The man in the Dargaville pub turned out to be Keith Bracey, presenter of the local TV regional news magazine programme Town and Around, produced daily by the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation station Northern Television, formerly AKTV2, Auckland. I’m not sure why I had been invited to the Northern Wairoa hotel, and I was a bit embarrassed anyway because we didn’t have a TV then and I hardly knew who Keith Bracey was. I had also never quite got used to New Zealand beer or the “six o’clock swill”, i.e. drinking to excess with colleagues in public. To a deadline. Or at all, really.
Well Keith turned out to be an affable kind of guy, happy to spend NZBC expenses on the locals, presumably on the pretext of boosting viewing figures, even though at the time there was only one TV channel in the country. I remember little of the conversation, except talking about my fall from grace at Dargaville High and the probability of going back to the UK. Keith had a different idea; why not come and work in TV?
Initially I shrugged this off as idle bar-talk, but over the next few weeks, as things were going from bad to worse up at the school, I thought the idea over. Keith had advised me to contact a producer called Michael Scott Smith who I think was based in Christchurch but was due to be in Auckland to do some filming for a feature on the All Backs. So I wrote Michael a letter and then forgot all about it.
In due course this impulsive action led me into a fourteen year career in television production, and even a later into a career as a TV trainer and lecturer. Looking back I have to admit that I wasn’t that interested in television; at University I had my sights set on a career in film production, but having been unable to take up a place at film school in London, I suppose I regarded TV as a poor relation.
Faced with a choice of returning to the UK with no job or a glittering career in showbiz, the NZBC suggestion had some attractions, imagined rather than real. For example in future I could always answer the question “How did you get into television” with the truthful answer “I met a man in a pub”. This at least came true as media students would often ask that very question. I also thought my parents would be proud of me if it worked out. My Dad never quite got his head round the idea, but my Mum was pretty chuffed years later when she saw my name on the credits at the end of BBC programmes.
To my amazement, Michael did reply, inviting me for a chat in Auckland. So yet another trip south. Keith Bracey had told me Michael was ex-BBC, and there was an implication that being British was a definite advantage inside the NZBC. What I didn’t know then was that Michael had left the BBC after Late Night Line-Up folded, a strange irony as I ended up a few years later directing some of the direct descendants of that ground breaking BBC series, and working at the BBC Television Centre with one of its presenters, New Zealander Michael Dean. Small world, television.
My recollection of the meeting in Auckland is hazy, but I do remember asking Michael what the chances were of getting a job in production. He was guarded, but reckoned there was a fifty-fifty chance. A few weeks later I was invited back to AKTV2 to be interviewed for a job as an assistant presentation officer, without a job description or the faintest idea what that meant. In for a penny, I thought, and duly turned up at the NZBC studios in Shortland Street. (Yes, that Shortland Street.) The interview was conducted by the station manager Murray Buchanan and a producer called Bryan Easte. Both were in marked contrast to Michael Scott Smith; it’s hard to say which of the two was the more dour. The only question I recall was whether I drove a car, which was odd as the job turned out to be entirely studio based. I later learned it was a clumsy attempt to find out if I had good reflexes.
If I had known what the job entailed and who was going to conduct the interview, things might have gone differently, though not necessarily better. As it went on I became convinced that it was a waste of time, but to my surprise I was offered the job there and then. However I still did not understand what the job was, so when it came to that bit where they ask if you have any questions, I asked.
Looking back, I don’t think either Murray or Bryan had much idea themselves, apart from the idea that a presentation officer (officer!) controlled daily transmission. Later I understood that the general term used elsewhere in the English-speaking world is “transmission controller”. (Except the BBC of course……). As it turned out the term “assistant” really meant “paid less” – good old civil service terminology. Trainee might have been more accurate.
I then did something which turned out to be possibly the smartest move I have ever made. I pointed out that the job on offer was, on the face of it, nothing to do with making TV programmes and while I appreciated that I would be starting on the foot of the career ladder, it had to be the right ladder. This seemed to take them aback until they assured me that it was normal for people working in presentation to progress to production work if they wanted to. In fact, in all the time I worked in the NZBC, I never met anyone else who had made that move. Like most public service organisations, TV work is divided into quite rigid categories, each with its own hierarchical progression patterns and only rare opportunities to transfer to another category.
