Filmmaker and storyteller, Gerard Smyth grew up in a home full of creativity.
He went on to work in television in its golden era, and his innate love of storytelling saw him move into documentary filmmaking – resulting in the award-winning ‘When a City Falls’ that documented the experience of people living through the devastating Christchurch earthquakes.
He speaks to Zara Potts about his thoughts on creativity, Ōtautahi and the importance of telling our own stories.
“We should have a quota from the government for our own storytelling – which can go on the web now, it doesn’t need its own television channel – and we need to be able to say ‘this year we’ve got this much money to spend, how are we going to spend it?’ and that should be decided locally.”
You have been in the creative world since you were knee high to a grasshopper?
Well, I was knee high to a grasshopper because it was in 1959 that my father had a show called ‘But Why, Dad?’ on the radio where precocious little bastards asked him a question about how high is Mt Kilimanjaro or something like that. It was current affairs, and every week he would have an insert on the great National Radio Children’s Programme that was on every night and then television came along in about 1961/2 and I was on early television programmes as a kid actor.
You were a child star?
I was, absolutely! But more significantly, I was the son of the television star. Dad was on telly every night on Town and Around as the presenter and it was an extraordinary programme because there were two cub reporters, one was Brian Edwards and the other one was David McPhail and the producer Des Monaghan went on to become pretty famous in Australia. Dad loved working on that programme, it was the highlight of his working life.
And what about you, how did you get into this life?
After a pretty miserable time at school, I left and became a studio assistant at the age of eighteen. And I’m still there.
Growing up in Ōtautahi in that time, what was your experience of it?
My family were artists. Mum’s sister was living in Australia and was in a lot of radio programmes there. Dad’s brother was a full time actor. Aunty Biddy was in the original New Zealand Players. Mum’s other sister was a finalist in the New Zealand art awards.
You obviously come from a very creative family on both sides. What kind of influence did being in a family of creatives have on your view of the world?
Well it confused me for a long time. Whether it was being Irish Catholic – for instance living on Cashmere Hills where there were no other Irish or Catholic families…
The English settler hill?
Yeah, it was the English settler hill until a Dutch family arrived! We were outsiders, but I guess that’s the nature of an artist too. So whether it was because I came from this weirdo art family or whether it was because we were Catholics – remembering that at that time Christchurch was very strongly Protestant – so we were those people. I don’t know what it did to me really, except I do know I wasn’t encouraged to be an artist by my parents.
Why do you think that was? Do you think they were worried about you being able to make a decent living?
I think there was lots of sadness there. In those days, the English culture was pretty dominant and my parents were aspiring to that. Dad was an academic really and he was wanting to be part of the ruling class which was English. So these days it’s a badge of honour to be Irish but it wasn’t then.
Did your Irishness set you apart?
I have 38 first cousins and I think the way we lived was closer to being Maori than it was to being English. We were very whanau based.
There are connections between Maori and Irish in a lot of ways aren’t there? That sense of whanau as you mention, the importance of story, even funeral rites…
Yes. The wake and the tangi. There are a lot of connections with storytelling, and in many other areas.
I’ve often wanted to do a story on the Irish immigrants. I don’t think we were allowed in here for the first few years of colonialism. I did have that sense of being an outsider, which I don’t think you can really understand unless you’ve experienced it and it’s not just a matter of pulling your socks up to escape it.
In my greater whanau there’s lot of inter-generational alcoholism. That’s a sadness. Oppression in any form does terrible things to people.
So you got your first job in television at 18, and you stayed in television through its halcyon days?
I think I did seven years there.
What was that like?
Christchurch was extraordinary. In those days there were 400 full time television workers in the city. Unbelievable.
This is in the late 60s?
It started to build up in the 60s and in about 1968 they built the largest television studio in Christchurch, the first purpose built studio in Aotearoa.
We made ballets, dramas, operas, science programmes, rock and roll programmes, children’s programmes… seven days a week and often on two different productions a day. It was basically a 24 hour timetable. It was fabulous. There was a whole arts department in Madras Street and they were probably 20 or 30 people strong.
We provided a living for people, but more importantly we gave the city a voice to itself. That’s what I’ve always lamented the lack of since the 1990s when it left.
