Kiwi drama: an en­ter­tain­ing chat with four of our favourite vet­eran ac­tors

Between them, they’ve notched up four life­times of act­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Back to­gether on screen in The Bro­ken­wood Mys­ter­ies, these veter­ans of Kiwi drama talk to Suzanne Mc­Fad­den about their early careers, the next gen­er­a­tion of ac­tors, cop­ing with gaffes,


I want to go back and play the young lover; I’ve never had a crack at it.

In the oth­er­wise empty au­di­to­rium of the ma­jes­tic Hopetoun Al­pha – a former church turned theatre in the heart of Auck­land – con­tin­u­ous laugh­ter re­ver­ber­ates around the 142-year-old walls. Stu­art Deve­nie is re­gal­ing his fel­low ac­tors with a story about a taxi trip he once took from Auck­land to Welling­ton. They’re old friends, these four – each a leg­end in New Zealand’s rich his­tory of per­form­ing arts. Of course, they’ve worked to­gether many times – on ra­dio, tele­vi­sion, movies and in their prin­ci­pal love, theatre. And now they’ve been re­united for the lat­est se­ries of quirky Kiwi de­tec­tive drama The Bro­ken­wood Mys­ter­ies, due to air soon on Prime TV. In de­scend­ing or­der of age, Ken Black­burn, 82, El­iz­a­beth McRae, 81, Ian Mune, 76, and Stu­art Deve­nie, 66, all ap­pear in the fi­nal episode of the se­ries, which re­volves around a band of mur­der sus­pects in an aged care fa­cil­ity. Over a highly en­ter­tain­ing hour, they shared with The Australian Women’s Weekly how they’ve man­aged to make their liv­ing through act­ing, some of their most hi­lar­i­ous mo­ments on stage and screen, hand­ing on the ba­ton to the next gen­er­a­tion of ac­tors, and fac­ing the spec­tre of re­tire­ment.


Stu­art: Alzheimer’s is what ties us all to­gether in this [Bro­ken­wood Mys­ter­ies] episode. Ken and Ian’s char­ac­ters are kind of a bit shaky, so you can see why they were cast. Liz and I are com­pletely okay, which is why we were cast. (Laugh­ter.)

El­iz­a­beth: I’ve been in ev­ery episode. They wanted to make it look like it was the one place, the one town… What is it – Fern­dale?

Stu­art: No, no, that’s the other one you were in. Fern­dale is Short­land Street. This town is Bro­ken­wood. (Ian, arms folded, rocks back in his chair and lets out a loud cackle.)

El­iz­a­beth: Well, it’s a place in New Zealand that has an enor­mous num­ber of mur­ders.

Stu­art: And a place where some older peo­ple ac­tu­ally re­main alive. It’s a fan­tas­tic se­ries, and I was very hon­oured to be asked to be part of it.

Ken: It’s very, very pop­u­lar in France and Ger­many, would you be­lieve? (Three mil­lion peo­ple watch each episode in France. It’s also shown in Den­mark, Italy, Ire­land, Scot­land, Malta, Bul­garia, Swe­den, Eng­land, the United States and Canada.)

Ken: And, of course, we speak all of those lan­guages.

Stu­art: I think it’s pop­u­lar be­cause it’s bu­colic. It has a kind of rural, myth­i­cal qual­ity about it and the French are very into that.

Ken: Well, the al­ter­na­tive is the Amer­i­can ones that are all about car crashes, and shoot­ing peo­ple.

Stu­art: In our episode, the main sus­pects are all con­nected to the care fa­cil­ity, Sun­set Manor. The murderer has been fin­gered as be­ing some­where in that in­sti­tu­tion. (A po­lice dog leads the de­tec­tives into a sit-and-be-fit class.) The script is won­der­ful, a clas­sic who­dunit. Tim Balme, who wrote the episode, was one of my stu­dents when I was teach­ing at Toi Whakaari [New Zealand Drama School] in 1984 – he was one of a golden year. It was won­der­ful to come full cir­cle with him.

Ian: For a num­ber of us, though, the show got less and less funny, and more and more de­press­ing. Emp­ty­ing your brain and play­ing some­one with Alzheimer’s is not fun.

