Twelve Questions
Jennifer Dann poses 12 questions to well-known faces

'We were just naive goofs' - Bob Kerr explains how Terry Teo was born

By Jennifer Dann

Bob Kerr started work on comics at Auckland University's Craccum newspaper. Photo / Nick Reed
Bob Kerr started work on comics at Auckland University's Craccum newspaper. Photo / Nick Reed

Artist Bob Kerr illustrated the seminal Kiwi comic Terry Teo which was made into a popular 1980s TV series. A revamped PG-rated version begins tonight on TVNZ On Demand.

1. How did you and Stephen Ballantyne come up with the original Terry and the Gunrunners comic in 1982?

We were working at Craccum magazine and I said, "Hey let's do a New Zealand comic," and he said "Yeah, like Tintin". We didn't know how to write a book, we were just having fun. It took a few years because Steve went to live in England so we did it by letter. You can see how my drawing got slowly better. I was as interested as anyone else to find out what Steve was going to write. Years later we found out it follows the classic three-act structure. Fortunately we'd stumbled upon the right recipe which is; get your character into serious trouble by page two.

2. There are some classic Kiwi scenes like when the gunrunners try to break into the rural Kaupati pub after 10pm closing. Did you set out to capture Kiwi culture?

That's based on a vivid memory of the Murchison pub. All they did at 10pm closing was pull these heavy curtains and everybody just carried on. The policeman would phone up and say, "Look, I might be round in about half an hour, ok?" That scene where Merlene mows the grass in front of the caravan was something I actually saw at Raglan Motor Camp. We live in a culturally rich country. I was part of a new wave of people who wanted to produce New Zealand books. Most of us came through Writers in Schools. Joy Cowley organised a very lively meeting at her place in the Sounds in the late 80s. We all got together - Lynley Dodd, Gavin Bishop, Tessa Duder - and had a rip-roaring weekend. It was an exciting time. Kids now are growing up with a Disney-fied universal culture driven by mass market economics. I want our kids to know about where they live.

3. What was the response when you first published your comic?

There was a knock on the door and a film producer wearing a safari suit said, "Hello, I'm Logan Brewer. I'd like to make a TV series." Steve and I thought this must be what happens. We were just naive goofs along for the ride.. Steve wrote nine episodes of TV script but only six were made because skateboarding went out of fashion, according to the funders.

4. How did Don McGlashan come to write that ridiculously catchy theme song?

Yeah; "He doesn't wear a shiny suit or fly across the screen. He doesn't wear his underpants outside his jeans he's Terry Teo, uh oh, uh oh." Logan approached Split Enz but it ended up being Don. I'm a huge fan. Billy T James was brilliant as Spud and Rob Muldoon played the bad guy.

5. What ethnicity is Terry Teo?

Steve and I are still trying to work out whether he's Maori, Pakeha or Samoan. His dad's clearly a Pom. Terry's mum looks Pakeha too. I can't explain it. Terry is all New Zealand children and the town is every town. In the TV show, Terry was Maori.

6. What do you think of the new TV series by Gerard Johnstone and Luke Sharpe?

It's darker and sharper. Terry's now 17 and he drives a car and he's got a cellphone. It's a hang of a lot of fun but it's a wildly different world to the romantic era we depicted.


7. You studied painting at Elam in the 1970s under Colin McCahon and Gordon Walters. What did you learn?

They had all these wildly unqualified people who were just magic because they were practitioners. They taught me everything I needed to know. Now you have to be a theorist, a wordsmith, the pendulum has swung.

8. Why are your paintings of historical landscapes often empty of people?

I like the idea of stage sets for history. I show the viewer where something happened and they can put the actors in. I often paint back views of people, so they're also looking into the painting. I quite like raggedy, degraded landscapes. They seem to have more stories embedded in them.

9. Why is war often a concern in your work?

My wife Hazel says I have issues with authority. It's interesting how with Anzac Day the searchlight has shifted from Gallipoli and the Somme. Now we're allowed to talk about the conscientious objectors. We need to talk more about the New Zealand Wars too.

10. Two of your important exhibitions have been about dissent in our history. How did Tuhoe respond to your exhibition about the 1916 police invasion of Maungapohatu?

My paintings told the story of the Pakeha invaders; the 72 policemen were mainly Irish, straight off the boat - big boys who didn't have a good understanding of marae protocol. When I took the paintings up to Whakatane in 2003 I got summoned for this astonishing powhiri where I realised Tuhoe still had things to say to those policemen. They were a tad grumpy with them. But they were so generous with me.

11. You're a finalist in this year's NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults for Changing Times: The Story of a New Zealand Town and its Newspaper. How much do you draw on historical records and how much from your imagination?

You've got to be fairly accurate because there are foamers out there who will tell you, "Those ships only had six guns not seven." Most of the newspaper content in Changing Times is word for word out of Papers Past which is a wonderful online archive. Wakefield probably didn't wander down Pitaone beach in a three-piece suit. I just put him in one for the cover of Empire City, a book I illustrated for a CD by Andrew Laking.

12. You've done a few musical collaborations now. Why's that?

I'm dazzled by the way musicians can open a door to the human heart. I collaborated with a violinist called Slava Fainitski for a series of Gallipoli paintings. He had studio adjoining mine and I'd often hear him practising this orchestral piece again and again, so late one night I opened the connecting door and said "Hello I'm Bob. I've been painting while you've been practicing - come and look." He said, "Oh, I'm playing that badly." So we were firm friends after that. My rule now is leave the studio door open and work with younger people.

• Terry Teo:

• Changing Times:

- NZ Herald

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