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Barney Looks Back

Barney Looks Back – The 1970s (Part Two)

Con­tin­u­ing the com­plete inter­view between South Pacific Pic­tures’ John Bar­nett and Chris Hamp­son. A heav­ily edited ver­sion of these con­ver­sa­tions forms the cover story of the July 2013 issue of ONFILM.

We pick up the story as Bar­nett has already pro­duced The Games Affair and theThree New Zealan­ders doc­u­men­tary series but leaves the screen busi­ness for a while to work with John Clarke (Fred Dagg).


John Bar­nett: About then, I re-hooked up with John Clarke, who had just started doing Fred Dagg. He said to me, “I think I need an agent.” I said, “Are you sure?” He said, “I’m pretty sure I do”, I watched a cou­ple of the TV shows and I said, “Maybe you do.”

Actu­ally, it must have been ’74. We had a cou­ple of pretty hot years where we, you know, had the book, the t-shirt, the movie and the con­cert tour, and we spent a lot of time at the Set­tle­ment, drink­ing cof­fee and solv­ing the world, generally.

Chris Hamp­son: That was owned by Harry [Seresin] then, wasn’t it?

Fred Dagg's Greatest Hits LP sleeve, 1976.

Fred Dagg’s Great­est Hits LP sleeve, 1976.

Bar­nett: Yes. I man­aged some other peo­ple dur­ing that time. I got involved with Alan Gal­braith. We had Alan Gal­braith Enter­prises, which was a music man­age­ment com­pany. We had Sharon [O’Neill] and Mark Williams. Annie Whittle.

Any­way, we had a good time doing all that, and it was all – you made it up as you went along, because there weren’t really any mod­els for it, but every­thing that you did, you learned some­thing from. We got approached by Phil War­ren, who was the Deputy Mayor of Auck­land at the time and who ran nightclubs.

Phil ran all the clubs in Auck­land. He was a char­ac­ter . There ought to be a book! Phil had gone broke and one of his tour­ing com­pa­nies had been – well, he had to sell some assets. He used to own a Rolls Royce, and I saw him dri­ving the Rolls Royce. I said, “Phil, I thought you had to sell the Rolls Royce.”

He said, “I did – to my dad!” [laughter]

Any­way, Phil called us up and he said, “We’ve got this room here called the Ace of Clubs, and I’d like to do a show with John Clarke and Mar­cus Craig. John can write it, and we’ll book you in for three weeks or some­thing. You want to talk about money?”

I said, “Yes, sure,” so John and I talked about it, and I said, “Well, we want a per­cent­age of the gross. We want a min­i­mum and per­cent­age of the gross.” You know, I was mak­ing it up as I went along, but Phil said, “That’s alright”, he said, “Nor­mally I keep two sets of books, but I like you boys.”

I think we did three sea­sons of the Ace of Clubs, because it worked out well, and if he kept two sets of books, I don’t know. We did very well out of it.

Hamp­son: Was that in mid 70s?

Bar­nett: Yes. It would have been ’75, I sup­pose. Then we’d had this phe­nom­e­nally suc­cess­ful record, which you’d never seen the like of. 120,000 units – Fred Dagg’s Great­est Hits, the first album, which took two hours to record!

EMI argued about the roy­alty and so I said, “Well, we’ll take half a per­cent for every $5,000 over $20,000,” and they said okay. I didn’t know at the time what we’d sell, but we fin­ished up get­ting a higher roy­alty rate than The Beatles!


Bar­nett: I spent a bit of time with Geoff Mur­phy and Andy Grant, of the Acme Sausage Com­pany, and they were mak­ing the Blerta show, and there was this ter­ri­ble mis­trust between the wal­lahs that ran what was TVNZ then, and the Blerta boys. It most prob­a­bly became myth­i­cal through both their own mis­be­liefs, but, at a whole lot of lev­els, there wasn’t any mis­trust at all. The peo­ple who were com­mis­sion­ing the show didn’t have any issue about Mur­phy com­ing in to the build­ing, but Mur­phy believed that they did, and there­fore every time the Blerta crew could help them­selves to short ends of film, they did, and then some exec­u­tive thought Blerta were going to steal a piano or some­thing, which is silly.