Ken: It’s more dif­fi­cult to play va­cancy than it is aware­ness. I found it dif­fi­cult to have an in­tel­li­gent con­ver­sa­tion between shots.

El­iz­a­beth: It’s un­usual that I didn’t have Alzheimer’s, be­cause usu­ally when they’re cast­ing for a fe­male with Alzheimer’s, they im­me­di­ately think of me. (More laugh­ter.)


The quar­tet ef­fort­lessly reels off the many projects they have worked on to­gether: from be­ing on the stage in The God Boy, to the 1970s tele­vi­sion drama

se­ries Moyni­han, and even voic­ing an an­i­mated car­toon.

Stu­art: The busi­ness un­til about the mid-70s was quite small in New Zealand, so we worked with each other a lot in dif­fer­ent me­dia. Now it’s at least four times as big.

El­iz­a­beth: There’s great joy in work­ing with peo­ple you’ve worked with be­fore. You know where they’re com­ing from.

Stu­art: In our lex­i­con, a com­pany is not a com­mer­cial en­ter­prise, but a group of peo­ple who work con­sis­tently to­gether over a pe­riod of time. In the old guild sys­tem there was a hi­er­ar­chy: ap­pren­tice, jour­ney­man, mas­ter. Now ev­ery­one is a jour­ney­man; ev­ery­one is trav­el­ling around in or­der to get the work. Work­ing with peo­ple con­sis­tently over time is some­thing we have to try to re­trieve some­how.

Ken: But we will never get back to what we were. We were the se­nior ac­tors as very young peo­ple. I have played old men since I was 21. I want to go back and play the young lover; I’ve never had a crack at it!

Stu­art: We were the fastest ac­tors in the West: all of us have gone through the ex­pe­ri­ence of hav­ing a ra­dio call in the morn­ing, a com­mer­cial at lunchtime, a TV re­hearsal in the af­ter­noon, and a theatre per­for­mance at night. All through the 70s, that was the work­ing life of a suc­cess­ful ac­tor. It wasn’t re­ally un­til Short­land Street that you be­gan to de­velop this spe­cial­i­sa­tion. Now we have ex­tremely good tele­vi­sion ac­tors – but they are solely tele­vi­sion ac­tors.

El­iz­a­beth: It was only when Short­land Street came along, where you could stay in a show for a while, that peo­ple could save enough money to buy a house. Though I don’t know if they can do that now…

Ian: I started off as an ac­tor say­ing, “I never want to be a di­rec­tor.” But

when I came back from over­seas and found there was no act­ing work, I be­came a di­rec­tor. I moved into act­ing on tele­vi­sion, di­rect­ing film, and then writ­ing for ra­dio, tele­vi­sion and film. The only way I could sur­vive – with three kids – was to do ev­ery­thing. Peo­ple ask me which do I like best? It’s which­ever I’m do­ing at the time.

Stu­art: We’ve been lucky that we’ve all made a liv­ing out of this job. We haven’t had to wait ta­bles too much!

Ken: I’ve done no other job in 60 years but act­ing.

Ian: As a re­sult of this life, I my­self am en­tirely un­em­ploy­able. I couldn’t do a reg­u­lar job. I work my ring off for the pe­riod of time the job is on. But to be turn­ing up nine-to-five? They would fire me… or I just wouldn’t turn up.


Ian: With the rise of drama schools, young ac­tors come out with a range of skills, but also know­ing that no one owes them a liv­ing. If they want to be on stage, they will prob­a­bly have to do it them­selves – and they do. They de­velop their own ma­te­rial. I think it’s fan­tas­tic; a good Kiwi re­sponse.

Stu­art: I saw a pro­duc­tion of

Othello at this year’s Unitec grad­u­a­tion, from a young fe­male di­rec­tor. It was mag­nif­i­cent – one of the best Shake­speares I’ve seen; bold, in­no­va­tive, coura­geous and un­com­pro­mis­ing. It’s fan­tas­tic that theatre is in re­ally good shape.

El­iz­a­beth: But a lot of them can’t speak. The younger ones have lost the power of the con­so­nant.

Ken: They are “in­con­so­nant”. (Chuck­ling.)

Ian: If you don’t have the T’s and D’s, your voice ac­tu­ally flops.>>

We’ve been lucky we’ve all made a liv­ing out of this job. We haven’t had to wait ta­bles too much.

