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 onfilm.co.nz/barnett-2013.
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.
Link courtesy of www.onfilm.co.nz