Country Calendar, the much-loved Kiwi TV show, hits 50

Jim Hickey will host this weekend's Country Calendar 50th anniversary special.
Don Paulin

Jim Hickey will host this weekend's Country Calendar 50th anniversary special.

Country Calendar celebrates its 50th birthday this weekend.  For the show's best-known stalwart, Frank Torley, it's the end of an era – but producer Julian O'Brien sees the birthday as a new beginning. 

A year is a mighty long time in television – and for one programme to run for an entire 50 years in a row is an extraordinary feat.

Even in the more settled times of the mid-1960s, the TV pioneers who started our show would never have expected it survive into the new millennium.

Until recently, Frank Torley was the "voice" of Country Calendar.

Until recently, Frank Torley was the "voice" of Country Calendar.

It's tempting to think presenter Fred Barnes and his team had it easy back then – only one channel, so Country Calendar had no competition on-air, let alone online.  Television was so new and exciting that most of population watched, no matter what black-and-white pictures appeared on the little square screen flickering in the lounge. 

READ MORE:​ Video Vault: Country Calendar turns 50 and the Ferndale Strangler returns

In those days, agriculture was the undisputed "backbone of the country".  We were a nation of just 2.7 million people tending 56 million sheep – almost twice today's figure.  Everyone had an interest in what happened down on the farm, so the programme had a ready-made audience.

Terence Barlow is the patriarch of one of five families being focused on as part of the Country Calendar 50th ...
Don Paulin

Terence Barlow is the patriarch of one of five families being focused on as part of the Country Calendar 50th Anniversary Special.

But in other ways, making television back then was far from easy.  No nifty Go-Pro or Osmo cameras for tight spaces, no drones to get aerial shots, no radio microphones to hide under the shearer's singlet to record crisp sound on the spot.  Every interior sequence needed a half-hour lighting job in advance, because film cameras lacked the flexibility of today's digital ones – and all the equipment was heavy and awkward to handle. 

Post-production was equally cumbersome.  Before the edit could start, every foot of film had to be synched up to the separate magnetic sound tape – and every edit was made with a splicer to join sections of film together with sellotape. 

Country Calendar couldn't afford to go out in the field long enough to make a whole 14-minute programme, so the field reports were rarely more than five minutes long.

Most of the show consisted of market reports and interviews recorded in the studio with important farming figures of the day.  To compensate for the rather dry content, Fred Barnes created a more informal atmosphere by smoking a pipe on air.

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Frank Torley, Country Calendar's longest-serving member, started working for rural radio just as the first Country Calendar programme went to air in March 1966.  Within a year or two he was contributing short items to the new TV show.

He moved to Country Calendar as a full-time reporter and director 10 years later and has been involved in the show ever since.

Frank's most recent role has been as narrator – everyone in New Zealand recognises that gravelly "Mr Country Calendar" voice – and it was a shock when he told us recently that he had to step down because he'd developed nodules on his vocal cords. 

Frank was a key figure in developing the show from its modest beginnings as a programme aimed at informing farmers, to what it is today – still informative, but giving a much larger audience, rural and urban, an understanding of what farm life is all about. 

Frank's departure marks the end of a great era – but not the end of the show.  Those of us who've been privileged to work with him will never forget his warmth, charm and wit – but even when we, in turn, move on, the show will continue to reflect his spirit.  

Frank has never taken himself too seriously – he's aimed to do the best job possible but he's made sure to have a fair few laughs in the process, often at his own expense.  And he's always made time to pause and think of others, whether they're colleagues or the people he's filming. 

His style has spread to us all – it's become the Country Calendar way of doing things and it's so ingrained that it won't change with his departure. 

The rural people we meet are for the most part very committed to what they do.  Like us, they take their jobs seriously – but they also like to have a laugh.  Our crews spend most of a week with the farmers we film and, keeping true to Frank's style, we will continue to make it as enjoyable as possible for us and them.  

We'll celebrate the show's 50th with a touch of sorrow at Frank's departure.  But the way I see it, another 50 years of rural fun is about to begin. 

Country Calendar's one-hour  "50 Golden Years" special, hosted by Jim Hickey, screens on TV One on Saturday, March 5 at 7pm. 

 - Stuff

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