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Show Production in New Zealand Australia and the UK

My first job was at Radio Northland 1ZN, Whangarei, New Zealand as an audio panel operator. I would come in at 4.30am to turn the transmitter on, test the backup diesel gen, and take the 1ZB programme from Auckland for an hour from 5am until one of the announcers came on at 6. Once I had to announce the weather at 6.30am and was so nervous, I recorded it first, but it still sounded feeble. I played a scheduled agricultural report off tape, but unbeknownst to me the reporter had made three attempts to get it right. I played the lot, including the ‘f’ word after his second attempt. No-one complained. An announcer took a twig from the dried flower arrangement outside the studio door and tickled another announcer whilst she was reading the news. I had to keep turning the microphone on and off from the control room as she attempted several times to get control of herself. I put some music on, we never finished the news. Broadcast radio became my first love in audio.

I left after a year and went to Hamilton because all my friends were there, to surf Raglan – a well-known left hand break. Went to University, hung out in a big old house and made lifelong friends. After four years, I went skiing in Colorado for three months and when I came back everyone had left, so I took off for Sydney. I wanted to form a band and get back into audio.

Being a Roadie and Playing Music in Sydney

When I got there, I did a few awful jobs and then got into an audio engineering course in a studio – also roadied for John Paul Young on some comeback gigs. The drummers snare drum collapsed one night and I had to lie under the drums and hold it up for him to finish the set. It was not an easy life. Lugging Yamaha electric baby grand pianos up restricted fire stairs became a way of life. Picked up work loading out for some well known bands and as an audio engineer for some smaller bands during a magic era in Australian music. The Motels, INXS, Cold Chisel, The Hitmen, Midnight Oil, Matt Finish, – all were starting out or just coming to prominence.

Formed my first band – these were the days of punk. ‘No Romance’ played for over four years in various guises – a mixture of punk, blues and R&B.

No Romance – Sydney Band
No Romance – Sydney band


I was lead singer/songwriter/guitarist – the hours we spent practising and lugging equipment in and out of pubs from the Northern Beaches down to Sutherland Shire and beyond amaze me now. The first gig was at the Sussex – an inner-city pub that was the Mods hangout, run by Stella, a craggy, 65 yr old darling who wouldn’t stand for any nonsense. We charged a dollar in, and made eight dollars, which someone promptly stole when our door-person – the bass player’s girlfriend – went to the bar for a drink. After a couple of weeks there, Stella would come out and dance to our music wearing a hat with flashing lights.

Another place in Oxford Street – French’s, was our regular Tuesday night gig for months. It was the depths of run-down grit and fear – cutting our teeth in front of an aggro, cynical, skinhead and biker audience throwing half-full cans of beer at us. We got better, fast.

Sheraton Wentworth Hotel – major shows

Went for a job interview at the Qantas Wentworth Hotel (afterwards, Sheraton and then Sofitel Wentworth) – audio, lighting, slide and video production for shows, night and day. Sydney didn’t have a convention or entertainment Centre then – this was the official show venue with the largest pillar-less ballroom in the Southern hemisphere.

Sofitel Wentworth Hotel
Sofitel Wentworth Hotel


These were great years in Sydney. I started out on follow spot for Ricky May – what a man. Simply the best entertainer I’ve worked for and with a heart of gold – I’ll never forget him. He was a Maori entertainer, a large man with a voice like honey, who had paid his dues; there was technique and rhythm which comes only through years of experience. When he died suddenly after a gig at the Regent hotel, he was due to perform for a black-tie ball at the Wentworth the next evening. I was setting up the stage when his sound engineer came in to tell me. We were both saddened beyond belief and I wrote a piece to the Sydney Morning Herald – never found out if they printed it.

Ricky May
Ricky May


I operated on some brilliant shows at the Wentworth over eight years – live-to-television events, international teleconference hook-ups, countless fashion parades, cabarets and big band shows, a visit by George Bush Snr (when he was Vice-President), the official Sydney ball to welcome Prince Charles and Princess Diana. We worked for 22 hours without a break on that one – they took to the dance floor and swept everyone off their feet, such was the display of great finesse. The Fleet Street photographers crowded the control room and were quite pushy – that one photograph meant a lot to them; we had to get them out of the control room to do the show.

My boss left the Wentworth to become Technical Manager at the Sydney Convention Centre. I became Technical Manager at the Wentworth Hotel. A car space, free dry-cleaning, half-price take-out liquor, half price restaurant bills and a great salary – I thought I was made. We would mix an all-day conference, de-rig and re-rig for a big black-tie dinner and show – often a full 16-piece brass band and entertainer – mix the show and de-rig the equipment at around 2-3 in the morning. Then the waiters, waitresses, cooks and managers would go down to ‘Chungy’s’ in Chinatown for a meal – week upon week, great people I worked with for years.

Formed a new band – ‘Sur La Plage’, a Rhythm and Blues outfit. We played solidly two or three nights a week for three years and cut a single but in a fit of perfectionist nonsense it was never released. The boxes of singles have probably made good doorstops, but in re-listening, I can’t find much wrong with it. I learnt a big lesson: take the chances that are there and make it happen, not the ones you wish for, they may come only once in something you really want to do.

Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre

I left the Wentworth to take up the assistant Technical Manager position at the new Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre under my former boss from the Wentworth.

Credit: Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre – outside view
Credit: Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre – outside view


These were times of great technical complexity in the events we did, the Australian Bicentennial year, bigger shows in a huge new venue, loads of pressure and stress.