Hamp­son: That was a fairly hon­ourable tra­di­tion — get­ting away with the film though.

Bar­nett: Well, yes. Any­way, Geoff and I were talk­ing about what they were doing, and I watched their Wild Man TV episode, which was an exten­sion of the live stage shows that Blerta had done. They were ter­ri­bly inven­tive. When you think back on what they were doing in the ’70s with the mixed media and the coor­di­na­tion of spe­cial effects and stage and music and the visual thing, they were so far ahead of the game.

Any­way, I said to Geoff, “We should make a fea­ture film. What you had in ’76 was a group of peo­ple who couldn’t get work at TVNZ, two of whom because they were mak­ing com­mer­cials — that wasn’t what you did — and one of whom because he was a crazy doc­u­men­tary maker.

Don­ald­son and Mune had announced Sleep­ing Dogs and they got proper money in to make it and an over­seas star [War­ren Oates] and they got Michael Seresin to shoot it and it was all very excit­ing, very ambi­tious. Tony Williams in Welling­ton, who had come through the Pacific Films school — they were off the TVNZaccept­abil­ity list as well — was mak­ing Solo. Michael Firth, who hadn’t fea­tured on the radar, was mak­ing this doc­u­men­tary called Off the Edge, which went on to be New Zealand’s first Oscar nominee.

Those projects were actu­ally in pro­duc­tion, and I said to Geoff, “You know what, I reckon we could be in the cin­ema before all these peo­ple! From every­thing I’ve read, a film just needs to be 72 min­utes long to qual­ify as a fea­ture. If you takeWild Man, you’ve got 55 already, so if we can find 20 min­utes to add to it, and we make a Fred Dagg short film and do a dou­ble bill.”

The 20 minute intro became the Wild Man set up and fea­tured John Clarke as a trav­el­ling apothe­cary get­ting duffed over by the peo­ple of the town in which Wild Man is set. The Fred Dagg short, Dagg Day After­noon, was less struc­tured. We didn’t really have a script, which was not a great idea, but Mur­phy and Clarke said that they could do it on the run.

So we put together a small amount of equip­ment and some film — which had come from TVNZ (apparently) –

Hamp­son: That hon­ourable tra­di­tion again …

Bar­nett: I set about see­ing if we could pay for this by spon­sor­ship, which involved going to about five or six dif­fer­ent cor­po­rates and ask­ing for $5,000 for their prod­uct to be freely demon­strated in it.

A friend of mine was run­ning Wat­ties and I asked him if he’d like to be in it. He knew John Clarke and he said, “Oh, that sounds like a good idea.”

If you remem­ber the scene, what you see is Fred and the Trevs and he’s cook­ing break­fast and he says, “Any­body want baked beans?” and into the pot goes baked beans. “Any­one want peaches?” Into the pot goes tinned peaches. And there’s all this Wat­ties prod­uct going into the one pot.

Which was a bit of a sur­prise for Wat­ties, when they saw it, but they paid their $5,000. [laugh­ter] We did Smith’s Crisps and Bell Tea and Nis­san and some­one else, and we got enough money to make the film and actu­ally to pay for some prints.

So we had this Dou­ble Bill. I went to Kerridge-Odeon and they were dis­mis­sive, but the Mood­abes at Amal­ga­mated said, “Oh, we’ll give it a go. We’ll put it out.” We released the pic­ture and it ran for about six weeks, and nobody made any money but no one lost any money, and I thought, “This is a lot of fun.” Then Sleep­ing Dogs came along and did really well, and Off the Edge got an Oscar nom­i­na­tion, and Solo did quite well.


Middle Age Spread poster, 1979 (via Internet Movie Poster Awards).

Mid­dle Age Spread poster, 1979 (via Inter­net Movie Poster Awards).

Bar­nett: I went to see Mid­dle Age Spread at the –

Hamp­son: At Circa?

