If Paul Gittins isn't careful, he'll find himself becoming New Zealand's own Dr Doom.

Fresh from Epitaph (about to start repeating on TV One, 3.40 pm weekdays), he has swapped his graveyard overcoat for a natty seafaring anorak and is relating tales of misadventure and tragedy in Shipwreck (TV One, Sunday, 7 pm).

In another country, these utterly dramatic stories would have been turned into mini-series with plenty of period costumes and overacting, but these half-hour windows on our history - at least the first two episodes have been historical - pack in the information at a rate of knots.


The stories are so gripping that they need little embellishment and, happily, Gittins' script avoids too many overly dramatic observations, although describing a painting of the Orpheus going down in the Manukau Harbour as "a snapshot of terror, frozen in time" was laying it on a bit thick.

Arr, but they're fine tales, me handsomes. Last week's opener about the crew of the Boyd who were slaughtered and eaten in 1809 by Whangaparoa Maori was a cracker.

It was a tale of utu, cultural insensitivity and spelling errors, and one of the beauties of having an oral tradition is there are Maori who can recount and explain - in this case former Race Relations Conciliator Hiwi Turoa, whose home overlooks the wreck site.

The historical dramatisations are not laboured. They are done in a spooky shade of watery blue and the recreations are aided by some nifty computer graphics.

And the programme is not without its own sense of macabre humour. With the Kaeo butcher behind him, Gittins explained how the murdered sailors would have been prepared for the hangi pits that were there at the time.

Last night's "Orpheus Story" had modern resonances as the demise of the warship on the Manukau sandbar was unfurled.

The Orpheus was the pride of the British fleet and was in a warring New Zealand as a show of strength. But in a climate of under-funding of the signal station and ignored warnings from the harbourmaster, she foundered on the bar with the loss of 189 lives. Some of the dead were buried in the sand dunes at Whatipu, and there are three anonymous sailors buried at Cornwallis.

There were three inquiries into the sinking, the first a fiasco, the second had no teeth - gosh, that couldn't happen today - and the third, a court martial in England, exonerated the dead captain even though he had been using the wrong charts.


Expect a rise in patronage to small coastal museums around the country, as the stories bring to life the artefacts gathered there. At the Whangaroa Museum in Kaeo there is a treasure trove salvaged from the Boyd in 1968 by Kelly Tarlton and Wade Doak.

And at the Huia Settlers Museum, fragments of the Orpheus can be seen, including a section of mast that washed around in the harbour until 1991. Crew members had clung to the mast for eight hours before succumbing.

The advance publicity blather about Shipwreck hadn't sounded too promising, and a polite distance from the America's Cup triumph was surely necessary, but it just goes to show that there's nothing like a damned good yarn.