It gave a voice to the city, but how influential was it to the rest of the country having Christchurch at the centre of television – a new medium in those days – did that inform a lot of how we saw ourselves in Aoteroa at that time?
Indeed. Each centre had their own production department – Dunedin, Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland. You could always tell what programme came out of what centre within ten seconds of watching it.
Dunedin they were all bearded and smoked pipes and spoke earnestly.
Auckland was a little more showbizzy and flashy.
Wellington was neither here nor there in a way – but Ōtautahi had a more arts-related feel.
In those days we had a lot of arts here. Our architecture, painting, music was world beating.
Christchurch has always been billed as conservative but behind that billing lie a lot of other truths. It always has.
Christchurch does get its story told about it, rather than telling it itself. That story from other centres is quite often wrong. Often it’s a story of conservatism or traditionalism, but actually Christchurch has a seam of radical creativity and innovation. Do you think that’s always been the case?
Yes. I can’t speak for too much before my time, but I know of the arts and The Group in the 30s. Lots of writers, Caxton press, Pegasus Press, early publications of works.
What is it about Ōtautahi that creates such an innovative arts sector do you think?
I don’t know why.
What then do you think has helped draw your own creativity out being in Ōtautahi?
The environment. I lived in Lyttelton for 15 years and that was a strong place to live in terms of creativity. I think these days it’s just the fact that there are so many stories to be told here. That’s my interest.
Do you think there is a support system that helps with that creativity here? Do you feel like there are more people like yourself here, and that helps inspire you?
I do know when the university was in the city, the heart of the city had a very bohemian feel. That was very strong. But today, people say we’re conservative but it doesn’t really stack up – we have a very strong left wing bias here in Christchurch, so are we conservative? Or is that just a name we’ve been given because we’re fairly white?
Talking about that conservatism and the fact that it’s not perhaps as conservative as people would believe – thinking back to the 1970s and the scenes you were involved with – was that a pretty radical time for Ōtautahi?
It was indeed. I lived in Lyttelton in the mid-70s. You could buy houses there for $10,000. And the artists are usually the first ones to move into a wasteland and so we did.
I lived over the road from Bill Hammond and next door to Lawrence Aberhart. Across the road was Peter Hawes, the writer. The fashion designer Brigid Brock was up the road.
That must have been a pretty creative scene.
It was cheap to live here. You didn’t have to have a career and pay off a big mortgage. You could live off your creativity easily. No one knew that these people in our street would go on to be so celebrated. We were just trying to get away from our parents – World War II fathers who were pretty damaged a lot of the time.
Do you think there was a sense of healthy competition at that point? People being inspired by others?
Yeah, but there was also a pushing against something. There was a pushing against the notion that we were a Little England.
Forging an identity?
Yes, absolutely. I think Ōtautahi has always pushed against the myth that it is innately conservative.
You can find it, just as you can find it anywhere, but there does seem to be a real vein of creativity that people tap into easily.
Maybe it’s just once it starts it carries on. Maybe there’s no other reason than that it started a long time ago.
In the last 30 years, Lyttelton has taken that mantle pretty strongly. There are artists galore in that little town.
Do you think the actual physical environment plays a part?
Yes. The jaw dropping cliffs that people in Lyttelton live under, inside the rim of a volcano. That’s a strong brew isn’t it? It’s now of course, gentrified and expensive but it wasn’t always like that.
Let’s talk a bit about film, which is your area now. How would you summarise the creativity there?
Our output is almost negligible. How many feature films have been made here? Four?
As someone who lives and works here and is in the midst of these surroundings, does that puzzle you?
I’m not really interested in it as an ‘industry’. I don’t really care whether we do big Hollywood blockbusters here. My interest is in creating a healthier community because we tell stories to each other.
That’s what we’re missing and that’s what we need more of. When people talk of it as an industry, I baulk a little because I see it as a public service. I think a valid comparison is with a hospital. If you made a hospital not an essential service, but an industry, you’d be doing a lot more cosmetic surgery and less cancers. So when you have a film industry, you do a hell of a lot more money making things, but I think an essential service has got to be storytelling.
