Previous post First Steps in the NZBC
We had been warned. We should not have been surprised when our bed sheets were torn from the clothes line and distributed down the gorse covered hillside behind our rented house in Karori, a windswept suburb of Wellington, capital city of New Zealand, in 1971, not long after we moved there.
In 1966 the New Zealand National Film Unit produced a documentary called “Toehold on a Harbour”, which, not without typical kiwi irony, will give you a fair idea of what we were up against, including the wind problem and the near perpendicular housing sprawl. (Stay with this film, it really does the job, even though we moved to Wellington five years after the film was released).
I vaguely remember driving down from Auckland to Wellington some time in May or June 1971 to take up my new job in the overseas programmes department of the NZBC, with, as usual, no home to go to, leaving my wife and daughter behind in the idyllic North Island township of Titirangi. Fortunately my new boss turned out to be the nicest man in the world, who gave me a lot time off to look for affordable accommodation. It had been hinted that because the NZBC counted as a public service, we might be in line for a state house, especially as a child was involved. After a temporary stay in a disused holiday park in Johnsonville, we were offered a state house in Karori, a trolley bus ride from the city centre. (Little did I know then that I was soon to narrowly escape death by trolley-bus cable in Dunedin.)
Most Wellingtonians live in the suburbs in similar hillside townships, built inland simply because the city was originally built on a narrow strip of land right on the shoreline. Even when this harbour area later expanded by reclamation from the sea, there was little room for housing, so the only way was up. Karori was no exception, and our public service house in Victory Avenue (sic) was pretty high up. As the equivalent of a small UK council house estate, our street was built on the least valuable land, right at the top of a hill, exposed to the wind, fog and rain.
The main difference between “Toehold on a Harbour” and my recollection of commuting to and from the office is the colour of the buses. They must have had a livery makeover some time between 1966 and 1971. This video clip by Joe Pickering shows trolley buses (and a diesel bus) on the Karori Park route. It’s dated October 20 2017, but the buses look much as I remember them from 1971:
Many of the wooden houses on the hills above the city were built on piles, so to be on the level, either the front or back would be higher up than the other. In our case, this had the odd effect that you could hardly see the house at all from the street.
It’s still there; you can just see it in this Google street view image. (I don’t recall the bus stop – we had to climb up and down the hill on foot from the main road in those days. No joke with a buggy. I gather that electric buses serve this street now.)
Our toddler daughter Madeleine, an adventurous child, loved nothing more than to clamber up the horrible concrete steps from the front door, in search of a possum which used to visit our waste-bin at the roadside.
Actually she may have been on to something. Then usually hunted down as pests, the brushtail possums seem to be in demand now: “A small cottage industry in fur pelts and wool mixed with possum fur fibre has developed, and trappers and hunters provide the raw material. The fur is often sold as ‘eco-fur’ by a number of small manufacturing and retailing businesses. New Zealand companies are exporting possum carcasses to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia for human consumption, where possum is regarded as a delicacy and known as “Kiwi bear”. [Wikipedia]
So far, Madeleine had ruled the roost, but her life was about to change with the imminent birth of a sister. Not long after the move, our second child Louise was born in Wellington.
The NZBC overseas programmes department had been mainly concerned with selling New Zealand radio programmes around the world, but now TV programmes were in demand overseas, and my job was to post-produce them for export. Because video editing was still officially banned, the programmes had to be re-edited on film. This involved making a duplicate negative from which a 16mm positive copy was printed to be re-edited in a cutting room.
The final cut was then “neg-matched”, and a final graded positive print was made for the overseas customer. This arcane process was complicated by the fact that the nearest film laboratories were in Sydney, 1382 miles away, and by the need to copy the sound track onto “sepmag” tapes to be edited along with the cutting copy and remixed for transfer to an optical sound track on the final release print. Because this was such a slow and cumbersome process I only produced two films in the two years I spent in the department, one on Bauxite mining and the other on something new to the world called chemotherapy. Quite a change from the non-stop daily challenge of trailer making at AKTV2.
To be honest, this side of the job was rather tedious and frustrating, but there were some saving graces.
One was that I worked with a dedicated film editor, a highly skilled film technician from Czechoslovakia. I have promised never to divulge her identity, so I’ll call her Adriana. The need for such secrecy, even now, is no joke, as she was a refugee from the 1968 Soviet invasion who, along with her mother and her journalist husband who worked for Czechoslovak State Radio, had been smuggled out of Czechoslovakia as the Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Prague on August 21st. that year.
Adriana was constantly haunted by the fear of abduction or worse. We got to know and like her and her exiled family, and on one occasion we were invited to dine with them at their home and to sample a delicious Czech supper provided by Adriana’s mother. Unfortunately we somehow lost touch with them after I left Wellington. My fault I suppose.
