Not in Guatemala now, Linda Burgess

Ourselves in Primetime: A History of New Zealand Television Drama
Trish Dunleavy
Auckland University Press, $49.99,
ISBN 1869403398

If Ourselves in Primetime were television, rather than a book about television, it would be tucked away on TV1 at 11.30pm. Or perhaps nine on Sunday morning. That – sadly – tends to be what happens to television which carries the visual equivalent of footnotes.

And, I’m afraid, all too often books that contain real footnotes are not picked up by the general reading public even when they actually should be. I have to say that I have trouble with footnotes. Although this book is clearly about New Zealand television drama which is dear to my heart for three reasons – I watch it, I review it and I have written it – the sight of a footnote repels me. Pity the poor academic writer who is obliged by protocol to use the damn things. What I want to know is this. Has anyone – ever – written to some hapless academic to say: “I note you have referred to a letter published in the New Zealand Listener, 25 June, 1965, p11. I wish to inform you that I have checked your reference and the letter is, in fact, on p12”?

Right. Now I’ve got that off my chest, let’s look at the book itself. Turns out it is quite fascinating, though more, I may say, as something to dip into rather than something you can’t bear to put down – a reference book. It’s the sort of book you can use to give you good ammunition at dinner parties. “Actually,” you can say, quite casually over your pommes à la dauphinoise,“The God Boy was such a hit that it made front-page headlines in the Evening Post.”

What makes a history of New Zealand television particularly fascinating for anyone over 40 – and, therefore, this book a most interesting read for baby boomers – is that we were there when it was actually happening. So I just read the word Pukemanu and Pat Evison with her lovely rubbery face flashed straight into my mind.

Dunleavy cuts to the chase with Pukemanu. She accurately describes it as a rite of passage for the drama genre – indeed more than just a rite of passage, because Pukemanu was New Zealand’s first TV drama series (although there had been a drama serial, The Alpha Plan) and as such was the benchmark for what followed. As she does throughout the book, when she looks at early television drama Dunleavy both delves and analyses.

Those involved with writing and producing Pukemanu decided from the outset to reject the British styles, forms and concepts that earlier New Zealand dramas had tried to emulate. Set in a town like Tokoroa where the decision when you got up in the morning was not what tie to wear with what suit, but whether the red Swannie was dry enough after yesterday’s drenching to put on again today, it was determinedly about “us”.

In the true tradition of writing about what you know, the original idea came from Julian Dickon, a former merchant seaman and forestry worker. Never mind that he was a Pom – he’d worked in our forests and he had a good eye and ear for what he’d observed. It was ironic then that it was executive producer Douglas Drury who wanted to make it less local and more formulaic in the British mould. Having written the concept, characters and first two episodes, Julian Dickon was unable to cope with Drury’s input and left the series. Fascinatingly he was replaced by Hamish Keith whose only experience of television was as a TV critic. He had neither rural perspective nor scriptwriting experience.

The fact that Pukemanu was a first is discussed most thoroughly too. It was simultaneously an incredibly exciting time – everyone involved could not fail to be aware of the ground they were breaking – and a most frustrating one, particularly for producers forced to work on minute budgets with totally inexperienced cameramen and sound technicians. It was penny-pinching, which did for Pukemanu finally – the second series was mostly filmed on an inside set, ludicrous given the nature of the fictional town where people worked in forestry and played on rugby fields. Sadly this was not a unique situation.

So what has happened to television drama since? In a small economy such as ours, it has continued to have a roller-coaster ride. Dunleavy takes us methodically through its highs and lows, finishing with reference to such recent highs as the Gibson Group’s The Insider’s Guide to Happiness. The book is an interesting mix of analysis of the drama itself, and the politics – both national and within what became TVNZ.

How many countries are there – apart from behind-the-Iron-Curtain-style dictatorships – in which a prime minister plays such a meddling role in the nation’s television as Muldoon did? The section on the drama The Governor is fascinating, showing as it does the complexity of television production in New Zealand. Exhaustively researched, with a cast which sometimes included more than 100 extras, and dangerously liberal in its perspective – it questioned the commonly held perception that the European colonists had been overwhelmingly decent chaps – The Governor infuriated Muldoon.

It was quite convenient for him that it went over budget (a whopping $1.36 million was spent on it, which, at almost twice Judy Bailey’s salary, is clearly scandalous). Muldoon publicly condemned the drama then requested a formal inquiry into the amount spent on it. At this time – 1976 – we had two channels – TV One, seen by Muldoon as a Labour stronghold, and South Pacific Television (SPTV). By 1980 we had TVNZ, which Dunleavy sees as disastrous for the development of television drama, particularly as it was a time of dramatic economic downturn. Commercialism has played a huge part ever since.

Television drama can be seen throughout this book as almost a microcosm of New Zealand itself. We’re small and, finally, we’re cash-strapped. We have a strong interest in who we actually are. The last four decades have seen – and continue to see – constant restructuring, as if we yearn for another place, a better place, and yet we can’t quite put our finger on what it is. If life in New Zealand were a television programme, it’d be one long Extreme Makeover, not one of early television’s marginally earnest but excellent examinations of what it actually means to be multicultural us.

This is a most interesting book. But its academic format – albeit an attractive, illustration-rich one – means that it will find its way to Media Studies resource rooms in schools and onto reading lists in universities and polytechs, rather than on to the bookshelves of New Zealand’s sittingrooms. Which, I thought as I dipped in and out of it, is a shame.


Linda Burgess is a Wellington writer, television reviewer and occasional television scriptwriter.


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Posted in History, Media, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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