Colin Graham Scrimgeour was born at Wairoa on 30 January 1903, the son of John Graham Scrimgeour, a farmer, and his wife, Robina Maud Clunie. He left school at the age of 11 and unsuccessfully tried to enlist for service in the First World War. He was employed at a freezing works and became a union delegate before he was 15. His father died in 1920 and his mother the following year; her challenge to Colin to make something of his life led him to offer himself for home mission work in the Methodist Church of New Zealand.
Scrimgeour had not been involved in the church before, and later claimed that he did not like the Bible, but he was attracted to the ministry by the Christian socialism of Leo Tolstoy. He was stationed at Putaruru (1923), Kaitangata (1924) and Kawakawa (1925–26), and attended the Methodist Theological College in Auckland for four months. However, he was more at home doing practical work than academic study. Although he was never ordained as a Methodist minister, he used the title Reverend to great effect.
On 25 March 1926, at Whangarei, he married Caroline Lenna Hardie, a teacher; they were to have two sons and a daughter. The following year he began working as the inaugural Methodist missioner in central Auckland. There he faced pressing social demands resulting from urban poverty and the growing impact of the depression. An energetic and creative leader, he organised the Business Men's Relief Service which provided the mission with funds and discounted goods; in 1929 it distributed 3,000 parcels of food and clothing, and provided 5,000 meals for unemployed men. Scrimgeour also helped form the Auckland Social Workers' Association, which co-ordinated social relief and made representations to the government; he became its first treasurer.
An innovative communicator, Scrimgeour commenced Sunday evening services in the Strand Theatre in 1929, using films to attract people, and often gained capacity congregations of 1,500. But it was as a radio broadcaster that 'Scrim' or 'Uncle Scrim', as he popularly became known, found a platform that eventually gave him a national reputation. In 1931 he began taking devotional services on 1ZR and by the end of the year he was broadcasting five days a week. His confident, optimistic style, his identification with the anxieties of ordinary people, and his emphasis on good neighbourliness won him a growing audience. His influence extended beyond the church and he formed close friendships with political activists such as John A. Lee and Jim Edwards.
At the end of 1932 Scrimgeour resigned as missioner to establish a non-denominational radio church on 1ZR, the fellowship of the 'Friendly Road'. He worked with T. T. Garland ('Uncle Tom'), a Methodist layman who was already noted for his radio choirs and children's programmes, and 'The Friendly Road' soon attracted thousands of listeners. Through his weekly 'Man in the Street' broadcasts Scrimgeour gave voice to the concerns of the common people, and under the guise of religion he was able to push the rigorous censorship of broadcasting to the limit.
Scrimgeour's message was resented by many in the Coalition government, and he was soon involved in a series of battles to remain on air. After an attempt was made to close 1ZR for illegal advertising, he organised a large public meeting in June 1933. At the end of the year, however, the station was purchased and closed by the government. Scrimgeour and Garland then bought another station, 1ZB, but it took an orchestrated campaign of public meetings, letter writing and advocacy from Auckland business leaders to force the government to transfer 1ZB's broadcasting licence to 'The Friendly Road'. During 1934 and 1935 Scrimgeour cultivated public support throughout the North Island and made several extended visits to Sydney, where he began broadcasting on 2UE. In 1935 he became president of the New Zealand Federation of B Station Owners, which campaigned for the right to advertise.
On the Sunday evening before the 1935 general election, Scrimgeour's 'Man in the Street' broadcast was jammed, probably on the orders of the director general of the Post and Telegraph Department. The leaders of the Coalition government feared that Scrimgeour would encourage voters to support the New Zealand Labour Party. Although he never joined a political party, he was sympathetic towards Labour's economic policies and its attitude to the B stations. The controversy contributed to Labour's sweeping victory at the polls and further enhanced Scrimgeour's popularity. In 1936 he appeared in a feature film, On the Friendly Road, made by Rudall Hayward.
