Spectrum 908. When TV came to town

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Tono kōrero mai

In 1961 Cyril Townsend accepted a job as a projectionist and cameraman for Wellington's soon-to-be-launched first television channel. Cyril's first association with film stretched back to the silent movie days and during the war he worked on top secret projects for the National Film Unit.
Cyril's skill and experience were sorely needed by fledgling television and he had to turn his hand to almost anything. With considerable humour and affection Cyril recalls the "rubber bands and mirrors" days of early television.

Cyril Townsend filmmaker and projectionist, talks with Jack Perkins about his later career working in the formative years of television.

In 1961, while working as a cinema manager in the Hutt Valley, Cyril was approached by a senior manager from the newly formed NZBC and offered a job working for the soon-to-be-launched Wellington TV channel. He talks about how his long experience working with film had bought him to the NZBC’s attention and how his film knowledge would prove invaluable to the new medium given film was the primary format used by TV in its early days.

He talks about arriving for work on his first day and discovering work on the Waring Taylor Street studios had not been completed. After working with Ernie Black, the head technician, on installing equipment he offered to bring in one of his own films to use in the studio’s first test transmission. He talks about his surprise in seeing his colour film appear in B&W in the broadcast and being told, “This is only a B&W service.”

On the channel’s first day of broadcast he recalls Gilbert Stringer saying to staff “New Zealand will never be the same.” At the time he thought Stringer’s comment a little over the top but if he had the opportunity now he would say “How right you were.”

He explains how he prepared all the film for transmission, including 104 episodes of the Donna Reed show, and shooting “yards and yards” of footage of gold fish in a bowl that could be broadcast as filler to avoid the cardinal sin of TV: a blank screen.

He talks about staff hosting screenings of series like Gunsmoke and Bonanza so they could see them in colour and in full, and not B&W as the viewing public did.

As all domestic news content was initially supplied by the Auckland TV channel there was no Wellington news coverage until Cyril and one of the Wellington-based commentators, Prue Gregory, filmed the first local news item: the [Chows] store window in Lambton Quay being blown out during a storm. Having now been appointed newsreel cameraman Cyril regularly filmed items featuring politicians. He recounts his first time filming the then Prime Minister, Keith Holyoake, and later filming Walter Nash when he was presented with a Life Membership badge from the Labour Party.

Cyril then moved into working on documentaries and the channel’s first drama, “For All Earth to Tell”, directed by an Italian, Romano Pianti. He recounts one shoot for the film, at Palliser Bay in a Wellington southerly, that entailed relocating a cabbage tree. He also talks about the restrictions on shooting footage that might be construed as advertising e.g. close-ups of makes of cars, flags at sporting events with sponsors’ names on them.

He talks about the consequences of shooting cutaway shots of crowds and individuals without seeking the subject’s permission, in particular one instance when covering a surf club event at Lyall Bay. He and his co-cameraman Roy Wesley filmed a couple in the crowd and when the footage went to air it transpired the woman was not the man’s wife and led to divorce proceedings. The fallout bought in the requirement for clearance sheets to be completed when filming members of the public.

Now in his 70s and semi-retired, Cyril still works as a projectionist at the National Film Unit projecting new releases e.g. Once Were Warriors and rushes for films in production. He concludes the interview by summarising his career, not as work, but as a vocation, ensuring the quality and reputation of New Zealand’s film and television industry is as high as it can be.

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Year 1996

Reference number 22440

Media type AUDIO

Collection Sound Collection

Credits RNZ Collection
Perkins, Jack (b.1940), Producer
Townsend, Cyril, 1917-2010, Interviewee

Duration 00:26:56

Date 21 Apr 1996

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