New Zealand Days: Part 5 – Dunedin

1972

We didn’t choose to live in Dunedin. It was a decision made by my employer, the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, with no consultation. It was also the result of a promise made and broken by the head television producer, Roy (aka “Rosie”) Melford. I had just qualified as a producer, having “passed” Roy’s Producers’ course, which apparently gave the NZBC the right to post me, and my family, to any of the four state-owned TV stations in New Zealand, Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Roy had promised that if I passed I would be posted to Auckland, as soon as a vacancy occurred. This edict came at a very bad time, shortly after the birth of our second child.

Bear in mind that Wellington, where we lived at the time, and Dunedin are 492 miles apart by air. This wasn’t too bad a prospect for the family, but I would have to get there by road and ferry. The plan was go ahead to find somewhere to live and check in for duty at DNTV2.

When I arrived in Dunedin it was eight degrees below. I had been seasick on the overnight ferry from Wellington to Lyttelton (Christchurch), facing the 230 mile drive in our campervan down the East Coast of the South Island, to find a hotel in Dunedin. I’m not usually fussy about accommodation, but my mood was not improved by finding the only heating in the room was a two-bar electric wall mounted heater. I spent a cold sleepless night fuming about the turn of events and working out what to say in the morning to my new station manager Alf Dick, whom I had never met.

It turned out that I was here because at the end of my producers’ course in Wellington, there was a kind of secret horse market, where head producers from each station had their pick of the winners. The result of this process apparently trumped my understanding with Roy Melford, and I was chosen by the Dunedin head producer, Terry Bryan, who had been impressed by my final exercise, a studio-based documentary drama about a quack doctor called Dundas McKenzie. I never got the opportunity to question his thinking, but I think his background was in BBC drama, which possibly coloured his choice of horse to back. After all, who asks the horse whether it wants to race?

A critical factor was housing. Finding a decent house to rent in Dunedin was not easy; there was no social housing in or near the city, as there had been in Wellington. We really wanted to buy a house, but this proved impossible. The norm in those days in New Zealand was that young couples rented privately and saved the 50% deposit necessary to get a state mortgage to buy an existing house or have one built. By law only the government could lend, and borrowing the deposit was prohibited. As immigrants this problem had dogged us from the day in 1967 when we arrived in New Zealand, and, after six rented homes in as many years, we had had enough.

The housing system has now changed, I gather, but at the time, there seemed no way out of the bind, and I had  learned that promises made by public service employees were not to be trusted, however well-meant. In retrospect I also wonder if the situation was exacerbated by the growing anglophobia in New Zealand at the time, as Britain prepared to turn its back on its former colonies in favour of the Europe Common Market.

“In May 1973, a remit was proposed at the Labour Party national conference to change the flag, declare New Zealand a republic and change the national anthem (then only God Save the Queen, God Defend New Zealand becoming the second anthem in 1977), but this was voted down.” [Wikipedia: Republicanism in New Zealand]

One immediate outcome was that our new baby daughter Louise developed a chest infection, probably caused by the dramatic change in climate and unheated temporary accommodation in a nearby motel, all that the NZBC could offer. Then it became only too apparent that new boss Terry and I were never going to get on.

All in all, the move was a disaster, but we had little choice but to make the best of it; it wasn’t long before my mind turned once again toward returning to the UK.

Eventually I did find a house to rent in a suburb called St.Clair, quite near the beach. It was an odd place, an old wooden colonial house in one corner of a plant nursery (Astonville), tucked away behind the back gardens of other houses facing a fairly busy main thoroughfare, Bayview Road. Not a palace, but just about habitable, and within easy reach of the city centre, local shops and the ocean.

(Amazingly the plant nursery was still there in 2012, but the house was not, according to Google maps.)

Despite my resentment, I did give TV production at DNTV2 a fair go. Station Manager Alf immediately put me in charge of the worst programme idea ever proposed in the history of New Zealand television up to then, now mercifully untraceable in the archives, on the thin pretext that it had been suggested by a policeman he knew. I rather suspected I had been landed with mission impossible as some kind of test, or simply because nobody else would go near it. It was to be a weekly magazine all about road safety.

Yes, road safety. Not exactly Top Gear.

