The rise and fall of Avalon

Last updated 12:38 11/04/2011
Avalon

Celebrities at Avalon Studios working at Telethon in 1980.

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Avalon was built as, and remains, a top-notch television-making base. But with TVNZ's focus on Auckland, it has become a forgotten asset. Tom Hunt and Paul Easton plot the rise, demise and characters of Avalon Studios.

ON A clear evening Wellington theatre patriarch Ray Henwood looks from his Wadestown window up the Hutt Valley and sees a 10-storey tombstone glinting in the dying of the light. His memories of the once-proud studio are many.

There were the series such as Gliding On, then Market Forces. Or the night that staff watched from the in-house bar as prime minister Robert Muldoon called a snap election. The bar went quiet that night in 1984.

Henwood remembers the first time he walked into Avalon in the mid-1970s. "It was like going into a large hotel. It had everything."

He pauses, remembering a lack of rehearsal space that saw shows rehearsing around the corner in a Mabey St church hall. "Most things," he adds.

He remembers his son, Dai, aged about four, visiting the Monday evening shootings of Gliding On. In one episode, the younger Henwood ended up sitting on Santa's knee.

They were the baby steps of a showbusiness career for Dai, who would go on to become one of New Zealand's top comedians.

"It was a family place," his dad says.

On Thursday he drove up Hutt Rd to appear on the Good Morning show and promote the Circa Theatre show Osage County. It will probably be the last time he makes the drive.

TVNZ announced on Tuesday that it is moving Good Morning - one of the last shows it still makes at Avalon - to Auckland by the end of this year. The studios will be sold once contracts for Lotto and Trackside end in 2013.

AVALON STUDIOS opened in 1975. A staggering 23,000 square metres of floor space made it one of the largest television- making facilities in Australasia. Former Lower Hutt mayor Sir John Kennedy-Good had persuaded the government of the time to plonk the Stalinist- style tower block in the middle of Hutt Valley, for the good of local development.

However, just five years after Avalon opened, TVNZ began its exodus north, when its national news service was moved to Auckland. News anchor Dougal Stevenson quit, choosing to stay in Wellington.

The news team was gone, but vibrant television was still produced. Shows like Fair Go helped define New Zealand during the 1980s. But slowly staff slipped away.

In 1988 Avalon employed 710 people. A decade later that number had almost halved. Today its cavernous spaces hide just 60 employees.

TVNZ sold part of the Avalon site, including the tower block, in 2004.

Late last year, it confirmed it wanted to sell its remaining assets at Avalon, if there was a willing buyer.

TVNZ chief executive Rick Ellis says the need for Avalon's large studios has decreased "over the years" alongside demand for local shows with big budgets.

Avalon has four purpose-built studios and a high-definition control room.

This week Mr Ellis told a parliamentary select committee that it cost almost $2 million a year to run Avalon. The studio "has been an economic challenge for us for some time".

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"The way we look at it is, it's $1.9 million we can be investing in programming rather than buildings."

More programmes could be produced at a lower cost using new facilities in Auckland.

Ray Henwood traces the tipping point to when Robert Muldoon - and he does blame the former prime minister - moved the news team north.

"The sun shines on Avalon and it looks exactly like a gravestone," he said the day after the studio announced it was shutting down.

"It really was state of the art, but it was slowly left to run down."

The sentiment runs in the Henwood blood. "Avalon to close?" Dai tweeted this week. "I grew up there while Dad filmed Gliding On. It is the best studio setup in NZ."

The "epic" building with halls and studios that seemed so large to him as a boy was just as impressive when he returned with his father in 2006 on Good Morning.

"It's quite eerie going to a place [I knew] so much as a kid, that hasn't changed much at all."

He remembers roaming the massive halls and cavernous studios, watching his father perform in front of a live audience, then being invited down to bow with them at the end.

"It felt like a party every time we went out."

He says there is nothing in Auckland to rival Avalon, with its massive studios able to accommodate good audiences, lighting rigs, and room to swing a camera in.

TV3 rents a studio to film its 7 Days programme. He understands TVNZ, with its main studios in central Auckland, has even less space.

WITH Parliament based in Wellington, Avalon remained centre stage for political drama, despite the news team's move to Auckland.

Former current affairs interviewer Ian Fraser remembers taking on a volcanic Mr Muldoon over tax policy.