Scrimgeour expected 1ZB to gain a commercial licence from the new Labour government. However, the prime minister, M. J. Savage, after consulting him, decided to nationalise broadcasting and the station was bought by the government. In October 1936 Savage offered Scrimgeour the position of controller of the National Commercial Broadcasting Service and guaranteed him the right to continue his 'Man in the Street' sessions. The price the government paid for 1ZB, Scrimgeour's salary package and the way he had been appointed provoked a storm of protest. Savage vigorously defended him, but Scrimgeour agreed to accept a salary in line with that paid to James Shelley, the director of the National Broadcasting Service.
Under Scrimgeour's leadership commercial broadcasting prospered and expanded, and his weekly broadcasts gained a national following. He was, however, criticised for straying into economic, political and social subjects, which his opponents declared were off limits, and his relationship with Shelley was stormy. Scrimgeour's position was weakened by the death of Savage in March 1940, which removed his main supporter and protector in cabinet. Savage's successor, Peter Fraser, and Scrimgeour were implacable enemies and over the following years they clashed on a number of occasions. Scrimgeour's appeal to the Labour Party to reinstate his friend Lee, who had been expelled in 1940, fell on deaf ears. His right to broadcast was suspended several times and his scripts were subjected to close censorship, but he retained strong support from the public and trade unions.
Although nearly 40, the head of a government department, and suffering from heart problems, Scrimgeour was called up for military service in 1942. With the help of Air Vice Marshall Leonard Isitt he managed to secure a transfer into the Royal New Zealand Air Force, in which he served as a clerk. His conscription was a clear case of victimisation, and was compounded when the government dismissed him from his broadcasting position in June 1943. Fraser attempted to justify this action to Parliament by giving an exaggerated account of a 'drunken orgy' which Scrimgeour had attended and recorded. The government later made a financial settlement with Scrimgeour rather than face litigation for wrongful dismissal. At the 1943 general election he stood unsuccessfully as an independent candidate against Fraser in Wellington Central. In November 1944 he was discharged from the RNZAF and, despite wartime restrictions, special arrangements were made to fly him and his family to Australia.
In Sydney Scrimgeour formed Associated Programmes to produce science and drama features for radio. In partnership with Sir Benjamin Fuller, he established Associated TV in 1949. It became involved in film production and purchased Pagewood studios in 1953. Two years later he made a strong bid for a commercial television licence in Sydney. However, questions were raised about the financial viability of Associated TV, and his wartime conflict with Labour politicians in New Zealand was used to damage his credibility. The application failed and Scrimgeour, burdened with heavy expenses, liquidated the company.
Colin and Caroline Scrimgeour had divorced by this time, and on 24 June 1958 he married Pamela Evelyn Jenkinson (née Gates) in Sydney; there were no children of the marriage. In 1959–60 he worked as a consultant on the development of television in the People's Republic of China. This attracted some criticism in the Australian press and Parliament, although the Australian wool and dairy boards later used him as a consultant on trade with China.
Scrimgeour returned to live in New Zealand in 1968. He was involved in unsuccessful attempts to launch an updated 'Friendly Road' radio programme and a bid by the Associated Network Group to gain a television licence. He worked as a business consultant for the International Protein Organisation, which was investigating new methods for converting grass into protein. In 1976 he and John A. Lee, with the help of Tony Simpson, published The Scrim–Lee papers, their personal reflections on the 1930s and 1940s. Among his other interests were boxing and aviation: he had gained a pilot's licence in 1930, served as captain of the Auckland Aero Club, and in 1933 took control of Charles Kingsford Smith's Southern Cross.
Described as 'a tall, slim fellow, markedly neat in dress, with a crop of wavy hair above horn-rimmed spectacles', Colin Scrimgeour was a charismatic and colourful figure, who was at the forefront of developments in mass communication. In the 1930s Scrim blended a populist concern for the common people with an ability to communicate using a mixture of vague Christian humanitarianism and sentimentality. While he retained the goodwill of the public and those who worked closely with him, he adopted a combative position with his opponents and alienated politicians like Fraser who were fearful of his independence and power. Scrimgeour died at the Everil Orr Home, a Methodist institution in Auckland, on 16 January 1987, survived by his wife, and a son and daughter of his first marriage.