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Barney Looks Back part 1


On Film

Barney Looks Back – The 1970’s (Part One)

John Barnett, June 2013.

John Bar­nett, June 2013.

On 5th April this year, John Bar­nett sold his remain­ing stake in South Pacific Pic­tures, the com­pany he joined in 1993 and bought from TVNZ in 1998. In recog­ni­tion of nearly 40 years in the busi­ness, Bar­nett sat down with great mate and col­league Chris Hamp­son to talk about his career, the state of the New Zealand screen indus­try and South Pacific Pictures.

The chat was so wide-ranging we ran out of time and had to re-convene a week later. An edited ver­sion of this inter­view appears in the July 2013 issue of ONFILM magazine.

This is Part One of the com­plete inter­view and what you see are almost all Barney’s own words (with occa­sional inter­rup­tions from Hamp­son and from ONFILM). All the pieces of the com­plete inter­view are at


Chris Hamp­son: I’m a believer in begin­ning at the begin­ning so let’s start in Welling­ton, in the 60s and 70s.  I have always been intrigued – like I want to know myself – how did you get into NBR? How did that all come about?

John Bar­nett: Well, I’ve been think­ing about it, in the 60s. I went to Welling­ton to get a degree in busi­ness admin­is­tra­tion, and Vic­to­ria Uni­ver­sity had a mar­ket­ing option, which I liked the look of, so I enrolled there. In those days, you had a job when you went to uni­ver­sity as well – you could always get a job – and I fin­ished up work­ing for a gen­tle­man named Alis­ter Tay­lor, who was a publisher.

Alis­ter was what you would have called an alter­na­tive pub­lisher. He pub­lishedThe Lit­tle Red School­book, things like that, he was a dif­fer­ent kind of publisher.

We did a thing, called Affairs, I think, which was a mag­a­zine that went to schools. That was quite a bit of fun. There was a bit of design going on there. The issue – the devil of the place – was that no one got paid, includ­ing I real­ized not long after, not just the con­trib­u­tors, but the staff.

We were work­ing in what’s now the Boul­cott Street Restau­rant, the lit­tle wooden build­ing, on Boul­cott Street. Work­ing there was Dave Cowie, who was a very tal­ented designer, very quiet, unas­sum­ing, and he was a bit of a genius in every­thing he did.

Alis­ter and I were there and we weren’t being paid. The cred­i­tors were load­ing up and I felt that we’d kinda gone far enough. The com­pany got wound up, and Dave and I bought the design assets for ten dol­lars and opened up a graphic design busi­ness on Lambton Quay, in an office that was com­pletely ill-equipped to be a design stu­dio. It had no nat­ural light whatsoever.

Ian Ath­field designed some amaz­ing lit­tle work­sta­tions for us and we began ser­vic­ing adver­tis­ing agen­cies, and it was a good, fun time. This is around the time that Colenso started, Olgilvy & Mather were start­ing, and there was a lot of change going on.

One of our clients was Henry Murich, who had just started the National Busi­ness Review. He’d been going a cou­ple of months, and he couldn’t pay his bills. You might think it’s a recur­ring theme, but it wasn’t. [laughter]

I can’t remem­ber what he was into us for, but I thought that NBR was a pretty good idea, and it was clear Henry didn’t have any money. Just talk­ing to every­one who was asso­ci­ated with it, there was this appalling short­age of cash. Ian Grant was doing some­thing with us, and I asked him if he knew any­body who could help. I knew that he had a news­pa­per back­ground. He grabbed Hugh Ren­nie and then a cou­ple other peo­ple, and put together a group and took con­trol of National Busi­ness Review.

Hamp­son: Through your debt?

Bar­nett: We actu­ally put in $65,000, but most of that came from a guy called Baron Ralph von Kohorn, who was an Amer­i­can, who had come to New Zealand to build the first nylon fac­tory, which was called Enzlon. I think that had notworked.

Ralph had quite a lot of money and he quite liked the idea. Gra­ham McLean was in there. Gra­ham had been run­ning a restau­rant; Tony Richard­son – our accoun­tant. There were a cou­ple of peo­ple. I think we wrote the paper’s debt off, but we put about $60 grand in, and as I said, most of it came from Ralph, and we went into pub­lish­ing. That was 1970 now that I think back on it.

Hamp­son: Did you keep the design com­pany, when you did the NBR thing?

Bar­nett: I guess for a while, and then I sold out of that, which is how I got into the busi­ness that we’re talk­ing about today, because it was pretty suc­cess­ful, the design com­pany. We worked for nearly every agency and we worked for all sorts of people.

We worked up here, in Auck­land quite a bit, and we designed for the Paul Ham­lyn group, the part­works, the His­tory of New Zealand, which came out every week for two years.

Hamp­son: I remem­ber that!

Bar­nett: We did all the cen­ter­folds. That sounds dodgy, but they were illus­tra­tions of –

Hamp­son: – a deeply his­tor­i­cal nature.

Bar­nett: Yes, and very few of them were with­out any clothes on. So we had that con­tract. We did that for a cou­ple years, and it was a good business.

Hamp­son: That must have been around about the early-ish 70s, wasn’t it?

Bar­nett: It was.


Bar­nett: In 1973, I sold the graphic design busi­ness and I was not quite at a loose end, but it must have been close. Michael Hirschfeld called me up and said, “This bunch of peo­ple I know want to start a tele­vi­sion com­pany and I sug­gested that you should go and run it.”

It was a com­pany that didn’t have any money. It was just a lot of inter­est­ing peo­ple. It was [Michael] Noo­nan and [Keith] Aberdein and Tony Isaac, although Tony – I think Tony was still work­ing for BCNZ. He wasn’t on the radar yet. There was Brian Edwards and David Beat­son. There was Roslyn Noo­nan. There was a guy called Bruce Clark, who was a Kiwi from Christchurch, who had been in the States and shot three films for Roger Cor­man. Who else? I think that’s about the lot.

Hamp­son: This was the gen­e­sis of The Games Affair. How the hell did the Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion ever com­mis­sion an inde­pen­dent production?

Bar­nett: This is inter­est­ing, because in 1973 things only got made in-house. There was some brief moment when, I think, the sec­ond chan­nel was being planned and some­body said, “We should have an inde­pen­dent com­mis­sion.” Not a big one, just a small, inde­pen­dent com­mis­sion. This oppor­tu­nity opened up, and Michael Hirschfeld’s par­ents knew the com­mis­sioner or some­thing – I don’t remem­ber how that worked – so we could go in and pitch. So we went in and pitched this idea, which Noo­nan and Isaacs had writ­ten, called The Games Affairwhich was set around the Com­mon­wealth Games.

The bud­get was $96,000 for six half hours and, when you think of what an hour of tele­vi­sion costs today on loca­tion, and we made three of them, we had to do it by cut­ting a lot of cor­ners. Gra­ham McLean was the pro­duc­tion man­ager, and I think lunches were bud­geted at a dol­lar or two dol­lars a head, which required Mrs Hor­ton and Mrs Elder to be cut­ting the sand­wiches. Geoff Mur­phy was on it and Andy Grant.

Hamp­son: Was Michael Hor­ton cut­ting it?

Bar­nett: Michael Hor­ton was the boom oper­a­tor! And it was a who’s who of peo­ple involved in this thing, although at the time, you don’t know that. It’s just a bunch of peo­ple who had gone to Christchurch to make some­thing. This six-part series was shot for $93,000 and produced –

Hamp­son: And it was directed by whom?

Bar­nett: By Bruce Clark. John Bach was in it, Tom Poata. It was a very sim­ple, kid’s idea, where a cou­ple of young kids dis­cover some­one who’s – this is actu­ally very fore­sighted – who’s giv­ing ath­letes drugs and mak­ing them per­form in a super way. So, we made it for $93,000, and the BCNZ said to us, “We’re not going to do this again.” We said, “Why not?” “Well, we didn’t give you this com­mis­sion so you could make a profit.”

