Regular listeners of Radio Live might recognise Garry McAlpine (or at least his smooth “Mid-Atlantic” tones) as the ‘Singapore Sling’—the broadcaster’s former Asia correspondent. He’s now settled back in New Zealand following a decade-long stint overseas, mainly in Singapore, where he also produced documentary series for governments, universities and businesses, often with a historical, military, or environmental slant, to be aired on television and platforms like YouTube.
“My first stop was Indonesia, and I remember when I first announced it everyone said, ‘It’s too dangerous, you’ll die over there,’” he recalls. “I said to them, ‘You do realise most people die in bed on their backs, asleep? But no-one says don’t go to bed, it’s too dangerous!’”
He makes the valid point that few would have proffered such prophecies if he were a younger man about to embark upon his first overseas experience. When Garry’s son, now 35, embarked upon his OE to teach in South Korea, he expressed apprehension to his father about going alone to a strange where land where he didn’t know anyone or even speak the language. “I told him he should be more worried about the people who will be looking to steal his kidneys!” chuckles the producer. “But a few months later, he called in the early hours of the morning from a party to thank me for encouraging him to go. He was so happy.”
I ask Garry about his upbringing — and father — and he describes his childhood in Dunedin as “a difficult one” where he “got hit, a lot”. “That’s why I never raised a hand to my boy,” he continues. “We have a very jokey relationship. He’s always called me ‘Garry’, from about the age of four. He’d ask things like, ‘Does everyone have a Garry?’”
While studying archaeology at the University of Otago in the ‘70s, Garry was the lead singer of cult rock band Lutha, lauded as one of the most influential Kiwi acts of their time, “We were one of the groups all the kids listened to in high school,” beams Garry. “Chris Knox once told me how they all watched in awe as we got two albums of original material from EMI, straight out of Dunedin. No one had ever done that before. Because the first album was released by EMI it’s now one of the most collectible records in the world, due to its rarity [their work has since been re-released on CD and digitally. It’s very cool].”
An earring and equally glinting eyes still betray Garry’s rebellious, rock ‘n’ roll spirit. He speaks fondly of his hometown, and its vibrant, creative student soul. “I don’t think Dunedin has grown much since I was there,” says Garry. “It’s a wonderful little city that has everything.” But it wasn’t enough to sate his ever-searching state. “I’ve always been adventurous and inquisitive,” he says. After a stint teaching in Auckland, he moved to Australia “to sell drugs”, before adding, after a comedic pause, “of the ethical, pharmaceutical kind!” Later, back teaching in Auckland, Garry honed his film skills before hooking up with producer Neil Roberts, founder of Communicado — the production company most famous for smash hit 1994 movie Once Were Warriors. “I just knew when I saw the rushes for that movie, we had done something special,” says Garry. “It all just came together — the directing, the producing, the acting. For many of the actors it was their first time. Of course, it wouldn’t have been anything without the wonderful story by Alan Duff. Before that, no one thought it was possible for New Zealand films to make money.”
Neil Roberts died of cancer in 1998. “We had plans for all sorts of projects,” says Garry. “He had bought a pair of MiG 21 fighter jets. We were going to start making our own vodka, buy a club in Poland and put one of the planes in there. We had done everything down to making the labels. But Neil died three months after being diagnosed.”
Garry’s first major gig in Asia was to make a series of films called the Legacy of China about the history of Chinese inventions, later making shorts for “some of the best brains in the world” regarding cutting edge sustainable technologies and hazards such as natural disasters. “Along with Australia, we are the closest Western culture to Asia,” says Garry. “The more we learn about them, the more it will be to our advantage. New Zealand is perceived very positively, they know about the beauty, the surplus of water, the surplus of food, and the All Blacks.”
Garry says he “doesn’t do politics — unless there emerges some crazy person like Donald Trump”, and that our society swings between left and right but always finds its balance. “New Zealand has always been very creative,” he goes on, “and it’s important that the younger people can learn from the experience of others who have done it.” Though Garry admits that he too can learn much from the younger generations in this ever-changing technological landscape — and is keen to do so.
He returns with “several local and international broadcast projects in the pipeline” to be screened online. “That’s where our future audiences are all residing,” says Garry. “I’m utilising my 10 years’ experience working in Asia advising Kiwi businesses seeking expansion into the region.”
Garry reveals he’s also keeping busy writing, producing, and filming several short-form media productions for some local companies, as well as voiceover work.
“I know a hell of a lot about some weird and wonderful topics in Asia, such as the demise of the banana, and marrying blow-up sex dolls!” he adds. I presume the two topics aren’t linked. “I’ve come back to New Zealand for a new adventure. It’s another phase of my life.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces