Updated: Oct 12, 2019
Ross Jennings 1944 –2016
Ross Jennings, like Tony Harris, was a remarkable student who had his secondary school education at Hawera High School. He too carved out a unique niche for himself during his working life. His career should be recorded for posterity in the Hawera High School archives.
Ross James Jennings was born in Hawera on 13 November 1944. He was a ‘Legacy boy’ as his father, Corporal James Jennings (Army Reg No. 5767596), had died in WW 2, at 35 years of age, on 11 September 1944, just over two months before his birth. His father’s occupation, according to the Hawera Cemetery records was ‘Barman’ and his religion Presbyterian. Ross was an only child, brought up by his mother, Ngaire Zillah Myrtle Jennings in Hawera where they lived in Gladstone Street.
Ross was a pupil at Ramanui Primary School, and was a member of the St. John’s Presbyterian Church Bible Class.
He attended Hawera High School from 1958 – 1960 and in his third and fourth form years was in the top class. In the annual ‘School Magazine’ the team photographs show that he was a member of the ‘C’ Indoor Basketball team in 1959, and in 1960 played for the Central Cricket X1.
In that latter year we were both members of the School Band, I played the bass drum, after initial efforts with French horn and clarinet, and Ross the snare drum. He was also a member of the School Orchestra, as was HHS Principal Gordon (GAT) Thompson, who was the lead violinist. Another member, a violinist, was my third form brother, Donald Stockwell. The conductor of both the band and the orchestra was the indomitable Harry Farrington. The photographs below, which show Ross Jennings in the Band and Orchestra, show a confident youth, with a poise and focus about him.
Ross had definite academic potential but left school as soon as he turned 16 on 13 November 1960, and did not sit the fifth form School Certificate exams. He was intent on following his childhood dream to be an actor, after roles, like many others including me, in various productions of the Hawera Repertory Society. His mother had joined Repertory after she first arrived in the town.
According to legend, on his 16th birthday he packed up his books and left them outside GAT Thompson’s office and then caught the bus or the train or hitchhiked, according to different sources, to Wellington. His decision to leave, without sitting his School Certificate exams, would have upset GAT who always took a personal interest in the well- being of the ’Legacy boys’, at Hawera High School.
In Wellington he worked with the Children’s Art Theatre, New Zealand Players and Downstage. In 1963 he won a Queen Elizabeth II scholarship and went to England where he was based at Salisbury Theatre, and enjoyed a wide range of repertory work for 6 years, including directing several productions. Just before he returned to New Zealand, he married his first wife Jill, a fellow New Zealander who had joined him in England.
In 1969 he returned to New Zealand to take the position of Artistic Director of Wanganui’s Four Seasons Theatre. Before too long he was in Wellington working in the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation’s Drama Department, and then trained as a director and producer with long-time friend and producer Tony Isaac. He was involved in the Sports Department and then ‘Country Calendar’ where he shocked some viewers by created a programme showing frontal male nudity with farm workers, who loved skinny dipping in mountain streams.
Michael Higgins in his obituary of Ross Jennings, 27 March 2016 (Stuff.co.nz), said that drama directing was a logical extension of his skills and experience. After the establishment of TV Channels TV One and the second channel South Pacific Television, he was part of Michael Scott – Smith’s Avalon based TV One drama section, which Ross described as specialising in “raw, honest, New Zealand stories”. A heady era for television drama, it meant permanent jobs for core cast and crew for the first time. They were “good days, important days — alive, vibrant and wonderful. We were encouraged to give things a go. There were no rules — so we couldn’t break them”.
During his time at Avalon Ross lobbied hard, with kaumatua John Tahu, for the opening of a Marae on the fourth floor of the tower block. They were successful. This was, according to Ian Magan, where his love of the dramatisation of Maori stories, and his belief in their utmost importance, really began in earnest.
Highlights for Ross included New Zealand’s first soap ‘Close to Home’ made with “good heart and great determination” —as well as working on the show as a producer, he directed more than 150 episodes; ’Moynihan’(trade union based drama starring Ian Mune), ‘Rachel’ (starring Barbara Ewing and Bill Stalker), and two series of Feltex’s Award winning children’s series ‘The Mad Dog Gang’ (co-written by Mune). The latter was, as Magan said, Ross’s first television production, which he also directed, and starred Bruno Lawrence, Ian Watkin and John Bach. ’It was a fantastic drama for kids, and won numerous television awards in New Zealand and overseas’.