To my surprise, I was then offered a short-term contract, and we took a break so I could read it. Nowhere in the written contract was there any mention of production work. Up to this point the balance of power had been with the interviewers, but they were now visibly unsettled, so I made it clear that if I accepted the job, it would have to be on the basis that I would be given an opportunity to move on to production work later on, and that the presentation job was to be regarded as skills training. They agreed, and assured me verbally that if I did accept, I would be formally assessed for production work during the currency of the contract.
Remembering my experiences with the New Zealand Education Department, I was wary about promises made by New Zealand public service organisations, however well-intentioned, so I asked if these assurances could be added into the written contract. No problem – they provided me with a typist who did just that. I dictated, she typed, and I took the contract back to Dargaville to discuss the offer with my wife Margaret. The big question was, should I take this offer despite a serious drop in income for us both, and move back to the city where the cost of living was far higher? Like all turning points in life, we will never know if we made the right decision, but we agreed to take the risk and accept the offer. If it didn’t work out, we could still resort to plan B, return to blighty.
Our previous experience of finding somewhere to live in Auckland was enough to convince us that we would look further afield than we had the last time, and by a stroke of luck we found a cottage about ten miles out of the city, in a township called Titirangi. The landlord wasn’t very helpful, but we fell a bit in love with the place.
It was on a bus route, surrounded by native rain forest (“bush”), within walking distance of a small beach at Paturoa Bay, on Manukau Harbour, now part of Titirangi Park. Though she has no recollection of it, this was to be the our first daughter’s first home. Madeleine was born soon after we moved to Titirangi, and her first love was the chickens we somehow had acquired.
At first, my job entailed producing a paper “log” of every event in a future day’s transmission, with accurate timings and technical information, a sort of script which would enable everyone involved in the transmission process to work together under the direction of the presentation officer on duty, to produce a seamless stream of television entertainment. Programmes were mostly on film or videotape, or live from the NZBC studio building in Shortland Street, which also housed the local radio station 1YA.
Each programme was introduced in vision in the small continuity studio from which news bulletins were also transmitted, directed by the presentation director in the adjacent control room. In those days, NZBC Television was commercial four days a week, and non-commercial for three, so my job also included checking commercial film make-up reels and combining them with videotape ads to form commercial breaks between programmes.
To make it all work, every programme, continuity announcement and commercial break was timed; every programme had to start no earlier then the advertised time, and in the case of the news, bang on time. This meant a lot of adding durations together, not a simple matter given the units involved – seconds, minutes and hours – all calculated with the aid of time-based version an ingenious German hand-held mechanical adding machine called an addiator. (If you’re wondering why, try adding up some durations in hours, minutes and seconds using a normal electronic calculator. It doesn’t work because the calculator uses the simple decimal system, not time units such as 60 and 24.)
The deal was that once I became proficient at this deskbound work, I could sit in the transmission control room beside experienced presentation officers to learn the transmission control job, before being let loose on a live shift. I can honestly say that this was the hardest job I had ever done, and possibly the most rewarding.
Because this was before the advent of digital television, every recorded programme or commercial reel had to be run at an agreed number of seconds before it would appear on air, typically 7 for film or 10 for videotape, using a “leader” or countdown clock, to allow the telecine machine or videotape player to stabilise. “Pre-roll”, it was called. It could get very complicated, when, for instance you had to coordinate a complex sequence of events, each coming from different video and audio sources in rapid succession. At first I used to have recurring nightmares in which an infinity of different programme leaders was running on a vast array of monitors, and I was losing control of them.
If I remember correctly, the station had 3 telecine machines for film content and two Ampex quad videotape recorders each the size of a very large wardrobe, three studios and an outside broadcast unit, all capable of supplying video and audio signals to be sequenced by the duty presentation team in the transmission control room, using verbal communications via the talkback system. These days most of this work is computerised, using playlist software with or without human intervention.
It took me a few months to become pretty competent. I both feared and loved the on-air operation, working with a small team of experienced technicians. It was often nerve-wracking, but always exciting, and it gave me a taste for teamwork. Admittedly, if we got it wrong, all that happened was that there would be a temporary breakdown (much beloved of viewers), but unlike surgery, military operations or aviation, nobody died. It just felt the same.