As an idea it was never going to fly, despite all my desperate attempts to make an intrinsically dull idea sexy. Having persuaded Alf to let me respray our company cars with a new livery including the programme title “Safety Zone”, the whole project stalled (sorry….) when our intrepid speed cop / aspiring TV personality froze on camera the first time the red light went on. I tried everything short of hypnosis to help him overcome his fear but it was a lost cause. What with the mind-numbing dullness and sheer worthiness of the subject matter, the programme was mercifully strangled before it was ever inflicted on an audience. Pity about the respray job.

And my job prospects.

But like a weeble I bounced back. I was reassigned to two established and much-loved weekly programmes, one on gardening, the other on sport.

“Green Fingers” had a devoted audience, largely because of its genial anchor man, aptly named Charles Joye. Most TV gardeners are real gardeners, but Charles was no gardening expert and never claimed to be. “Green Fingers” was largely a comedy based on the device of a gangly-but-lovable presenter joking his way through the horticultural maze with the help of various long-suffering experts.

The script of every episode would be roughed out by your archetypal man-of-the soil, Gordon, who also made regular appearances on location. Charles and I would polish the script, and we would record the show as-live in a cramped DNTV studio in the Garrison Hall in Dowling Street. No editing!

I really loved this programme, for its quirky style, the camaraderie of colleagues, filming eccentric gardeners. Somehow our guests seemed almost always to be on the short side, and Charles was over six feet, so we used to carry various boxes for them to stand on during interviews on location, or seek out lower ground for Charles. Flights of steps were favourite, and we even dug the occasional hole for Charles to stand in. The biggest problem was resisting the giggles.

My only innovations were a revolving table in the studio, rather like those gadgets you get in Chinese restaurants, only bigger, and what was probably the first ever videotape made-in-NZ animated title sequence. It took a whole weekend to produce using stop-motion animation using a cunningly modified Ampex two-inch videotape recorder. The storyline was  a packet of seeds being sown by an unseen gardener, followed by shoots popping out which then turned into garden gnomes dancing to the tune of Herb Alpert’s Spanish Flea. No kidding. Probably New Zealand’s first (and only?) surrealist TV titles. I suspect both innovations were discreetly dropped as soon as we were safely on the plane home to blighty.

The other weekly commitment was the weekly sports magazine, which, as you might expect also had a large and devoted audience. Every sport was covered so long as it was rugby or cricket.

The show was written entirely by a bunch of sports journos, and the expectation was that I would simply turn their content into watchable television. To begin with I went along with this traditional approach, mostly because the journos knew that I knew zilch about sport. Once they had decided that I was not a typical bloody pommy soccer-lover, we got along just fine. But after a few episodes I called a planning meeting and confronted them with the notion that their programme only appealed to a limited audience of like-minded sports fans happy with rugby in the winter and cricket in the summer, and almost no sheilas allowed. I had sneakily researched minority sports clubs, and went on location to make mini-features intended to take the curse off the endless studio blokey pundit- chat sessions.

The journos hated this development of course, but the feedback was unexpectedly encouraging as we featured minority sports personalities such as the attractive woman karate champion. She terrorised our macho cameraman when I asked her to demonstrate how she could stop a hand-chop a millimetre from the camera lens. In the end we had to gently lead him out of the room, whimpering, so she could do her thing to the camera on a tripod. No lenses were cruelly treated in this programme. Naturally it cost me a drink or two, but it worked a treat. The journos eventually came around and provisionally tolerated my reforms, hoping for the day I left the team, when they could scuttle back into their comfort zones.

They didn’t have to wait long.

Annoying journos was its own sport, but the most enjoyable part of this job for me was directing outside broadcasts at the weekend. To begin with I was completely out of my depth, but fortunately the camera operators were old hands, and once I got my head around the concept that I was really a vision mixer reacting to the shots they offered, things went fine. The OB truck was wired for three cameras, but the budget would only stretch to the major games, mostly rugby of course. I was never allowed near the holy game, so I ended up with basketball, horse racing and church services.

One day our Outside Broadcast chief engineer, Barry Pinkney, came up with an ingenious plan to cover local matches much more cheaply by taking out one camera plugged into a cut-down OB facility. It sounded crazy because it meant covering a whole event from one angle, zooming in and out, but we agreed to give it a go. Crazy maybe, but it worked and became a regular feature. I never tried it with a church service though.

