March 23, 2001

Gandalf Praises NZ Magic
Staff Reporter

Lord of the Rings actor Sir Ian McKellen has given New Zealand top billing in his British homeland.

Sir Ian lived in Eastbourne - a Wellington harbourside suburb he described in The Independent on Sunday newspaper as a "hamlet" across the "estuary" from Wellington city - for a year, filming New Zealand director Peter Jackson's fantasy trilogy.

Initially apprehensive about whether he would like it, Sir Ian said the charms of New Zealand caused him to dread his return to high-stress London.

"A year in New Zealand? I'm indifferent to rugby and don't eat lamb but at least it seemed a good opportunity to visit Australia," he wrote.

"Almost at once, however, New Zealand's allure won over and I managed only one weekend in Sydney for a wet and cold Mardi Gras.

"I was only 10 minutes' drive from the capital city of Wellington and even less from the film studios of Three Foot Six Ltd, which the director Peter Jackson named after the height of Tolkien's Hobbits.

"This was the first welcome change from filming in London, where Shepperton and Pinewood studios are an hour or more from home.

"The second was to be working in a beautiful and under-populated country, where the unique ecology overwhelms the urban areas."

A keen walker, Sir Ian praised the hills behind Eastbourne as empty of human activity, or the sights and sounds of history and industry.

In England, the chimneys of the Sellafield nuclear power station still gleamed in the distance at the isolated lake of Wastwater, he lamented.

And bomber pilots skimmed the tops on deafening practice flights.

Sir Ian said he was unprepared for New Zealand's wilderness and alpine ranges.

"On the West Coast, where the logging of native trees has been recently halted by the Labour government, the roads that lead alongside the primeval forests to the glaciers are invariably empty.

"Outside the tourist centres there are no big hotels and there is little choice (even for film crews) but to sample the homestays, with a bed in the spare room and breakfast with the family.

"The friendly New Zealanders welcome tourists if they 'leave only footprints and take nothing but photos'. Their surroundings are unique and valued and cared for."

New Zealanders he worked with were as gently retiring as the national bird, he said.

"The rumbustious All Blacks are not typical. High-flying is almost discouraged and ambitious tall poppies are not much admired.

"Time and again I met locals who had forsaken well-paid positions in Auckland for rural, more menial jobs, where life could be less stressful."

Nationhood and community were more tangible than in the United Kingdom, he said.

New Zealand television programmes "thin as they are, have a charming bias towards the UK: 'TVNZ celebrates its 25th year of broadcasting with the latest episode of Coronation Street'.

"I missed the variety and traditional high standards of our own terrestrial television, only to find, on my return, that it was swamped with a cheap output of general knowledge quizzes, chat shows, endurance tests and make-overs of faces, houses and gardens."