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(Image: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)
(Image: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)

Pop CultureApril 28, 2024

‘Apologies to Dvořák’: How a serenade for strings cemented one of New Zealand TV’s strongest partnerships

(Image: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)
(Image: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)

Appointment viewing has been lost to the mists of time, but memories of Montana Sunday Theatre can still be conjured by hitting play on a particular piece of classical music.

“You’re not going to be able to sell it.” 

Over 30 years on, Karen Bieleski still recalls how the task of finding a new sponsor for TV One’s Sunday night prestige drama time slot was pitched.

The 8.30pm time slot had been known as Mobil Masterpiece Theatre after a 1988 sponsorship deal between TVNZ and the global oil giant. Bieleski, the general manager of programming for TV One between 1997 and 2004, worked in sponsorship for the state broadcaster before that and says that many have forgotten just how strong the association between Mobil and the Sunday evening time slot was.

It was the first corporate sponsorship of a premier drama series on New Zealand television, and the time slot was locked in as appointment viewing. The series launched with a BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. 

Announcing the sponsorship, a Mobil spokesman said it represented “an exciting part of our ongoing commitment to the enrichment of the cultural life of New Zealanders.”

Company sponsors drama series (The Press, September 2, 1988, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

 When the sponsorship ended, the need to find another sponsor for the jewel in the Sunday night crown and break Mobil’s association with it prompted a rebrand. Masterpiece Theatre became Sunday Theatre, and the New Zealand company that picked the sponsorship up was wine producer Montana. 

Over its nine years, Montana Sunday Theatre brought British drama and period pieces into the homes of hundreds of thousands each week. It also gave New Zealand stories a primetime spot. Bieleski recalls Clare, which aired in 2000. The drama recounted the experiences of Clare Matheson and her unwitting participation in the “unfortunate experiment” scandal at National Women’s Hospital in Auckland. The titular Clare was played by Robyn Malcolm, fresh off her stint on Shortland Street as Ellen Crozier.  

Bieleski also remembers how “bent out of shape” people were after the 1995 Peter Jackson and Costa Botes mockumentary Forgotten Silver screened. It was bad enough that a time slot usually reserved for fictional drama had been hijacked by what people thought was a documentary. Adding insult to the injuries of an aggrieved public was the revelation that it was all a very clever forgery and entirely fake. As Aaron Yap details, it prompted a deluge of hate mail. ‘I’m Not Laughing’ of Hamilton was “unable to trust anything that TV1 puts on again.”

Bieleski says they knew Montana Sunday Theatre had superseded the strength of association Mobil Masterpiece Theatre had when people stopped asking what was on Sunday Theatre and started asking, “What’s on Montana this week?” As a singular example of how inextricably linked the two properties became, I used to mangle the name as a kid, referring to it “Monsday Night Theatre”. 

It’s incredible to think anyone was worried about breaking the oil company’s grip on the time slot now, but the success of the association was no sure thing and necessitated what Bieleski recalls as a creative and new approach to cementing it.

Sunday Montana Theatre opened with credits that integrated Montana into the start of every episode. That kind of brand integration might be something we take for granted now, but as Bieleski recalls, the approach was innovative back then. They were, by her account, the most expensive opening credits created for a programme sponsorship at TVNZ at the time. 

The credits were refreshed a few times over the nine-year partnership but usually always featured the suggestive red theatre curtains that winked heavily at the highbrow fare about to be served up and a decent pour of something that referenced the bounty of the sponsor. One opened by panning across a table, past a bust of a wise-looking man and a wine bottle. No label is visible on the bottle which Bieleski says was due to alcohol advertising regulations, but the credits end on a bucolic vineyard scene as the Montana logo comes into view. The implications were clear, the connection far from subliminal. Other iterations got artier and more abstract, but the theatre allusions and piles of grapes remained.

Talking to Bielski about the art direction and iterations of the credits, it’s fair to say that time has faded both our memories. There is one detail, however, that people of a certain vintage can never seem to forget. 

The second movement of Antonín Dvořák’s Serenade for strings in E major, Tempo di valse, was used as the theme music for the credits. Bieleski can still recall the first time she heard it in the context of watching the sequence. She remembers being down in the TVNZ art and graphics department and “being blown away and just going ‘this is amazing’.”

For the kids and parents of that era, there was an almost Pavlovian response to that theme music. In my house, the sound of lilting violins meant bedtime for kids, and it still has a soporific effect on me. For my parents, it signalled the beginning of the Sunday sweet spot; a blessed and childfree time served with a cup of tea and a sit-down. 

For nine years and 20 to 30 weeks each year, bedtime and adults-only time would kick off with a waltz in C minor. For Bieleski, that repetition was integral to Montana Sunday Theatre’s success and the burning of the association into our brains.

“Apologies to Dvořák,” she says, but “that was a very strong piece of branding.”

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