John Barningham: Local stories on stage and screen 1960s - 1980s

John Barningham was a successful producer-director in the formative years of New Zealand’s television and stage industries. Highly motivated, with enormous creative energy and a touch of irreverence, talented young New Zealanders, like Barningham, embraced the explosion of 1960s youth culture, giving it a local accent.

Image: Unknown photographer. From left: two unidentified people, John Barningham and
an unidentified woman, early 1970s. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1620-2.

Born in Te Kuiti in 1943, Barningham grew up and went to school in Avondale where he was active in amateur stage productions. He sang in local boy scout Gang Shows and started the Avondale Theatre, which soon merged with the Mt Eden Community Players.

The first public television broadcast in New Zealand was limited to Auckland in 1960, with broadcasts to Christchurch and Wellington beginning in 1961. In 1962, Barningham began working as floor manager for Auckland’s AKTV2 channel. This was part of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC). Known to many as “Barney” he rose quickly through the television ranks to produce and direct many successful light entertainment shows.

In the early days, Auckland television shows were broadcast live from a small studio in Shortland Street with limited resources. This required a certain amount of ingenuity, excellent planning, and a willingness to take risks. 

Image: Photographer unknown. Television studios, 74 Shortland Street, Auckland, 1986.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1052-G2-15

Auckland Libraries oral history collection includes interviews with people who worked in television in Auckland during the 1960s-80s, including Barry Pinkney’s memories of working with John Barningham. These oral histories can be listened to by appointment at Research North, Takapuna Library.

Young New Zealanders could now see local pop stars on their televisions and feel a direct connection to the excitement of the international explosion of youth culture. Barningham regularly produced and directed many musical television shows. He often worked with Max Cryer and popular teen music idols such as Ray Columbus, The Chicks, the Keil Isles, and Lee Grant.

Image: Rykenberg Photography. Singer Eliza Keil, 1968. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1269-Y782-3

Watch the memorable segment from 'Girls to Watch Music By' in 1969, with Ray Columbus performing as a ventiloquist's dummy sitting on Max Cryer’s knee. Many of the entertainers that Barningham worked with can be seen in '50 Years of New Zealand Television: 3 - Let Us Entertain You'.

Producer-director, Kevan Moore was the innovative pioneer of New Zealand entertainment television with shows like 'C’Mon', 'Let’s Go', and 'Happen Inn'. Barningham learnt from Moore and from 1972-73 Barningham was director and associate producer for 'Happen Inn'.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Barningham produced and directed several amateur stage dramas, musicals and comedies.

Many of the dramas represented the cultural upheavals of that time. Barningham produced a local version of 'The Knack'. Inspired by London’s swinging sixties, it is the story of a young man who tries to learn the knack of sexual seduction. Barningham designed the set and produced Mt Eden Community Players’ 1967 performance of 'Entertaining Mr. Sloane': a dark comedy that shocked many when it was first staged in London. It is the story of a bisexual, amoral young man who manipulates his landlady and her brother.
Image: The Knack programme, cast and crew, produced by John Barningham, Community Players, 1966. Ephemera Collection. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

Barningham’s theatre work influenced his television productions. He compiled, produced and directed 'Masterpieces' a tribute to Noel Coward, first on stage and then for television. By the time he left to work in Australia in 1974, Barningham had directed some one-off plays and ballet performances for the  New Zealand Ballet Company. He was producer-director for the company’s performance of 'The Broome and I' and drama 'The Bach'.

In 1974, Barningham moved to Australia and joined the independent television company Crawford Productions. He was a key producer, and occasional director for the popular Australian World War II drama series 'The Sullivans' (1976-83), was producer for the television mini-series 'The Far Country' (1985), and directed episodes of Australian crime dramas such as 'Division 4' (1974-5) and 'Matlock Police' (1975-76). 

In 1975, Barningham came back from Australia for a short time. He was contracted by TVNZ as co-producer for the Blerta television series, directed by Geoff Murphy, with studio directing by Barningham. Written by Geoff Murphy, Ian Watkin, Martyn Sanderson and Bruno Lawrence, the series was based on the Blerta stage show (Bruno Lawrence’s Electric Revelation and Travelling Apparition). Many of the talented people involved in creating this TVNZ series are founders of the New Zealand’s screen industry. In 1976, the Blerta television series won a Feltex Award.

Image: Promotion pamphlet for Blerta (1976 TV series), Blerta-TV One co-production.
Barningham Family private collection.

Barningham was producer of two television drama series that won Australian Logie Awards: 'Carson’s Law' won most popular show in 1984 and 'The Sullivans' won most popular television drama programme each year from 1978-1980.

Barningham left Australia in 1986 to take up the position of controller of TVNZ’s TV Two. 

Image: Photographer unknown. Possibly the last photograph taken of John Barningham, 1980s.
Barningham family collection.

In April 1987 at the age of 43 years, Barningham was poised to make a major contribution to the maturing New Zealand television industry when he died from complications arising from AIDS.

Hear about the responses to the AIDS crisis in New Zealand in the 1980s in an oral history interview with Kate Leslie (MNZM, founding chair of the New Zealand AIDS Foundation). This recording can be listened to by appointment at Research North, Takapuna Library.

The 'John Barningham: Local stories on stage and screen 1960s - 1980s' is on display at the level 2 atrium space at Tāmaki Pātaka Kōrero | Central City Library till Sunday 8 December 2019.

Author: Carolyn Skelton, Research North


  1. Great post Carolyn and display at Central! I was involved in co-curating a small permanent exhibition about Joe Orton for my university (Univ of Leicester) in 2017, since the library's Special Collections holds his archive. The display heavily featured Entertaining Mr. Sloane, as well as a pot created by his niece and an oral history with his story that we undertook during exhibition planning. So I was really interested to read that Barningham designed the set and produced Mt Eden Community Players’ 1967 performance of 'Entertaining Mr. Sloane'.

    Cheers, Natasha Barrett, Snr Curator Archives & Manuscripts, Special Collections, Central City Library


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