Illegal radio station brought rock'n'roll to the masses, writes Barney McDonald.

With radio stations in New Zealand falling over one another to out-shock, out-trash and out-rate each other, it's nice to remember that once upon a time it wasn't like that. No, I'm not talking about a century ago, before the advent of broadcast radio. I'm referring to the glory days of Radio Hauraki, when a bunch of hard case larrikins took the bull by the horns and launched a pirate radio station to play rock'n'roll instead of state radio's easy-listening pulp.

A new feature film, 3 Mile Limit, by first-time director Craig Newland, celebrates the unlikely heroes of Hauraki, depicting the genesis of a crazy idea and the antics that ensured it didn't just remain on the mixing board or get washed out to sea. On a broader scale, it's a joyful "kicking against the pricks", "she'll be right, mate", "number eight wire", "all for one, one for all" tale of triumph over mediocrity. But at its heart, 3 Mile Limit is about the lengths Richard Davis (Matt Whelan) will go to establish his illegal station and the limits of his wife Judy's (Belinda Crawley) patience as he drives them out of house and home to fund his dream.

"Judy's love for Richard and their marriage is the foundation of this story," insists Crawley. "It's through this that Richard is able to take an enormous risk and pursue his dream and fight for freedom. Judy is his biggest supporter, his rock, the constant in his life."

Richard is loosely based on Hauraki founder David Gapes, but Judy is fictional, leaving Australian actress Crawley plenty of scope to mould the woman she plays.

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"She's creative and passionate and in that we're very similar," concedes Crawley. "I was drawing from my own life and my own relationships to bring her to life. She's also a strong woman with her own dreams, but how much of herself is she willing to sacrifice? That's what drew me to her as a character."

Present in almost every scene, Whelan, perhaps best known for Go Girls and My Wedding and Other Secrets, had to muster all his research skills to capture his character. And though Gapes was a good starting point, Whelan's approach mirrors the legend's own words in a New Zealand Herald interview in 2008: "It was a hell of a lot more than one person, that's for sure."

"He was always intended to be an amalgam of a few different guys and I'd say that comes through in the script," admits Whelan. "But I always envisaged him to be closely linked to David and I spent most of my preparation finding as much information as I could about him. I was lucky enough to have the book, The Shoestring Pirates, with me so I could at least see what he looked like and get a feel for him through the pictures and the stories told."

Crawley's knowledge of the trials and tribulations of Hauraki was non-existent when approached for the film, though she admits to being astonished that at a time when a number of commercial radio stations existed in Australia, New Zealand was under a draconian system that meant no rock'n'roll could be heard on the airwaves.

"I just couldn't wrap my head around it!" she declares. "To think that you couldn't turn on your radio and sing along to a great rock'n roll song is almost unfathomable for me."

For his part, Whelan insists he's always been a fan of the station without knowing a great deal about its history.

"I knew a bit about it, but on a very broad scope and didn't really pay much attention until I started studying radio," he confides. "I remember waking up for school every morning and my parents would have Hauraki on, listening to the morning show, so in a way it's kind of nostalgic for me."

3 Mile Limit opens on Thursday.