And you saw that with When a City Falls – particularly the first one – that was a good instance of people being able to tell their stories and tell their stories first hand, not have someone come in and tell that story for them.
That was the whole idea. I wasn’t trying to put a spin on it for any financial end. I was grass rooting, uncovering people living under trees. I interviewed no politicians in that film. There are no civic leaders in that film – there might be five words from John Key saying ‘This is the darkest day in our history’ but I specifically went for the people.
In fact the title is ‘When a City Falls – The Peoples’ Story’. Maybe it’s because I came from television that I saw the health and value in a community when people have a voice. From that voice you have leadership, and then you have ideas and then you have debate and then you get the best idea going.
What then do we need?
We need more local media. People grow accustomed to having no local stories, no debate and don’t expect it. It’s not about industry, but it’s got to be about public service.
It does feel that Ōtautahi has had its fair share of disaster over the past decade and that if any city needs a voice, it’s us.
The other thing is that now we have a new city. What is the purpose of a city? Where was our debate? We had a blank canvas, we had so many different opportunities to do so many different things and yet the corporate needs and the government needs and the people with no great track record of creative thinking got to make the decisions. What resulted is shiny and new but devasting when you think of the potential of what could have been.
Do you think that Ōtautahi has been overlooked? That it doesn’t get the recognition or funding from the powers that be?
Absolutely. People say we should get more money from Auckland or Wellington, but we should have our own commissioners deciding – because we know our own stories –which ones to tell.
We should have a quota from the government for our own storytelling – which can go on the web now, it doesn’t need its own television channel – and we need to be able to say ‘this year we’ve got this much money to spend, how are we going to spend it?’ and that should be decided locally.
Would that keep young creatives in the city?
Totally. It would also bring people here. That kind of thing self-generates.
Tell me about your own experience in telling these local stories?
After the earthquakes I managed to get When a city Fall up– which at the time was I think the second most watched documentary in New Zealand’s history – the Topp Twins beat me…
They’re hard to beat! They spent quite a bit of time in Ōtautahi though…
They did! Their very first concert was here and I was at it.
But in terms of keeping people here, if we had more budget or funding or commissioners here –would that help keep our local creatives here do you think? We have some extraordinary talents here, but a lot of the time they do go elsewhere simply because it’s harder to make a living here.
I think it was an experiment to close down television in Christchurch and take it to Tamaki Makaurau.
They had a similar problem in the UK. We need to have a policy of a certain amount of money that comes directly here and in five years’ time, we’re going to be making this this and this. I see it happening a little bit, which is great.
But it’s having to happen with individuals isn’t it? There’s not a policy as such.
It doesn’t have a political push behind it. It’s people doing their own thing despite the lack of support.
I did a study a while ago where I had a couple of university students analyse south island content on the network channels for three months and aside from news and children’s -and we had an average on TVNZ of 5 minutes a week. We also had a look at funding for productions and we found that 98% of the funding was going to Auckland.
Funding is an interesting topic – what happened with getting funding for your projects?
After I made that film, I knocked on the door of NZ on Air and said ‘hey listen we need funding down here, our city is buggered. We’re of no interest to Auckland anymore, we need to debate with ourselves how our city will be.” And Jane Wrightson brilliantly said “I’m going to break the rules and give you this,” and then I did a series called Christchurch Dilemmas for a few years and at that time along came the ability to publish platform to platform on the web so the tyranny of having a broadcaster in Auckland willing to show this stuff didn’t apply anymore so I could publish to Christchurch, Christchurch stories.
And the appetite has been there?
I think for a while Frank has been the largest series in New Zealand and interestingly, Newsroom taken them, the NZHerald takes them, Stuff takes them.
Other parts of New Zealand really love to see this shit. But I make it primarily about us to talk about ourselves and to each other. We do tell good stories and it makes a difference.
What happens if we don’t tell those stories? What happens to a city’s culture, a people’s culture, when you don’t get to tell those stories?
Well, I think Ōtautahi would be an example to consider there because we tell very few. If storytelling really does enable us to communicate with each other and embrace each other’s ideas and connect with each other and give us a sense of belonging -if that’s what storytelling does, then what happens when you don’t have it?
I think you get issues with mental health, with depression, big issues for a community that is already fairly subdued.
