Dramas and comedies - the 1970s


Two Weeks at Manutuke


As soon as This is New Zealand was finished and on its way to Japan, Hugh was on to his next assignment, directing a film of the Maori Theatre Trust's summer school held at the Manutuke marae near Gisborne. This was the first time Hugh had directed a film with solely Maori cultural content, although his social circle in Wellington included the artist and actor Selwyn Muru and 'Uncle Ru' – Ruru Karaitiana – composer of the New Zealand classic hit song, Blue Smoke.

Hugh led a nine man crew for a two week shoot in January 1970, shooting hours of 35 mm colour film which were edited down to a 20 minute documentary, Two Weeks at Manutuke. The film had been pre-sold to three countries by the time filming began, and a 16mm version went to every NZ Embassy before the Trust performers left on their six month world tour in July that year.


This is Expo

The Maori Theatre Trust tour included Japan, with appearances at Expo 70. Hugh and cameraman Kell Fowler went to Japan in the (northern) summer of 1970.  As well as seeing for themselves how popular This is New Zealand was proving at Expo,  Hugh and Kell made a film about Expo and New Zealand's part in it.

 This is Expo (available now on DVD) was the first half of the bill when This is New Zealand was screened in New Zealand in 1971.


Environment 1990

[image – slide used for MoW magazine]

Hugh's main project in 1971 was making a short documentary, Environment 1990, for the world's first 'Earth Summit' - the UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in June 1972. Commissioned by the Ministry of Works, Environment 1990  shows the relentless despoilation of the environment by industrial society, relieved only by contrasting scenes of the beauty that still remains. The underlying theme, conveyed implicitly rather than explicitly, is that we all need to take better care of the natural and built environment, safeguarding it for generations to come.

The Dominion reported on 12 June 1972 that “A New Zealand National Film Unit film on the environment was received enthusiastically at its world premiere in Stockholm … The premiere was held for senior delegates to the United Nations conference on the human environment, and it is now being shown daily in Stockholm.”

The Post journalist who attended the Wellington premiere wrote:

“Environment 1990 has been built for impact. There is no story line; nothing to tie complacency upon. Its only gentleness lies in the natural sequences put there for contrast. This is not a film for reviews. It impresses, shocks, disturbs, criticises by implication, and most probably will achieve its purpose of opening the public mind to the causes of environmental loss and its consequences.”

Another reviewer of Environment 1990 called it “a small masterpiece of evocative art … a first-class piece of film-making, since in really good cinema the pictures tell the story.”


Values Party campaign ad

NFU production staff including Rob Ritchie (centre) who coerced Hugh into making the Values Party election campaign advertisement inn 1972.


The early 1970s was a time of social and political ferment in New Zealand, with movements such as Women's Liberation, Ecology Action and Nga Tamatoa agitating for change. Catching this wave, in May 1972 the world's first national-level green party, the Values Party, was formed. Personal connections between the young film makers at the NFU and the (also young) leadership of the party led to Hugh and his associate director on This is New Zealand, Rob Ritchie, volunteering to make Values' television advertisement [link to ad on youtube] for the 1972 election campaign. The ad captures the essence of the Values/Green message of environmental protection and social justice in a sophisticated way (no preaching, no politicians), and was extremely effective in raising the profile of the party and support for it.


Study abroad



In 1972 Hugh was awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council grant for travel and study overseas. Making an editorial comment on the award, The Post of 7 January 1972 said:

“Watching 'This is New Zealand' gave most of us a warm feeling deep down. It was exciting, sophisticated, inventive and skilfully designed to present New Zealanders in an interesting light. The [awarding of the grant] acknowledges Mr Macdonald's considerable ability, at the same time adding further to the fine reputation of our National Film Unit.”

Taking up the grant in 1973, Hugh chose to go to the UK and Canada. In Britain he studied the technical side of feature film making at the Pinewood and Shepperton studios (and enjoyed getting to know the actors in the 'Carry On' series). At the BBC he observed television documentaries and comedies being made, and at Thames television he watched the making of a live-to-air children's programme.

In Canada he went first to Toronto to the CBC drama department, and then on to Montreal and the National Film Board – the Canadian equivalent of the NFU but on a much larger and more diverse scale. There he spent most of his time in the Animation Department, headed by Wolf Koenig, learning from animators whose work, such as The House that Jack Built, he had long admired from afar.

Hugh was to put what he learned at Pinewood about working with actors to good use while directing two episodes of The Governor in 1977, but the content of Environment 1990 was more immediately relevant to his first attempt at a television advertisement, which was not part of his NFU duties, and occurred in unique circumstances.


