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Gliding On

Television, 1981–1985

The writer's perspective

Gliding On was turned down twice by television. One of the times it was turned down was because it was ”too radio”. It was “too radio” because it had by that stage been a radio series, and when TV asked for storylines I couldn’t be bothered writing out storylines for scripts that already existed. So I said “here are the radio scripts; the stories are all there.” Bad mistake.

I think the first time it was turned down the reason was: “Not a good sitcom situation”. I couldn’t believe it. It was the perfect sitcom situation! Six characters, and one set. Were they mad? Yes!

And just in case you don’t know, this all came about because in 1976 I wrote a play called Glide Time, set in the Stores Branch of a nameless government department. Almost everyone was a public servant in the 1970s: teachers, nurses, airline staff, railways...as well as those who worked in the numerous government departments. And if you weren’t you probably worked in the bank or insurance, where the working conditions were almost identical.

The play took off all round the country. It started at Circa Theatre in Wellington and had to be transferred to the Opera House. In Auckland, it had three seasons at the Mercury Theatre. People just loved it. Husbands were dragged reluctantly to the theatre by their wives and laughed themselves silly. This was a world everyone knew and they hadn’t seen it on stage before.

I mention the play partly because all my TV sitcom series have started out as plays. Which means, by the time I write that first episode, I know the characters very well — I have a flying start.

I was grateful to radio for doing it (I think it was Davina Whitehouse who got it up and running); and then grateful to Tony Holden, as many of us should be. Tony did so much for comedy on TV over many years. It was Tony who set up the one that was most fun to write for, Spin Doctors.

In the end Gliding On got through via that most sensible of launching pads, a series of one-offs, with the best one (or maybe two) going on to be series. (Steptoe and Son got there by the same route).

For the pilot we had many of the same cast as for the original stage show: Ross JollyRay Henwood, and Michael Haigh as the perfect archetypal Kiwi joker.

The theme for the pilot was 'Mystery Envelopes', the popular fund-raising scheme of that era. If you bought an envelope, you got a prize, even if it meant driving to Levin for a cup of Cona coffee. And what Jim won was “a free massage in the comfort of your home or office”. No way was Jim going to bring a masseuse home to meet Mabel, so she had to turn up at the office after work. And everyone else stayed on to watch the fun.

Jim is stretched out on the desk with Dorothy McKegg walking up and down his spine. He gasps out, “Do you do extras?” “What!” cried Dorothy. “From up here?”

The first episode proper combined two then current themes; workplace safety, and what was then the first stirrings of reducing (let alone banning) smoking in the workplace.

Beryl, in her mild way of protesting, places a cardboard sign on Jim’s desk that read “Thank you for not smoking”. Jim picks it up, reads it, and then places it in the electric bar heater to get a light for his first ciggie of the day.

Gliding On was hugely popular. (Having just one channel helped!). It ran for five years, 32 episodes in all (including the pilot and a Christmas special). It could have gone on for longer, but in the end, I called a halt. I didn’t want it to outlast its welcome and to hear those words, “Not as good as it used to be.”

It won most of the awards that were going: Best Comedy, Best Direction, Best Male and Female Actor, Best Drama and Best Entertainment at the Feltex Awards...The only award it never won (and I still harbour some resentment over this) was for best script.

Roger Hall is Aotearoa's most successful playwright. His television work includes writing and performing on early sketch series In View of the Circumstances, British comedy Conjugal Rights, and award-winning show Spin Doctors.