Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Tangiwai film rewrites history: cricketer

Ryan O'Kane is cricketeer Bob Blair in Tangiwai. Photo / Supplied
Ryan O'Kane is cricketeer Bob Blair in Tangiwai. Photo / Supplied

A film about New Zealand's worst rail disaster will present it to a generation unfamiliar with the tragedy. But don't expect a historical account, says its central character - much of the film is made up.

Former New Zealand cricketer Bob Blair, 79, whose story of loss and bravery is told in the feature Tangiwai (TV One, tomorrow, 8.30pm), says he is slightly nervous about the liberties taken by the film's makers.

Speaking from his home in Cheshire, England, he said: "They've done a good job. But it's totally different for the sake of the story. Some of it is at least 50 per cent poetic licence."

On Boxing Day 1953, the 21-year-old Blair went out to bat against South Africa just hours after learning that his fiancee, Nerissa Love, had died when her Auckland-bound train plunged into the Whangaehu River.

The track had been destroyed by a raging lahar from Mt Ruapehu that slammed into the rail bridge.

In one of sport's most poignant moments, Blair tearfully walked out to a crowd of 26,000 standing in silence at Johannesburg's Ellis Park, before cracking an "anger-filled" six into the terraces.

Blair, who lives with his wife, Barbara, said that after two plays, a book, and numerous articles about his life, he had stopped trying to give a perfect account of his heartbreak. "I'm 80 years old next year. I'm not going to worry too much about it."

He said the film-makers had injected tension between his and Love's family where there was none, and made him into a religious person (he is an agnostic). Further creative licence had been taken with his relationships and family members.

"I wouldn't say I'm unhappy with it. It's a story, not a documentary. But some of it is totally different from what actually happened."

Film-maker Donna Malane said she and co-writer Paula Boock did not set out to make a historical account.

"It is very hard, outrageous, to tell the story of someone's life in a drama because as programme-makers you have to make things up to make a good narrative.

"But I do believe we've remained true to the heart of the story. I think Margaret Mahy once said: 'It may not be factual, but it's true.' That's how we feel about this film.

"I must admit, when we sent [Blair] the finished programme we bit our nails and hoped he was okay with it ... and he was."

Malane said that unlike the public mourning after the Christchurch earthquake, some families of the 151 Tangiwai victims never had a true catharsis because 1950s New Zealand was a prouder, less emotional place.

"It was in an era where people didn't talk about these things. They'd just bury it and move on."

Blair was too far away to come home for his bride-to-be's funeral and letters she had written continued to arrive at his Johannesburg hotel.

He said his loss was inescapable: "Christmas comes around every year. So of course I still think about it, don't I?"

- NZ Herald

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