Colin Hogg on television

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Colin Hogg: Live news travels back a century

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Brave story-telling brings mixed emotions as it sails dangerously close to a modern-day satire of World War I.

Prime TV's War News correspondent Paul Jameson, played by Richard Dey, above, and news anchor Ray Harkness (Mark Mitchinson) retell events as they might have been reported today.
Prime TV's War News correspondent Paul Jameson, played by Richard Dey, above, and news anchor Ray Harkness (Mark Mitchinson) retell events as they might have been reported today.

If you're one of those people with a weakness for laughing in the wrong place then it might be best you don't watch War News, the nerdy new television history series that started on Sunday night on Prime TV.

You might have to leave the room occasionally. Though, for the sake of reviewing it, I stayed, of course. I occasionally spluttered. I was also occasionally moved by it.

War News, running in Prime's history-centric New Zealand Season, sets out, across five episodes (starting last Sunday, 8.30pm), to tell the story of New Zealand's part in World War I in a bold and new sort of way.

The trick - bold, but not necessarily new - is in reporting that century-old war as if it was being fought right now, here in the high-tech, short-attention-span present.

So World War I gets the full news-show approach - with a gimlet-eyed anchor man, a couple of breathless field reporters, plus live interviews, commentators and a studio assistant with maps and back story.

And, though everyone's carefully garbed in the clothes of that other time and the anchorman even wears a rather serious beard, they all talk the patois of the present.

So we get that anchor chap - his name is Ray Harkness - announcing dramatically as we dip into an ad break, "Prime Minister William Massey joins us soon".

And then they're back with the long-ago PM, as promised. But the actor playing Massey talks like John Key and looks like David Benson-Pope and it's about then I start thinking of Blackadder and how this is nearly satire and that I shouldn't be thinking such a thing in a story about our glorious dead.

"Prime Minister," demands the angry anchor, "what do you say to the families who have lost sons?"

When an actor pretending to be army bigwig General Godley came on at one point with a live statement about the Gallipoli withdrawal I started imagining Rowan Atkinson having me on the floor with just the same lines. But, in other moments, the energetic mix of low-colour re-enactments and well-chosen archive footage did bring real story-telling power to an often-mixed situation.

There was an acted-out live-to-air style interview with a soldier on the beach at Gallipoli, that connected when he told the reporter who'd asked him how he felt about the retreat, "I lost a brother. He's buried here and they're making me walk away from him."

But, equally, there was a mad scene with our man in Gallipoli running alongside our attacking troops in his big fawn overcoat and perfect hair, doing a piece to camera that beggared the old belief just a bit.

And also perhaps the reporter on the beach with his line about "relief, anger, joy, it's all there", unless it was meant to be ironic, of course. But, with War News, it's often really a bit hard to tell. On the plus side, it is brave, it does tell the story and tell it reasonably true. And it is, just ever so slightly, barking mad.

- NZ Herald

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