I still had to spend some days compiling transmission logs, including writing continuity scripts. In practice this meant finding a thousand ways to say “And now Jackanory”. This has not changed, though I am appalled at some of today’s continuity writing on the minor digital channels in the UK. I suspect some of it may be generated by robots.
When my contract was due for renewal or termination nothing happened. I waited until the day before the contract ran out and casually asked my boss, Dick Douglas, what was going on. He panicked and immediately had it renewed, but there was still no sign of anything in the way of assessment for production work, so I took the matter into my own hands by volunteering to work as a floor assistant on a very popular weekly live music series called Happen In, produced by the infamous Kevan Moore, “the Godfather of New Zealand music TV”, transmitted late on Saturday nights. Basically the job was humping sets about during the transmission without getting in the way of the cameras. This was precision work, rehearsed continuously from 12 noon until 11pm transmission. Totally exhausting, totally addictive.
Meanwhile, life at home in Titirangi hummed along.
Madeleine was a very active baby who suffered from colic for a while. When she was teething she would only be soothed at bedtime by being driven in our Anglia van over as many potholes and bumps as possible. That made a change after work. The van had been souped up, so driving around the tracks in the bush was quite cathartic for me. The only car I had owned before was my bubble car in London, so before I had been let loose on the Anglia 300E its former owner in Dargaville, my colleague and friend Brian Anderson, had made it a condition of sale that he would teach me how to drive on dirt roads in Northland. The roads in Auckland city were sealed, but out in the Waitakere Ranges it was another matter.
On work days, I used to travel by bus into Queen Street, often rushing out at the last possible moment to the bus stop right outside the cottage. One morning I dreamed that I was already waiting for the bus, looking out towards the International Airport. As I watched, a plane approaching the runway, flying low over the sea, simply went into a dive and crashed. Though the dream came into my mind sometimes when I caught the bus after that, eventually I forgot about it, as you do, but many months later, a very odd thing happened. A journalist friend of mine, Steven With, was commissioned to fly with a cameraman out into the Hauraki Gulf to get aerial shots of a stricken tanker, for a news story he was compiling. I bumped into him on his way to the airport, but it was the last time I ever saw him. Unaccountably the seaplane just dived into sea. Steven and the crew were all killed.
When the news got back to us in the office, as well as the shock, we were all guilt-stricken because we had persuaded Steven to get himself transferred out of presentation back into the newsroom. I never scoffed about the possibility of foreknowledge again.
I got permission from our feckless landlord to do the cottage up so it would be suitable to bring a child up in, even though he was reluctant to fork out for any improvements. It was mostly a clean-up and paint job, but in the process I discovered and old kitchen range hidden behind a hardboard panel. I tried get the range going, but in the end I painted it black and we kept it as kind of colonial ornament.
Though life in the bush was good, there were some problems of course. Number one was no means of drying the washing indoors on wet days, so I bought a fan-assisted electric heater and installed it in what we thought had once been a larder, which projected out at the back, and put up a series of drying racks. This was before disposable nappies!
Another problem was the army of ants who seemed to be on a continuous route march though the house. After some unsuccessful attempts to poison them, or to divert them away from the kitchen, we just learned to live with them. At least they were not as big or dangerous as truly tropical varieties. One good thing, no scary insects such as wetas or huhu bugs.
Titirangi itself was typical of small townships all over New Zealand, but more attractive than many. In those days it was relatively basic, but when I went back there in 2000 with my second daughter for nostalgic (me) and educational reasons (Louise) it had been “improved”, with smart shops, cafés, art gallery, community library and restaurants, mostly grouped in a modern mini-mall.
The village centre these days is the must-go hang-out for its affluent bush-dwelling suburbanites, but back then it served a less wealthy population with a reputation for bohemianism. A number of well-known New Zealand musicians, artists, writers and potters currently live or have lived in the area. A recent innovation is a regular outdoor village market:
Every day we would wake up to beautiful birdsong coming up from the bush, home to native birds such as the New Zealand bellbird, fantail, tui, kererū or “wood-pigeon”, morepork and white-eye. I have sorely missed the Titirangi dawn chorus ever since we lived there, though I do have a CD of native New Zealand birdsong, which I don’t often play these days because unfortunately it scares our English blackbirds, robins and blue-tits.
