Epitaphs on gravestones are the starting point for presenter Paul Gittins to unravel skeletons in cupboards, lovestruck suicide pacts, and fatal love letters. The series uses compelling personal stories to retell New Zealand history and effectively combines documentary and re-enactment. An actor and history enthusiast, Paul Gittins became a household name on Shortland Street (as Dr Michael McKenna) before he devised this series for Greenstone. Epitaph ran for three series, and won Best Factual Series at the 1999 NZ TV Awards.
This documentary explores resurgent interest in Anzac Day and examines the Kiwi desire to “remember them” (those who served in war) — ranging from patriotism to protest to burgeoning dawn services. The doco is framed around the return of the Unknown Warrior to a Wellington tomb in 2004; and a trip to Trieste, Italy, for Gordon and Luciana Johnston and their 24-year-old granddaughter Kushla. Gordon was a World War II gunner and Luciana an Italian nurse. Kushla learns of their war experience, and the early Cold War stand-off in Trieste following Nazi surrender.
Raised in New Zealand by parents from Tokelau, What Now? presenter Jason Fa'afoi and his brother, reporter (and future MP) