3 Jun 2019

Sir Roger Hall: 'I owe everything to New Zealand'

6:14 am on 3 June 2019

He has delivered dozens of hit plays and just received a knighthood, but Sir Roger Hall says there's no secret formula but "putting your bum on the chair in the morning and working hard".

Roger Hall

Roger Hall Photo: Supplied

The 80-year-old is among seven new knights and dames in the Queen's Birthday Honours.

Speaking from Toyko at the start of a long-planned holiday with his wife, Dianne, he said he was delighted by the appointment.

"I like to think it's good recognition for theatre and its importance to the country. So many people are involved in theatre one way or another, professionally or as a pastime, and it plays a big part in our lives."

He paid tribute to his wife's support throughout his career for theatre and television, especially before he made his name with sold out public service satire Glide Time in 1976.

"She's been a very loyal supporter for all those years when I was struggling to be a writer and make myself known. When I was teaching, I came home one day, and she was sitting at home with a baby in her arms and I said, 'I'm sorry, I want to give up teaching and go writing full-time.' And she said, 'Well, that's what you better do,' which was a brave decision."

He followed up his debut play with a string of other hits featuring middle-class "everyman" New Zealanders, including Middle-Age Spread, which played in London's West End for 15 months. It was also made into a film, with American magazine Variety describing the star, Grant Tilly, as an "Antipodean Woody Allen".

Several of his works were successfully adapted for the small screen (Gliding On, Neighbourhood Watch, Conjugal Rites, Market Forces) and he won a script-writing award for his work on Spin Doctors.

He organised the first New Zealand Writers' Week and successfully campaigned for the introduction of New Zealand Theatre Month, which was held for the first time in September 2018.

All this from a man who sailed from England to New Zealand at 19.

"I owe everything to New Zealand, really. It gave me a good university education and it got me away from the class system and it gave me a feeling I could do anything here if I wanted it."

The late great comedian John Clarke once described Sir Roger's work as "identifying faults and follies which highlight small monsters in ordinary people, and sometimes excite our sympathy as much as our laughter".

"John is a very shrewd observer and I was very flattered to get that comment. That sort of comedy has always appealed to me, the mixture of funny and sad."

There was no secret formula to his success, he said, though it was a bit more complicated than some made out.

"There's no formula except putting your bum on the chair in the morning and working hard. I do think my plays are well-structured, which is possibly overlooked. People - I think - tend to lump me as a writer of comedy plays, but in fact my range is a lot broader than most people realise.

"Sometimes I feel that just describing them as comedies is slightly dismissive, [those people] don't realise the depth that they have."

In 2007 he co-wrote Who Needs Sleep Anyway, celebrating 100 years of Plunket, with his daughter, Pip Hall, now a successful writer in her own right.

But nothing has been able to top the opening night of Glide Time in Wellington 42 years ago - or the joy of being able to bring his parents to see one of his plays in the West End.

"After that, as Orson Welles said, 'It was all downhill...' Not really, but I never quite achieved those heights again. But I've made a living as a playwright and not many people can do that."

He said any frustrations he had faced in his career were no different to those faced by any other writer.

"Not all of my plays do well, and of course the ones that don't do well, people know least about, by definition.

"It's a question of just keeping going and writing something else."