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Hunter's Gold

Television, 1976

Taking a Call from New Zealand

When Kevan Moore, Head of Programmes for the second channel, phoned me in 1975, I imagined it was to do a variety show. After all, it had been Kevan who had got me into television in the first place, plucking me from student revue in Auckland to write jokes for Pete Sinclair and a special for entertainer Ricky May.

“Hello Roger,” he purred, “All is forgiven, time to return. Cold winds are blowing in Australia”. They weren’t of course, but that’s how he spoke: all part of his showman appeal. 

I had resigned from lawyers Russell McVeagh in 1971 and headed to Australia, since I couldn’t get any writing work in drama, even part-time. In those days it all happened out of Wellington. Soon I was writing cop shows for Crawfords and was one of four writers on epic series Power Without Glory. Ironically, I had written more drama for New Zealand television since I’d left: Richard Pearse in 1975, and two episodes of Winners and Losers in 1976.

But back to Kevan Moore. It wasn’t variety that Kevan wanted, but something altogether more surprising: “I’m sending over my man: he’ll tell you”.  

His “man” was none other than John McRae, TV2's new Head of Drama: ex BBC, two Emmys, a New Zealander with an impeccable record, and an irresistible challenge: a big-budget children’s series with a period setting, in 13 half-hours — with cameras rolling in less than six months. 

Children’s why?  It’s less competitive than adult drama, and so international sales are more achievable. Period why? It has a longer shelf life because it doesn’t date. 13 parts why? It’s the minimum the market-place buys.  And shooting so soon?  I have to spend my budget.  Why me? The Crawfords training: you’re trained to write to budget.  And you’re a Kiwi. “Any more questions? You’re wasting time, and time is something I haven’t got”.

Having grown up in Dunedin and Central Otago, the gold rush was an obvious subject. So I fashioned a pitch about a boy who went looking for his father after he failed to return from the goldfields. I  named him Scott Hunter after my nephew. McRae loved it and said go, though the script editor, Graeme Farmer thought the schedule was ridiculous. It was of course, but the die was cast and so McRae moved Graeme onto something else and I was suddenly flying without an editor. “He’ll only slow you down,” said McRae. “Any more questions?”

I wrote an extended storyline so the designer — the brilliant and irrepressible Logan Brewer — could get underway, then produced first drafts of the 13 episodes in seven weeks, all pretty well to budget. Then we finessed after that. It was exhilarating, and the most freedom I ever enjoyed until I established my own production company with Roger Le Mesurier in the early 1980’s.

There was only one moment of conflict: when director Tom Parkinson wanted to kill off Scott’s father in episode 13, after his son had finally found him. But John McRae flew me over and we sorted it out — and thankfully a kidult series didn’t end with a funeral.

The following year, we did it all again with Gather Your Dreams (1978) also directed by Parkinson, the adventures of a travelling vaudeville troupe in the Coromandel during the depression. And the next year as well, the best of them all: Children of Fire Mountain (1979), this time directed by Peter Sharp (who I'd work with again in Australia); a tale of two races set amidst the myth and bubbling mud of the thermal region, at the end of the 19th Century.

Yet another was planned — and scripted in full — in 1980, Raider Of The South Seas, about kids and coastwatchers in the far north during WWll, with a ‘mystery sloop’ that might be an enemy raider. But it was shelved and not made for another ten years, because it was time for John McRae and TV2 to step up to adult drama. 

Sadly, I didn’t participate in any of that, for the Australians were beginning to think I’d gone home and I had to concentrate on projects there. By 1980 I had started my own production company with Le Mesurier (who had produced Gather Your Dreams and Children of Fire Mountain). My Trans-Tasman days were over. Well at least until now: I hope to complete the circle and make a feature film in Wellington next year.  

These days we have a holiday house at Lake Hawea, where I go to write and recharge the batteries four or five times a year. (True, the Maungawera Valley Whisky Appreciation Society is part of the attraction, as is watching the Highlanders win on the big screen at the Lake Hawea pub). But each time I cross the bridge on the Shotover, just downstream from Tuckers Reach, where we built our goldfields town for Hunter’s Gold, I remember with affection our own pioneering days in television. None of us you could call experienced: we were all learning as we went. Five years at Crawfords and the ABC had been a useful apprenticeship, but I was still only thirty-two, as was Logan Brewer. Peter Sharp was a year older, and Le Mesurier five years younger.

Many 100s of hours of television and two feature films later, I cannot recall a more enjoyable adventure than the writing and making of Hunter’s Gold, the first of John McRae’s ‘incubator’ projects that put TV2/South Pacific Television on the map internationally as a reliable supplier of quality family programmes — and helped the rest of us flex our muscles, and prepare for the important ‘grown-up’ drama that lay ahead.

- Roger Simpson wrote pioneering local dramas Hunter's Gold, Gather Your Dreams and Children of Fire Mountain, and an award-winning teleplay on aviator Richard Pearse. Long based in Australia, he has written and produced many TV dramas, and won eight Australian Writers' Guild awards, and four gongs from the Australian Film Institute.  

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