130 years a centre of distraction

Clockwise from top right: Playschool special, Cinderella, Rawiri Paratene and Barry Dorking; Garrison Hall today; Beauty and the Beast host Selwyn Toogood and some of his beauties(clockwise from left): Jean McLean, Denise Brady, Lorraine Isaacs, Shona McFarlane, Johnny Frisbie; The original Spot On presenters (back) Evelyn Skinnner and Douglas Blair, (front) Ray Millard and Erin Roozendaal. Photos by Charmian Smith, Jane Dawber, Television NZ, NZ Archives.
Clockwise from top right: Playschool special, Cinderella, Rawiri Paratene and Barry Dorking; Garrison Hall today; Beauty and the Beast host Selwyn Toogood and some of his beauties(clockwise from left): Jean McLean, Denise Brady, Lorraine Isaacs, Shona McFarlane, Johnny Frisbie; The original Spot On presenters (back) Evelyn Skinnner and Douglas Blair, (front) Ray Millard and Erin Roozendaal. Photos by Charmian Smith, Jane Dawber, Television NZ, NZ Archives.
The fortress-like exterior of Garrison Hall in Lower Dowling St, Dunedin, belies its long history as a major entertainment venue, including, for the best part of the past 50 years, as a home for television production. Now documentary maker NHNZ is planning to vacate it, Charmian Smith explores some of its history.

Solidly built into the rock of Bell Hill, Garrison Hall stands redoubtably at the bottom of Dowling St.

Even denuded of its crenellated turrets and flagstaffs, the buttressed foundations, Scottish baronial facade, and the rampant lion and unicorn with the motto "Dieu et mon droit" (God and my right) above the main entrance, proclaim its military origins. But despite the pomp and circumstance of its appearance, for most of its life it has been used for entertainment.

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For almost 50 years it has been home to television production. But even from its early days Garrison Hall was one of the city's most important venues for concerts, lectures, early movies, church services, sports, banquets, civic and social functions and meetings, as well as for army drill and military events, the purpose for which it was originally built.

Many celebrities appeared there: Roald Amunsden and Ernest Shackleton gave lectures on their trips to the Antarctic; H. M. Stanley described how he met Livingstone in Africa; famous singers performing there included Nellie Melba and Clara Butt.

Local boy Joe Scott, at the age of 12, became the New Zealand walking champion, beating the Australian champion William Edwards in both 7-mile and 100-mile races. In about 1880 he beat the English champion in a 50-mile race, winning 500 in a 12-hour walk.

"This event, being of international character, excited an extraordinary amount of interest, and Dunedinites were fortunate in arranging the match. Special trains ran from all parts of the land and the Garrison Hall was packed to suffocation, many thousands being unable to gain admission," according to W. F Ingram in The New Zealand Railways Magazine in 1935.

As late as 1948 Garrison Hall was still in use for sports, according to Dave Howell, who joined the New Zealand Broadcasting Service in 1957 and in the 1980s was electronics operations manager at Garrison Hall. He remembers going there as a child with his grandfather to watch men's basketball, sitting in the mezzanine gallery that surrounded three sides of the hall.


From the early 1960s to the end of the 1980s, Garrison Hall was the bustling hub of television studio production and transmission in Dunedin, first for New Zealand Broadcasting and later reorganised as Television New Zealand.

On July 31, 1962, a couple of years after its Auckland debut, the first public television in Dunedin was broadcast from DNTV2 in Garrison Hall. In the early days local news programmes such as Town and Around, the popular Old Time Music Hall, panel games such as You Must Be Joking, quiz shows like Top of the Class, and Alison Holst's cooking shows, were produced there.

According to Michael Stedman, now head of NHNZ, who started working at Garrison Hall in 1964 as a film editor, Hal Weston was responsible for the expansion of the station's productions in the 1970s. Mr Weston succeeded Alf Dick as station manager and turned it into a facility whose production output was at one stage greater than Avalon's, the Wellington television station.

"Hal looked for programmes to produce in Dunedin that weren't seen to be competing with other centres. They wanted to do smart stuff like dramas, but Hal looked for high-volume productions such as Beauty and the Beast and University Challenge. The whole growth of children's programmes - Playschool, Spot On, Viewfinder - was a deliberate strategy. Natural history was a strategy. He left a remarkable legacy," Mr Stedman said.

By 1967, work had expanded and administration and production staff moved out of Garrison Hall to Orbell Chambers in Stuart St, and later to the Methodist Central Mission (now Forsyth Barr) building where news and film staff were also accommodated.

Great viewing

Many of these shows are available for viewing on NZ On Screen, which is where I found the link to this article. (www.nzonscreen.com) There is Beauty and the Beast, Play School and Spot On all available to watch for free.

http://nzonscreen.com/title/beauty-and-the-beast-xmas-special-1982

http://nzonscreen.com/title/spot-on-1974/series

http://nzonscreen.com/title/play-school-1975