Max recalls Dunedin TV powerhouse

Max Cryer still works as a writer and broadcaster based in Auckland. Photo supplied.
Max Cryer still works as a writer and broadcaster based in Auckland. Photo supplied.
He hosted smart brains on the box. But, these days, television just makes his head hurt. Nigel Benson catches up with Max Cryer.

Max Cryer was the ringmaster of New Zealand television during its golden years.

The veteran entertainer and producer spent 10 years working for TVNZ in Dunedin on Mastermind and University Challenge in the 1970s and 1980s.

"The Dunedin office in those days was a dynamic centre of an amazing amount of all-New Zealand programme material.

The place was bubbling with creativity and a sense of purpose. It was a joy to be part of," he recalls.

"During that time I was in Dunedin at least three times a year, auditioning for one show and working on the other, with Dunedin studio director Brian Stewart."

And he retains many fond memories of those halcyon times.

"The university's Allen Hall could hardly be described as a state-of-the-art TV studio, so putting a primetime show out of there was, to use an appropriate term, a challenge. But it was a challenge which Brian and his crew never failed to meet. On screen, the Dunedin version looked exactly the same as the British one made in the lavish Granada studios in Manchester," he says.

"The other shock to the system I can recall, is one day looking out the window of the TVNZ office in the Octagon and, with a sense of wonder, seeing snow falling. It was a sight we never saw in Auckland. But the cold was somewhat offset by eating Dunedin's cheese rolls, which are completely unknown in Auckland."

The former New Zealand Entertainer of the Year says television has not been the same since Dunedin was cut as one of the main production centres in the late 1980s.

"I was in Dunedin when the big withdrawal was announced and I remember the full-page advertisement in the newspaper listing all the shows and programmes which had emanated from Dunedin. There were so many they could hardly be fitted on to a single page. It was a sad day," he says.

"TVNZ's gradual withdrawal of Dunedin's TV centre, with its hugely talented staff and Kiwi output, has been TVNZ's own loss. The rubbish which passes for much broadcast content is now very little New Zealand-originated and New Zealand entertainers aren't seen at all.

"The absence of the television activity has reduced the awareness of the rest of New Zealand to many of Dunedin's activities. The last time I came to Dunedin was to appear in the 2010 Festival of the Arts in St Paul's Cathedral in my show, modestly called The Max Factor. It was like coming the full circle, as I first came to Dunedin as an entertainer. It was the opening act of the week, so I stayed on and went to everything else. It was a marvellous festival."

Cryer spoke the first words when New Zealand television was nationally linked for the first time and believes the pioneering quiz programmes had a broad appeal.

"They were a version of sport. New Zealanders speaking New Zealand language were mentally pitting themselves against a ticking clock. The public loved the tension and were intrigued with what they learned. The current crop of foreign game shows, with flashing lights, synthesizer music and multiple choose-your-answer or phone-a-friend situations don't come within a country mile of the pace or true knowledge tests of real quiz shows."

For the past decade he has been working as a writer and broadcaster in Auckland. He has written 10 books and appears on Radio Live on Saturday mornings.

"One book which was different was Hear Our Voices We Entreat, the full history of New Zealand's national anthem, which required research in the Otago area and at J. J. Woods' grave in Lawrence," he says.

"When the book was finished, in 2004, I held the launch ceremony in the Dunedin library and Vincente Major sang God Defend New Zealand. It was the last time she ever sang in public and there was a standing ovation for her."

Television is not a big priority these days.

"I never turn on the television just to see what's on. I check ahead with newspapers to see what's programmed and then watch only what I've decided to," he says.

"But I feel very fortunate indeed to have the career I've had. I was part of the golden era of Happen Inn and Studio One and Christmas and New Year television entertainment specials and dozens of shows which featured New Zealand entertainers.

"It would be good to see more local performers entertaining us instead of foreign cooking competitions and foreign talent shows. Bring back Suzanne Prentice and Ray Woolf . They would light up our lives."

nigel.benson@odt.co.nz

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