dozens of phone calls poured into Avalon, with people complaining about how "inhumane" it was to interfere with "that poor dog". Even the then Director-General of Television New Zealand, Alan Morris, was fooled. By this stage I had taken over the Country Calendar producing reins, and recall being asked by Morris for more details about this remarkable "breakthrough" in farming! Best of all though was the postgraduate student from Australia who wanted to include the programme in his thesis on animal behaviour!
At that time Country Calendar was a 15 minute programme, which made it simpler to sustain a spoof. The essence was to include just sufficient 'facts' to leave the viewer wondering. They were also expensive to produce. Burton Silver starred in a couple of these programmes, but most of the time, the production employed professionals to act as 'farming' talent.
The last Country Calendar spoof was 'Night Farming', a story based around the 'fact' of a grass species which grew 24 hours of the day. Therefore the property needed to be run by two farmers; one to cover the day shift, another to farm at night. But by now, Country Calendar had graduated to a half hour format. I recall that the programme had some delightful moments but was really a bit of a fizzer. Maybe it was the extended format, perhaps the viewing audience were now too sophisticated to be conned, or the programme suffered from not having Burton's input.
Whatever the reasons, it's unlikely that we'll ever again be taken in by another Country Calendar spoof. Or will we? Reckon we'll just have to keep watching. Just in case!
- Frank Torley worked on Country Calendar as a reporter, director, gravel-voiced narrator and longtime producer. In 2002 the ex stock and station agent was honoured with an Order of NZ Merit for his broadcasting work. 'Mr Country Calendar' died on 27 March 2016, weeks after the show turned 50.
Note: Some will argue that the first spoof edition of Country Calendar occured long before December 1977's fence-playing farmer; in 1974, John Clarke's character of Fred Dagg featured in a comedy-heavy Country Calendar episode.
In many countries that produce television, you can often find one or two shows off in a corner, away from their stablemates. The shows I'm talking about are rarely about bells, whistles, and any kind of spectacle; instead these programmes are rocks, in a world marked by change and the constant threat of cancellation. They just are.
Country Calendar is one such show. Even the title is a sign of solidity, with its reminders of the routine and the grand. Over a history spanning 50 years, it has won all major domestic awards in its categories (from Feltex to Qantas) plus gongs at international festivals.
Still, it would be wrong to say that New Zealand's longest-running programme was born perfectly-formed. When pipe-smoking radio man Fred Barnes introduced the first episode on 6 March 1966, back in the talking head days of television, the emphasis was on interviews and rural news (though it featured short shot-on-location segments, right from the start). The show had been requested by Broadcasting's Director-General Gilbert Stringer — and despite protestations to the contrary, the intended audience was farmers. During Barnes first big interview, the show's Italian producer caused consternation by insisting on dimming the lights every time a question was asked (see clip, two minutes into 40 Years of Country Calendar).
In the 70s, producer Tony Trotter and director John Whitwell helped drag Country Calendar out of the studio and onto the farm, so each episode could be devoted to a single item. Eventually the studio element was dropped altogether. In the process, Country Calendar found the relaxed approach that has made it a ratings winner over 50 years. And not just for rural audiences; urban dwellers seem to see in it a taste of the past, or a lifestyle they might have chosen. Country Calendar takes a gentle approach — one where people and places matter, and the reporter and camera stand by the gate observing. Longtime Country Calendar reporter turned producer Frank Torley recalled a film editor telling him that when he worked on Country Calendar and every fibre in his editor's being called to move to the next shot, he made sure to count to three first.
Over the years the show's presenters have included weatherman Jim Hickey, A Dog's Show presenter John Gordon, and actor Peter Hayden. A notable Christmas 1973 episode, directed by Murray Reece, featured legendary farming funnyman Fred Dagg making a rare early appearance, alongside six sons named Trevor. In 1983 Country Calendar even devoted a show ('First Blood, Last Rites') to the filming of the Vincent Ward feature Vigil, on a Taranaki farm (the conclusion of the farmers who helped out: "filmmaking is hard work").
Country Calendar has not lacked for award-winning photography. But really the people are the thing. And they have been everyone from daffodil growers and horsebreakers, to vintners and eel farmers, and moving with the times, organic brewers and adventure tourism operators. As Country Calendar Director Tony Benny has reflected: "what's kept Country Calendar going is people — and some of them have been real characters."
At the end of the season, the Country Calendar team have sometimes changed tack to gentle comedy. Occasionally their efforts even manage to pull the wool over our eyes. Some of the show's best known spoofs are found in this Spoofs Special — like the radio-controlled dog, and the wire fence plucked as a musical instrument.
Country Calendar's extended pedigree has seen it reflecting changes in agriculture — from horseback mustering to organic market gardening — and in television itself. In the increasingly commercially-driven 90s it moved to Saturday nights (after 23 years in a Sunday slot), and a sponsor's name was added to its title. Still, you can shift a rock and slap a shiny sticker on it, but some shows will just keep on keeping on. And long may it be the way.
John Gordon, a Country Calendar reporter from 1976 to 1984, has his own thoughts on why the show has lasted for so long: "Everyone likes to see something that's greener looking, nicer looking, and seems a more peaceful place to live. And occasionally actually stop and admire the fortitude, financial and physical, and the sheer guts that it takes sometimes to farm in New Zealand."
- Ian Pryor is editor of NZ On Screen.