Episode 24: The Governor (Part 3)

Our look at the 1977 mini-series The Governor comes to an end as Hayden and L.J. discuss the production of the show, the budget controversy and ensuing enquiry, and what the TV landscape looked like at the time, as well as the show’s lasting importance and the logistical problems preventing it from being commercially screened or released.

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The Governor

Notes:

  • As noted previously, episodes One, Four, and Five of The Governor can be watched at NZ On Screen. They also host the original ‘making of’ doco created by TV One. There’s some absolutely great location footage in there, along with interviews with the actors and producers.
  • NZ On Screen also has a superb background piece on the series written by Keith Aberdein in 2010. We weren’t able to quote it as much as we would have liked, and it’s an essential read if you’re interested in either The Governor or the inner politics of TV One in the late ’70s. There’s also a great essay by Paul Stanley Ward that was extremely helpful to us in our research.
  • As mentioned in this episode, ‘Ourselves in Primetime: A History of Television Drama in New Zealand’ by Trisha Dunleavy is an excellent primer on NZ TV broadcasting. We recommend you track down a copy if you’re interesting in the subject.
  • In true ’70s tradition, The Governor was accompanied by a tie-in paperback novelisation. Written by Keith Aberdein himself, it’s an interesting curiosity but feels ultimately redundant in comparison to the series. Structured in chronological order, it takes the opportunity to expand on events, such as Grey’s early service in Ireland, that the show lacked the time or money to cover. Many moments and connections that are only briefly alluded to on screen are given room to breathe on the page, but to the overall detriment of the story. Aberdein is particularly fascinated by Grey’s aquaintances with other famous figures from the era, notably Charles Darwin, and the constant references quickly become tiring. Both Grey and Eliza’s sex lives (physical and emotional) are covered in detail that borders on salacious. Aberdein clearly wants to use these details to add depth to his characterisations (such as a scene where Grey is horrified by the concept of his wife’s sexuality) but his attempted insights are ultimately facile. The book is fascinating as a product of its time, but not a very entertaining read.
  • The arguments sparked by The Governor‘s depiction of history spilled out into newspaper and magazine articles as the series aired. Auckland University Professor Keith Sinclair was quoted by a number of publications at the time, and his opinions are both slightly baffling and rather telling. In an Auckland Star article from 24th October 1977, he says his preferred term for the land wars is ‘Anglo-Māori wars’ and accuses The Governor of being “one-sided and anti-Pākehā” in its approach. He also pointedly notes that racial prejudice existed on both sides and that Māori were technically responsible for the first acts of violence in the Taranaki conflict, while pondering why the series doesn’t give equal time to “Māori atrocities, especially those of the Hauhau fanatics”. After the series finished airing the Listener (5th November 1977) ran a two-page article by Sinclair examining the historical facts about Grey’s life. Those involved in researching and writing The Governor, particularly Keith Aberdein, had made disparaging comments regarding the existing historical scholarship about Grey, and Sinclair spends the first two paragraphs of the article rubbishing the quality, content, and accuracy of Aberdein’s novelisation. He then launches into a biography of Grey’s life and accomplishments that focuses almost entirely on the same criticisms of Grey’s character that drive The Governor, without ever acknowledging the similarities.
  • The production acquired a historic Ngāpuhi mere, but the actor that was supposed to hold it refused, as he was from a different tribe. The designers had to make a replica. Hugh Nevill’s ‘Good Governor Grey’ (The Listener, 1st October 1977) is a treasure trove of great stories like this.
  • Like a number of the other works we’ve covered from the late ’70s, there was at least one near-fatal stunt mishap on the set of The Governor. Stunt performer Jerry Popov failed to properly test his harness before a hanging stunt and almost suffocated. When the crew finally realised what was happening, he was too high off the ground to be quickly rescued and someone had to push a broom under his crotch to take the pressure off his throat until help arrived.
  • On the 7th of November 1977, the Auckland Star published an editorial by Barry Shaw which began: “TV1, after the top-level political clobbering it has had for daring to spend a million dollars on ‘The Governor’, must be sorely tempted into never again attempting an epic. Such should be absolutely, unwaveringly resisted. Rather, Avalon’s drama department should right now be thinking of how it can follow up ‘The Governor’ and how soon.” Sadly, TV1 did not heed his advice.
  • Finally – here’s a political cartoon from The Dominion about the budget debacle: Governor cartoon
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