The evolution of television

Glued to the goggle-box – a 2006 cartoon (click for image credit)

Glued to the goggle-box – a 2006 cartoon (click for image credit)

Yesterday I bought a cable to connect my computer to the television. Now I’ll be able to stream TV programmes on demand, and watch them on the big (well, 30-inch) screen. This isn’t new, but if you read my blog about going digital, you’ll know it takes a while for me to catch up.

It got me thinking about how much television viewing has changed since it was introduced more than 50 years ago.

Auckland was the first region to get television, in June 1960. The service began just one day a week, but by July had increased to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and to five weekday broadcasts in October. Services to Christchurch and Wellington started in 1961, with Dunedin following in 1962.

Schedules published in the NZ Listener in June 1960 for NZBS TV Channel Two Auckland record that a selection of British and American programmes  (opening with The adventures of Robin Hood) were broadcast in a two-hour slot from 7.30 p.m. Closedown was at 9.30 p.m! The line-up was interspersed with a couple of short studio items.  On opening night Studio Two featured the Howard Morrison Quartet, and on another night was ‘a musical interlude by Pat McMinn and the Crombie Murdoch Trio’.

News was flown in from the British Commonwealth International Newsfilm Agency (Visnews). Most other programmes were also imported, and as a Listener article reported, ‘A balance has also been struck between their places of origin. Nobody will be forced to listen to, say, American voices all night.’

However, Kiwi voices and local content were scarce in the early days of television. Māori programme content was even rarer, as Tainui Stephens outlines in the Māori and television – whakaata entry. Programmes featuring Māori were generally limited to light entertainment or were made from a Pākehā perspective. The establishment of a Maori Production Unit in TVNZ helped to change this with the production of series such Koha, Waka huia and Te karere in the 1980s.

There was a significant rise in the production of local content in the early 1990s, likely a result of the establishment of the television funding body NZ On Air in 1989. This was a time that local documentaries made by independent production companies flourished. The setting up of a third television channel  – TV3 – also provided an outlet for more local programmes and for competition.

In the Television entry, Trisha Dunleavy outlines the history of various genres of television, including our enjoyment of rural programmes such as our longest-running series, Country calendar.  She also describes three main eras of New Zealand television history – scarcity, availability and plenty.

That brings me back to the digital plenty now accessible to me through multiple platforms such as streaming from the internet. We are a small island nation, and personally I enjoy looking outward to what the rest of the world offers. Equally, I love to hear our voices on screen and to experience New Zealanders’ unique stories and perspectives.

This month Te Ara is highlighting its entries about television. I hope you enjoy reading about its history in New Zealand, marvel at how far it has come, and perhaps wonder how you’d like it to develop.

PS I would like to acknowledge Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision for collecting, preserving and making accessible our television history; also NZ On Screen for showcasing it.

Reflections on Ath

Taking over Khandallah – Ian Athfield's sprawling Wellington house (click for image credit)

Taking over Khandallah – Ian Athfield's sprawling Wellington house (click for image credit)

Wellington’s most creative architect ever, Ian Athfield (or ‘Ath’, as he was widely known), died on Friday 16 January during a procedure to treat his cancer. His death will be greatly mourned among the city’s architectural community, many of who have spent time working in his hillside office and home in Khandallah. But he will also be missed by those Wellingtonians who for over 50 years have watched Ath’s buildings rise in the cityscape and smiled at their whimsicality or felt a sense of wonder at the juxtaposition of their shapes and forms.

I first became aware of Ath in the 1970s, when I was a boy of about 10. Our neighbours had commissioned him to build them a house in Miramar and they invited us to go and have a look. In those days Ath insisted his clients help to build their own homes, so when we arrived they were busy with the concrete mixer. There was enough completed to see the emerging forms. The house was on a steep site and comprised multiple rooms on several levels and a trademark round tower – first used on his own house. Most exciting though were the children’s bedrooms, which had to be reached through a tunnel-like concrete pipe. I felt very jealous of my friend Simon.

These houses and those of fellow Wellington architect Roger Walker were lauded for their playfulness and were nicknamed ‘Noddy houses’. More formally the style was known as the Wellington School. Both architects rejected the open-floor plan of the Modernist style, instead building houses that were a succession of rooms. Each had individual architectural expression, often with steeply pitched gables or lean-to roofs that referenced New Zealand’s colonial architecture. Ath was not to be defined by one style, and from the late 1980s he charted innovative new directions in post-modern and neo-modern idioms. Yet it was his earlier houses for which he will probably be most remembered.

By this time too he was securing commercial work, such as the former Telecom Building, and was pioneering the emerging field of urban design. The best example of that was Wellington’s revamped Civic Square. This project included his stunning public library, arguably the city’s best public building. Ath recently admitted that the square had not met his expectations as a social space, something he thought more street cafés and/or a market could encourage. Among his projects that were never realised was his and Frank Gehry’s stunning design for Te Papa.