When TV One and SPTV amalgamated in 1980, Ross Jennings became Head of Drama, and had to merge the two drama departments in an environment of tight budgets and what Higgins describes as intense public and political scrutiny after the fallout over ‘The Governor’. Magan commented that ‘many headaches followed but Ross managed to ride the waves of envy and dissent, and helped commission some great television drama’. Following the success of children’s dramas ‘Children of Fire Mountain’ and the earlier ‘Hunter’s Gold’ Ross oversaw the development of ‘Under the Mountain’ and ‘Sea Urchins’.
Ross was a risk taker and gave the green light to Wayne Tourell’s legal drama ‘Hanlon’ which Tourell had been pitching to TV executives for almost 14 years. A hit in every sense, the series was purchased by US company Paramount after they'd viewed just one episode. Three Bruce Mason plays were dramatized, before the playwright’s death in 1983 — a series Ross Jennings regarded as little talked about but important. The marriage to his first wife ended in the late 1970s.
In 1983, he resigned after making the pilot for ‘Inside Straight,’ and with his second wife Carmel, headed off to Melbourne, Australia. He had spent time over there before directing dramas for the Australian TV company, Crawfords. Higgins reports that after working on several series including ‘Prisoner’ and ‘Carson’s Law’ (and developing the telemovie’ I Live with Me Dad’, he was appointed Head of Development for Crawfords. There his successes included sitcom ‘Acropolis Now’ (based on the highly successful stage play ‘Wogs Out of Work’), which ran for seven years.
Ian Magan tribute to Ross Jennings
Ian Magan in his tribute, as reported by Tony Forster on 4 April 2016, mentioned that Ross suffered his first heart attack in 1985. There were 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 am the following morning!
In Australia, Magan said, 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.
Ross Jennings returned to New Zealand in 1988, citing reasons of “family, identity and peace of mind”. He was keen, he told the ‘Evening Post’, to raise a family and “rediscover a country where stability still seemed possible amid uncertainty”. There was also an offer to work with Des Monaghan setting up South Pacific Pictures, but Monaghan left after six months. Ross then resigned to go freelance.
He and producer Robin Scholes, who he had worked with on ‘The Mad Dog Gang,’ were members of a consortium who bid for NZ on Air funding, for a long running soap opera. Their project, ‘Homewood Bound’ ultimately lost out to ‘Shortland Street’. Instead ‘Homeward Bound’ was funded for 22 episodes as a weekly show. Higgins said that for Ross Jennings the series represented his journey from “urban elitism to parish pump community”. He told ‘The Evening Post’ of his fascination "with New Zealand’s sense of culture and country. We have this amazing affinity with the land which isn’t so in Australia.”
In 1993 Ross Jennings produced the ill-fated TV3 sitcom ‘Melody Rules’, which he conceded was "an utter turkey". There was also controversy over ‘Questions’, a 2000 documentary about youth suicide, which the Health Ministry wanted axed for fear of copycat behaviour. Ross pushed back and was successful in the programme being shown.
Ian Magan observed that Ross Jennings had a natural affinity with food! Eating out in restaurants of all ethnicities was a real joy, he said, 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. Eventually he needed open heart surgery in 1993, followed by a year off work to recover.
From 1996 Ross played a major role at Communicado as an executive producer. He created and produced’ Middlemore’, an early New Zealand reality show (which ran for 11 seasons), and the long running ‘Police 10-7’. Ian Magan highlighted that 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 was a testament to Ross’s understanding, he said, of what the New Zealand public wanted to see.
Magan commented that 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 - 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 Magan said was with ‘Stripsearch’ – a series Ross 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, resulting in a lucrative revenue stream for the new owners of Screentime Communicado.
Higgins commented that in 2003 Ross Jennings was appointed Chief Executive of Screentime Communicado (subsequently Screentime), a role he held until resigning in 2006. He felt he was “getting too old for the daily grind of running a big production company.” The intention was to slow down and make the occasional programme through his own company, ‘Just the Ticket Productions’, which he ran with his wife Carmel. Their productions included ‘Life’s a Riot ‘— a period drama based around the 1932 Queen Street Riots, directed by Ian Mune and funded by NZ On Air’s Platinum Fund, and a documentary on Destiny Church’s Brian Tamaki.
