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Ross Jennings: an appreciation

At the celebration of Ross Jennings’ life many people spoke about how Ross had either given them their first job in the industry, or given them an important leg-up at a critical stage of their careers.

He mentored and nurtured many people; I was lucky enough to be one of them.

Following is an edited version of the tribute Ian Magan paid to Jennings at Thursday’s celebration. The video is kindly shared by George Andrews.

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James Jennings never saw his first-born son Ross – he died while in the army in 1946, before his only son’s birth. Ross started life in Taihape with his mother and her parents. His love of trains grew from his Poppa, who worked on the main trunk line.

Single mother Ngaire Jennings was a gentle, quiet and very determined woman from whom Ross received his tenacity. She was devoted to Ross. And he to her.

Upon moving with Ross to Hawera in Taranaki, Ngaire joined the local Repertory Society. Money was short, and any spare cash went on tickets for local or touring shows. Thus grew Ross’ love of theatre. He had found his niche.

On the day he reached the legal age for leaving school, Ross walked out, leaving his books outside the headmaster’s door – gone for ever!

Ross joined the Children’s Art Theatre, and later the New Zealand Players – the ground-breaking theatre group that strove to bring real live theatre to the masses in our artistically deprived country. Applying for a QE2 Arts Council grant to study acting in England, he made the shortlist of two – only only to be pipped at the post by Kiri Te Kanawa. Not being one to accept rejection, Ross scored the QE2 grant the following year.

Ian Magan’s tribute to Ross Jennings, part one

In England he secured a three-year tenure, acting and directing at the stunning old Salisbury Theatre – no mean feat in those days, for a Kiwi lad…

His Kiwi girlfriend Jill followed him over and they married in 1969. Their daughter Kristan was born when they returned to New Zealand in 1970, when Ross became artistic director of the Four Seasons Theatre in Wanganui.

He then joined the NZBC in Wellington. Here, with long-time friend and producer Tony Isaac, he trained as a drama director and producer, becoming a director for the NZBC Sports department – and if that was not enough, he was also at that time directing episodes of the now-iconic Country Calendar. Today you would have to say that this kind of workload would mean a one-way trip to the loony bin. Not for Ross – to him it was simply basic training!

His first television production, which he also directed, was The Mad Dog Gang, written by Ian Mune and starring Bruno Lawrence, Ian Watkin and John Bach. It was a fantastic drama for kids, and won numerous television awards in New Zealand and overseas. Then, under Mike Scott-Smith in the TVOne drama department, came over 150 episodes of Close to Home – New Zealand’s first homegrown soap – as well as producing the series Moynihan and the South Island-based Rachel, starring Bill Stalker and the British-based Kiwi actress Barbara Ewing.

When TVOne and South Pacific Television merged in 1980 Ross, as Head of Drama, had to bring two competing departments together under one roof. Many headaches followed. He managed to ride the waves of envy and dissent, and helped commission some great television drama. He was particularly proud of the three Bruce Mason plays dramatised shortly before the playwright’s death in 1983.

Ross fought hard for the opening of a Marae on the fourth floor of the Avalon tower block, with kaumatua John Tahu. This is where his love of the dramatisation of Maori stories, and his belief in their utmost importance, really began in earnest.

In 1982 his marriage had broken apart, and he and his future wife Carmel shifted to Melbourne. Carmel describes these years as amongst the most carefree of his life.

In Australia, work was enjoyable, money was good, and programmes challenged him. He directed Grundy’s Prisoner for a while; then became Head of Development at Crawford Productions. He and the iconic Hector Crawford became great mates – a friendship which lasted till Hector’s death.

In 1985, as Ross and Carmel were expecting Kinta, Ross suffered his first heart attack. So began many episodes of ill health, brought about by seriously heavy smoking and working long hours – he always gave 200%. He also loved poker. He spent many a long night slamming chips onto the table – one evening challenging his card-playing mates to “play till the phone rings” – so they did, until 9:30 the following morning!

When he and Carmel returned to New Zealand in 1988, Ross joined Des Monaghan setting up South Pacific Pictures.

Actress Ilona Rodgers invited Ross and Carmel to visit Onewhero – 70 km from the centre of Auckland City. They decided to raise their family in that small country village. The Franklin district enchanted Ross, as he sat on the deck overlooking the Kaipo flats, watching the ever-changing fields as they were ploughed, planted, grown and then cropped. He never tired of those views.

After Monaghan took a job offer in Australia, Ross decided to go freelance. With Communicado, he produced a new soap opera, Homeward Bound. It was funded for 22 episodes, until further funding was diverted to its rival, Shortland Street.