Hamp­son: There’s an atti­tude that hasn’t changed! [laughter]

Bar­nett: Yes. Any­way, I don’t think it was hard work in tele­vi­sion in those days. I think adver­tis­ing on TV was lim­ited to three days a week, and there was this dearth of local mate­r­ial. What you did have was a really strong, regional pres­ence. You didn’t have a TVNZ or a BCNZ. You had an AKTV 2, WNTV 1, CHTV 3 and DNTV4. There was no net­work­ing. There wasn’t any facil­ity to net­work, so you had an event — and I’ll never for­get — when man walked on the moon, we didn’t see that as it hap­pened. The footage was flown here from Aus­tralia, where it did come off the satel­lite. It was played first in Welling­ton and then Auckland.

Hamp­son: And they moved it around?

Yes, and as it hap­pened, some peo­ple in Christchurch got it before peo­ple in Auck­land, because there were these bright bug­gers who had worked out that you could go up to the top of Marl­bor­ough Sounds and pick up the sig­nal from Welling­ton, and then you could relay the sig­nal back down again. I mean, this was piracy in the 1970s!

ONFILM: Num­ber 8 Wire piracy!

Bar­nett: Any­way, we deliv­ered it and it rated or didn’t rate – there was only one chan­nel. No, it must have been two chan­nels then.

Hamp­son: No, I don’t think so.

Bar­nett: Yes, because the sec­ond chan­nel came in in ’74, for the games. But it did well, and I still get peo­ple who say, “I remem­ber The Games Affair.” Then I thought, “Well, it needs a life out­side New Zealand,” but every­thing was on big reels, big 16 mil­lime­ter reels.

I took it to Aus­tralia. I must have trans­ferred it to big, fat, two-inch tape, and I took it to Aus­tralia and we’d see all the tele­vi­sion chan­nels. That was my first foray at sell­ing any­thing, in 1973 — ’74? I got polite con­ver­sa­tions with most peo­ple. I’ll never for­get going into Chan­nel Seven and Glen King, who’s still asso­ci­ated with them today – shit, he’s been going longer than I have – he had five tele­vi­sion screens.

One of them was Seven, one was Nine, was Ten, one was the ABC. I said, “What’s the other one for?” He said, “That’s to play your pro­gramme. And where my atten­tion lies, you’ll know whether I really want to buy it or not”, which was a tough call, but it taught me an awful lot about sell­ing programmes.

Tele­vi­sion in Aus­tralia was twenty years old. It was a com­pet­i­tive envi­ron­ment. We’d never ever seen any­thing like that. Chan­nel Seven didn’t buy it, but theABC did.

That may have been one of the first sales of a New Zealand pro­gramme. I didn’t have any con­tacts to get it any wider. I don’t know what the state of the inter­na­tional tele­vi­sion mar­ket was then, but it didn’t seem to be it was big enough to get on a plane and go to MIP or do any­thing like that.

Hamp­son: Well, you never thought of any­thing like that, back then, did we?

Bar­nett: No, but not long after, we did three doc­u­men­taries on Janet Frame, Sylvia Ashton-Warner and Ngaio Marsh. We went around the world and shot those with Bruce Clarke, except that he went AWOL some­where. When we got to Amer­ica, he shot some­thing in Mex­ico to do with Sylvia Ashton-Warner and never, ever came back. Keith Aberdein and Michael Hor­ton had to save that one, but still, we did inter­views with all three of them, and there was mate­r­ial there.

Hamp­son: You had The Games Affair and then on the heels of that, you did those doc­u­men­taries, did you?

Bar­nett: Yes, because effec­tively, the BCNZ said, “Well, we’re not going to do any more dra­mas. We’ve got our own drama depart­ment,” and those were set­ting up for Auck­land, with John McRae. They were set­ting up what was called South Pacific Tele­vi­sion, TV2.

They fig­ured that that could work, but they didn’t need to put it out to the gen­eral com­mu­nity. But then we sold them this idea of the three women, and – we might have made some­thing else –  but at that point, it became pretty clear that it wasn’t a busi­ness. It wasn’t a busi­ness involv­ing ten people.


In Part Two of Bar­ney Looks Back (to be posted on Mon­day), he dis­cusses man­ag­ing Fred Dagg and mak­ing his first fea­ture film – Dagg Day After­noon.


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