Recently TVNZ announced its intention to sell the TVNZ Avalon studio, moving “Good Morning” to Auckland, and with possible redunancies for the rest of the staff.
While TVNZ had previously made no secret of its intention to sell Avalon, it still seemed to come as a bit of a shock. Because, you know, it’s Avalon. For anyone growing up watching New Zealand television in the ’80s, Avalon had an almost mythical quality, perhaps a modern, Hutt Valley version of the Arthurian Avalon.
I worked at Avalon Studios for almost three years. It was the one thing that made me actively go for a job based in suburban Lower Hutt – because it wasn’t just suburban Lower Hutt; it was Avalon.
Avalon Studios opened in 1973 and was the headquarters of Television One, with South Pacific Television (TV2) being based in the Shortland Street studios in Auckland.
But gradually more and more of TVNZ drifted north, the newsdesk moved in 1980, with the 1989 opening of the Television Centre in Auckland being the undeniable sign that things were slowly but surely heading to Auckland.
The Avalon tower block and some surrounding land was sold off in 2003, leaving just the studio and backlot in the hands of TVNZ, with only a handful of productions based there. And that’s what it was like when I started working there. Even though there were people working in the building, it felt really empty.
Avalon always felt remote. Not only was it in suburban Lower Hutt, but both the studio and the tower block were surrounded by acres of grass, then later by car parks, and as that surrounding land was sold off, by buildings. From the street, there was always a long walk to the front doors.
The 110 bus passed by Taita Drive, but even that was a bit of a walk. And not to mention the nearest train station, Wingate, was a one-kilometre walk, passing by the same dull suburban streets, and crossing busy High Street.
Of course, Avalon was built in the era of the automobile, when it made perfect sense to build a television studio out yonder in suburban hinterland. Old timers talk of a shuttle bus put on for staff in the heyday, but there’s also talk of staff members regularly losing their license after driving home drunk after boozing up at the bar. Yes, there was a bar at Avalon – again, a product of its era.
It’s grand, it’s iconic, but externally, Avalon is unfriendly to the person with two legs who likes to walk. Apart from a garage, a dairy and a Chinese takeaway a few blocks away, there were no local shops. There was nowhere to go at lunchtime, unless, perhaps, you felt like entertaining yourself with a walk around the car-scale landscape of the studio.
A similar fate has fallen to the old Central Institute of Technology campus in neighbouring Upper Hutt, also built in 1973. Back then, the Hutt Valley seemed like a smart location for a polytech, but now, who wants to drag themself all the way out to suburban Upper Hutt when they could be studying at one of those cooler city campuses?
One day I was talking with a workmate about how much better it would be if the studio had been built in central Wellington. But, actually, even Petone or central Lower Hutt would have been fine. Just not empty old suburban Avalon.
But it wasn’t just the suburban isolation. The surburb of Avalon is surrounded by Naenae to the south and Taita to north. While both are nice enough on a good day (particularly the bakery at Naenae that does those amazing pork sandwiches), it always seemed that whenever there was a report of an armed-offenders call-out, it would be just a few blocks away.
Avalon’s cafeteria was a shock when I first experienced it. It aptly enough had a ’70s-style general theme of fried foods, and the occasional nod to the ’90s with the odd panini. A request for salads saw the introduction of a ’70s-style lettuce and tomato mix, and – this is so weird – posters of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Sometimes I’d walk up to the top of the 10-storey tower block. Since TVNZ sold it, all the floors are now leased to different businesses. I’d walk up the echoey, pebbled stairs and the closer I got to the top, the more empty the building felt. I eventually stopped doing the walk because it just felt too spooky.
Some of the studio control rooms had been kitted out with the latest broadcasting technology and redecorated to match, but other parts of the studio were still partying like it was 1973.
One of my favourite spaces was a seldom used control room that I’d take a shortcut through to some back stairs. The control room was lined with lush wood panelling, making it feel more like an exotic sauna in search of a sleazy suburban cocktail party.
And despite lashings of ’80s, ’90s and ’00s attempts at redecoration, it was always comforting to find little decorative touches from the ’70s that had survived.
The one thing that visitors to Avalon seem to remember the most is the long, long corridors. They were decorated with large photos from previous Avalon productions, but these glory days were dated, with nothing newer than the mid ’00s. Another corridor celebrated even older days, with photos of long forgotten shows hosting by presenters sporting giant hairdos. (Why do people always seem to have giant hair in the past, no matter the year?)
Avalon always seemed to just be hanging out. It could look all fancy when “Dancing with the Stars” was in full flight, but around the corner there’d be some ratty old faded pink carpet, paint peeling and air conditioning that never seemed to quite work properly.
But there were ghosts. Remnants of a time when people could smoke at their desk, when woman had to wear skirts and make coffee, and when television presenters weren’t allowed to speak with a New Zealand accent.
And despite its rough-around-the-edgesness, Avalon is still a great production facility. I’ve heard a few people have their eye on it, so hopefully it’ll find a new owner that’ll treat it right.
Maybe Avalon is symbolic of the television industry as a whole – moving from extravagant studio productions to simpler things. Like a switch from a giant studio camera to a shooting on a handheld digital camera. Maybe it’s just something that has to happen.
When I left my job at Avalon, I was sad to say goodbye to all the good people that I worked with – many of whom now face an uncertain future. But I was also sad to be leaving Avalon Studios itself. Working there was like meeting a childhood idol and finding that while their fame had faded, they were still as charismatic as ever.
Walking across the car park for the final time that day, I maximised the cheese and played that song on my iPod.
And the background’s fading out of focus
Yes, the picture’s changing every moment
And your destination, you don’t know it, Avalon