The Men Behind Country Calendar: From Left: Martin Didsbury, Frank Torley, Bill Knight and Tony Trotter photographed out "in the field" at some point during the 1970s. Absent from the iconic series, however, was any hint that prior to the arrival of the farming families Country Calendar regularly featured was half-a-millennium of Maori occupation and agriculture.
IT WAS FIFTY YEARS AGO, last week, that Country Calendar first appeared on New Zealanders’ television screens. The programme has gone on to earn for itself that most coveted of descriptions – iconic. Kiwis loved Country Calendar almost from the first broadcast. It expressed in a very special way the psychic link that binds even the most urbanised New Zealanders to the open spaces and rural enterprises that made their country possible.
I have more reason than most to honour Country Calendar because it was my father, Tony Trotter, who played a critical role in refining the programme’s compass and developing its unique production style. My teenage years were spent watching my dad as he sat at the kitchen table finalising, with the aid of a stop-watch, the script for that week’s episode. (That I have spent the best part of my life slaving away over a hot keyboard is no accident!)
It was only years later that a highly critical blog-post by a young Auckland writer, Tim Selwyn, gave me cause to think about Country Calendar in a very different way. Selwyn’s criticism was based on the undeniable fact that the programme was a celebration of the achievements of the generations of Pakeha settlers who built this country’s primary industries. Country Calendar inevitably dated the history of the particular farm or district they were covering from the time it was settled by Europeans. That these places had half-a-millennium of human history prior to European settlement remained both unspoken and unexamined.
In Selwyn’s scathing description, the typical farming family featured “will mention they lease a neighbouring Maori block but not think to mention the circumstances of how their farm became so. ‘The station’s history goes back over a hundred years…’ is the usual broad brush that covers over the confiscation, or seizure, or dirty deal typically behind a title that rests on little more than the white man’s naked land-grabbing. History only goes back to where the current owner wants it to go back on Country Calendar.”
Maori appeared in Country Calendar – as shearers and shepherds, fishermen and farmers – but almost never as the original occupiers, exploiters and owners of the land that has always been the real hero of the programme. It was an absence that I had simply failed to notice until Selwyn’s posting drew it to my attention.
Do I blame the original presenter of Country Calendar, the pipe-smoking Fred Barnes, for this crucial absence? No, of course not. Neither do I blame my father, nor his worthy successor, the programme’s long-time producer, Frank Torley. Because this absence has been a feature of New Zealand cultural life since, at least, the end of the land wars that effectively put an end to the thriving agricultural communities that Maori had constructed in the twenty years between the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and the invasion of the Waikato by the Crown.
After the forcible subjugation of the Maori, what could Settler New Zealand possibly say about the actual origins of all the thriving farms and rural towns that sprang up in its wake? By any fair judgement, Settler New Zealand’s title to the land upon which, and out of which, its nationhood has been constructed remains, if not actually suspect, then, to put it very mildly, challengeable. (How challengeable is made clear in just about every judgement of the Waitangi Tribunal.) Unsurprisingly, the historical consensus, unspoken for the most part, was that if there was nothing good to say about the provenance of Pakeha rural property, then by far the best course of action was to say nothing at all.
In this respect, Country Calendar is guilty of nothing more than conforming to the cultural imperatives of its time. The temptation, as the son of the programme’s pivotal producer, is to say, rather warily: “Ah, but that was then and this is now. New Zealand has changed hugely since 1966.” (As part of the production team behind Mana Whenua - Natural World of the Maori, presented by Sir Tipene O’Reagan, my father was part of that change.)
But has it really? In the last fortnight, the head of Te Whakaruruhau, the Maori broadcasters’ association, Willie Jackson, has fronted a full-scale assault on what he alleges is Radio New Zealand’s dearth of Maori content and coverage. Is the cultural absence that Selwyn exposed in his 2013 posting about Country Calendar also a feature of the last real exemplar of public broadcasting in New Zealand? More critically, what would happen to RNZ’s audience if that absence was made good?
Even more subversively, has the advent of Maori radio stations and Maori Television, by separating (ghettoising?) the cultural expression of New Zealand’s original agriculturalists, provided the prime conveyors of Pakeha iconography – like Country Calendar and RNZ – with an alibi for absence?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 1 March 2016.