Another saving grace was the other side of my job, arising from the NZBC’s membership of two international broadcasting organisations, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and the Asian Broadcasting Union (ABU). This membership allowed participation in two programme exchange schemes under which we received foreign short films to be shown to New Zealand TV audiences. Two occasional magazine programme strands already existed, and I was now required to produce half hour compilation programmes for them. Some of the Asian material had to be jettisoned because of poor technical quality but I did manage to produce a few editions. The EBU scheme was aimed at children but I thought the programme strand, called “Carousel” for some reason, was rather dull, so I decided to give it a makeover, partly in the hope that this would further help me get on the all-important NZBC TV producer’s course. (Cunning plan.)
In cahoots with a delightfully zany radio presenter, we came up with the idea that each imported film clip would be introduced by a mad retired sea-captain in a lighthouse, equipped with a magic telescope and a suitably corny mock-nautical vocabulary. Me hearties, heave to, starboard bow, ship’s biscuits. That kind of stuff. The only thing that didn’t fit was the title, but it didn’t seem to matter much. I think we did record some episodes before my bid to get on the producers’ course was successful, but I’m not sure they were ever transmitted. (Pilots!)
On reflection, perhaps the most important saving grace was the people I had the privilege of working with. The overseas programmes department was unusual in being what the BBC later claimed as a great innovation in the UK, bi-media broadcasting, i.e. working in both radio and TV. I think there were only three of us on the TV side, but nobody held that against us. In fact this was without doubt one of the most friendly bunch of colleagues I have ever worked with, all interested in each others’ work and lives, without being intrusive. Our genial boss, John Reid, trusted us and took an avuncular interest in us all. I don’t remember any hint of the kind of back-biting, micro-managing or internecine plotting that I was to experience later in the BBC or in university teaching.
Further, they were all likeable oddballs, in one way or other. Gloria, the secretary who one Monday turned up black and blue, allegedly the result of an energetic weekend wind surfing with her boyfriend. John, who had his own dental kit at work so he could brush his teeth after lunch. Gary, a roguish, craggy-faced red-haired guy who gained stardom for a day in a film I made. Bill, the rather stylish man-about-town given to frequenting fashionable bars after lunch. Ivan, an English music expert who collaborated with me on a programme idea about Eric Satie (which never got made!) And Margaret, an amazing rough-hewn down-home kiwi mother figure from Taranaki, who took us all on as her family, and remained a true friend long after we returned to the UK.
Alan Bennett would have had a field day.
Once we had settled in our new home, I decided to sell our much-loved Ford Anglia van and buy a bigger van capable of being converted into a campervan. As far as I could tell, these vehicles were unknown in New Zealand at the time, so I bought a Commer van from a local builder, read as much as I could about van conversion, and set about buying materials.
But before I got started this van triggered a disturbing visit from the local constabulary.
One summer afternoon we loaded up and took the kids to a local beach. I did notice quite a lot of police cars while we there, and thought nothing of it, but soon after we got back there was a knock at our front door. I was confronted with no less than three suitably large police officers who insisted on coming in, even though we were in the middle of bathing the girls. The senior officer asked if the van up on the roadside was ours, then started asking questions about where and when I had acquired the vehicle and where we had been in the afternoon. For a while I cooperated, but things got sticky when I refused to answer repeated questions and demanded to be told why I was being interrogated. The senior officer tried the old “down the station” trick so beloved of TV police drama writers, but by now I was angry enough to call his bluff.
When I asked them to leave the cops had a brief conflab and the senior officer decided to come clean. He told us that they had received an anonymous phone call alleging that a group of men had been spotted abducting a woman in Willis Street, one of the main downtown thoroughfares, and bundling her into the back of a van, identified as ours.
I think by now they had realised that this might just have been a hoax, and it dawned on me that it might have had something to do with the previous owner, the builder from Upper Hutt. I’d already had a problem with this character when I discovered a potentially dangerous steering fault on the van, and I remembered how he had insisted on the removal of the signwriting on the bodywork which included his phone number. It was also obvious by now that the cops had no evidence of the alleged abduction, such as eyewitness statements.
Eventually the police left, without an apology. They promised not to reveal our identity, but a few days later, there it was in the papers. We never heard anything more, either from the police, or the dodgy builder.
This experience of NZ law-enforcement reminded me of our treatment by the NZ customs when we landed in Wellington in 1967, but it did not deter me from converting the van, and having some great times in it touring the North Island. I may have been the first to do a DIY campervan conversion in New Zealand. A missed vocation perhaps as campervanning was subsequently to become such big business down under.
There were also a couple of other notable domestic episodes which happened in Karori. We had brought with us from Auckland our lovely ginger cat, imaginatively named “Ginger”, but he almost immediately disappeared when we let him out for the first time. After a few weeks absence we assumed the worst, until one day we heard a pitiful sound from beneath the house. When I went down with a torch to search in among the concrete piles which held the house up, dodging the giant wetas who lived down there, I found poor old Ginger jammed up in the narrow gap between the bare earth and the floorboards at the front of the house. He was in bad shape, barely alive, but we managed to nurse him back to his old self. He had probably survived by hunting and eating the wetas, which, by the way, were at least twice the size of their Auckland cousins. We found out later that he was partial to these scary but harmless insects when we found a pile of weta skeletons at the bottom of the airing cupboard where he often holed up. When we left New Zealand in 1973, Ginger, having survived another move, down to Dunedin, moved in with some friends and their kids with whom he lived to a ripe old age.
Another memorable event was our first earth tremor. Earthquakes are not uncommon in New Zealand, and everyone is trained in how to protect themselves when the ground shakes and the best china hits the deck. If you are indoors, the drill is to get under a doorway, a table or anything that might save you from being crushed, and to resist the temptation to go outside. One day, without warning we experienced a few tremors which reminded me of the kind of vibration you feel in tube station before the train pulls in on another platform. Strangely this happened just when our daughters were have their bath, and there was not much we could do except hauling them out and stand under a doorway, clutching two soggy bundles of puzzled infants.
The only other time we experienced a tremor was in February 2008, in Lincolnshire, of all places. In this case the epicentre was a few miles away, near Market Rasen, and it happened in the early hours of the morning. The quake registered a reading of 5.2 on the Richter scale, and we certainly felt it, being only 25 miles away. Still asleep, we both shot out of bed and headed for the doorway, even after 37 quake-free years in England. Most of our neighbours had no idea it was an earthquake, and many slept through it. Initially, we found no damage to the house, but a year or so later an impressive crack appeared in a downstairs internal wall.
During my time in overseas programmes my boss John Reid nominated me for two training courses, one in film directing and the other the infamous producers’ course, on which I was pinning all my hopes of promotion.
For the film directing course the requirement was to come up with something hopefully original using one roll of 16mm black and white “commag” news film. After the nerve-wracking experience of the final screening and analysis, we were shown some examples of films from previous courses, adjudged as having merit. The only ones I recall were an original story about the fact that the trainee director could not come up with an original idea, and a remarkable essay by a priest, who simply asked his cameraman to walk around a prescribed route in a deprived area in Wellington without hitting the camera stop button, while he spoke about the evils of poverty, recording directly on to the magnetic stripe on the film. Brilliant.
As I had done with my promotions work in Auckland, I decided to once more take a high risk approach and do something which apparently ran against conventional film-making wisdom. Children and animals were out of the question, but I had heard somewhere that it was unwise to film a poem. I had come across the poetry of Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Yevtushenko, and I was struck by one short poem called simply “Schoolmaster”, in itself a kind of film script, about a burnt-out teacher who makes a mistake on the blackboard. The risk was that if the words and images duplicated each other, the effect would be trite, or even unintentionally comical.
Because of the severe (and entirely perverse) limitation of not being able to separate the audio from the visuals, the poem would have to be read at the same time as camera rolled. One roll of 16 mm news film lasts 2 minutes forty seconds, so not a frame could be wasted. By a minor miracle I found the perfect location, a preserved colonial schoolroom, and by another miracle an actor, none other than my craggy faced colleague Gary. Since there was only the one location, the story could be filmed sequentially, so my plan was to storyboard the poem, rehearse each shot, then film it with another colleague (Ivan?) reading the relevant lines of the poem, off-camera.
The shoot went like a dream. Even the live sound mix worked. It was voted top of the class. Gary was a star without uttering a word.
I recently re-discovered this film, or at least the 16mm negative which I have kept in a drawer since 1971. Unfortunately I cannot find its sepmag sound track, but I have had the picture converted into a modern digital file format by TVV Productions (Newcastle-upon Tyne):
The only bit that was criticised was the final scene, as the teacher “whitens into white” . Since optical effects were not possible I had asked the cameraman to over-expose the film as Gary walked out the door. I still think this device worked, but the pundits thought otherwise. Here’s the poem, translated into English (try reading it over the film yourself!):
The window gives onto the white trees.
The master looks out of it at the trees,
for a long time, he looks for a long time
out through the window at the trees,
breaking his chalk slowly in one hand.
And it’s only the rules of long division.
And he’s forgotten the rules of long division.
Imagine not remembering long division!
A mistake on the blackboard, a mistake.
We watch him with a different attention
needing no one to hint to us about it,
there’s more than difference in this attention.
The schoolmaster’s wife has gone away,
we do not know where she has gone to,
we do not know why she has gone,
what we know is his wife has gone away.
His clothes are neither new nor in the fashion;
wearing the suit which he always wears
and which is neither new nor in the fashion
the master goes downstairs to the cloakroom.
