TRIBUTE: Friedrich Stark SA’s super producer
Friedrich Stark, Elsje Stark (Photo: Gallo)
– To call Friedrich
Stark – the South African super producer who unexpectedly passed away on
Christmas Day at 62 – the "Aaron Spelling" of South Africa's TV
industry would be an apt description.
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.
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.
Stark didn't just make television
– he was truly in love with it.
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.
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.
than a decade later Binnelanders is still going strong.
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.)
the opening night Friedrich and Elsje divided people into two groups and did
simultaneous tours of their new studio complex. I went with Friedrich. I 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
was there when Friedrich and Elsje Stark launched their new Afrikaans sitcom Parys, Parys in the Free
State town of Parys. The Starks independently
produced Parys, Parys and got it sold to first kykNET; then
to SABC2. That was and still is a very big deal.
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.
said that there should be more space – and that there should be more
independence and freedom for South African TV producers than a limited existence where productions companies just make
the shows that TV channels commission.
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.
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.
same model was followed for the drama series Vlug
Na Egipte that was helmed by
their 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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
world didn't revolve around them, but around the people who entered their TV
would help, support and retain actors with personal problems directly affecting
day-to-day production and production schedules long after others would have
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'
"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
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.
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