Richard Thomas’ enthusiasm for storytelling added a new dimension to television in New Zealand. George Andrews looks back on the career of the man who helped bring ‘Fair Go’ and a wide range of documentaries to our screens.

There was a tradition going back to the old NZBC to invite over BBC experts, often in the twilight of their careers, to advise and reassure without rocking the broadcasting boat.

None came close to making the impact of Richard Thomas, seconded in 1977 as Head of Information Programmes for the new TV One, after 10 years as a producer on the BBC TV documentary series Man Alive.

Tributes to Thomas from producers and directors around New Zealand following his death at 85, are testament to his unmatched influence on programming in New Zealand television. The diminutive Englishman enthusiastically raised standards, enabled careers and created the environment for our first Māori programmes.

Thomas had the confidence and experience to create a new baseline for television production training courses, often using his own films as examples. Intense hands-on instruction was interspersed with attachments to existing programmes – like Country Calendar or those Thomas had started like Fair Go, A Dog’s Show and Good Day. An influx of programme-makers followed, equipped with the full range of production skills required.

Ray Waru was on the first training course. Thomas had asked his bosses why there were no Māori programmes. He was told no one would be interested, and there was no one to make them.

The most senior of three Māori at Avalon was a floor manager; Ernie Leonard, was hosting the wrestling show On the Mat and Derek Fox was a reporter. 

In a biography of Thomas in NZ on Screen he is quoted as saying “you can’t say you’re a multicultural broadcaster in a multicultural society, and only have one brown face in the place. They said we just don’t have the money. So we had to find the money”.

Waru helped Thomas identify recruits for a separate training intake for Māori. They included Derek Wooster, Pere Maitai, Robert Pouwhare and Kathleen Graham and lay down the bedrock for the first Māori programme strands Koha – and Titiro Mai.

Waru believes this foundation Māori programming in TVNZ explains why, when the opportunity for a Māori channel presented itself, there were experienced craftspeople able to make it to happen.

Richard Thomas was responsible for bringing a wide range of documentaries to New Zealand screens. Photo: Supplied

Thomas was modest about his initiative, “It was easier for me to come in and change things, because I was an outsider. It was much harder for people who had lived with that system for the whole of their broadcasting lives.”

When his secondment ended, Thomas returned to the BBC. In 1981 he was back in the Southern Hemisphere as Head of Training at the Australian Film and Television School. One of the first applicants was Jane Campion. He remembered the clip that gave her entry: “Technically it was rough, but it was original, unusual. She proved you don’t need big budget equipment to produce exceptional ideas.”

Next came an even bigger job. In 1984 Thomas was appointed Director of Television of the ABC by another ex-BBC man, Geoffrey Whitehead, who had formerly been CEO of Radio New Zealand. The stiff opposition to the imports set the tone for a tumultuous two years. The Sydney Morning Herald ran the headline: “Are Australians too dumb to run the ABC?” Thomas forged ahead, scheduling new programmes for the channel but clashed with a new government accustomed to influencing what went on air.

When a new chairman was appointed, he took over Whitehead’s job after sacking him. Thomas had been in hospital recovering from a heart attack and bypass operation. The day he returned to the job he was sacked.

Back in New Zealand, Thomas set up his own training company First Hand with an astonishing new idea. To train and develop “reporters” as single operators taking care of camera sound interviewing and editing for a series of half hour documentaries. The concept was made possible by the arrival of new Hi-8 cameras and the principle that ideas make the best films and the technical capability was secondary.

Unlike a six-strong documentary crew, a single operator could easily access intimate stories.

For the recruits, the supervision and support from Thomas and the prospect of continuity of ongoing series was an opportunity they seized. TVNZ programmer Maureen Sinton liked the pilot and was to sign off on two seasons. New Zealand film-makers who got their start thanks to Thomas and First Hand include Leanne Pooley, Mark McNeill, Peta Carey and Alan Erson.

Erson, a former ABC executive who now heads a major film production company in Sydney, says Thomas’ sense of social justice came through in his mentoring of young filmmakers.

“Richard Thomas taught us how to make the kind of stories that he liked. He was the child of socialism – his Welsh Dad and East London Jewish mother met at a communist party dance – and he believed that the dramas of ordinary people were epic. He loved dreamers and battlers and he exhorted us look for great stories in the everyday, to be interested in everyone.

“He was totally relentless and a bit shameless in pursuit of a story or a character or finance for a project. He just never stopped. It kept him young. When I told my kids he had died they said but he wasn’t old. They’d been to his 80th birthday party quite a few years before, seen him shake it with the Belly Dancer at a Turkish place on Cleveland St, answered his enthusiastic questions about their neighbourhood lives. They were right. Richard wasn’t old.

“Dick lives on in stories and storytellers. He was a very good film-maker and I remember vividly some of his Man Alive films: all 1970s class warfare and tough humour, grim and green as only England is. He gave dozens, probably hundreds of us a break. Not just a budget but encouragement, insights into how to move people, how to unfold narrative, how to convey ideas elegantly. He loved the craft. And when he watched your cut or read your script, he lived your story. He would lean forward, frame his big brainy forehead with his hands, and experience your work with his full head and heart. No matter the state it was in. Then he would tell you, pitilessly but with great warmth, exactly how and where your story shone and where it dulled, along with a few suggestions about how to move forward. They were precious exchanges. He looked for the best in our characters and in us.”

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