He fumbles in his pocket for a ticket.
‘What’s the matter? Where is that ticket?
Perhaps I never picked up my ticket.
Where is the thing?’ Rubbing his forehead.
‘Oh, here it is. I’m getting old.
Don’t argue auntie dear, I’m getting old.
You can’t do much about getting old.’
We hear the front door below creaking behind him.
The window gives onto the white trees.
The trees are high and wonderful,
but they are not why we are looking out.
We look in silence at the schoolmaster.
He has a bent back and clumsy walk,
he moves without defences, clumsily,.
worn out I ought to have said, clumsily.
Snow falling on him softly through silence
turns him to white under the white trees.
He whitens into white like the trees.
A little longer will make him so white
we shall not see him in the whitened trees.
In Yevtushenko ‘Selected Poems’ Tr Robin Milner-Gulland and Peter Levi, Penguin (1962) p.69
The purpose of the annual producers’ course was to recruit new staff producers. Candidates had to be nominated by their department heads. Places were limited. It was delivered by means of chalk-and-talk sessions and submitting trainees to a series of practical exercises. In those days, no distinction was made between the functions of producing and directing; all producers directed their own programmes and were available to direct programmes for other producers if necessary, and producer-less programmes such as news bulletins and outside broadcasts.
The course was, crucially for me, also a pass-or-fail affair. Trainees’ exercises would be screened, discussed and finally assessed in secret by an unidentified panel. Those who passed would automatically promoted to the rank of staff producer and posted to any one of the four TV stations (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin). Those who failed could return to their normal jobs without prejudice. A candidate could only resit in extraordinary circumstances, such as illness.
Technically, if you passed, you had no right to express a preference of station, but I knew there were no vacancies coming up in Wellington, so the I got an off-the-record understanding that if I passed I would be posted back to Auckland as soon as a post became vacant. This understanding was never honoured.
The exercises were in film directing (again), outside broadcast directing, studio-based magazine programme making and a final studio-based live drama. Having already come up with a great idea for the film exercise on the directing course, I was bereft of even better ideas and produced a technically competent but unremarkable film, of which I now have no recollection. The outside broadcast exercise was utterly pointless but quite fun, as was the live studio magazine exercise, about which I can remember almost nothing except making imaginative and ironic use of a few bars of “Here Comes The Sun” by the Beatles.
Because “Schoolmaster” had been such a success, I decided to take a chance and concentrate on the final exercise, which we understood carried the most weight in the pass-or-fail judgement. The limitations were, as usual, severe. Half an hour of live TV shot on three cameras in a long, narrow studio, with a production team you hardly knew, and strictly controlled rehearsal time. All within a three-hour slot. A tall order, but not unrealistic in those days.
Lacking an idea I resorted to the nearest public library and picked up some books at random. One was a compendium of cases tried by a famous judge in New Zealand, and there before me was the answer, a drama-documentary built around the trial of one Dr. Dundas McKenzie, accused of defrauding gullible patients by the use of electrotherapy some time in the early 20th. century, when it was all the rage. I called the programme “Dundas McKenzie, Fool or Knave?” and imagined the format as a court scene punctuated by a series of dramatised flashbacks, all linked by a narrative delivered by an actor playing various roles in the court, addressing the camera, a gimmick I’d seen somewhere.
I set about writing the script, storyboarding the scenes, working out camera angles etc. and finding an actor. Somebody recommended a young dynamic actor, keen to get TV work, who got so interested in the idea that he made some very useful suggestions, improving on my script. Once we finalised his lines, he went home and learned them, while I battled on with the technical stuff. There was no chance of a courtroom set, so the drama was enacted against a plain cyclorama, with symbolic objects denoting key areas such as the witness stand, the dock and so on, and some mock electrotherapy props with dials and wires, as evidence. (Well it worked for Doctor Who……..)
My only prior experience of working in the theatre was having acted in a couple of plays at university. Live TV drama is intrinsically high-risk, so this was an all-or-nothing gamble. What I did understand, having learned from one friendly producer in Auckland was that scripted live TV depended on meticulous technical planning and thorough rehearsals, to the point where during transmission the director should have nothing to do but watch. And this is exactly what happened. Having drawn up floor plans showing camera positions, lighting changes and actor’s moves, I organised dry rehearsals (I forget where,) and blocked the whole story through before the “transmission” day (really the recording day). I think there may have been a few minor glitches in the final recording, but the show worked mainly because everyone involved had become so caught up in the story that they made it work, and the format was relatively novel.
The feedback from the pundits was mixed, but generally complimentary.
Anyway, I passed the course. And then my luck ran out.
Post-script: this archive video is the only one I have found shot in the old WNTV1 studio on Waring-Taylor Street, Wellington. It was made in the sixties, but it all looks familiar, especially those cameras.