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Obituary: Michael Stedman, film-maker who conquered the world from Dunedin

By Amanda Caroline  •  August 21, 2022  •  85

Triwer – Michael Andrew Stedman: documentary film-maker; b December 20, 1947; d July 30, 2022

Michael Stedman turned a small Dunedin-based documentary company that started by making films on the rediscovery of kākāpō and takahē in Fiordland into the second-largest natural history film-maker in the world.

The Natural History Unit (NHU) had initially been set up by Hal Weston​ and, with Stedman at the helm, it would go on to become a rival for the BBC and achieve international success.

The story of Michael Stedman, who died in July aged 74, and how he rose from a young man growing up in Dunedin to become a world leader in his field, is one of perseverance and belief.

Not only did Stedman become one of the world’s premier makers of natural history documentaries, he also gave support and encouragement to a number of people who would go on to become prominent in a variety of fields, notably Sir Ian Taylor.

Remarkably, he achieved success in such diverse countries as Japan, the United States, China and Germany, all while based in Dunedin.

His first taste of fame came at 6, playing a frog at the city’s Globe Theatre. At 13, he was the stage manager for Romeo and Juliet before setting his sights on working in television, and ringing the local Broadcasting Corporation office and asking for a job.

Once he got his foot into the door of the Dunedin office, in 1964, as a producer, he began doing everything possible to learn the art of film-making. Using any film or cameras he could get his hands on, he began making films in his spare time.

Shows he worked on included Fair Go and Spot On and he would go on to produce more than 1000 shows. Among the early staff he hired were presenters Ian Taylor and Danny Watson.

In 1979, he took the role of executive producer of the NHU, setting in motion a chain of events that would see it become one of the most respected and successful natural history documentary makers in the world.

After short spell with the unit, he decided to go to Australia, where his roles included head of features at ABC. But before heading to Australia he made some key decisions, hiring presenter Peter Hayden and Rod Morris.

He also produced the first series of Wild South to critical acclaim and fired up the children’s series Wildtrack, an achievement of which he was always proud.

In 1987 TVNZ director-general Julian Mounter​ invited Stedman back to New Zealand, in an executive role.

He agreed on condition he could live in Dunedin, and he was again put in charge of the NHU, with the clear goal of growing it into a global player.

In the first 18 months, the unit’s productions increased threefold but there was always tension within TVNZ, which was profit-focused, as to what the role of the unit was.

When funding was cut, Stedman persuaded TVNZ to sell the unit to Fox in 1997.

Neil Harraway​, who worked with Stedman throughout his career, says getting a giant like Fox to purchase it was an inspired move.

“We became a pimple on the posterior of the elephant that was News Corp/Fox. Under the support of Fox Studios we became Natural History New Zealand – and quickly grew into the world’s second-largest wildlife documentary maker (after the BBC).”

At its peak, the unit employed 200 people making 200 hours annually of documentaries and series, with offices in Washington DC and Beijing, and companies in Singapore, Johannesburg and Australia.

Stedman proved to be an astute operator and the list of companies he made documentaries with included Animal Planet, National Geographic, PBS, Discovery Channel, Japan's NHK, France 5 and ZDF (Germany).

Never one to shy away from a challenge, he took on two of the trickiest markets in the world – Japan and China.

“He relished the challenges of navigating those new cultures,” Harraway says.

The key to his success was building relationships. In China he was able to build trust despite the suspicions of the Chinese Communist Party.

Stedman formed close relationships with key executives and treated those he partnered with as equals and not just sources of cash.

In 2011, the company was the biggest non-Chinese maker of documentaries about China.

“We've built trust, that gave us access and we've made over 50 docos in China. We’ve been to places no-one else has ever got to,” he said in 2011.

It concerned him at the time that the New Zealand media did not give China the coverage he thought it deserved. “If you watch the television news, there’s nothing about China. It’s as though it doesn’t exist.”

His impact in China was evident at his funeral from the presence of former New Zealand ambassador to China Tony Browne. Former Chinese ambassador to NZ Chen Mingming​, who helped Stedman set up the Beijing office, sent a written tribute.

Tributes from all over the world flowed in, including one from Clark Bunting, who headed Discovery and then Animal Planet.

”His warmth, twisted sense of humour and willingness to speak truth to power were all hallmarks of being a Kiwi ... He put a relatively small island on the production map and punched way, way above your weight.”

As well as being a gifted documentary maker, Stedman also has an eye for spotting talent. Taylor, with whom he shared a background in stage productions including Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, became a lifetime friend.

Stedman employed Taylor during his first stint in television and they worked together on a number of productions, including Spot On.

“He said to me just imagine all the things you wanted to do as a kid and just go and out and do them,” Taylor says.

In 1992, Stedman gave him an even bigger break. Taylor’s fledgling graphics company had come up with a package for the America’s Cup, but TVNZ had said it had no money for the project.

Stedman wanted to help out so he contacted Taylor. “He said, ‘I am sitting here with Julian Mounter, who loves yachting, and just go ahead and do it.’ I love it.”

Getting the backing of TVNZ was the break his firm needed, and Taylor is still grateful for Stedman’s support.

Working with Professor Lloyd Davis,​ Stedman also helped set up and support the Science Communication department at Otago University, recognising how important it was to grow local talent.

Despite Stedman’s programmes winning more than 250 awards internationally, Harraway and Taylor both feel he did not get the recognition he deserved in his own country.

It frustrated him that many of his programmes did not get shown here.

Stedman was made an ONZM in the 2004 New Year honours , and received an honorary doctorate in law from Otago University.

Born in Christchurch, he moved with his family to Dunedin when he was 3. His mother, Geraldine, known as Peggy​, instilled a love of theatre that remained with him all his life.

He married Helen Jowett​, also known as Peggy​, in 1971 and they had two sons, Tristan​ and Tio​.

As well as playing the guitar, Stedman enjoyed classical music, yachting, camping and tramping.

Tristan says his father instilled a “deep passion” for the natural world and was an engaged parent who passed his values on to both his sons.

A modest man, his natural instinct was to always praise the work done by others, and Tristan says he never sought fame or recognition.

“He undervalued his own ability. He did a lot of good for a lot of people.”

Harraway says the messages received at his service showed how highly regarded his old boss was internationally, and working with him had been a delight.

“The many fine documentaries and series we made gave millions of people pleasure and knowledge – but his legacy lies in the many, many, people he worked with, mentored and partnered with globally, as he made NHNZ a world leader.”

Stedman retired from NHNZ in 2013. Now known as NHNZ Worldwide, it is owned by TV producer Dame Julie Christie.

Sources: NZ On Screen, Neil Harraway, Sir Ian Taylor, Stuff archives, Judith Curran​ and Tristan Stedman.

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