TV preview: Constructing Godzone

By Nick Grant

Stupendous feats of engineering and sheer endurance built Godzone.

A gang of construction workers somewhere in Taranaki in the days when roads were made the hard way. NZ Herald Archive
A gang of construction workers somewhere in Taranaki in the days when roads were made the hard way. NZ Herald Archive

Tonight, a major season of local factual programming launches on Prime, with the five shows - all but one of which are multi-episodes - occupying the primetime slot of 8.30pm for the next 16 weeks.

The subjects are diverse, including New Zealand's involvement in World War I (War News), our relationship with censorship (The Naughty Bits) and attitudes to crime and punishment (The Trouble with Murder), and Godzone's Cold War spy mystery (The Man Who Knew Too Much).

Of course, although the line-up looks excellent on paper, it is - as ever - execution-dependent, so a lot is riding on how the show selected to start the season is received.

That show is Making New Zealand, a four-part documentary series that, as the channel's promotional material puts it, "tells the incredible stories of the men and women who built our nation from the ground up" and all the "blood, guts and glory" that entailed.

Which sounds like stirring stuff indeed, but then I read further and discovered what's actually being talked about is not the social and political history I was anticipating but the construction of our country's infrastructure.

Specifically, the focus is on dams, ports, railways and roads, all of which are crucial to a modern society, granted, but as the subject of a television series? Surely, I surmised, about as interesting as watching cement dry.

And so it was with a barely stifled yawn that I settled down to watch the first episode, which covers the development of New Zealand's roads, while pondering how often the path to worthy tedium is paved with well-intended funding from NZ On Air.

Oh, me of little faith. Despite the platitudinous phrases narrator Mark Clare was made to mouth in the opening couple of minutes, it quickly became apparent the opening episode of Making New Zealand is an absolute corker.

The team from Top Shelf Productions, led by director/producer Mark Everton, has done a great job of efficiently providing enough historical context to underscore the significance of their general subject before providing relatively detailed accounts of a handful of major roading projects, including the Milford Road, Homer Tunnel and Auckland Harbour Bridge.

In my appalling ignorance I hadn't realised what fantastic feats of engineering and sheer endurance these were, aspects that are vividly brought to life with a well-balanced mix of recent interviews with experts, amazing archive footage and photos, and the occasional clearly marked re-enactment.

As it happens, there's plenty of social and political content, too.

I hadn't had a clue, for example, that the Milford Road and Homer Tunnel projects were initiated during the Depression in the 1930s and used unemployed men who received no benefit and had to pay for their own food, not to mention the fuel required to keep themselves from freezing to death.

As for the Auckland Harbour Bridge, it is pointed out that project was hampered by the government's reluctance to stump up enough cash to do the job properly, resulting in the planned pedestrian pathways and railway track being dropped and extra vehicle lanes having to be added piecemeal within a decade. Sound familiar?

As the programme makes clear, although the development of New Zealand's road network brought considerable change to the country, some things sadly remain much the same.

Roll on the rest of the series.

Making New Zealand debuts tonight, 8.30pm, on Prime.

- Herald on Sunday

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