Our People: Kerry Fowler

By Jill Nicholas

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Kerry Fowler
Kerry Fowler

Hard as it is to believe it's four years next week since the city's much-loved historian Don Stafford died.

However, his work continues not only in his legacy of mountains of books and papers and places that carry his name but through the wide-ranging documentary series he began shooting around the region in the 1990s, twinning his talents with those of programme maker Kerry Fowler.

Kerry who? It's a fair question, there are few more low key or self-effacing than Kerry Fowler. Throughout their association it was Don who was the superstar, Kerry the backroom boy, the man behind the camera's lens. As a friend who worked closely with the pair puts it Fowler played Dr Watson to Stafford's Sherlock Holmes - how apt.

Since Don's death, and in his typically unheralded way, Kerry's carried on where his close friend left off, completing their unfinished Rotoiti Safari project before moving on to record the new millennium's news-making highlights.

However Don's unshown work's not been left on the cutting room floor, Kerry's gathered it up, preserving the footage for posterity just as Rotorua's Tusitala (teller of tales) preserved so much of historical significance to local Pakeha and Maori.

With a collection of previously-unseen Stafford footage about to be screened Our People turns the focus on this Kerry Fowler fellow. He doesn't like it one bit, fearing he'll be seen as a self-promoter, a trait he's definitely not good at.

"When they write my epitaph it will probably read 'he could have done better'," he insists.

What rot. Here we have a consummate professional in the film production world, his grounding rooted in television's early days; before that producing school plays and university reviews.

As a teenager he'd had an entrepreneurial bent, introducing dances to his Presbyterian church's Bible class. They made him enough to buy a Jag, but when impresario Phil Warren woke up to the youngster's success he swooped, bringing in big name bands to counter Kerry's smaller time ones. "I couldn't compete."

He became a commercial traveller selling confectionary around the North Island's top half . . . "my first introduction to Rotorua".

But Kerry's dad insisted he become a solicitor, enrolling him in law school and finding him work as a clerk in a leading Auckland legal firm.

Kerry hated it. "It was boring, repetitive," but there were highlights. "I spent a lot of time in the Land Transfer Office where this big bloke with lank hair took me under his wing."

That man was prime minister-to-be David Lange, but even Lange's charisma couldn't keep Kerry tethered to a desk.

The then New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC) was advertising for a presentation officer, hundreds applied, Kerry got the job.

"The station manager later told me when he'd asked my former boss for a reference he said I'd be wasted as a law clerk but very good in TV."

Learning the ropes was complex. "I wasn't allowed to make any mistakes, I made every mistake possible and ones others didn't achieve."

Regardless he passed muster, one allocated role filling the gaps between programmes on commercial-free days.

"We had these terrible fillers like men burning rubbish so I went out and filmed a harbour ferry crossing. I said 'this is what I want to do', my boss said 'not after all this time and money's been spent training you'."

Kerry headed for Sydney convinced he'd walk into a TV job, the Ilford film warehouse was as close as he got.

The Australian Commonwealth Film Unit wanted trainees, Kerry was accepted, time at Channels 9 and 10 followed.

"Wonderful training, I worked closely with the US on the moon landing transmitted internationally via Australia ... on Aussie's first 'soapie'."

Marriage (long terminated) and concern his parents 'weren't getting any younger' brought him home.

"I thought the NZBC would welcome me with open arms, far from it, they punished me for deserting them by sending me to Wellington."

Despite his Aucklander's distaste for the capital his career flourished, including directing the nightly news.

Producing and directing filming of the Te Maori exhibition opening in New York's a high point. That innate Fowler modesty again rears its head: "It was probably a step beyond my competence but terribly exciting."

In following years he became studio director at Auckland's South Pacific Television, working on Eye Witness and the multi-award winning Kaleidoscope. Freelancing followed.

When a third TV channel was mooted he was headhunted for the newly-formed Northern Television, confident it would get the nod. "TV3 did, we closed virtually overnight."

After an 'unprofitable' stint in PR with good mate presenter Craig Little, it was on to Sky TV where assignments included making small feature films, one Rotorua's Hinemoa swim.

Running out of film he begged some from Geyser TV and was enticed to buy into the company where he started to hear the name Don Stafford.

"I didn't know who he was, I thought I'd better introduce myself, his welcome wasn't effusive."

He subsequently learned Don's wife Nan had terminal cancer. Six months after her death Kerry made a second approach.

"The timing was perfect, in a funny way I feel I rescued Don who was still emotionally fragile."

The pair bonded instantly, working together until Don's death 12 years on.

He insists we give space to the role the Energy Trust's played in funding their collaboration.

"Rotorua needs to know it was, and remains, wonderful with the dollars and cents."

Kerry classes his relationship with the star of the many films the pair shot as 'quite wonderful'.

"It's a tremendous buzz carrying on his legacy."

Previously-unseen Stafford/Fowler footage screens at Te Ao Marama hall, Ohinemutu, at 2pm on April 6. Tickets are $15 and available at the Rotorua Museum with proceeds going to St Faith's church where Don Stafford worshipped for 80 years.

KERRY FOWLER
Born: Auckland, 1945
Education: Kohimaramara Primary, Selwyn College, Auckland University
Family: Brother, sister-in-law, niece, two great nieces
Interests: Work, reading "anything and everything", "sitting in the sun reflecting", "my dogs"
On his job: "Amazing, I get to go around taking selfies of the places I love."
Personal philosophy: "Be nice to people."

- Rotorua Daily Post

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