Janine Morrell-Gunn’s te reo triumph

Becoming a grandmother has awakened a desire to be bilingual for Gigi
Petra Mingneau

Television producer and businesswoman Janine Morrell-Gunn has created TV shows from the studios at Whitebait Media – the production company she owns with husband Jason Gunn – in Christchurch for almost 25 years. She’s produced kids shows including What Now, The Feed, One Way Out and Brain Busters, a quiz in which Kiwi kids compete in a series of increasingly difficult challenges in maths, memory, spelling, te reo Māori and more.

Now in its fourth season, Janine has spearheaded Brain Busters‘ biggest challenge yet – creating 10 episodes produced and spoken in te reo Māori. Janine, 61, sat down with the Weekly to talk about what it’s like working with her husband, creating a kids’ programme in another language and how becoming a grandmother has changed her perspective.

What was it like creating Brain Busters in te reo Māori?

My te reo is terrible and we thought we’d bitten off more than we could chew for a minute! We brought in additional production crew from Ōtautahi [Christchurch] aged between 18 and 25, who speak te reo as their first language, and somehow managed to create 10 completely immersive journeys for tamariki [children].

As a 1960s-born Māori gran, this really awakened something in me. At my age and stage, it’s hard to learn a new language, but I’m committed to try for our granddaughter. Her mind is like a computer board, it’s fascinating watching her speak te reo. It’s so important to me that she knows her whakapapa [genealogy] from our beautiful whānau [family].

Gigi is your first grand-daughter. How has she changed your life?

We have four children, but our relationship with Gigi is entirely different. You parent your children by being in front of them, pulling them along or behind them, pushing and supporting them. With a grandchild, you journey at their side.

Everyone told me life would change when we had moko – I had no idea! Luckily, my daughter Eve and her husband Adam live two minutes up the road, so we have Gigi one night a week. She has reconnected me with our community. We take her out on bikes, to see the animals and do the Stone Trail in Christchurch, where kids are encouraged to paint a stone and lay them on the trail. Gigi loves everything to do with planets, so she painted Saturn on a stone to lay with all the others.

Who are the main players in your life?

I’d like to say my husband Jason, but I really do love my horse Joe a lot!

At the helm of kids’ TV for nearly 25 years with husband Jason, Janine says she has no plans of slowing down.

Do you and Jason work together well?

We’re yin and yang. He’s spontaneous and creative, whereas I’m organised and planned. He loves a yarn and spends hours chatting. He’s also one of the few people who can slow me down. Our values are the same though, and that’s important. Working in the same industry has been good for us as we understand each other’s work is our passion.

What’s your cuppa of choice?

Coffee – triple-shot flat white in the day and pomegranate loose leaf tea in the evenings. Jason brings me coffee every morning and has done for years. He loves getting the grind exactly right. At work, I have a button on the coffee machine with my name on it – I just press that. I have no idea how to make my own coffee! I also have sparkling water everywhere I go to try and keep my water intake up.

How did you feel when you were recognised in the 2022 New Years Honours for services to children’s television and the community?

I’m a producer. I don’t need affirmation – our role is to lead and support. I grew up in a strong working-class neighbourhood and those ethics have stood me in good stead. I like to serve and stick up for the underdog. It’s humbling to be recognised, and I’m immensely grateful, but I don’t measure my success through accolades. I try to find the small, everyday joys: seeing an old couple holding hands, getting the good car park. Finding gratitude is similar – for example, there are 12 steps to the bathroom and I’ll find 12 ways to feel gratitude. We aren’t promised tomorrow, so I like to find the everyday good things. I know I verge on pious! But it’s who I am. When something happens, I ask, “What opportunity can I get from this?”

You’ve done some incredible work. Is it time to slow down?

I often get asked if this is the “end of the road”. I think retirement is an interesting perspective, but I’d be lying if I said yes.

Watch Brain Busters te reo on Māori+.

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