Horse racing, or rather trotting, was, and still is, hugely popular in New Zealand and Australia. Directing coverage of races was pretty straightforward and Forbury Park Raceway, St Kilda, was within walking distance of our house. This was an unexpected bonus – I could bring the family along for a day out. While I was pushing buttons in the OB truck, the family got to live it up in the members’ stand and the paddock. My elder daughter Madeleine had a particularly great time melting the hearts of owners, and even got to sit on a racehorse. Years later she lived for her Saturday riding lessons in deepest Yorkshire.

Summer came along and life got better. Our DIY-converted Commer campervan came into its own and we decided to hit the road, exploring Central Otago. There was plenty to go at, miles and miles of sun-baked plateau as we headed for the hills via Lumsden, Alexandra, Queenstown and the famous Milford Sound. In summer this area is hot and dry, in sharp contrast to the bitter cold of the southern winter, so we had high hopes as we bowled along westward. Sadly the heat got to baby Louise, who came down with a fever. We got as far as Lumsden, with some of New Zealand’s most spectacular scenery on the horizon, but we had to turn around and head for home in one dash. On the way back, we had a problem with the rising roof I had built, much to my embarrassment; just a minor design snag – when we reached a critical speed the roof decided it would rise of its own accord, so Margaret had to sit in the back and hang on to it most of the way home.

What with the boggy ground surrounding our damp rented home and shark alarms on the beach at St Clair, as the autumn approached the going became harder on the home front. Then it got worse. One day on my way to the TV studio I was thrown bodily across a main road by a snapping trolleybus cable. I have written about this in Trolleybus Blues.

In retrospect, our short stay in Dunedin was a curate’s egg – good in parts. The local people, mostly descended from Scottish settlers and proud of it, were very friendly to us, but just as we began to get settled we had bad news from Edinburgh – my mother in law was dying from cancer. She had never seen her grandchildren, so the die was cast, and we planned our return to the UK. So as not to burn my boats, I requested a year’s compassionate leave and for once the NZBC turned up trumps, agreeing to keep my job open. After all the broken promises I’m not sure they would have honoured the deal, but there was really no choice.

My first move was to sell the campervan. I thought this was likely to be problematic since such vehicles were unknown in New Zealand at the time, but as it turned out it sold in a matter of hours. I advertised the sale in the local paper, and an English couple rang as soon as the paper hit the news stands. Early next morning they and their parents woke us up, ringing the doorbell. Half an hour later I had a thousand dollars in my fist while we watched in tears as the van disappeared down the narrow drive. That transaction alone paid for our flights home, with some change left over. (Quite a few van-less years were to  pass before we bought our first UK campervan, a rather elderly British Leyland  job whose speciality was breaking down in very awkward places, in the time-honoured British tradition.)

Next we packed most of the stuff we had brought with us six years before and got it shipped back to England. Then we held a one-day house contents sale. Only one item of furniture was pre-sold, a rather elegant repro mahogany dining table I had restored in Dargaville. The sale was advertised to start at nine in the morning, but by seven, folk were banging on the door and by lunchtime almost everything else had gone – furniture, boxes of worthless junk, kitchen ware, crockery, my hi-fi stuff, beds, you name it. When we left to stay over with some good friends only a street away, the house was empty except for a pile of hundreds of dollars in the middle of the dining table. Amazing what people will pay for…….

We had been invited to delay our departure to the UK to stay with our closest friends from Dargaville, the Andersons, now living in Ponsonby, Auckland, but all too soon we were boarding our Air New Zealand flight from Auckland International, bound for LA en route to London. I still have bad dreams about missing that flight.

Neither of our daughters remembers their time in Dunedin, or New Zealand for that matter. My abiding memories of the journey home are of Madeleine with her beloved yellow plastic horse which reappeared by magic on the baggage carousels in Los Angeles and Heathrow. Louise entertaining the whole plane from her sky-cot up front, upstaging Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier in “Sleuth”, projected on the bulkhead above her. Killing time in LA airport resisting the attempts of effusive Californian ladies to ply our kids with sweets in exchange for hugs (gee, ain’t they cute?).

Arriving at Heathrow at 11pm. Jetlagged. In a heat wave. And who were all these people waving at us?

Links

Channeling The South: Bruce Munro remembers DNTV2 first transmission [Otago Daily Times])
DNTV2 Wikipedia
DNTV2 remembered: Facebook (memories, photos etc.)

Footnote

While researching this post, I found out that just as we left New Zealand, the Dunedin School of Medicine at the University of Otago had just embarked on an ambitious research project which has made Dunedin world-famous – the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health & Development Study

 

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