Ath was a provocateur and reformer. He rebelled against officious planning regulations. During the 1980s many of his houses featured twin chimneys, sometimes interpreted as a two-finger salute to planners. He defied rules that prevented people working from home by locating his office in his house. Ath also added several apartments onto his house, for extended family or friends to live in a communal fashion. He saw this as part of a vision to make suburbia more liveable and joked that his house would one day take over Khandallah.

His strong views could be divisive. Ath’s belief that buildings should constantly change and not be frozen in time put him off side with heritage advocates, including me. His early 2000s plan to radically rebuild the neo-Gothic Canterbury Museum caused an uproar in Christchurch and was thrown out by the Environment Court, an outcome that Ath saw as a lost opportunity. Still, his appointment to the Board of the Historic Places Trust (now Heritage New Zealand) in 2010 might have led him to soften his views. In 2014 he proposed that his home be considered for heritage listing as ‘organic heritage’. This would allow it to be modified. Heritage New Zealand is still to consider the proposal.

Ath considered his home his best work. Since 1971 the house’s bulbous white tower and cascade of rooms has been a landmark presence on the cityscape. It is a fitting memorial to his work and love of Wellington.

Historian and author Ben Schrader was a Te Ara writer. He has been involved with the Heritage New Zealand assessment of Ian Athfield’s house.

Being the best man I can be

Chained to the dog-box: a prospective bridegroom resigned to his fate (click for image credit)

Chained to the dog-box: a prospective bridegroom resigned to his fate (click for image credit)

I have never been a best man before. This is going to change soon. At Christmas, my brother popped the question. In a card. Would I be the best man at his wedding? Sure, love to.

The wedding is taking place in Ireland in May. While not quite a ‘destination wedding’ by industry definition, it still promises to be an amazing adventure. The ceremony itself is in County Kildare, a rural area in the Irish midlands famous for horse breeding and lack of sunshine. Just like the Waikato then. This may be a tad unfair. A few days in rural Ireland might be rather exotic – I’ve seen My big fat gypsy wedding.

I digress. Knowing very little about the role of a best man, I set about finding a job description. A google search later, I was staring at a best man’s duties checklist. It was comprehensive to say the least, 31 points in fact, covering everything from input into wedding planning to ceremony and reception tasks. Thankfully, I can ignore most of them – some have already been sorted (confirming honeymoon reservations), while others, I just do not see the point (helping the groom get dressed).

As far as I can tell, a best man needs to remember four things:

  • Organise the stag party
  • Keep the wedding ring(s) safe
  • Get the groom to the wedding venue (on time and in one piece)
  • Deliver the speech at the reception.

Te Ara highlights some of the tasks above in its Marriage and partnering entry. I found the section on pre-wedding rituals – hen and stag parties in particular – enlightening. Seems both these celebratory events have changed somewhat over the years.

A modern-day bride’s hen party is very different from the ‘kitchen tea’ of yesteryear. More champagne toasts, less toasters. Even stag parties – traditionally a night of drunkenness, nudity, and public degradation – have had a makeover. Stag nights have morphed into weekends; sports and other group activities have replaced drinking sessions; and humiliation of the groom is less common.

As chief organiser of this important event, seems I have a choice to make. Stick with tradition or move with the times. Will it be pole dancing or polo for the stag?

Of more concern is the fact that the best man is required to make a speech. A very public speech. Public speaking is nerve-wracking. Where is the fun in having to try to entertain a room full of people with pithy one-liners and witty anecdotes? I’d rather run through a patch of gorse.

Nevertheless, it has to happen.

Perhaps I can draw inspiration from some of New Zealand’s great speechmakers. Despite our country’s penchant for understatement, we have produced some rather fine orators. Most have operated in the political sphere (goes with the job). Richard Seddon, shown here campaigning ‘on the stump’ in the 1890s, was said to project an ‘expansive friendliness and sympathy’ on stage (not to mention an expansive silhouette). David Lange, one of our best-known political speakers, produced some memorable speeches in his time. Who can forget this gem at the 1985 Oxford Union debate?

Other celebrated New Zealand political orators, highlighted in this blog post from January 2009, include Labour Party leader Harry Holland, influential Māori politician Āpirana Ngata, wartime Prime Minister Peter Fraser and the first NZ-born Labour prime minister, Norman ‘Big Norm’ Kirk.

Maybe I am setting my sights too high though. Those above were prime ministers, political leaders, and cultural icons. They spoke to a nation. I just have to speak to a room full of Irish.

What could go wrong?

Angels and demons

Lionel Terry self-portrait (click for image credit)

Lionel Terry self-portrait (click for image credit)

Scientist Steven Pinker (in The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011) argues that there has been a long-term, worldwide decline in violence, thanks especially to:

the rise of nation-states and judicial systems with a monopoly on the use of force;

the increased monetary value of individuals as economies have become more sophisticated;

increasing respect for ‘the interests and values of women’;

cosmopolitan forces such as literacy which help us empathise with people unlike ourselves;

the increasing application of knowledge and rationality in human affairs.