And the opportunity to tell these stories ourselves, without interpretation. We never hear about Ōtautahi and its radical creatives. John Brittan, maybe, but usually only in relation to his contribution to sport – not all his other creative enterprises. Denis Glover and his radical setting up on the Caxton Press. Landfall beginning here. Len Lye being born here. Ramai Haywood went to New Brighton school… the list goes on and on.
You’re pretty convinced about this radical stream eh?
I am. Because the proof is there. We just don’t hear about it. Keri Hulme, Rita Angus. The guy that invented the electronic drum kit is from Christchurch. …it’s endless.
Apparently so. There’s lots of stories like this when you start digging.
Maybe the first person to fly… Maybe there’s room for eccentricity here. We’ve always had fairly unusual characters here. It’s hard for people to recognise their own world when they’re in it.
And if they’re not exposed to it.
There is a lack of conformity here I think. There are anarchic people here too. The protest movement has always been strong here. Maybe there’s a really strong movement that pushes against the first four ships bullshit that survives.
I think the other thing we don’t recognise is just how much influence Ngai Tahu has had on the city and you can see this in the artwork around the city. It feels like an embrace around the city.
Ngai Tahu is so strong here and again, this is something that isn’t talked about in other centres. We also have a strong Pasifika community here too.
..Came out of Christchurch.
What do you think you get as a creative person here in Ōtautahi that you perhaps wouldn’t find in another centre?
For me it’s a freedom because I’ve lived here so long. I know so many people here – it’s my people and my community and I know how it works and where the stories might lie and I think that’s important.
That comes from staying in a community. So the longer we can build up a heritage here then people would not only stay – they’d love to stay – but it will also attract people here.
It’s interesting to hear you say about the connection thing. We hear this a lot about Christchurch – that first four ships thing and the old ‘where did you go to school’ question. And sure, there is still some of that class thing. But oftentimes I’ve found the ‘where did you go to school’ question is about finding a connection. Ōtautahi is still small enough for the odds of knowing someone who went to the same school as you did are quite high.
Yeah, it’s a way of connecting people. This idea of Christchurch being the only city in New Zealand that has some form of class or wealth system is absurd. You’ve been to Remuera haven’t you?
I go to Herne Bay when I’m in Auckland and it’s as white as white. Ponsonby used to be a neighbourhood of Pasifika and Maori and that’s not the case any longer.
And this stereotype is not helpful is it?
No. If we had a fully functional, strong media here in Ōtautahi we wouldn’t have people telling us who we are.
If we could tell our own stories then other people wouldn’t have to fill the hole and that’s a huge reason to tell our own stories so we can grow our own identity and love ourselves and love where we’re going and actually go there together.
Do we know our own stories well enough here?
No we don’t.
And currently Christchurch is mostly missing out on contributing to the national slate. And of course Canterbury has long had a vibrant and cutting edge arts community. From early New Zealand painters, both male and female, to the writers of the 50s, to the television production of the 60’s and 70’s, to the contemporary painters.
But we need to somehow rather move away from the tyranny of Auckland holding the purse strings. It’s incomprehensible that for us to tell our stories we need to have the blessing of those who don’t live here. It’s wrong and we need to collectively work out how to change that.
If you could have anything here what would it be?
A central city location with a studio. A budget. And an autonomy with that budget.
We’ve heard a lot in the media and on social media about Arts funding being a ‘nice to have’ and that Covid relief money in particular would be better spent elsewhere. What are your thoughts on that?
I think if you talk to people after the earthquake – the arts at that time gave us hope, gave us a sense of wellbeing and actually gave us optimism – take that away and you don’t have much.
Arts are an essential service that you probably don’t notice until you don’t have it.
Arts reflect back to you something of yourself. Arts are visionary. We get a sense of lightness of being, of beauty. Without that, life is pretty glum.
It’s all around us. With the covid lockdowns we should have a better sense of how essential arts are. Reading, listening, watching, creating.
They say that we are now listening to stories on the internet more than any time in history.
We spend hours and hours a day watching and listening to stories. What’s our fascination with that?
If it’s just ‘nice to have’, Hell, we do a lot of it, don’t we?