Sammy Davis Jnr flew out and performed for a one-off Variety Club Heart Awards show and engaged our staff and equipment, including a full camera rig, lighting and sound; later, fourteen thousand came to the end-of-decade dance party with Crowded House and a reformed Split Enz, in two of the five cavernous exhibition halls attached to the Centre.

Credit: Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre – main auditorium
Credit: Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre – main auditorium


The learning curve and the need to get on top of the sheer quantity and size of events, equipment and scheduling in a new environment, (the Centre and Exhibition Halls had just been built), were really challenging, but it was a good crew. Throughout this, I never lost the adrenalin rush of live show production. To walk through the banquet hall below the main auditorium, with 1400 black-tie guests seated at table, and sense that all the production elements, – the entertainment, the engineers, the equipment, the timing, – everything was set right and the guests were enjoying themselves, remains to this day a rush in a different environment.

In the years I spent working at the Centre, I can look back only now and appreciate what a great time it was.

Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster, London

I applied out of interest, to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London for any vacancies. When I arrived in for work one morning, a faxed job description for Senior Technician at the QEII was sitting on my desk – the people I worked with knew I was considering leaving, sooner than I wished. I sold up everything, said my goodbyes and departed for a full UK Civil Service interview at the QEII, four days after arriving in London.

Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre – outside view
Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre – outside view


A week later they wrote to say I had come second, but would I be interested in doing contract freelance production work? This turned out to be higher paid and really interesting shows. I spent six months organising technical production on many events and operating on shows as well.

The 1991 G7-G8 Economic Summit

The London G7 Economic Summit was coming up. I was asked by my senior civil servant boss, a man whom I respected, would I be the Technical Production Manager for the press briefings from world leaders to 4,400 journalists from around the world? This was the Summit Gorbachev came to – it was a big deal at the time. The event was a fearful challenge.

Leading 32 production engineers into two weeks of mayhem after over four months of planning and at a scale I’d never done before – you can’t possibility be an expert in every area, and so you get the right team together and then trust them to deliver. I stayed in a hotel for the week covering the three-day event (as did most of the engineers), close to the QEII. We didn’t get more than 2-3 hours sleep a night and worked the rest of the time.

Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre – 1991 G8 Press Briefings - setup
Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre – 1991 G8 Press Briefings – setup


The scale of the event was just enormous – over £1m was spent on the finest of British food and beverage alone as a showcase to the world journalists during their stay. In a common-sense touch, all the staff were allowed access to the catering in the rooms also. The Government pulled out all the stops to impress the world and it was down to us to prove the technical production was up to it.

We rigged truss and lights in seven major event rooms on five floors, all registered to broadcast quality standards. It was complex to get this right. Also, sets and signage, and 4½ tonne of video monitors and truss in the ceilings of two major auditoria, plus audio in each room, routing from translators in 9 languages, and video links. I recall there are over 500 meeting rooms of various sizes at the Centre – it seems hard to believe but they were all used on this event at one time or another and, except for quick ad hoc meetings, each use required some sort of production expertise, or signal routing in to, or out of. It was scary.

Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre – press briefings
Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre – press briefings


Countless broadcast quality audio links in several languages and video links were connected between control rooms, between floors, to the outside world, and to 96 BetaSP edit suites temporarily rigged in the basement car park. The power requirements alone took many months to resolve. Journalists would use these suites all hours to edit camera voice-over material in the language of their own country, for playout through our external links to their country local news feeds. There were crowds outside the Centre and tight security, it was the whole deal.

Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre – multi-language setup
Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre – multi-language setup


From this and other shows, one builds up ‘war stories’… like the show that required a lectern to be placed on stage just when the British PM, John Major, walked towards it to make an announcement live-to-television… and accidentally placing it on top of his shoes. He stepped back as I scraped the lectern off the tips of his shoes, and he never missed a beat. I could hear all the engineers in the control room laughing at me over the comms and I knew then why no-one else had volunteered to do it.

Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre – 1991 G8 Press Briefings – last day
Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre – 1991 G8 Press Briefings – last day


The production team proved they were up to it. The success was theirs with some brilliant, last-minute efforts in complex, pressure situations and just tremendous teamwork. One epic achievement was a complex, last-minute splitting and re-routing of nine languages and vision at broadast quality between auditoria on separate floors, out to infra-red translation receivers and overhead television monitors for the journalists – all physically re-patched and split-amplified in less than half an hour, with some ‘behind-the-racks’ heroics. Now, this would mostly be done with a control interface and software switching.

Technical Event Production

I went away on holidays for three weeks and came back to big changes beginning to take place. The Conference Centre – voted the best UK Conference Centre for six years running, was becoming increasingly commercial with a diminishing civil service structure. Many civil servants left for a more assured career path within the mainstream civil service – my three bosses at the Centre were all preparing to leave. Through a board interview I was offered the post of Presentation Development Manager – manager of the Technical Production Department. I found it hard to believe, coming from a farm in New Zealand, I could look out the office window directly at Westminster Abbey, and further round the corner to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, only 200 yards away. In 1993, we installed a £250,000 Broadcast Camera Record and Edit Suite and substantially upgraded in-house production services, the result of planning and teamwork.

Satellite Uplinks

1994 changed everything again – on June 24th I left employment at the Centre to work for France Telecom (subsidiary Maxat) as Events Manager on global adhoc satellite events, essentially producing large satellite teleconferences and business television link-ups around the world. The learning curve was immense. It took me to the US, throughout Europe on shows, and to South America for a very large multi-location satellite event.