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Bill Sheat looks back

27 August 2015 - By Chris Ryan

New Zealand has a vital and varied arts world today but it has not always been so. Just a few decades ago the arts in New Zealand were largely the domain of the amateur, a pastime, a hobby, rather than a valid way of earning a living.

Now we have a world-renowned film industry, professional theatre, ballet and opera, and vibrant visual arts. For those who are talented, a working life in the arts can now be a reality.

This transformation has come about through the hard work and foresight of many, but few can have achieved so much for the arts as retired Lower Hutt lawyer Bill Sheat.

There can be few branches of the arts that have not benefited from Bill's energy, experience and knowledge over the past 60 or more years. His passion for the arts started early at university when he acted in, wrote, directed and produced student productions. He later directed plays and operas, was a driving force in the early years of the New Zealand movie industry, and of course he managed, inspired and helped develop numerous arts entities.

In the mid-1960s, he was in at the beginning with the Arts Council and Downstage Theatre and chaired both for several years; he was founding chair of the New Zealand Film Commission and the New Zealand Film Festival Trust, was chair of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, the Embassy Theatre Trust, and the Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand Trust.  A quick scan of Bill Sheat's CV, leaves one amazed at the enormous breadth of his work in the arts.

Bill is 84 now and still doing a little legal work, though he finally relinquished his practising certificate in 2013 after a 60-year stint, and is still fascinated by the arts and still holds forthright views about their progress. For his life-long contribution to the arts Bill was awarded an OBE in 1973 and made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2011.

Gibson Sheat

He was of course a lawyer by day and worked with the firm that still bears his name, Gibson Sheat or its precursors, for over half a century. Starting as a generalist, Bill became a specialist in transport law, was the legal adviser to the New Zealand Road Transport Forum for 30 years, and solicitor to many transport companies. He also formed and administered a wide range of charitable trusts, and specialized in entertainment law – the film industry, intellectual property and legal advice to bodies such as Play Market.

Alongside this formal legal career Bill Sheat lived something of a parallel life, working for a vast array of arts bodies and ventures – initiating, supporting, cajoling, facilitating, often using his legal skills to find solutions to problems or ways of structuring arts entities in ways that enabled them to prosper.

Film is his special love, nurtured when, as a young boy living on the family farm in Taranaki, he would be allowed to go to the movies in Opunake, the nearest town, on Friday nights when his parents went to shop and meet friends. The theatre was called Everybody's and was in operation until recently. He watched all kinds of movies but particularly remembers Buck Rogers, a futuristic serial with rudimentary special effects.

As a boarder at New Plymouth Boys' High School he wasn't really allowed to go to the movies unless they were thought to have some didactic purpose, though he does recall recommending Brief Encounter to his school friends after reading a review by celebrated reviewer Gordon Mirams in The New Zealand Listener. "I saw that it was one of the director David Lean's best but they didn't like it so that didn't go down very well!  I also read Mirams' book Speaking Candidly in which he argued for more local documentary and feature film production, and I realised film was a serious business."

"Extrav" at Vic

At Victoria University in 1948 to study for a BA/LLB, Bill eagerly took part in the famous Vic capping review – Extravaganza, writing, producing, directing and acting throughout the 1950s and early 1960s long after finishing his degree, as well directing, writing and acting in Wellington Repertory productions and directing opera.  'Extrav' had been presented at the Opera House since the 1920s and was often booked out for a two-week season in the later 1950s.

Bill was admitted as a solicitor in 1953 and as a barrister in 1954, and he recalls how difficult it was for him to be creative while also managing a busy daily life as a lawyer.

"I used to get up at 4 o'clock in the morning to write lyrics for Extrav and so on before going to work as a lawyer during the day. This was when I realised that it was vital for people in the arts to be able to work full-time at their work. We have hugely talented people in this country – I thought that we had to make it possible for them to live and work here to make it an exciting place to live. That involves them being paid to do these things. If I had an underlying philosophy about the arts over the years it was this."

Bill's late wife Genevieve was the youngest of the three daughters of W.E. Leicester founder of the firm now known as Rainey Collins. In 1961 he was appointed to the bench of what is now called the High Court. Genevieve had been Associate to Mr Justice Hutchison in the 1950s. She was suddenly called into Bill's firm to fill in as secretary to Bill's partner Keith Gibson for two weeks. She stayed for 25 years, became a qualified Legal Executive and leader of the firm's estates team. Like Bill she was a lover of the theatre and the arts and was not slow to let her views be known to him.

With little tradition of a professional arts community, something had to be created and for Bill and his colleagues it was very much a case of making things up as they went along. The QE II Arts Council was founded in 1963 and Bill joined the drama panel, chaired by George Swan [whose name continues at Kensington Swan] who Bill regards as a mentor. "He was an early supporter of the arts in particular the New Zealand Players [a national drama troupe established in the early 1950s], but I saw that professional drama had to be set up on a regional basis rather than national, so that there was a continuity of plays in the main cities."