We also somehow inherited a female tabby cat who one day presented a litter of mult-patterned kittens. She went missing for a few days, but we heard a strange noise coming from the washing machine, which was odd considering that it wasn’t switched on. Fortunate really, because when we lifted the lid, there was the cat plus a litter of kittens, snug in the next load of dirty washing.
A surprise, but not a problem we thought. Until we discovered that the smallest kitten was not thriving. We had already called her Strabismus (because she was cross-eyed?). She was wasting away because had continuous diarrhoea, so we took the whole family to the vet. His diagnosis was that the mother had an infected wound, possibly from a rat, and that the kitten was infected through the mother’s milk. He didn’t think the kitten would survive but gave us penicillin for the mother. It cured the her, but the kitten became weaker and weaker until Margaret came up with the idea of feeding the kitten with cow’s milk with the rest of the penicillin in it, using a dropper, all in one dose. Bingo. Once a nurse, always a nurse. Miracle cure.
There was a strange sequel. We managed to give all the kittens away, including Strabismus, who was adopted by an attractive vision mixer at work. (All technical operators at AKTV2 were female and extremely skilled.) One day when there was a long breakdown in the studio, I asked after the kitten. While we were indulging in cat-talk waiting for the breakdown to be fixed, I noticed that our normally taciturn technical director, Garth, who obviously had some kind of chip on his shoulder as far as I was concerned, suddenly joined in the conversation, offering all kinds of feline advice and humourous anecdotes. I can’t say Garth and I became buddies, but he certainly was transformed into a civil member of the human race, even a friendly one. All down to Strabismus.
Meanwhile at work I prevailed upon some of the producers to let me observe them as they worked. Along with my studio floor work, I was really getting what amounted to a pretty good self-managed basic training course in TV studio and film production. Dick Douglas had sanctioned my self-training and encouraged me to get to know the producers, which was kind of him, especially as he knew I was unlikely to stay on his staff for much longer. I can’t say the producers welcomed me, but it was enough that they tolerated me.
In 1970 Queen Elizabeth came to Auckland, and I was assigned a minor role but, as it turned out, broadcasting the occasion became a presentation nightmare.
Imagine the scene:
I am standing in a phone box at the top of Queen Street within sight of the Town Hall, ready to phone the presentation control room as soon as Her Majesty’s cavalcade hove into view on its slow progress downtown. (Brass bands, Maori chants, union jacks fluttering….) She is late. Back in the control room in Shortland Street, the duty presentation officer is killing time on air, using a random series of “fillers”, short silent films accompanied by appropriate music played off disks of his choice. The Queen is now very late and he is running out of fillers, so he runs a film labelled “Orewa Funtime”, which features chimpanzees cavorting at a zoo park in Orewa, a seaside resort on Auckland’s North Shore. Hardly a respectful choice. To make matters worse he chooses a music track called Elizabethan Serenade. Almost immediately the NZBC central phone switchboard is jammed with complaints and abuse about this apparently deliberate act of near-treason.
The very next day…………………
The presentation officer is carpeted and asked to explain himself. Whatever his defence, he is given a final disciplinary warning and ordered to sweep the presentation office floors. He refuses and is sacked.
The next significant career event was a stroke of luck. Presentation department also had a small promotions unit, who made trailers for upcoming programmes. I think this was unique to Northern Television, possibly scorned by the other 3 stations in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. The NZBC saw no need for on-air trailers because viewers had no choice of viewing in this single channel service, but Northern somehow managed to buck the system and go its own sweet way by seconding a presentation officer to make trailers and home-made commercials. Without much warning, the promotions officer decided to quit and return to Australia, so his post became vacant. None of the others wanted to replace him because they would lose out on overtime, but I saw a golden opportunity to move onward and upward. I had a word with the outgoing Aussie and then took the long-suffering Dick Douglas by surprise once again by putting myself forward for the job even though I was at the bottom of the pecking order.
It worked. Dick probably went to Murray Buchanan for approval, and they must have figured out that this was a win-win moment. If I made a go of it, it would benefit me and the station. If I failed, who knows? My senior colleagues were mostly relieved.
Once the deal was agreed in principle I resolved not just to make a go of it but somehow to use the opportunity to give Northern Television’s on-air image a complete makeover, and, ideally, make my name in the NZBC. They had already had the nerve to change the name from AKTV2 to Northern Television, and produce a station id, complete with logo and jingle. (The jingle was composed by our jazz-loving senior presentation officer, Russ Burnett. I can hear it now: “Look for that great look….at…Northern!”)
Quite quickly I did away with all “fillers” on the grounds that they were repetitive, boring and old-fashioned. I substituted trailers and menus, using captions, music, videotape clips and live voice-overs. The station announcers (radio people at heart) were not happy because the voice overs increased their workload, but they accepted it soon enough. I even devised the “elastic” trailer, as a more engaging way to hit critical programme start times, such as the evening news, when the exact time between the end of the current programme and the scheduled start of the news was hard to predict. This required the announcer to ad-lib over a clock, using programme notes I had written beforehand. Together all these inter-programme continuity sequences (or junctions, in BBC-speak) provided a new kind of glue and pace to transmission.
I also managed to compile more ambitious trailers using the new-fangled secret art of videotape editing. This eliminated the cumbersome process of copying programme content on to film. The only snag was it was strictly forbidden by the head of engineering, an old-school BBC engineer known behind his back as ICBD Henderson. (ICBD? It can’t be done.)
With the connivance of Wayne, a forward-thinking young engineer who had read up on how it was done, we worked in secret after hours, down in the basement at Shortland Street. ICBD either didn’t twig or chose to keep quiet. I clearly remember Wayne saying to me “Never accept it can’t be done. Your job is to have good ideas, ours is to make them work.” Wise words, but potentially dangerous too.
After a week or two everyone in Auckland and points north could see a dramatic change in the look and feel of their TV station, but my problem was keeping up with the workloads involved, so I asked for a bigger production team. No resistance. Quite soon I was heading up a dedicated promotions unit consisting of a part-time graphics artist, myself and two-part time writers. All English, as it happens. To this day I have no idea where the budget came from, but full marks to the Northern Television management for backing me.
The other part of my new job was to direct three studio-based commercials a week for the New Zealand branch of one of Australasia’s most successful companies, the Sanitorium Health Food Company. They were most famous for making and selling Marmite under licence in competition with Vegemite, a range of breakfast cereals in competition with the US multinational Kelloggs, and all kinds of healthy foodstuffs besides. (The Sanitarium Health and Wellbeing Company is the trading name of two sister food companies (Australian Health and Nutrition Association Ltd and New Zealand Health Association Ltd). Both are wholly owned by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.) Very smart people!
Every Wednesday a TV producer called Bert (English!) employed by Sanitarium’s ad agency would rock up with three so-called scripts to be televised in our two-camera studio, in the space of three hours. The ads were really jokey 30 second mini-soaps featuring jokey episodes in the life of a couple, Pam and Merv (their real names), much-loved by New Zealand daytime TV audiences. Usually the scripts made little visual sense because Bert the writer didn’t understand about the limitations of a 2-camera studio or the lack of editing, so we often had to rewrite them before we could actually record anything. Because video editing was banned (officially anyway,) they had to be recorded “as-live”. This meant Pam and Merv had about ten minutes max to re-learn the lines and my technical crew and I had to be on our toes all the time. Maddening, exhausting, but great fun. The biggest problem was not falling about laughing.
That Christmas Santa delivered a huge hamper of Sanitarium goodies unannounced to our front door in Titirangi.
I suppose I might have stayed with this job indefinitely, but I was still bent on making programmes. By this time I think the waves I was making might have raised a few eyebrows in the producers’ office and beyond, but it seemed unlikely that there would be any vacancies in the near future. There was another problem; to be promoted to producer level you had to be nominated to attend an annual producer’s training course, and the competition was fierce. The course was a pass-or-fail affair. If you failed, you just resumed your current post, but if you passed you were automatically put on a waiting list for a producer’s job at one of the four stations.
Dick Douglas put my name forward. I was not accepted, but advised to try again next year. Then, quite coincidentally a job came up in an NZBC unit in Wellington called overseas programmes exchange. Basically its function was to repackage both radio and TV programmes for sale around the globe. On the TV side, there was also a requirement to produce regular magazine programmes compiled from films coming in from overseas under two international broadcasting exchange schemes.
Goodbye Titirangi, hallo Karore.
Six o’clock swill
Michael Scott Smith
The Country Touch (Bryan Easte)
Sanitorium Health Food Company
New Zealand TV emerges
NZBC music programmes
20 years of NewZealand Television, 1985
Ford Anglia 300 E van