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John Charles


Born: 1940


John Charles is best-known in New Zealand as one of the country’s first composers to make his mark on film, thanks to his varied and distinctive scores for classics Goodbye Pork Pie, Utu and The Quiet Earth. He has also spent time working in television as a producer and executive.

Born in Wellington, Charles studied arts at Victoria University, where he played music with the university jazz club. The next few years saw him working as both a newspaper journalist, and a programme officer for the NZ Broadcasting Service. After graduating with a Bachelor of Music, he rejoined the NZBC as a producer and occasional director (including doing both jobs on episodes of landmark drama series Pukemanu). In 1973 he directed teleplay Lunch with Richard Burton, followed by two episodes of the country's first situation comedy, mixed flatting tale Buck House.

Although Charles moved to Australia in 1974, he would go on to compose music for a run of future Kiwi screen projects. Two years later saw his first feature-length score, for acclaimed tele-movie The God Boy (based on the Ian Cross novel).

The man who Charles would work with most often was jazz trumpeter turned filmmaker Geoff Murphy. Their association dates back to 1966 and Murphy’s very first film, unfinished children’s musical The Magic Hammer. The two went on to play together as part of 70s touring group Blerta, and on the Murphy-directed TV show of the same name.

In the late 70s and 80s, Charles joined Murphy as he segued into feature films. The result was a series of classic soundtracks: the jazz-tinged Goodbye Pork Pie, the largely symphonic soundtrack for Utu, and ambitious end of the world piece The Quiet Earth, which remains one of his most popular soundtracks to date.

Charles also provided the score for 1984 tele-movie Iris, based on the life of poet Iris Wilkinson (pen name Robin Hyde), and collaborated with Lost Tribe composer Dave Fraser on the music for Constance, which referenced Hollywood melodramas of the 40s.

During the same period Charles also spent time working in television on both sides of the Tasman. In the mid-70s he worked in Sydney, at the music department of public broadcaster ABC Television. Returning to Wellington in 1978, Charles spent two years as Head of Entertainment Programmes for Television One.

In 1980 he returned to Sydney, and ABC-TV. Since composing for The Quiet Earth in 1985, Charles has been permanently based in Australia, working as a freelance composer, arranger, pianist and TV director. There he has continued to contribute to New Zealand projects, including composing for World War Two romance A Soldier’s Tale, TV’s Bread & Roses (based on the early life of politician Sonja Davies), Lange-era mini-series Fallout (1995), and Geoff Murphy-directed thriller Spooked.

He also composed music for the seven-hour long The Sound and the Silence, a Kiwi-Canadian mini-series about inventor Alexander Graham Bell.

In 1996 Charles joined the Australian Film Television and Radio School, as Composer-in-Residence, where he taught screen composition for more than a decade.

[Information about John Charles and his music for film and television can also be found on the NZ On Screen website.]

Composed (53)

A Soldier's Tale

music for film


music for short film

Bread and Roses

music for film/TV


music for film, for chamber orchestra and dance band

Crepuscule With Nellie

arranged for jazz group and string quartet

Darling Johnny-O

for flute, acoustic guitar and cello

Elegy for Strings (I.M. Tony Isaac)

for string orchestra, 3m


music for a TV commercial

Epiphany Ramble

for wind quartet


music for TV mini-series

Felled Trees

for voice and piano, 1m

Five Little Pieces

for piano, 6m

Five Maori Songs

for Maori choir and orchestra

Four New Zealand Songs

for voice and piano, 7m

Goodbye Pork Pie

music for film, for jazz group and orchestra

Harry's Ramble

for orchestra, 7m

Heart of the High Country

music for TV series


music for film, 17m

Jack Winter's Dream

music for film

Long and Winding Road

arranged for voice and orchestra

Man of Letters

music for film

Monk's Mood; Friday the 13th

arranged for jazz group and string quartet

Pieces of April

arranged for vocal duet and orchestra

Pioneer Blues

for voice and piano, 2m

Rockin' In Rhythm

arranged for voice, clarinet and orchestra

Romance for Flute and Strings

for flute and strings, 2m

Sea Coast

music for film

Seven Medieval Lyrics

for SATB choir and orchestra

Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear

arranged for voice and orchestra

Sonatina for Flute and Piano

for flute and piano, 7m


music for film, for small orchestra, 40m

Stabat Mater

music for film, for soprano and ensemble

Suddenly Snow

for voice and piano


for orchestra, 3m

The Flight of the Albatross

orchestration and arrangement for film

The God Boy

music for film

The Last Tattoo

music for film, for orchestra, jazz and swing groups

The Perfectionist

music for film

The Quiet Earth

music for film, for orchestra, 24m

The Sound and the Silence

music for TV mini-series

The Turning Wheel

for voice and piano, 15m

Theme from Utu

for piano, 2m 30s

Three Ezra Pound Songs

for voice and piano

Three Folksong Arrangements

for low voice and piano, 6m

Three Ruth Dallas Songs

for voice and piano, 6m


for flute, clarinet and piano, 14m


music for film, 32m

Utu - suite for orchestra

for orchestra, 14m

What does the future hold?

arranged for male and female vocal soloists and orchestra

Zombie Fugue

for string quartet, 2m

Zombie Fugue

for piano duet, 2m

Recordings (2)