FROM THE oxford companion TO new zealand literature
Hall, Roger (1939– ), the most successful playwright of his generation, was born in Essex. The most authoritative account of his life is his own, given in the Radio New Zealand series ‘Hallmarks’ (1995). He was educated at University College School, Hampstead (1952–55), before following his father into insurance.
A desire to write and to act was kindled by his father’s talent as an impersonator, frequent family visits to the theatre, especially revues, and by his love of post-war British radio comedies such as ‘ITMA’ (see Ted Kavanagh) and ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’. But the opportunity to do both came only after Hall moved to New Zealand in 1958.
He appeared in amateur productions while working (still in insurance) in Wellington in the late 1950s. After a brief return visit to England (via Australia and India) in 1960–62, Hall attended Wellington Teachers’ College and then Victoria University, where he completed a BA. At the same time he participated as an actor and script-writer in various revues, both on campus and downtown.
He began teaching, at Berhampore School, Wellington, in 1966, and the short stories and plays he wrote for use in the classroom were the beginnings of a prolific output of children’s writing which has continued ever since, most of it published either in the School Journal or by educational specialists Shortland Publications.
He returned to Victoria University in 1967 to complete an MA, then resumed teaching at Berhampore, all the while maintaining his involvement in local theatre, especially revue. His debut as a scriptwriter for television came in 1969, when he collaborated with Joseph Musaphia on New Zealand’s first television comedy series, ‘In View of the Circumstances’.
Resigning from teaching to become a freelance writer in 1970, he achieved some stage successes as well as television credits in both New Zealand and Australia, but by 1972—now married with one child—he resumed the security of life with a salary in the education sector, this time as editor of Education in School Publications, a job he held until 1975.
He continued his writing for children and for television, including the ‘Spotlight’ and ‘Buck House’ series (both 1974). By 1975 he had produced sufficient work to qualify for an Arts Council travel grant, which took him to England and America. The Eugene O’Neill Drama Workshop in Connecticut proved to be a decisive influence. On his return to New Zealand he wrote Glide Time, and saw it progress triumphantly after its Circa (Wellington) première on 11 August 1976. It became the first publication in the Price Milburn–Victoria University Press series of New Zealand Playscripts.
Glide Time set the pattern for most of Hall’s work, a series of gently satirical sketches linked by running gags and the gradual revelation of the characters’ generally dismal predicaments. The blend of comedy and pathos probably owes much to Tony Hancock, though Alan Ayckbourn is often cited, as is Chekhov, to whom Hall paid tribute in A Dream of Sussex Downs (1986).
In 1977 Hall moved to Dunedin as Burns Fellow (1977–78), then stayed on as a half-time teaching fellow in the university’s English department. He relinquished this position in 1994, publishing his tribute to the university (Otago, the University, with photographs by Bill Nichol, 1994), and moving to Auckland early in 1995.
Also in 1977 came Middle Age Spread, his best-known play, thanks to the film version and a successful West End production. He found it particularly difficult to write. Running a writing workshop at Otago University in 1977 helped him to turn these difficulties to account in State of the Play—a play about playwriting. Hall’s own favourite, though by no means his most successful play commercially, it premièred at Wellington’s Downstage Theatre in 1978.
In 1978–79, reverting to his apprenticeship in revue, he devised two pantomimes, ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Robin Hood’, both with music by John Drummond, in place of Otago’s traditional student capping revues, which were subsequently revived under his guidance in 1983. Also revue-like is Prisoners of Mother England, a play in fifty-nine short scenes about English immigrants to New Zealand. The title uses the phrase which may be the source for ‘pommie’ (if the word does indeed come from an acronym POME).
Though written as a straight play, since Tony Taylor’s inaugural production at Downstage in 1979, Prisoners of Mother England has generally been performed with musical interludes. Fifty-Fifty, the most dismal of his straight plays and the only one set in England, in a vain attempt to woo English entrepreneurs, followed in 1981, and Hot Water, his only true farce, in 1982. Other work at this time included the Gliding On scripts for radio and television and three other radio plays, The Quiz, Last Summer and Hark Hark the Harp.
From the time of his arrival in Dunedin, Hall was also very active in community affairs, serving on the New Zealand Literary Fund and the board of the Fortune Theatre, founding Monitor (an organisation that had considerable influence as a television watch-dog, especially in relation to children’s programmes), and laying the foundations for what eventually became (in 1989) Dunedin’s annual New Zealand Writers’ Week. For the inaugural week Hall devised ‘Mr Punch’, a portrait of Denis Glover.
A certain amount of experimentation is evident in Hall’s work of the mid-1980s. In 1983 he collaborated with Philip Norman (music) and A.K. Grant (lyrics) as author of the book for Footrot Flats, based on Murray Ball’s syndicated cartoon strip. The same team produced the equally successful Love Off the Shelf (a satire on popular romantic fiction) in 1986. Norman was again Hall’s musical partner in the country-and-western spoof Making It Big (1991), while Where Would A Songwriter Be Without Love? (1995) is a tribute to Norman’s music, devised by Hall. For another musical, The Hansard Show (1986)—an anthology of New Zealand parliamentary speeches—John Drummond and Nigel Eastlake provided the music.
A more radical departure from his usual bitter-sweet sitcom formula was the flawed expressionistic one-acter The Rose (1981), a thinly veiled attack on New Zealand’s Prime Minister of the time, Robert Muldoon. It was followed by a full-length problem play about home education, Multiple Choice, completed at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, where Hall held a writing fellowship in 1983.
After a controversial production in 1984, from which Hall dissociated himself, at Auckland’s Mercury Theatre, Multiple Choice has been neglected by the professional theatres, and it was no surprise to find Hall subsequently resuming his old style, first with his underrated adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, A Dream of Sussex Downs (1986), then with a pair of plays written on either side of the 1987 sharemarket crash—The Share Club (1987) and After the Crash (1988). The characters of these plays were exploited further in the television series, ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ (1990). A more melancholy stage sitcom, Conjugal Rites (1990), spawned two television series, this time for Britain’s Granada television, after a pilot failed to impress TVNZ.
In the lighter Market Forces (1995) Hall tests the old maxim that ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’, depicting the characters of Glide Time and ‘Gliding On’ in the environment of the restructured public service.
While Hall’s plays are funny, their comedy is that of sorrowful resilience, like Chekhov’s, and of serious social criticism, for all their unfashionable willingness to treat the middle classes with some sympathy. His one-liners can show truth about human manners as well as wit. His characters have sometimes been dismissed as stereotypes, and his female characters have provoked particular criticism.
As if to justify himself, he has written two plays for all-female casts: Social Climbers (1995), a comedy about a group of women teachers forced to spend three days and nights together in a tramping hut, and By Degrees, a more serious study of four women’s experience of tertiary education, written for radio in 1992 and adapted for the stage in 1993. He achieved another popular success with C’mon Black! (1996), a solo play about a devoted rugby supporter on tour in South Africa, where actor Grant Tilly brilliantly caught the characteristic Hall mix of uproarious comedy, understated pathos and perceptive political and social comment.
The play toured successfully, including performances in the Southwark New Zealand Arts Festival, London, and the Edinburgh Festival in 1997. Hall received an Honorary DLitt of Victoria University in 1996 and the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship at Menton for 1997. A musical comedy, Dirty Weekends, with music by Philip Norman, was performed in 1998. RCo
Author entry from The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature,
edited by Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie (1998).