From Mat Time to Prime Time

From Mat Time to Prime Time

From Mat Time to Prime Time 2000 1500 The Flyer Magazine



She may have started out as a kindergarten teacher in rural Southland, but, now a Gibbston local, award-winning children’s television producer Mary Phillips is one of New Zealand’s most well-known in the game.

With more than 30 years writing and producing children’s programmes, her own highly successful Pickled Possum Productions has been turning out great kids’ TV since 2002. She was the creative brains behind TV3’s daily youth show, Sticky TV, and her writing career began with TV3’s innovative preschool show You and Me in 1992. Mary went on to develop, direct and produce Suzy’s World, the award-winning science show for youngsters, fronted by TV icon Suzy Cato. She’s even produced a show for PBS in the United States.

A fun-loving, slightly cheeky personality, Mary’s all about engaging children on an intellectual level while keeping them fully immersed and entertained – something she calls ‘edutainment’.

Mary says her kindergarten knowledge and experience has been invaluable. Her TV career began when the then producer of You and Me was looking for creative kindergarten teachers to write the shows. Mary was working as a head kindergarten teacher in Dunedin. “It was all about getting people who knew what made kids tick and who had a good craft of writing,” she says. Mary was a natural and before long she was in the director’s seat. “We were probably perceived as rookies but we knew what kids wanted,” she says. “Kids love lots of close-ups. They zoom in on all the details, so, for example, if you’re filming a riding hat then you need to zoom right in so they can see the emblem on it.”

“When I launched my own company I used to talk to children and watch them a lot, show them stuff and listen to their reactions,” she says. Sometimes their reactions were more positive than those of the adults watching, like the time she wrote and produced a programme about digestion for Suzy’s World. “I made a poo out of brown playdough. I’m good with playdough, and I put oil on it. It looked so real, but people were quite shocked about that back then,” she says.

Mary, all geared up for Code Fun with the kids.

In 2017 Mary left Auckland after 25 years, opting for more of a lifestyle back in the Wakatipu where her older brother, Kevin Phillips, practised law for more than 20 years before becoming a district court judge.

She now writes for several months a year, commuting to and from Dunedin where her latest children’s show, Code Fun, which Mary’s been working on for three years, is being filmed. Fronted by talented presenter and songwriter/musician Rozzie Manowitz, Code Fun should hopefully go to air in July, after a few lockdown delays. This one’s all about IT and learning robotic and coding skills, with heaps of music by Rozzie to match. “Rozzie plays nine or 10 instruments, including the violin, saxophone, flute and accordion,” says Mary. The other star of the show is ‘Digi’, an animated robot.

Another passion is kids’ music and Mary’s a trustee locally of the Turn Up The Music Charitable Trust, which supports the children’s music school. “We’re looking for different ways to have online teaching and concerts to support local musicians and music,” she says.

“It’s a very important time for the warmth of music to calm the district and for the trust as its philosophy “music changes lives” is more important than ever at this time.”

Mary never wastes an opportunity for learning and while screen time has to be balanced kids need IT skills to be in the real world, she says. “Little kids will need to know how to tell robots what to do in the future and coding is giving a clear set of instructions.”

Parents have had to really take notice during lockdown of what kids do and what their needs are, says Mary. It’s been really inspirational seeing families getting into crafts and old school games, inside and out, she says.

“I try to make intelligent shows. I love crafting the show into something for real Kiwi kids, so it has a more down-home feel.”

A vivid imagination helps. The youngest of five children, Mary’s mother was never sure what was real and what wasn’t, she says.

As a youngster growing up in Gore she recalls desperately wanting to move into the beautiful, two-storeyed house down the road. “One day when I was about six and walking home from school I went inside the gate and wrote my name on it in pencil,” she says. “Two weeks later Mum and Dad, who had no idea, told us we were going to shift into that house.”

These days Mary is solely writer and executive producer, but at 62, she’s showing no signs of easing back from the life she loves.

“You have to be super keen as it can be taxing physically and intellectually,” she says. “You just get on with it. You can only really be responsible for yourself and be a good leader – a good kind human being,” she says.