Moving drama depicts Kiwi rail disaster

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I was in Wellington over the past week observing the filming of the TVNZ-sponsored Sunday Night Drama Tangiwai – the story of the 1953 Christmas Eve rail tragedy when 151 souls were lost. 

Heading from Wellington to Auckland, K class Locomotive KA949 and six of its nine carriages plunged into the swollen Whangaehu River after the bridge was swept away by a Mt Ruapehu lahar. 

Produced by Lippy Pictures, the Wellington company behind Qantas-award winning Until Proven Innocent, Tangiwai will be a feature-length drama, directed by the highly-regarded Charlie Haskell. 

A disclaimer here: Lippy Pictures, the makers, are effectively comprised of Donna Malane and Paula Boock, a sister of Remote, and hence, the reason I ran my eye over filming. 

You see, the tragedy of Tangiwai is to be told using one of the country’s most heart-rending love stories – the romance between 20-year-old Nerissa Love, who was one of those killed, and her fiancée, New Zealand test cricketer Bob Blair. 

For those not familiar with the tale, Blair was woken at his team’s Johannesburg hotel at 4am on Boxing Day, the morning of the second day of the second test between New Zealand and South Africa. 

The telegram was brief. His fiancée had been killed. As Blair remained behind grieving at the hotel, his team-mates resumed the battle at Ellis Park, where they were decimated by the pace of Neil Adcock. 

Bert Sutcliffe was knocked unconscious, Lawrie Miller departed coughing blood; in fact things became so bad that Blair rushed back to the ground, just in time to bat at the fall of the ninth wicket. 

The moment that Blair, wiping tears from his eyes and fumbling with his gloves, appeared unexpectedly out of the tunnel, hushing the 23,000-strong crowd, remains one of the most poignant in Kiwi sporting history. 

The crowd wouldn’t remain silent for long, however. They roared when Sutcliffe hit three sixes off the next Hugh Tayfield over and when Blair hoisted the off-spinner for six, they almost brought the roof down. Thirty three runs off less than three overs. 

As a television drama Tangiwai is not short of challenges, involving not only a major train crash but also a sporting fixture, regarded by most in the film industry as the biggest risk after animals and children. 

But, with the help of Oscar-winning Weta Workshop wizard Sir Richard Taylor, who’s already made a wonderfully authentic 30m-long model of Locomotive KA949 and its carriages, the early signs are very positive.
Ryan O’Kane (Insiders Guide to Love) is playing Blair; Rose McIver (Lovely Bones) Love, and Dean O’Gorman (Go Girls and Serial Killers) will play the part of Sutcliffe. 

And in a nice twist, Jonny Brugh, the man who wrote and performed the one-man play The Second Test, will become a 1953 version of John Reid, while the recently-retired New Zealand pace bowler Iain O’Brien, has agreed to become a latter-day Adcock. 

Tangiwai is expected to screen in the first quarter of next year.