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Throwback Thursday: The maker of Terry Teo (2016) on Terry Teo (1985)

With the Terry Teo reboot arriving on television screens this Sunday, co-creator Gerard Johnstone looks back at the original series that started it all. 

When my producer Luke Sharpe and I stumbled onto the idea of rebooting Terry Teo for a modern audience, it felt like a no-brainer. Even the mere mention of his name made people smile. It was as if it instantly brought people back to a place in New Zealand’s history when we didn’t hate ourselves so much, like we were starting to realise we had more to offer the world than meat and cheese.

In 1985 New Zealand had pop cultural currency. We had not one but three NZ genre films in the cinema: Came a Hot Friday, The Quiet Earth and Shaker Run. Billy T was crushing it in prime time and I was crushing on Sharon O’Neill – who was both hot and good at piano.

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And then along came a kid called Terry Teo. He may have been constructed by authors Bob Kerr and Stephen Ballantyne as a Tin Tin knock off, but to us he was so much more – he was our first real comic book hero.

In the original graphic novel Terry & The Gunrunners, Terry was introduced to us as a cool kid of ambiguous Polynesian descent who rode a skateboard but wasn’t smug about it. He had a strong moral compass but played by his own rules. Terry came from a poor working class family who ate chops and had serious conversations about how to stretch their income. It was a world we could relate to, but it was loaded with adventure and colourful characters. It had all the elements of an instant classic.

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From memory, the small screen adaptation that shortly followed was the greatest local television production of all time– better than Children of the Dog Star. Of course, after we bought the rights to the character, I would discover that my memory had betrayed me. It felt as though this new TV adaptation might not be a sure bet. The original theme song by Don McGlashan and Billy T was still a standout, but the show itself had the sophistication of a Christmas pantomime. I’d always remembered the actor that played Terry as being full of attitude and wit but he mostly just said “gee-whiz” and squinted a lot.


However, after watching a few episodes, I had to admire the show’s ambition and energy. Most local TV dramas are shot on a handful of locations, but The Adventures of Terry Teo was filmed all over the North Island and featured a staggering amount of scenery. It boasted British comic actor and former Goon Michael Bentine as the villain Ray Vegas, and former Prime Minister Robert Muldoon in a role that was entirely unnecessary but nonetheless impressive.

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While Terry Teo didn’t age well, it comes across as a faithful adaptation that didn’t try to cut corners or sell its audience short. As kids, we appreciated that. It’s also a shame that it only lasted for one season – I would’ve loved to see how they tackled that yodelling bull.


Terry Teo comes to TVNZ2 on Sunday at 7pm

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