Death and the maiden: The tale of 'Tangiwai'

By Jacqueline Smith

It might be a film named for our greatest rail disaster but 'Tangiwai' is also a tragic tale of love and cricket.

Rose McIver plays Nerissa Love in the TV movie, 'Tangiwai.' Photo / Supplied
Rose McIver plays Nerissa Love in the TV movie, 'Tangiwai.' Photo / Supplied

He eventually got her letter, posted from Taihape - the final chapter in their tragic love story. She would meet him off the boat and they would be married, she wrote. But first, he needed to concentrate on hitting a six for his country.

Cricketer Bob Blair did do New Zealand proud when he went out to bat against South Africa just hours after learning that fiancee Nerissa Love had died when her Auckland-bound train plunged into the Whangaehu River.

It was Christmas Eve, 1953. With 151 dead, many more injured, and a lump in the back of the throat of the nation that would last for generations, the site was renamed Tangiwai, or river of tears.

More than 50 years later, when people caught wind of the fact that a Wellington production company was writing a telefeature called Tangiwai, they began inundating the producers with calls.

They had remarkable tales of survival, and of terrible tragedies. They seemed hungry to tell them.

One of the most difficult tasks for co-writers and producers Donna Malane and Paula Boock was selecting just one story to represent the tragedy.

Both Malane and Boock had grown up with their parents' accounts of that fateful eve, sitting helplessly in their living rooms as the names of the dead were read over the radio.

It had a profound effect on them, says Malane, and every Christmas her family would remember the event.

A few years ago, she and Boock found themselves on the topic of the disaster, and Boock, who grew up in an Otago cricketing family, relayed the story about Blair, who lost his fiancee in the crash but went on to bat for his country in a test match against South Africa in Johannesburg.

"We had what we call a goosebump moment," says Malane.

Their script was the first of four to receive funding from NZ On Air's platinum fund, supporting a high-quality one-off television drama with a budget of $2.7 million.

They began writing in 2009, just before Auckland actor and playwright Jonathan Brugh turned Blair's story into a play, The Second Test, which first showed at the Pumphouse Theatre in Takapuna. Boock and Malane deliberately stayed away from the play while they were writing but they did meet Bob Blair when he flew to New Zealand to watch it.

Malane says it was a terribly nerve-racking encounter, considering they had done something rather bold in adapting his deeply tragic love story for the screen.

"It's an outrageous thing to do, so we were a bit nervous, we thought he might put us through our paces, and you know, he's a fast bowler so he has that side to him, he's a tough guy. But he was incredibly generous with his story," Malane says.

She says Blair would be the first to point out the creative licence in the film, but he did see the script before shooting began and told the producers that he was most impressed with the casting of Ryan O'Kane, who he thought was a very good-looking version of his 20-year-old self.

O'Kane did not meet Blair, but Malane says the actor bears a remarkable likeness to the young cricketer.

"He's got a nuggety quality and a fierceness and stubbornness that, in the nicest possible way, is like Bob. He's got that fast bowler's look."

Brugh, who played Blair in his own play, also appears in the film as a member of the New Zealand cricket team.

While the play focused on Blair's contribution to New Zealand's cricketing history, Malane and Boock's telefeature is a love story. Rose McIver, who is cutting herself out as one of New Zealand's most wholesome-looking yet gritty actresses, plays Nerissa.

It was a difficult role that not only involved very early, bitterly cold mornings in the central North Island and playing a muddied body being dragged from the river but also doing justice to the tragic story of a woman whose family is still around.

She pulled it off with sweetness and sensitivity.

"We couldn't ask for Nerissa's approval so we all took a moment to be respectful," Malane says.

The producers were in close contact with the remaining members of Nerissa's family through the writing and filming process - her cousins, nephews and nieces who grew up with a somewhat distant connection to the tragic tale.

Working on the film was, in a way, an exercise in coming to terms with her story, Malane says. Filming largely took place around her home of Petone and where she was buried. Her family spent time on set and worked as extras.

Though they were able to run the events of the love story by the families, they were reliant on Weta Workshop and Sir Richard Taylor, who is a miniature train enthusiast, to accurately re-enact the rail accident.

Weta built a large 1/6 scale model of the train to recreate the moment 11 carriages plunged into the river when the bridge was swept away by a lahar.

And despite Malane's strong dislike of the 1950s, the art department relished in the chance to delve into the post-war era.

"I don't like the houses, I don't like the clothes, probably because I was born in the 50s. It became a bit of a joke really because I don't like cardigans," Malane admits.

As filming progressed and she listened down the phone to the stories of those who had lived through the era, and grown up with tragedy, Malane realised the 1950s also represented a time of bottled-up grief.

Filming wrapped just before Christchurch's devastating earthquake in February, which had a similar death toll to the 1953 rail crash. But rather than overshadowing the historic disaster, it only highlighted the importance of taking the time to remember, Malane says.

"It's a different era now where we are being asked to remember the people who died in Christchurch. In the 50s it was more that you were expected not to talk about it, or dwell on it, you were expected to move on."

Blair did move on, he continued a successful cricket career and eventually married.

Lowdown
What: Tangiwai, staring Rose McIver and Ryan O'Kane

When and where: Sunday August 14, 8.30pm on TV One

Also: The producers of Tangiwai have arranged an online forum for people to share their stories. It will go live on August 14. Visit http://www.lippypictures.com/tangiwai

- TimeOut

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