Ripping yarns of wartime heroes

By Nick Grant

Nick Grant finds plenty to like in a doco about Kiwi war escapades.

'Kiwis At War'.
'Kiwis At War'.

As a result of boyhood exposure to sanitised depictions of martial derring-do, as well as hearing my paternal grandfather, Colin, reminisce about his military service, I have an abiding interest in World War II stories.

Although he spent most of his war on a small Pacific island waiting for a Japanese invasion that didn't arrive, my grandfather did see some carnage when an accident during grenade training reduced several of his comrades to pulp.

Typically of his generation, he spoke of these experiences reluctantly, a far cry from the jingoistic triumphalism of official accounts.

In terms of tone, Kiwis at War splits the difference between those two approaches. The series, which previously screened on TVNZ's Heartland channel, uses interviews, historical photos and footage, and dramatic(ish) re-enactments to tell the stories of subjects who range from the well-known to the obscure.

The show is cheap and cheerful and, at times, a bit technically clunky, but that suits the lack of airs and graces of those featured, who tell their often ripping yarns matter-of-factly as well as vividly.

There are seven half-hour episodes, of which I've watched the first three, about Jack Rae, Nancy Wake and Jim Sheddan.

Rae was one of New Zealand's most successful World War II fighter pilots, shooting down the fourth-highest tally of enemy planes in his squadron's history, despite being banged up behind the barbwire fence of a POW camp for a third of the war. You won't catch him bragging about that achievement, though - at its mention he ducks his head with a shy, embarrassed smile. When he talks about flying, though, his rheumy eyes sparkle with delight and you catch a glimpse of a self-described crazy young man whose love of motorbikes made him want to be a pilot.

The story of Resistance leader extraordinaire Nancy Wake is already deservedly celebrated and will be told again later this year in a 70-minute docudrama for TV One by the Gibson Group, the production company behind Kiwis at War. There's no mystery why the programme-makers wanted another bite of this particular cherry.

Born in Wellington and raised in Sydney, Wake was the most decorated female soliders of World War II and considered one of the conflict's most effective resistance fighters, regardless of gender. And as she and biographer Peter Fitzsimons make clear in their respective interviews, Wake thoroughly enjoyed the opportunities the war afforded her to fight, drink and shag. She's like a character from the pages of a barely credible thriller come to life.

If the third, Jim Sheddan, appeared in a work of fiction it would be a quirky comedy, given he chiefly distinguished himself by walking away unscathed from the wreckage of his frequent plane crashes. Perhaps because there is consequently less emphasis on heroics, more of the day-to-day texture of life during wartime seeps through in this ep, which I found especially interesting. And there is something about Sheddan's hapless everyman quality that is particularly affecting, too.

Now I'm looking forward to catching the fourth instalment, about "escape artist" Allan Yeoman, when it screens next month, and then the final trio, which will play in April under the title Colours of War in the lead-up to Maori Television's always excellent Anzac Day coverage. On the strength of the first three, they'll be well worth the wait.

Kiwis at War screens Tuesday, 8pm, on Maori Television.

- Herald on Sunday

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