Stu­art: I think they have so many more skills than we had; I have a lot of ad­mi­ra­tion for them.


All four ac­tors ad­mit they’ve made their fair share of gaffes over the decades, and that they still do. But it’s part of the al­lure.

Stu­art: The dif­fer­ence between theatre and screen is if you make a fluff on screen, you can go back and fix it.

You can’t do that when you are live in front of an au­di­ence. That dan­ger is what I love.

Ken: Be­ing able to res­cue your­self, or some­one else, is one of the grand­est mo­ments in theatre.

El­iz­a­beth: We spend a lot of time pre­par­ing for a role, and to be un­pre­pared is our worst night­mare. I did a play re­cently where I had a lot to say and I found learning the lines in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult. When I was younger I said that would never hap­pen to me; learning lines was so easy. But it was so stress­ful, I will never do a big show again.

Ken: When in doubt, stand still. I al­ways say that to young ac­tors. The im­por­tance of still­ness is the most im­por­tant thing you can do. You are at­tract­ing the most at­ten­tion; it’s not the one think­ing they’re act­ing. I learned that from [dis­tin­guished Amer­i­can ac­tor and di­rec­tor] Sam Wana­maker. He said, “Don’t just do some­thing, stand there.”

Ian: When I lived in LA, I’d go to the Ac­tors Stu­dio on Satur­days, where they would in­vite fa­mous movie stars to cri­tique ac­tors’ work. I’d just come from four years at the Mer­cury Theatre [in Auck­land], play­ing ev­ery imag­in­able role and di­rect­ing. But when these US ac­tors tried to do theatre, there was some­thing des­per­ately wrong. They had ab­so­lutely no the­atri­cal nous; they acted from the neck up. I got an agent who said, “We need to pro­mote you, go and get pho­tos,” and I re­alised she was hav­ing trou­ble pro­mot­ing me. They pro­moted to type, and I am no type. I’m an empty shell, wait­ing for the new part to fill me up. On the way through the air­port com­ing back to New Zealand, I dumped my pho­tos in the rub­bish bin.

Ken: It’s the chal­lenge of the va­ri­eties which has been the joy of work­ing in this coun­try. To know you’ve given a per­for­mance eight me­tres un­der wa­ter, or on horse­back, or in a he­li­copter. In fact, I nearly got killed by a he­li­copter in Queen­stown, when my rain­coat belt buckle got caught in the skid, and I nearly pulled it down on top of me!

El­iz­a­beth: The worst thing I had to do was take the se­men from a bull. It played as the cred­its went down, in the movie Ju­bilee. It took an en­tire day to do the bloody shot!

Ian: I had to shave my head for a play, but I’d left strag­gles of hair. My make-up was all scabs. One dress re­hearsal went on for­ever, and I didn’t bother tak­ing my make-up off when I went home. In the morn­ing my wife Jo made me break­fast in bed, but when she came back in and saw me, she screamed, and threw the break­fast in the air. I ended up with ba­con and eggs all over me.


Ken: I don’t think there’s any doubt about it, theatre is our first love. It’s that sense of im­me­di­acy you have with the au­di­ence that you don’t get with tele­vi­sion or film.

El­iz­a­beth: It’s won­der­ful to be play­ing some­one else, and they stay with you, no mat­ter what you’re do­ing – whether you’re do­ing the house­work or what­ever. You have that other per­son there that you are grad­u­ally get­ting to be.

Ken: I wouldn’t change my life for the world. Re­tire­ment is filthy four-let­ter word which is never men­tioned at my house. So I will keep go­ing, I’m sure. Ac­tors are born, and they die the same way.

Stu­art: Yes, ac­tors don’t re­tire; they keep go­ing un­til the fi­nal cur­tain call.

Ken: And when I get car­ried out at my fu­neral, I want to be brought back in. (Cue more hi­lar­ity.)

The worst thing I had to do was take se­men from a bull.

Ac­com­plished on both stage and screen, the four stars pro­fess a par­tic­u­lar fond­ness for live theatre.

Scenes from the fourth sea­son of The Bro­ken­wood Mys­ter­ies, fea­tur­ing El­iz­a­beth (above left), Ian (above, in the cen­tre) and Ken (left, with glasses).

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