Vale Neil Balnaves, arts philanthropist and television executive

Neil Balnaves. (Image: Julian Andrews / Newspix)

The entertainment and arts industries are mourning the loss of pioneering television executive Neil Balnaves, following his death in a boating accident aged 77.

Balnaves is known for forming the Southern Star Group (now Endemol Shine Australia) in 1988 and helping to foster memorable Australian drama, such as Blue Heelers, Water Rats, and The Secret Life of Us.

His production work also extended to Big Brother and Bananas in Pyjamas.

In 2006, he founded the Balnaves Foundation, a philanthropic organisation that has gone on to provide support for a wide cross-section of the arts sector, including Sydney’s Ensemble and Belvoir Street theatres, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of South Australia, the Adelaide Festival and Bangarra Dance Theatre.

Balnaves is survived by his wife Diane and children Hamish and Victoria.

Oombarra Productions Bain Stewart and Leah Purcell were among those to pay tribute to the philanthropist and entrepreneur, releasing a statement via Screen Producers Australia describing him as a “friend, mentor, guiding light and a senior Elder” in their lives.

“Yesterday was a very, very sad day not only for us but for Australian business, arts and culture and much, much more,” they said.

“On a purely personal note Neil Balnaves played a pivotal part in our careers going back as far as 1995 when he was at the helm of Southern Star Productions and Leah Purcell was cast in the biggest drama on Australian TV at the time, ABC TV’s Police Rescue.

“Leah was an emerging young actress at the time so to be cast as an Indigenous Australian who was the new cop in the team with dreadlocks, a nose-ring and attitude was ground-breaking back then.

“After that Leah worked in a lot of theatre that he had supported then fast forward to 2014 and she wins the Balnaves Award for her play The Drovers Wife at Belvoir Street Theatre. Then in 2019, he came on board her debut feature film, The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson as a Platinum Investor thru [sic] the Balnaves Foundation and then as an executive producer.”

Other to speak on his character included Roadshow Rough Diamond producer Dan Edwards, who worked as sales assistant and then sales executive at Southern Star in the 2000s.

“During my time at Southern Star sales, one of the many things that stuck with me was Neil’s unique ability to turn an almost certain failure into an enduring success,” he said.

Highview Productions director and producer Lisa Scott also had fond memories to share of her time working with Balnaves on Young Lions and Water Rats.

“Vale Neil, a pioneer of television in Australia, a lover of the arts, a generous philanthropist, with a cheeky smile always happy to put his credit card on the bar when the tab ran out,” she said.

On social media, actor, writer and comedian Nakkiah Lui described Balnaves as “an extraordinary man whose legacy of generosity and kindness will live on through all of his work and all of us who benefited from his passion, philanthropy, friendship and advocacy to the arts and Aboriginal community”.