Gordon Holden Mirams was born in Christchurch on 9 March 1909, the son of Leslie Haywood Mirams, a travelling salesman, and his wife, Mary Elvire Webb. A regular film-goer from the age of 10, he received his secondary schooling at Christ’s College.
In 1927 he started work on the Christchurch Sun. On being advised to specialise in a particular field, Mirams chose film: apart from his interest in the movies, the chance of frequent free seats was ‘specially inviting’ because there was a girl, Ruth Taylor. The couple were married on 23 November 1932 in Christchurch. That year Mirams gained a diploma in journalism at Canterbury College; this was followed by an MA in 1934. His thesis, ‘The field of honour’, reflected another passion, fencing; he was captain of the swords club in Christchurch and later in Wellington. He was also keen on archery, and would continue collecting toy soldiers throughout his life; some were used in a movie he made with his younger brother Roger.
After the Sun ceased publication in 1935 Mirams became director of publicity for the J. C. Williamson Picture Corporation. He felt a failure as a publicist, later saying, ‘perhaps I just wasn’t able to convince myself sufficiently that the pictures I was advertising were the ultimate in entertainment’. However, his knowledge of distribution and exhibition was important in his later career.
In 1937 he joined the New Zealand Radio Record as a journalist in Wellington and began writing film reviews for a wider readership. Outside work hours he wrote weekly film reviews in the Dominion under the pseudonym Roger Holden. He also did reviews for three monthly publications and presented a weekly radio programme about films.
In 1939 Mirams moved to the New Zealand Listener, which soon absorbed the Radio Record. Although employed as chief sub-editor, and for a time in 1947 as acting editor, in his spare time he wrote the Listener ’s weekly film reviews. Called ‘Speaking candidly’, and appearing over the initials GM, the column became an institution at a time when there was no other film criticism in New Zealand. Mirams headed the column with humorous stick-figure drawings, which wordlessly, but effectively, summarised his judgement and quickly became his trademark. According to a friend, the film-maker John O’Shea, the reviews persuaded New Zealanders that films were ‘not merely sideshows but a pervasive factor in forming the community’s habits and beliefs’.
Writing when New Zealand had more than 500 cinemas, but little film production except travelogues, Mirams argued that New Zealand should be establishing its national identity through documentary film. Other Wellingtonians, including O’Shea, joined him in a campaign for local production, which encouraged the Labour government to establish the New Zealand National Film Unit.
In 1945 Mirams published a book, also called Speaking candidly. In it he expressed one of his central concerns: ‘our picture-going habit exerts an enormous influence upon our manners, customs, and fashions, our speech, our standards of taste, and our attitudes of mind… If there is any such thing as a “New Zealand culture”, it is to a large extent the creation of Hollywood’. However, he did not foresee the possibility of local feature-film production. In his book he also opposed New Zealand’s ‘negative form of film censorship’ and stated the need for an alternative form of cinema exhibition to show quality films that were ignored by commercial distributors.
For at least two years during his eight years on the Listener Gordon Mirams broadcast regularly on films. He also lectured at the WEA; these lectures led to the formation of the Wellington Film Institute in 1945, with Mirams as its first president. A year later the institute became the Wellington Film Society, and within two years a national federation of film societies, the New Zealand Film Institute, was established offering the alternative choice of quality films for which Mirams had argued. He was its first chairman.
Mirams was also involved with CORSO, chairing its education and publicity committee, and from 1942 to 1945 he was the official journalist for the Campaign for Christian Order. In 1947 he was appointed first assistant film information officer in UNESCO’s mass communications section in Paris. During his time there he initiated projects to develop film as an educational medium. He returned to New Zealand after 18 months to become the country’s fourth film censor and registrar of films with the Department of Internal Affairs.
His predecessors had banned films of quality – The blue angel, Battleship Potemkin and All quiet on the Western Front in the 1930s, and Brighton rock and No orchids for Miss Blandish in 1940 – but Mirams, a self-described idealist who disliked censorship on principle, took a liberal attitude. After working to achieve amendments to the Cinematograph Films Act, he created a revolutionary classification system that positioned New Zealand as a pioneer of liberal film censorship. He applied the R certificate, which had only been sparingly used since the 1930s, to allow films to be restricted to specific audiences or age groups, and later extended the use of certificates to carry recommendations instead of restrictions. The Dominion commented in 1959 that Mirams had ‘reversed the principle of censorship, largely replacing the negative function of suppression by positive guidance’. His changes to censorship were also acknowledged overseas: in 1957 they were commended in a UNESCO report for ‘novel elements of potential interest for adaptation in other countries’.
Mirams did, however, respond to community fears about juvenile delinquency. He banned The wild one, starring Marlon Brando as the leader of a teenage motorbike gang, in 1954, 1955 and 1959, and Rebel without a cause, starring James Dean, in 1956, although it was later passed by the appeal board. While he was film censor he continued to write papers about the content of films and their role in community life and education. In 1958 he was the first New Zealand film representative to visit the USSR.
In 1959 Mirams returned to Paris to take up a permanent appointment with UNESCO’s mass media division. Over the next seven years he worked on the development of children’s television programmes and on audio-visual educational methods for schools and colleges. He resigned from UNESCO in 1966 because of ill health, and returned home.
Gordon Mirams died in Wellington on 29 November 1966, survived by his wife and their four children. He had been internationally recognised as an authority on cinema, and as a writer, lecturer, broadcaster and film censor had helped change public attitudes to film.