13 Feb 2024

This content is tagged as Creative NZ .


The mysterious secrets of uncle berties botanarium
Image credit: Stephen Templer

‘You go for the thing that you’re passionate about and then it takes longer than you wanted it to and then you’ve got to survive through that period, and you are going to make sure it happens. I think that’s what drives an artist, they just have it make it no matter what.’

Duncan Sarkies is passionate about Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium, a project that has been happening in different ways for over a decade now. 

Back in 2013, Duncan got a Creative New Zealand grant of just over $25,000 for a collaboration with musician James Milne (aka Lawrence Arabia) and illustrator Stephen Templer to workshop a storybook structure that would support a musical. A writer himself, Duncan says he knew that James and Stephen were also storytellers in their own forms, and he was curious about what they could create together. 

Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium was born. 

‘It’s a multi-platform project whose most recent incarnation was a giant audio series about a fictional Joseph Banks who’s on a journey to discover the very source of pleasure so he can destroy it, because pleasure is a threat to society. Effectively, it’s a retelling of the Captain Cook and Joseph Banks story through quite a different lens, exploring themes of colonialism, colonisation, and repression.’

Jemaine Clement plays both Lord Joseph Banks and Uncle Bertie, giving the project comedic edge and higher profile. Investment allowed a $100,000 budget with the result being ‘theatre of the mind’ audio.

‘We made an audio series where one third of the team creating it was an illustrator, which sounds illogical. But of course, Terry Gilliam was in Monty Python, so it works and everyone was creating the story together.’ 

The series was behind a paywall for several years and gained an international audience, with strong reviews from The Guardian and The LA Times. It’s now available free via RNZ.

Creative Team Uncle Berties
The creative team: (l-r) Stephen Templer, Jemaine Clement, James Milne, Duncan Sarkies. Photo credit: Matt Grace.

And that’s just one strand of Uncle Bertie’s story. The creative team always knew their idea could be many different things. The evolution to the audio series came after they produced a short movie, ‘entirely out of cardboard.’ 

‘Then we hit a point with Stevie’s illustrations where we were ready, and are still ready after all these years, to push it as a graphic novel. It’s also a natural for a musical – a full-scale Rocky Horror Picture Show style musical, all the structure is there, all the music is there.’

The project has had one of the ‘almost’ experiences familiar to creatives, getting tantalising close to becoming an animated series for HBO. While that option has fallen over for now, there remain many future possibilities.

‘We’re not done, we really love it. We all loved working with each other. We knew that the idea was so strong and interesting, and we feel that there’s unfinished business.’

Duncan’s determination to make the most of things is also evident in his approach to funding applications. Early on, he developed a psychological strategy. 

‘Any time I was going to apply to Creative New Zealand, I was going to advance the project in the process of making the application, because you never know when an application is going to be successful or unsuccessful. If it is unsuccessful then what I wanted is that in the process of having put the application together that I’ve supplied work that has pushed me to advance the project on some level.’

Like many artists, Duncan wishes surviving year-round didn't have to be such a struggle.

‘I know there's never enough money to fund everyone and everything, and I know how difficult it is for all parties, but I wish there were more opportunities for artists to receive year-round funding. People like to say artists make strong work when they're hungry, but many of us could flourish more if we could take the pressure off always having to figure out a freelance solution to paying the next bill, the next supermarket shop. Set us free. If you fund great artists, they will make great art."

Listen to Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium on RNZ