There is a [censored] Place OR There's No Such Place

Any hint of a suggestion that New Zealand was a less than perfect place was anathema to the governmental end-users of the next film Hugh made about New Zealand for the NFU, however, as he wrote to his parents in August 1975:

“ Among other depressing subjects, I have been required to cut There is a Place right down to remove all parts of the film that offend the sensitivities of Foreign Affairs, who are returning all of the first 70 16mm prints (cost $7000, borne by NFU) from their diplomatic postings. Naturally, I am annoyed and have written a long memo to that effect. Foreign Affairs are a notoriously pretentious bunch, did not pay for the film in any way and yet feel they have the right to demand total revision. Well I've done it. I went through the film and wherever there was any objection I removed the whole sequence and it is now half its original length. This afternoon at 2:30 I will be screening it to the T[ourist] and P[ublicity] General Manager and two of his stooges. If he likes it, he will take full responsibility for it this time. Big deal … In the new version, anything that reflects badly on the country or does not relate directly to tourism (who said it was supposed to be a straight 'tourist' film in the first place?) has been surgically removed.”


Prize-winning New Zealand – naturally

Cameraman Dale Pomeroy filming in Pupu Springs. (Photo by Hugh Macdonald)


Despite feeling disenchanted with both the NFU and tourist films after this experience, Hugh's professionalism  - and his unparalleled record of winning international awards for the NFU -  remained in evidence when he won prizes for his next two tourist films.

Somebody Else's Horizon, made to mark the 75th anniversary of the Tourism and Publicity Department, includes historic footage of some of the first New Zealand tourism films with sound that were made in the early twentieth century. Freshwater Dive (which Hugh and cameraman Dale Pomeroy successfully pitched as an idea they wanted to work on to NFU management) shows divers exploring the waters of one of the world's largest freshwater springs (Pupu Springs in Nelson province).

These were the only New Zealand films at the 23rd International Festival of Tourist and Folklore Films in Brussels in October 1976. In competition with over 100 films from 60 countries, they won two of the twelve prizes awarded. Somebody Else's Horizon won the French National Tourist Office prize for best film on an historical theme, and Freshwater Dive won the Monaco Tourist Office's prize for best film about Tourism and Sport. (It also won the Silver Venus Medallion at the 10th Festival of the Americas in 1976.)

Reviewing Somebody Else's Horizon for the Evening, Post Diana Dekker said it had only one fault – “at 20 minutes long it is too short.”  “Otherwise”, she said, “and I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it – the film actually portrays our magnificent tourist assets as fun.”


The Governor

While recovering from a bad cold in August 1976 (and from the annoyance of having to cut There is a Place), Hugh devoted his time to reading about Governor George Grey (or as he told his parents in a letter “... to be precise, a very dry 400 page historical treatise on British racial policy in NZ 1843-1853 with half-a-dozen footnotes on each page.”) This was because of long discussions he had been having with Tony Isaac of Television One about a drama series based on Grey's time in New Zealand. At that stage there was nothing in writing from either TV1 or the NFU, and Hugh was fearful that “given the current political and economic climate, they'll squash this one too.”

Fortunately 'they' got their act together, and The Governor, New Zealand's first and so far only historical block-buster drama series, was made in six 75 minute long episodes. (Making it was a big challenge, which is partially covered in the documentary The Making of the Governor.)  The first episode went to air on 2 October 1977.

Hugh directed episodes 2 and 3, which focus on Grey's relationships with those nearest to him. 'No Way to Treat a Lady' covers Grey's less than admirable relationships with his wife and other women, and 'The Mutinous Lieutenant' deals with Grey's relationship with his lieutenant governor.

Grey was played by British actor Corin Redgrave. He and Hugh got on well, but Hugh was nevertheless very surprised to receive a call from Corin's award-winning actor sister Vanessa a few years later. She was in Auckland, and Corin had suggested she get in touch with Hugh. He was even more surprised when most of the 60 minute plus call was devoted to Vanessa educating him on her main political passion – the plight of the Palestinian people, and how to change it for the better.


It's your child, Norman Allenby

Ginette McDonald and Steven Tozer as expectant parents Sandra and Norman Allenby.


Left, the Allenby family as cave-dwellers in one of Norman's fantasies. Right: David Attenborough gets familiar with the production's dinosaur at the NFU Avalon studio. (Now whatever happened to that dinosaur?)


The next film for television directed by Hugh also centred on relationships, but could hardly have been more different from The Governor. Made in association with the Commission for the International Year of the Child (1979) and sponsored by the Department of Social Welfare, It's your Child, Norman Allenby was co-written by Hugh and Greg Stitt, from an idea by Roger Hall. It stars Ginette McDonald and Stephen Tozer as Sandra and Norman Allenby, a couple about to have their first child. It uses the comic contrast between Sandra's cheerful, pragmatic approach to parenthood and Norman's compulsive-worrier approach to convey messages about what children need from their parents.

The film also features children of all ages taking part in fantasy sequences dreamed up by Norman's over-active imagination. Screened as the Sunday Play on TV1 on 18 November 1979, it earned Ginette McDonald a Best Actress award for TV Drama/Comedy at the Feltex TV Awards.