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The Champion

Television, 1989

Going Back to the Creek

For Maurice Gee, certain words have a special power. Especially nouns. Two words in particular are so important to him, that he has named books after them. They have fuelled a number of his stories — including his script for The Champion.

Gee is well aware that "creek" and "kitchen" are ordinary words. But in his case they have a "special potency" partly because they connect to his past. Gee grew up in Henderson, west of Auckland, in the 1930s and 40s, when it was still a country town, rather than part of a sprawling city. He spent so much of his childhood swimming, fishing, and playing in the local creek, that decades later he was still able to imagine what long sections of it looked like.

 The Champion writer Maurice Gee. All photos courtesy TVNZ

The creek represented adventure and play — but also danger. He wasn't meant to visit alone. Thankfully there was always the option to run home. That's where the kitchen came in; for Gee, the kitchen was "the warm safe place", where his mother would be making some stew on the wood-fuelled range, or writing a story late at night, while warming her feet from the last heat inside the stove. "Creek" and "kitchen" are the two poles Gee moved between, during his childhood; they connect to memory and morality, and have provided creative fuel. "They underline for me the essential duality that every writer must know: familiarity/mystery, safety/danger, dark/light, good/evil". 

In 1987, TVNZ called, hoping that lightning could strike twice. Gee's previous kidult script The Fire-Raiser had recently won acclaim, audiences and awards. TVNZ were keen to repeat that success — although Fire-Raiser producer Ginette McDonald reassured Gee that he wouldn't be expected to "attempt too strenuously to reproduce the unique ingredients" of the earlier show. 

Gee came up with The Champion. It follows three 12-year-olds who live in the town of Kettle Creek, which is much like Henderson used to be — and especially Rex Pascoe, who is disappointed to discover that the American soldier his mother has arranged to stay with them for some R&R is "a negro". The story contained many elements from Gee's childhood, including the creek, the kitchen and the mangrove swamp — and memories of shooting the enemy with his BB gun, while American soldiers walked the streets of his town, handing out bubblegum.  

    The Pascoe family: Gloria (Meredith Braun), Alf (Alistair    Douglas), Rex (Milan Borich), and Bernice (Sarah Peirse). 

The show is pacy and often light-hearted; but it also touches on darker issues like mortality, what makes a hero, and racism (Rex's friends — one, a part Māori girl, one a Dalmation boy, both face insults about their ethnicity). As writer Rachel Barrowman has pointed out, most of the main characters are "in some way outsiders". The show itself was arguably an outsider too. It was the last in-house drama made by TVNZ before they turned to outsourcing their drama productions. Director Peter Sharp has argued that the show's budget was pared back, and the finished series given little publicity and a bad time slot. 

For Gee, typing the final scene didn't mean the end of the story. After finishing seven half-hour scripts, he got over his earlier doubts the material was too personal, and spent much of 1988 refashioning the story as a novel. Publishers Penguin Books managed to rush his novel of The Champion into stores before the show debuted in October 1989. The book was also published in the United Kingdom. American publisher Houghton Mifflin rejected it, unsure why Gee had chosen to transplant "an American situation onto a New Zealand stage" when he could have been focussing on racial prejudice in New Zealand.

Gee was proud of the result. He felt it was the first time he'd managed to create a fully rounded child character in his children's writing.

- Ian Pryor is editor of NZ On Screen. 

Sources include
Maurice Gee, Creeks and Kitchens - A Childhood Memoir (Wellington, Bridget Williams Books, 2013)
Maurice Gee, Memory Pieces (Wellington, Victoria University Press, 2018)
Rachel Barrowman, Maurice Gee - Life and Work (Wellington, Victoria University Press, 2015)

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