This recasting of the centuries-old concept of human progress has a common-sense appeal. For example, historian Miles Fairburn’s argument that nineteenth-century New Zealand was an ‘atomised society’ with weak social bonds was supported by the colony’s high rate of violent crime – which then fell steadily during the twentieth century as society urbanised and rural roughnecks ’settled down’. Yet rates of conviction and the lengths of sentences for violent crime then rose steadily in the late twentieth century. Was social order in New Zealand now declining – or was one consequence of the ‘feminisation’ of society noted by Pinker an increasing willingness to report domestic and sexual assault? Was there more crime, more openness about it, or more willingness to punish it?

Last week’s atrocities in France are the latest of many recent correctives to any complacency about ‘progress’. New Zealanders have a self-image as easy-going pragmatists – we’d never come to blows over ideas, surely? Yet In the early years of the colony, ‘gentlemen’ fought duels to defend their ‘honour’, sometimes with fatal consequences. And Pākehā land-grabbing during the New Zealand Wars of the mid-nineteenth century was justified by theories of racial superiority. In hindsight, it seems miraculous that the social convulsions of 1912/13, 1951 and 1981 – all clashes of ideology as much as of economic and political forces – resulted in only one death.

Nor have New Zealanders been immune to justifying racial violence on religious grounds. The enthusiasm with which Te Ua Haumēne, Tītokowaru and Te Kooti were pursued during the New Zealand Wars owed much to their espousal of non-Christian religions as well as to the threat they posed to colonisation. And in 1905 Lionel Terry killed Joe Kum Yung in cold blood in Wellington to draw New Zealanders’ attention to the necessity for racial and religious ‘purity’. Violence often broke out at meetings of the early twentieth century Protestant Political Association, which was virulently anti-Catholic – and anti-Irish.

As Pinker puts it, our ‘better angels’ are often at war with our ‘inner demons’, which include ideologies that justify violence in the pursuit of utopia. From this perspective, Kiwi pragmatism has quite a lot going for it.

From the Te Ara inbox

Water race on the Otago goldfields (click for image credit)

Water race on the Otago goldfields (click for image credit)

Those of us who work behind the scenes at Te Ara have an interesting range of jobs that include responding to the many comments and enquiries we receive through our inbox. Occasionally we get fan mail: just yesterday one user wrote that he had just discovered our website while searching for information about gold in Otago. He commented that Te Ara ‘is an amazing website with a ridiculous amount of content’ and added that it ‘deserves more recognition’. We couldn’t agree more – emails like this really make our day!

Often, however, people are after information or help – asking us to identify an unusual bird, spider or some other critter (we have no scientists on staff, so have to refer these queries to other experts), seeking permission to reproduce our text or images, or wanting clarification of a point of fact. Recently I corresponded with the president of the New Zealand Horse Network, who wanted to know the exact date horses first arrived in New Zealand – was it 22 or 23 December 1814? It turns out that our entry on horses says it was the 22nd, whereas the entry in the 1966 Encyclopedia of New Zealand says the 23rd. After some to-ing and fro-ing, we concluded that the first horses arrived by ship at the Bay of Islands on 22 December, but were unloaded the next day.

Speaking of the 1966 Encyclopedia, many people assume its entries are up to date, though of course they were written nearly 50 years ago. Often the information they give is still very relevant, while sometimes it is clearly outdated but of historical interest. We present these entries on the Te Ara website as ‘a blast from the past’, and have a policy of not updating or correcting them, reasoning that people who are following up a particular topic will be keen to compare different perspectives over time. We do have a disclaimer on each page which warns users that the ‘66 entries have been superseded, but sometimes people do not read it and write in complaining that material is out of date or incorrect. As a result, we are currently looking at design enhancements to make the disclaimer more prominent.

We are, however, always interested to hear from users who can help us make our Te Ara or Dictionary of New Zealand Biography entries more accurate or informative. As someone who was lucky enough to work on the original DNZB project, I am always particularly delighted when someone, usually a family member, writes in to offer us a photograph of a biography subject. Just before Christmas, I had a nice exchange with an Englishman married to a descendant of Sophia Louisa Taylor. Not only did he draw our attention to the existence of a lovely portrait of Sophia, he pointed out an error in the biography. This currently states that Sophia ‘was a domineering mother who thought nobody good enough for her daughters, although she was a disappointed when they did not marry.’ As my correspondent noted, one of them did in fact marry, as his wife is a great-granddaughter of Sophia! I checked back to our paper file and found that this information was known to our researchers back in the 1990s, but for some reason did not make it into the entry. We will be correcting the text shortly, and will follow up the portrait, which shows Sophia to be as beautiful as she was strong-willed.