"He said three to four times the interview will stop, and I simply ploughed on."

Mr Muldoon was so furious that, as the final credits rolled, he took off his microphone and stormed off with his makeup still on. "He didn't speak to me for 14 years."

For those still speaking to Fraser after an interview, they would often head to the Avalon bar for a drink afterwards.

Fraser has already rescued Avalon once. When he took over as TVNZ's chief executive in 2002, there was talk of selling it.

"I think they hadn't sold it then because they hadn't found a buyer. I had the feeling Avalon was right on the edge.

"I made the decision that we had to get Avalon moving again."

With a charter for quality local broadcasting, he brought current affairs back to Avalon with Bill Ralston's Frontseat and Kim Hill's Face to Face. Dancing With the Stars and the less- successful Big Night In were also at Avalon under Fraser's reign. "The place was humming really."

Fraser is reluctant to blame the demise on his 2005 departure from TVNZ.

"I really shouldn't be making some kind of smug judgment with the benefit of hindsight," he says.

But he was one of those there from the start.

Fraser remembers being taken out to be shown the building by NZBC director-general Gilbert Stringer, while it was still being constructed.

After working around various "slums" in Wellington, "Avalon looked like the 100-acre Kiwi pavlova paradise", he recalls.

There was, however, one downfall with the new centre - it took the news-gatherers away from their sources. "It was a real problem for the people whose work depended on their ability to bump into ordinary people on a daily basis."

He went public in a Listener article in 1977, labelling Avalon "Toy Town". "All the lunatics had been gathered under one roof where they could goad each other into greater and greater acts of madness."

When he returned to work afterwards, his colleagues had trashed his desk. In hindsight, he says, it wasn't surprising.

It is not to say Fraser did not like Avalon - the massive studios, the people, and the ground- breaking television created there are just some of his memories.

Avalon came around the same time as colour television, and as New Zealand got a second channel.

"You felt the lick of competition and that was a good thing . . . there was just this sense of almost- limitless possibility because for the first time we had facilities, and to us they were almost beyond what we could have dreamt of needing."

TVNZ refused permission to talk to staff or visit Avalon for this article. But there were looser days for the national broadcaster, which Brian Edwards remembers well. Edwards - now a media commentator - was there the day Avalon opened. He talks at length about those heady days when anything seemed possible.

The irreverent Edwards on Saturday was a late-night live probing show with sketches, interviews and audience participation. Reflecting a mood no longer around in television, there was no set end time.

By Edwards' own admission, the show was sometimes "extremely rude". The first broadcast managed to offend Maori, the clergy and homosexuals.

It began with what was to be a humorous sketch of a Maori challenge but, in the skit, the warrior hasn't turned up and is replaced by a male belly dancer. "I don't think we had any idea how offensive this was to Maori."

They went on to parody a priest, showing a skit of him pulling an "enormous bogey" out of his nose. Next, the show invited homosexuals and lesbians on the show. Among the questions they were asked were: "What do you actually do in bed?"

The audience was then asked if anyone there had committed sodomy. "We were breaking rules left, right and centre."

The arrival of Avalon shepherded in a new era of broadcasting. Where once proposals were tied up in red tape, the opening of Avalon led to a go-getting enthusiasm.

"The main thing about it was a real sense of excitement there. The place was buzzing. You could get things done very quickly."

Typical of that was the launch of another of Edwards' shows, Fair Go, in 1977. It was meant to last six weeks but is still running today.

The late 1970s and early 1980s were a time when anything could be achieved but there were also great battles in the new studios.

The 1981 Springbok tour was one. Half the building thought the games should be broadcast, the other half didn't.

Exactly when those heady days began to end are hard to pinpoint. It could be the news moving to Auckland in the Muldoon era, or the start of TV3, or later still. "It feels like about 10 years since the death began setting in," Edwards says. "I suppose it is a bit like having a [dying] relative who has been lingering for years and years and years. It might be regarded with a bit of relief really."

FROM 1989, when TVNZ shifted base to its $80 million Auckland headquarters, a question mark hung over the former hub of New Zealand television.

In 1997, TVNZ confirmed plans to sell Avalon divisions, including the building, studio space, post- production facilities and the nearby National Film Unit.

Rimutaka MP Chris Hipkins says the decline and eventual sale of Avalon mirrors the downfall of public service broadcasting in New Zealand.