Downstage

By the time Bill was appointed chairman of the Arts Council in 1969 at the age of 39 he was already on the management committee of Downstage Theatre. "Tim Elliott, one of the founders, had asked me to be part of it but after I went to their first meeting I thought they were mad, totally impractical. But driving home later I decided to keep my mouth shut and get on with it and I'm very glad that I did because it was a turning point in my life."

Downstage established the model of professional theatre and Bill served on the management committee for 10 years, as its president 1965-1968. He was instrumental in forming the Hannah Playhouse Trust in 1968 that led to the building of the dedicated live theatre in Courtenay Place.

"Arts benefactor Sheilah Winn had gifted $300,000 to the Arts Council towards building a dedicated live theatre in Wellington but for various reasons progress was slow. Downstage had been going for a year and living off the smell of an oily rag – but one day we said, why don't we build it?  We asked Raymond Boyce [celebrated set designer and member of the Downstage board] to come up with the design of the theatre space, and we were under way.

"I set up the Hannah Playhouse Trust Board to own the building. I didn't want the building owned by the theatre company in case the theatre folded at some stage, which was prescient from this vantage point."

Bill is at pains to point out that success in projects like the Hannah Playhouse was a team effort.  "It has always seemed to happen – when I have been working on these projects somehow people have appeared and we have gathered a group of really amazing people who have come together to achieve the outcome.

"We still had to deal with the practicalities of construction and one day after a meeting a man came to see me and offered to help. His name was Alan MacDougall and he had been general manager of the Self Help grocery cooperative for many years and was experienced in managing building projects. I offered him the job of chairman of the Hannah Playhouse Trust Board and he turned out to be absolutely great. When the architect had to be changed which was a serious problem he handled that efficiently and he was a tower of strength through the many problems we struck.

"At a late stage we recosted the project and discovered we were $100,000 short! What were we going to do?  I had an idea – I remembered that the Wellington City Council had bought the Paramount Theatre in 1959 intending to turn it into a live theatre but had dropped the idea as too expensive and sold it again. I knew that the money they recouped – $100,000 – was still sitting in their accounts so I told Alan to go to the council and see what he could do. The mayor then was Frank Kitts – I called him 'glacier' because of the pace he moved – so I thought, 'Alan's got his work cut out here'. But within a week, Alan was back with the money – he had actually got hold of Frank Kitts, fired him up and persuaded him to hold a special meeting of the council, and the money was handed to us – it was miraculous."

The Hannah Playhouse was completed in 1973 and continues to host live productions despite the loss of Downstage in 2013. 

The film industry

In the meantime, by the early 1960s moves were afoot in New Zealand's moribund film industry. In 1964 the first feature film to be made in New Zealand in years called Runaway was being made, directed by John O'Shea who headed the only independent film-making company in New Zealand at that time.  By chance, Harry Seresin, a fellow Downstage management committee member, suggested Bill should meet the director of the film. "So one dark and stormy night I headed out to Kilbirnie to the then premises of Pacific Films and met John for the first time and it changed my life. We became friends and I was to work with John on various movies to the end of his life.

"Runaway had already been shot and was going into post-production but there was no money left. So I got involved to help raise funds and had the title of executive producer, though I didn't get a screen credit.

"The same went with the John O'Shea's musical Don't Let It Get You in 1966, which starred Howard Morrison and also featured Kiri Te Kanawa in a small part. It was always very hard to get the money for movies. It was a matter of shoulder-tapping friends, associates and relatives, and I had a couple of clients who put some money in. We also invented the concept of product placement Kiwi style. For instance, we had someone fall over a Wringer-mop in a cowshed – I think the scene was only put in as money-making product placement."

With his fascination for films translating into actual involvement in the industry, it was natural that he would look for ways to advance New Zealand film-making. "There was a lot of talk about how to promote the film industry and John O'Shea and I spent hours discussing possible initiatives. Several Australian states had set up film commissions which were examples of the way to go – the Australians were way ahead of us on this."

New Zealand Film Commission

By the 1970s it was recognised that a film commission was needed in New Zealand and Bill chaired a working party towards this from 1973 to 1975. He then chaired the interim film commission in 1977 and was founding chairman when the New Zealand Film Commission was finally established in 1978, a position he held until 1985. "Alan Highet was the minister responsible and he asked us to write our own legislation which was a real privilege. David Gascoigne did most of the drafting and we cut and pasted from the several Australian models. The legislation has stood the test of time – it was not touched in the 2010 review of the commission by Sir Peter Jackson and David Court."

Interestingly, Allan Highet became first Minister for the Arts in 1975 as a result of a proposal put forward by Bill. In 1975 the National Party was in opposition. Allan Highet rang Bill and asked him to come into Parliament Buildings to discuss possible arts policy for the election later that year. Bill prepared a paper setting out the concept of a Minister for the Arts and associated ministry. Allan Highet's response was that that was not what he had expected but he took the idea on board and was appointed Minister for the Arts when the Cabinet was announced after the 1975 election.