Ian Magan said that during the period Ross was CEO 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%. He became ill in November 2014. It was prostate cancer. That did not stop him as he had desired 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. Sadly, he did not live to see the programme being screened. He worked to the end, and a month before he died Ross was in Wellington supervising the progress of ‘Inside Parliament’. His mind was still sharp, but he was in a wheelchair.
Gray Bartlett Tribute – Newstalk ZB 27 March 2016
Entertainment promoter Gray Bartlett, said a highlight of his career was working with Ross Jennings filming the ‘Highway of Legends’, and the ’Billy Connolly Down Under’ series. Ross, he said was a "supreme optimist". "With Ross, the glass was always half full. He was a consummate professional who put every ounce of energy he had into getting the best out of a project. He understood his craft and had a way of making his cast and crew feel like they were onto something great."
"He's just one of those guys you miss. You completely miss the optimism, that wonderful friendliness, his abilities and techniques. All the things that come from being a great TV producer.
"He was one of those great optimists in life. Just a wonderful man and produced great television. He did the ANZAC series which I had a hand with him for Māori TV".
Stuff.co.nz in its 7 April 2016 tribute said that Ross Jennings, who produced Maori drama ‘Nga Puna’ (1995-1997), and ‘Marae DIY’ saw a great need to promote Maori stories and the directors, producers and actors telling them. He developed Maori Television's annual Anzac broadcasts for six years from 2009. Maori TV's head of programming, Haunui Royal, said:" Anzac has a lot of ritual and tradition and reverence attached to it and Ross understood that. He had a real rapport with the ex- servicemen." "He was very good at 'selling the dream'".
In his final year, he also wrote, co-directed, and produced the live, outdoor performance of ‘The Passion Play’ staged at the Villa Maria winery in Mangere, Easter Friday, 2015. The actors were all Pasifika, demonstrating the close bond Ross had forged with that community. Earlier he had produced the programme ‘Tala Pasifika’.
Ross Jennings died on Good Friday. 25 March 2016, aged 71 at Middlemore Hospital, where he had produced his, and New Zealand’s first reality TV series. His mother-in-law, Edna Peters, 96 years of age, died the same day. He was survived by his wife, Carmel Jennings, six children, and five grandchildren. The family held funerals on consecutive days the following week at St Patrick's Roman Catholic Church in Pukekohe.
Ngaire Jennings, Ross’s mother, had died the previous year, on 22 January 2015, at 91 years of age. She was buried in the Hawera Cemetery with her husband, Ross’s father, James Jennings. Her religion was described as ‘Episcopalian’ in the records.
Emile Donovan Tribute – ‘Sunday Star Times’ 1 April 2016 ‘Memories of working with Ross Jennings’
When I first met the late, great Ross Jennings, visionary pioneer of New Zealand reality TV, he was eating mince savouries in Jude's Cafe in Thorndon, Wellington, at 8.30am. I'd arranged to meet with the show's producers – Ross, Vincent Burke and Phil Wallington – at Jude's one Tuesday in mid-December.
We were in the very early stages of the show, and our mission that day was to pitch the idea to several MPs to see if they'd be interested in taking part. Ross and I, being the most- and least-experienced of the bunch, were paired together in a curious Laurel and Hardy-type combination, with four senior MPs on our schedule for the day.
We were successful with the presentation about the ‘Inside Parliament’ series, to the four parliamentarians, including Cabinet Minister, Hekia Parata. Emile Donovan commented in his ‘Sunday Times’ tribute on 1 April 2016 that: ’Ross rolled through his pitch like a paper through a printing press. It was incredible. His body was ravaged by time and illness, hunched and frail like a porcelain doll, but his mind was as sharp as a scythe. He was a quintessential professional and, even in old age and ill health, his class shone through’.
Donovan said that Ross wanted people to know the truth. He wanted to give misunderstood institutions the opportunity to open their doors and to show what they really did: to prove themselves, to justify themselves – indeed, to redeem themselves.
This he did, Donovan said, time and again – with Middlemore Hospital, once a place of uncertainty and fear. With the police, whose reputation in the early 2000s was, if not in tatters, far from unimpeachable. With politicians, who were regularly lambasted from all sides.
Donovan further commented that ‘Reality TV’ is often criticised, sometimes justifiably, as contrived and scripted – as faithful to "reality" as motocross is to driving a family wagon. But
Ross was principled: he questioned perceptions and sought truth. We are here, he would say, to document and to de-mystify. There will be no set-ups, no retakes. Only reality. Only life.
Ross Jennings died of cancer in Middlemore Hospital – the subject of his, and New Zealand's, first reality TV series. He went out a beloved father, a loving husband, a valued mentor, a gentleman, and a man at the top of his game until the very end.
Rest in peace, Ross. And enjoy the savouries.
‘NZ Catholic’ newspaper 9 May 2016: 'Renowned Television and Passion Play Producer Dies’ by Michael Otto
‘The Mass for Ross was celebrated by Bishop Patrick Dunn, with seven priests concelebrating. In the homily, Fr Brian Prendeville, SM, stated that had Mr Jennings lived in ancient Greece, he would have been “laurelled and feted as a giant in drama”. Fr Prendeville referred to Mr Jennings co-directing and producing a Passion play staged at Villa Maria winery in Mangere one year ago.
The priest described the Passion play as a “masterpiece”, with all of Mr Jennings’ energy and talent on display, despite suffering pain from the cancer in his back. Mr Jennings on that night told Fr Prendeville that having unproven actors deliver such a stunning performance testified to the Passion itself being the greatest story ever told. Mr Jennings had hoped it would be staged every two years. Mr Jennings had worked for decades on a project to have Jesuit staff at a Catholic secondary school in the Franklin region.’
Tribute from Ross Miller, ex-student Hawera High School
I was aware of Ross Jennings at Hawera Technical High School but not much more as we were in different classes. And, so it was a bolt from the blue when in 2011 he telephoned me to ask if I would like to be his technical advisor on some documentaries he was planning to shoot.
So began a friendship that continued through to his untimely death. Ross was larger than life in every respect. He never knew his Dad who died while serving in the military and so he become a ‘Legacy’ boy with ‘GAT’ Thompson, Principal of HTHS, as his mentor. Ross remembered ‘GAT’ for buying him his first pair of long trousers. He repaid ‘GAT’ for that the day he turned 16 when he bundled up all his schoolbooks and dumped them outside ‘GAT’s’ office, walked out the school gates and hitchhiked to Wellington to make good on his dream. The rest is history.
I had occasion to see Ross in action as a director and producer. He knew exactly what he wanted and got it. Scene shoot after scene shoot until he was satisfied with the product.
Ross loved his food and wine and was an incredibly generous host, best described as a Falstaffian character. Indeed, I remember once on the road with him he had booked us into an Edwardian establishment which featured a carafe of Madeira on a night table outside each room. Ross said that was the standard he looked for and expected.
RIP old friend.
Tony Forster, in his Screen NZ tribute of 4 April 2016, said that at the celebration of Ross’s 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 including Tony, who said he was lucky enough to be one of them.
In conclusion we must give the last word to Ian Magan. He likened Ross to Robert Louis Stevenson, and said of Ross, ‘he had 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 before he died); 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’.
The 7 April 2016 tribute in stuff.co.nz made mention of an interview Ross Jennings had with the ’Evening Post’ in June 1992 where he said: "I have absolute faith in the New Zealand audience. Once they become comfortable with our own sounds and stories their appetite for local drama will grow and grow... but you have to give New Zealanders good product, made with heart and passion and integrity."
It has been said that Ross Jennings was one of New Zealand’s most experienced and prolific television producers. And who could disagree given the list of productions above. Ross, like Hiwi Tauroa, a former pupil of Hawera High School too, had sufficient standing to warrant his own page in Wikipedia.
A truly fascinating life story from being the only child of a widowed mother, in a small South Taranaki country town, to his NZ On Screen profile which listed 74 shows he was involved with in New Zealand and Australia, as a producer, director or writer. These spanned, as Donovan said, sport, drama, current affairs and everything in between.
History will credit Ross Jennings with playing an invaluable role in bringing to New Zealanders a vastly improved understanding of their country’s past, of our Maori cultural heritage, of the Pasifika links and the daily reality of working in the hospitals and the police force.