Bar­nett: Well, I saw it at the Opera House, and John Reid – did John direct it? No, he was in it.

Hamp­son: No, John directed it.

Bar­nett: He directed it, and John said to me, “What do you think? It’s a movie.” He said, “Let’s make a movie.” I said, “Well, that’s a good idea.” Keith Aberdein wrote the script. Of course, there wasn’t a Film Com­mis­sion. There was an interim Film Com­mis­sion. I went to South Pacific Finance, which was run by John Ander­son, who was lat­terly the chair of TVNZ, and they agreed to put up money, and I think, if you pass me one of those books, I think –

Hamp­son: Oh, the cost?

Bar­nett: No, I know what it cost! It was $120,000. [laughter]

Hamp­son: You’ve always been really good like that.

Bar­nett: It was the interim Film Com­mis­sion that had been estab­lished, due to the efforts of Bill Sheat, David Gas­coigne, John Reid and a few oth­ers. In one of those com­pletely ran­dom moments, Allan Highet, who was the Min­is­ter of Inter­nal Affairs, which used to look after the arts then, had a good friend – and I don’t know how this had hap­pened – but he had a good friend called Den­nis Stan­fill, and Den­nis ran 20th Cen­tury Fox in Amer­ica.

Hamp­son: Really?

Bar­nett: So Highet had some­body to ask about the movie busi­ness, and he expressed an inter­est. He was ripe for the lob­by­ing. Which the guys were doing, but I’ll never for­get, there was this interim Film Com­mis­sion and he was it, in a way.

With Mid­dle Age Spread, tech­ni­cally we weren’t that clever. We shot it in 16mm, and that kept the bud­get down, but then we had a prob­lem with exhibit­ing it, because there wasn’t a lot of 16mm film -

Hamp­son: — pro­jec­tors.

Bar­nett: No, so we had to travel with a 16mm pro­jec­tor, and again, Amal­ga­mated came to the party. The film did well, but then sud­denly they pulled it. I said, “Why?” They said, “Because it’s the school hol­i­days and we’ve got Dis­ney com­ing.” I said, “But, it’s doing well?”

They said, “Yes, but sorry, you’re gone.” That was one of the few times when I got grumpy with them, but I thought, “Well, we’ve got to make a kids film.”

I talked to Roger Don­ald­son and Keith [Aberdein] and [Ian] Mune, “Let’s make a kids film, and let’s see if we can get South Pacific Mer­chant Finance to put up some money. So we made this thing called The Nut­case.

Hamp­son: Who directed?

Bar­nett: Mune. The idea was that we actu­ally release in the school hol­i­days and that we’d get our share of what was going on. Well, what hap­pened was that the exhibitors made it clear that they were not going to break their arrange­ments with the exist­ing sup­pli­ers, and they weren’t going to release our film.

I said, “Well, we might have to do our own exhi­bi­tion,” and at the time, there was a Cin­ema Licens­ing Author­ity, and only they could say if you could open a cin­ema in a given loca­tion. But I looked into it and found out that the Welling­ton Opera House and the St James The­atre in Auck­land and a few other places had cin­ema licenses, but they didn’t have any pro­jec­tion equipment. I said, “Well, we’ll book these places, and we’ll open this film.”

The Cin­ema Licens­ing Author­ity, the chair­man of which hap­pened to be some­body who was also chair­man of the Film Com­mis­sion. [laughter]

Hamp­son: A W. Sheat, by any chance?

Bar­nett: Yes, but he was under a lot of pres­sure from the cin­ema people. Bill Sheat came back and said, “I think there’s a com­pro­mise.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “They’ll show your film in the May hol­i­days.” I said fine, but what I hadn’t counted on was that they would show it, but they wouldn’t adver­tise it. [laughter]

Hamp­son: They buried it!

Bar­nett: Look, against the films that it was up against, it didn’t have a show, but again, I think it was about a hun­dred grand, but you learnt a lot from some­thing like that, and you learnt that you had to work with these people.

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