Around forty feature films were produced over the next decade or so with the support of the Film Commission and while all were not great, they did help form a foundation for what was to come. Good Bye Pork Pie from 1981 was one of those and was New Zealand's first major hit movie. It is also Bill Sheat's favourite New Zealand movie. "I think it is very good, and it is disrespectful of authority and I like that. I think this was an important element of New Zealand film and our society in general that sadly we have lost in a tide of political correctness. It would be nice to get back to it."  Bill appears in the movie – as one of two policemen on the street as the starring yellow Mini turns from Lambton Quay into Stout Street. "It took all day for that appearance!"

Bill went to the Cannes film festival several times and says it was hard work. "People think it is a junket but it's part of the process of getting your films out into the marketplace and you're working day and night. I went twice to the Manila Film Festival where I met Imelda Marcos. It was there that Bruno Lawrence won best actor for his role in Smash Palace. He could have gone on to international success but he didn't want to – he preferred to do things in his back yard. That's the way we do things. We shouldn't be worried about that. It's how we do things in New Zealand."

Two enduring monuments to Bill Sheat's work in the arts that he recalls with affection and pride are the Opera House and the Embassy Theatre, both of which he played a major role in saving.

Saving the Opera House

"The wrecker's ball was roaming the streets of Wellington in the mid-1970s," he says. "A number of movie theatres including the Kings and the Plaza near the Opera House had been demolished and there were plans to replace the Opera House, then owned by Australian theatre company J C Williamson, with a high-rise office building."

Bill and a group of colleagues felt that it was vital to retain the Opera House. "After the experience of the Hannah Playhouse I thought that a single benefactor would be the easiest way to go.  I knew that the State Insurance Office had supported several buildings for arts purposes and I asked Ray Philpott, a colleague in the group, to find out if they might help.

"Ray ran the Wellington airport bookshop then and he was there a few days later when Bert Walker, a minister in the Muldoon government, dropped in to buy a paper. In Ray's words, he said to Bert: 'Who's the silly bugger who's in charge of the State Insurance Office?' Bert replied: 'I am.' Ray said, 'Well, we want you to buy the Opera House', and Bert's reply was, 'Well, we'll see about that'."

"It all seemed very unlikely, but out of the blue two days later, I had a ring from the general manager of the State Insurance Office. He said they wanted to buy the Opera House. I couldn't believe it – it was a miracle!

"There was a committee of citizens bent on saving the Opera House that I was chairing and when we met a few days later I couldn't tell them what had happened because it was still confidential. I just said I didn't think we would need to have very many meetings!"

Bill was instructed as lawyer to act for State Insurance to negotiate the purchase and after engineering reports and other formalities, it was bought and became known as the State Opera House. There was a problem when State Insurance was privatised in 1990 and bought by Norwich Union. "The buyer had no interest in an opera house so Roy Philpott and I went along to a select committee and argued for separating it from the business but they were not interested.  Fortunately, Norwich Union eventually tired of it and gave it to the city for one dollar and it is now vested in the Wellington City Council."

Saving the Embassy

Saving the Embassy Theatre was more complicated. The theatre had been bought by the Ballet Foundation, who intended to convert it to live theatre. "I was chair of the Royal New Zealand Ballet at the time and I was not in favour of this – I of course wanted the Embassy as a movie theatre.

"Eventually ballet settled at the St James and the Embassy was for sale again and so I formed the Embassy Theatre Trust to attempt to buy it."

Despite having no money, the trust chaired by Bill from 1996 to 2007, persuaded the city council that it was a good idea to guarantee the purchase and the trust was then able to borrow the money required. "We managed to buy it with absolutely no cash down because of the guarantee. We gradually worked through the refurbishment, starting with the exterior, then the upstairs foyer and finally the finishing touches. It has turned out to be good for the city all round – the council now owns it, having paid less than half its current valuation of $12 million or so. And of course we have saved a magnificent building of historical and cultural significance that was ideal as the venue for various Lord of the Rings premieres and world premieres of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."

After a long life in legal practice and a second life administering and promoting the arts, Bill Sheat still returns to the mantra he started with – that his underlying philosophy has been to enable talented New Zealanders to make their living in the arts, rather than treating that part of their lives as an optional extra.

"Looking back it is the smaller things that I value most. I remember for instance with pleasure one of the first grants we made when I was chairing the Arts Council in 1969. It was to the artist and print-maker Stanley Palmer, then making his living as a teacher. We gave him a grant that enabled him to work full-time on his artistic work for a year which set him up to has spend the rest of his career as a full-time artist."

This was first published in the February 2015 edition of Council Brief, the monthly newsletter of the New Zealand Law Society's Wellington branch.

Last updated on the 27th August 2015