Family life changed, as three more boys arrived. Ross loved his six children dearly, and was so proud of each of them. He had a natural affinity with children.

He also had a natural affinity with food! Eating out in restaurants of all ethnicities was a real joy for the small town lad who was brought up on solid farm fare of meat and well-cooked vegetables. He began to increase in circumference as the restaurants beckoned.

His natural bigheartedness was not enough to prevent the need for open heart surgery in 1993, followed by a year off work to recover. But nothing could hold him back from producing. Out of this hugely creative brain came the TV series Middlemore, where, ironically, he spent the last days of his incredible life.

Middlemore was followed by Police Ten 7. Both series were hard to get off the ground, as so much trust needed to be established – firstly with the hospital hierarchy, and then even more so with the New Zealand Police. Ground-breaking rules were established and trust cemented. The great success of both series is a testament to Ross’s understanding of what the New Zealand public wanted to see, and continues to want, with Police Ten 7.

Ian Magan’s tribute to Ross Jennings, part two

In 1999 TVNZ asked Ross to create The Millennium Show, to compete with the TV3 version, the latter channel getting most of the available public funding. Here was a challenge he could not turn down; so he took time out from Communicado, and for a year travelled and researched the small towns of New Zealand. That resulted in 36 hours of live non-stop television across the New Year of 2000, with crews and presenters covering the country, featuring the towns’ events, their history, their treasured stories. It won the hearts of New Zealand viewers, and became the highest rating programme over the screening period.

Another huge success was Stripsearch – a series he devised and created, centring around the development of a Kiwi male strip troupe (tastefully produced of course!). Women loved it, the concert tours that followed were sell-outs, and a second series was commissioned. The series idea was then sold to more than 25 countries, bringing in a small fortune to the new owners of Screentime Communicado.

For three years, Ross was CEO. There for six years he devised and produced the Maori Television Anzac Day programme – which he loved with a passion. Each year the ratings increased by a minimum of 10%. Independently, he produced a telefeature, Life’s a Riot, and a doco about Destiny Church’s Brian Tamaki.

Ross became ill in November 2014. The sore back he complained about when driving long distances was not caused by the maligned car seat, but was in fact prostate cancer, which had metastasised through his lower back and hips.

Did he stop? Hell, no! He’d had this idea for a long time to demystify the running of Parliament. After rejections from the two main broadcaster networks, he took the idea to Maori Television. Today, in conjunction with Top Shelf Productions, his final reality series is being filmed. Sadly, its creator has not lived to see it reach our screens.

Ross fought the ferocious cancer right to the end. Never ever did he complain about the horrendous pain he suffered; but when it got too much, he would take himself off to his room and lie down in the most comfortable position he could manage – one foot on the floor and one foot lying on the bed, downing the morphine tabs which would send him into another world of new ideas and inspire his imagination.

His enduring sadness was not being able to cuddle his beautiful grandchildren when they visited, as the pain from physical contact was overwhelming. Also to his chagrin, he wasn’t able to continue his love of driving, and had to be chauffeured around – not something he enjoyed.

At Coopers Beach in the Far North, on a warm sunny day, two weeks before he succumbed to the inevitable, he proudly walked down the aisle (or in this case, the lawn) with his beautiful daughter Kinta – who, I might add, has followed in the footsteps of her father’s passion for television, to work (ironically and appropriately) at South Pacific Pictures.

This was Ross’s last trip away; but even then, he continued to plan his trip back to the beach for Easter.

Ross Jennings has been our Kiwi Tusitala – the great teller of tales – whether it be over a glass of good wine in a restaurant, or on the beach at Coopers, or through the magic eye of television, or on a humble stage in Onewhero (where Jennings did a production of Christ’s Passion 18 months ago – ed.); in the corner of the pub or just shooting the breeze before dinner. This man has spun a myriad of fascinating New Zealand stories to countless thousands of eager friends, family, live and television audiences; and has left for his children, his grandchildren, and their grandchildren, a priceless legacy born of an insightful and unique love for his fellow man.

Ross, you’ve done well, Man; and today we give thanks for your incredibly diverse and meaningful 70 years. May you rest in peace, Good Friend, and may the next great story always be with you.

Ian Magan’s tribute to Ross Jennings, wrap

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Ross Jennings died on 25 March, 2016. He was 71.

Note: an earlier version of this article carried in error a photo of Ian Magan, who gave the eulogy. Apologies for any confusion this caused.

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