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The Governor

Television, 1977

Politics and Paybacks: The Writer's Perspective

When in the early 1980s it was announced the Governor-General would attend the Circa production of Greg McGee's Foreskin's Lament at the Wellington Opera House, the great but rabid defender of New Zealand morals, Patricia Bartlett, wrote in protest to the Queen. Not only would Her Majesty's representative be confronted with full-frontal male nudity, but among those naked actors would be Keith Aberdein. And, as her letter stressed, he was the one who wrote The Governor!

Bartlett and Prime Minister Robert Muldoon were the high profile enemies-in-chief of the series. At least her motives were pure. Her hatred of The Governor seemed to be predominantly fired up by the series' revisionist destruction of the 'good Governor Grey' myth. The fact that this included his adultery further stoked her obsession with all matters sexual.

As a fellow adulterer and master political manipulator, Muldoon may have identified with Grey. But above all he had scores to settle and power to cling to. It's hard to believe the think-big spender who later took the country to the economic brink cared seriously about the cost of the anything. Some of his allegations about the scandalous waste of money during shooting (subsequently disproved) were fed to him by a variety of agenda-bearers.

The fact that state television did almost nothing to fund independent filmmakers was a cause for righteous anger. The godfather of the private industry was John O'SheaDes Monaghan, TV One's second Controller of Programmes had, despite a general reluctance to invest outside, been talked into giving money to Roger Donaldson's film Sleeping Dogs. Not a good investment and when, some months later, O'Shea asked Monaghan for a TV One contribution to Tony Williams feature Solo, he was declined.

O'Shea and Williams had both worked with Muldoon while filming National Party TV commercials in the 1972 election. For my sins and the money, I was the pretend interviewer. Some years later at a charity cricket match, drinks to hand, I had a brief conversation with the Prime Minister about The Governor. He laughed that laugh and suggested he'd merely been doing our old mate, John O'Shea, a favour.

Favours and paybacks. There were a few of both in the wash-up. Monaghan, as well as inheriting The Governor, had been producer of Gallery in the Brian Edwards days. Muldoon essentially forced him to sue for libel. Against the odds — and the jury — Monaghan won when the judge threw out the initial verdict as a palpable nonsense. From the safety of Sydney — where Monaghan now also operates — it seems that suing Muldoon was almost the last brave act in the history of New Zealand television. Perhaps understandably.

TV One's Head of Drama, Michael Scott-Smith, who fought heroically to protect the series, was forced out of the job as prime scapegoat. TV One Director-General, Alan Morris, arguably the more successful of the two channel chiefs, was passed over when South Pacific's (later TV2) Allan Martin was made sole Director-General of the entire system. Ian Cross was his Chairman. A man of many parts and considerable achievement, Cross as the writer of the novel The God Boy, might have been expected to be an ally of confronting drama. On the evidence he was hardly that. Maybe his own early foray into TV drama writing — not a glorious success — left its scars.

The producer and director of the better episodes, Tony Isaac, refused to go away. But in order to make Iris, the 1980s telefeature about Robin Hyde, he was forced to resign from TVNZ. He died a few years later, only in his 40s.

The other great enduring victim of The Governor was New Zealand TV drama itself. There were many things wrong with the series — some of the writing included — but nothing as risky, ambitious or subversive has appeared since. For almost a decade the country seemed forced to suffer perhaps the worst television system in the English-spoken world. Its leadership — though much better paid — showed as much vision and courage as the men, for they were all male, who'd managed the NZ Broadcasting Corporation.

It's not so much that old men forget, but perhaps they forget too little; that through the distorting lens of time they remember imperfectly; that they recall themselves too close to the barricades. How much any of The Governor wars still matter is moot. For me, however, there is one element that remains worth consideration. May have even made the fight worth it.

Pākehā who make claims for their contribution to the Māori cause are to be viewed with as much suspicion as men who say they're feminists. Therefore I tread softly in coming to what, for me, is the most important legacy of The Governor. Others have commented on what its screening meant for Māori people. I wasn't born a New Zealander. I grew up in East Africa and Ireland, both victims of a colonialism that happened to be British. Even as part of the problem — white, male and nominally Protestant — I'd somehow come to believe there was a deep injustice at the heart of all imperial systems.

Coming to New Zealand in the early 1960s, I was constantly told it enjoyed the best race relations in the world. It may have been true. But eventually, one had to ask: "compared to what?" And "what does that mean?"

At one stage Governor originator Michael Noonan, Tony Isaac and I discussed, not entirely flippantly, the possibility of screening episode four, 'Now We Are One People (He Iwi Tahi Tahou)' exclusively in te reo. We came to the conclusion that was probably a Bridge Pā too far. But along with the opening Hōne Heke/Henry Williams episode, the story of Wiremu Tāmihana (played by Don Selwyn) was, for us all, the defining place to stand.

Isaac and Noonan, with Hamish Keith, had been party to TV series Pukemanu and its first walk in the minefield of racial and cultural conflict. Before that Rudall Hayward and even "our old mate" John O'Shea, had made movies challenging racial simplicities. But a significant majority of white New Zealanders had still nodded comfortable assent to Keith Holyoake's assertion that 'our' Māoris made terrific bulldozer drivers. His implication being: wasn't that enough?

Did The Governor change that? I don't know. Possibly the nodding became less comfortable. There may have been some context for Pākehā, about the Bastion Point protest. And that bloody 1980s rugby tour by our other old mates, the serious racists with whom George Grey had spent time, seemed to bring a few more average white Kiwis on to the streets than we'd expected.

Quite deliberately, and with the arrogance of relative youth, we'd set out to bring down a few flagpoles of our own. But as Hōne Heke understood, flagpole lowering has to be repeated. And it's never enough to destroy the symbols if you cannot change some hearts and minds. Of course, as an old man remembering, I like to think it helped change something about how the country began to resolve the betrayals that white dominance inflicted.

As for New Zealand television drama, I remember reading a claim by a couple of its early writers that Shortland Street was the first show to deal with the country's racial relationships. Oh dear. They may have been from Australia, the only country where New Zealand-made television has the encouragement and legal protection of a local quota.

- Keith Aberdein was fired from current affairs show Compass in 1969 for refusing to rewrite a script. In the 70s he became a scriptwriter, including on early drama Pukemanu, and bicultural thriller Epidemic. He went on to co-write movie Utu and act in Smash Palace, before crossing the Tasman to work in Australian television. 

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