"We have seen the demise of locally produced quality television. It's far cheaper for TVNZ to import overseas cooking shows, reality television and shows about vampires."

He believes TVNZ is shooting itself in the foot by moving away from studio-based broadcasting. "They are robbing themselves of arguably the best studio facility in the South Pacific. I think it's a really sad, short-term decision."

Mr Hipkins has fond memories of going to game-show tapings and Telethons at Avalon as a lad. "I remember when Fair Go used to start with an aerial view of the Hutt Valley."

He hopes a group of television production houses might buy Avalon. "And of course Peter Jackson springs to mind."

Jackson's name is being wistfully linked to Avalon's future by others too, including Lower Hutt Mayor Ray Wallace.

The team at Weta do not seem convinced, however. "We have a full suite of facilities in Miramar that we're improving and growing constantly. A Hutt Valley satellite of those facilities is not planned at this time," a Jackson spokesman says.

Despite Jackson's apparent reluctance to snap up the studio, he has a long association with Avalon. Part of his 1992 splatter-fest Braindead was filmed in Studio 11.

Ian Pryor's biography of Jackson recounts the production team spilling 20 litres of fake blood - maple syrup - over the set of Sale of the Century. Jackson said later: "In desperation [Richard] Taylor began directing a high-pressure hose across the affected areas in an effort to clean off the red stain. That night, watching on television, Taylor was sure he could still spot a touch of red. No-one complained, but it was so uncomfortable."

In 1998 Jackson bought the National Film Unit, close to Avalon, at a whispered cost of between $1m and $3m. It was later merged into an art post-production facility in Miramar.

As Avalon's time in the sun wanes, the memories remain. For long-time Fair Go presenter Kevin Milne, the in-house bar - known as the TV1 Club - encapsulated the Avalon of the late 70s and early 80s. "Friday night, the crew would come in. There would be a real celebration in the bar. In its time it would have been the place to be in Wellington on any Friday night."

He remembers a transvestite stripper on the parquet floor, or another night when the flagpole out the front of the studio was cut down. "It was just a wonderful place for me as a young news journalist."

Those in the bar did not just represent news and current affairs. They were making documentaries, dramas, music - the whole range of broadcasting that was coming out of Avalon.

Later, before Fair Go moved to Auckland in 1998, the cast and crew would head up for a few drinks after the live broadcast. Milne thinks the bar ground to a halt four to five years ago. "Bloody tragic, really." Though sad to hear of the studio's decline, he accepts "its time has come".

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF AVALON

1970: NZBC (New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation) decentralises its administration into three systems - Northern and Central for the North Island and Southern for the South Island. Avalon is planned as the country's first purpose-built television centre.

1973: Colour television is introduced to New Zealand.

1975: Avalon opens in Lower Hutt, with the biggest and most technically advanced facilities in New Zealand and at a cost of $10 million. It is designed to be TVNZ's head office, and the main site for producing New Zealand's local television content. The first Telethon is held. It raises $593,878 for St John Ambulance.

1980: TVNZ's national news service is transferred from Avalon to Auckland. Main news anchor Dougal Stevenson resigns, electing to stay in Wellington instead of moving to Auckland.

1989: TVNZ completes an $80 million headquarters in Auckland and completes a move north.

1997: TVNZ confirms plans to sell Avalon divisions, including the building, studio space, post- production facilities and the nearby National Film Unit.

1997: It is announced that iconic consumer affairs show Fair Go is moving to Auckland.

1998: Film director Peter Jackson buys the National Film Unit.

1998: TVNZ tells Wellington region mayors that it is committed to film and television production facilities remaining at Avalon, although it is selling the studios as part of a move to quit programme-making and concentrate on broadcasting.

2003: Avalon loses the contract to produce children's television programme What Now. Cloud 9 productions moves to Queensland, taking with it about 180 jobs.

2004: TVNZ sells part of the Avalon site, including the tower block.

2010: TVNZ confirms it is keen to sell its remaining Avalon assets.

April 2011: TVNZ announces it is moving its Good Morning breakfast show to Auckland by the end of the year. Avalon will be wound down and sold by 2013. Chief executive Rick Ellis tells a select committee the studios have been "an economic challenge for us for some time".

- © Fairfax NZ News

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