Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Rest in Peace Friedrich Stark: South Africa's TV industry truly lost an 'Aaron Spelling'; super producer's legacy will live on through Stark Films and studios.

To call Friedrich Stark - the South African super producer who unexpectedly passed away on Christmas Day at 62 - in a sense the "Aaron Spelling" of South Africa's TV industry would be an apt description.

Like the "wizard" in The Wizard of Oz, South African viewers have been dazzled for decades by the ongoing spectacle, hard work and ingenuity of some of his biggest creations, not realising that he is actually the man behind the curtain.

ALSO READ: Shock at unexpected death of SA super producer Friedrich Stark (62).

Although truly a "super producer" by South African TV standards - he's been the co-producer of Generations on SABC1 for decades that ranks as the second-most watched show on South African television, the producer of Binnelanders on kykNET for over a decade and the owner of production company Stark Films and the state-of-the-art Stark Studios - Friedrich Stark has also been one of the most unassuming and unpretentious people you've ever met.

Friedrich Stark didn't just make television - he was truly in love with it.

Together with his wife Elsje Stark they threw themselves unabashedly into their work of making television - good television - as independent producers, advancing and moving South Africa's growing TV industry forward through literally building it from the ground up brick by brick.

I was there when they launched their new soap Binnelanders on kykNET (DStv 144) in 2005. I remember how Friedrich Stark told me Afrikaans viewers deserve better daily scripted television and that the team will try and up the ante when it comes to weekday soaps that often become run-of-the-mill TV sausage making factories blindly churning out empty bubblegum content.

More than a decade later Binnelanders is still going strong.

I was there when Friedrich and Elsje Stark flung open the door of their brand-new and expansive Stark Studios in Fontainebleau in Johannesburg in 2010 that they designed, created and built through a lot of blood, sweat and tears. (The building's front face is used and can actually be seen as the scene-setting shot of the Binneland Clinic's fake facade.)

During the opening night Friedrich and Elsje divided people into two groups in did simultaneous tours of their new studio complex.

I went with Friedrich and was struck by how his pride, passion, intimate know-how and real love for his work, his work space, and for television beamed through everything he showed and explained in the finest detail.

Greater producer independence
I was there when Friedrich and Elsje Stark launched their new Afrikaans sitcom Parys, Parys in the Free State town of Parys. They again upped the ante. The Starks independently produced Parys, Parys and got it sold to first kykNET; then to SABC2.

You might not know it or understand why, but it was and is a very big deal.

We want to help and try and change to model of how TV is made in South Africa, said Friedrich, explaining it to me more than once, and so passionately.

He said that there should be more space - and that there should be more independence and freedom for South African TV producers - than just the "master and slave" existence where productions companies just make the shows that TV channels commission.

One of his big missions in his TV-making life was to show and prove that TV production companies in South Africa can come with their own ideas for shows, create quality local content free from commissioning editors' interference and narrow channel requirement constraints, and then not just be able to sell that content, but to retain the intellectual property rights.

In that way, production companies, actors and crew could continue to earn more than the pittance of residuals doled out by broadcasters when you as the production company - instead of the broadcaster - actually own the show.

That same model was followed for the drama series Vlug Na Egipte that was helmed by their one son Human Stark as director, with the show that was eventually picked up by kykNET that didn't originally commission it.

Grace under Generations fire
Probably the darkest and most difficult period in Friedrich Stark's producer career came in mid-2014 when the principal cast of Generations went on strike, with the 16 actors who were eventually all fired.

Friedrich Stark, Mfundi Vundla and MMSV Productions were caught in the middle.

Their client and therefore primary responsibility was to the SABC, but it was also the SABC who raised and created the unrealistic expectations that led to the actors' revolt, and during the labour stand-off the SABC also gave little actual support to the producers caught squarely in the scandalous TV production quagmire.

Caught in a double-bind situation of helplessness not of their making, the production impasse privately took a huge emotional and physical toll on Friedrich and Elsje Stark who didn't publicly talk about it or about the personal impact on their lives despite a barrage of bad press. It was true grace under fire.

When you're truly in love with making television, it's extremely difficult being forced to sit back and watch your creation being hijacked and destroyed, while you have to remain quiet.

The same happened a few years earlier when the SABC literally came to the brink of financial collapse in 2009 and owed South African production companies - the Starks included - hundreds of millions of rand collectively in outstanding payments.

Yet, while several production companies went under, the Starks persevered in one of the most difficult, under-appreciated and unpredictable businesses in the country: making television.

Generous, people-focused producer
As a journalist it's often very difficult - especially in the fake-make world of television - to get an accurate read on someone where glitter is constantly made to pass for gold. Yet Friedrich Stark was, and really remained, one of those gracious, friendly, really polite and generous people-focused producers in a world filled with a lot of false pretense.

Despite several knocks and setbacks over several years - anything from problem-actors who can't continue and must be let go, to sudden budget cuts and ongoing production challenges that can make even the most pleasant producer hardened, cynical and jaded over time - Friedrich Stark never lost his authentic openness and "niceness", nor his true passion for television that he shared with his wife.

Their world didn't revolve around them, but around the people who entered their TV orbit.

They would help, support and retain actors with personal problems directly affecting day-to-day production and production schedules long after others would have given up.

Friedrich Stark who started out as an actor in film and television and became a producer, not only built the local South African TV industry through his ongoing wealth of knowledge sharing but by creating new and better TV content, lifting TV production standards, expanding production capacity and relentlessly fighting for independent producers' rights.

This "Aaron Spelling" could have chosen to close himself off, enjoy the fruits of his labour and to bask in his own success. He kept doing the opposite.

He made time for people. He stayed hands-on and involved in the smallest nitty-gritty tasks actually the responsibility of a junior producer. He's the type of person who would come sit next to you and slowly drink a glass of red wine although there would be more important people in the room.

South African lost an "Aaron Spelling" on Christmas Day in Cape Town when Friedrich Stark simply didn't wake up again. But the legacy he leaves for South Africa's TV industry - and Stark Films - will live on.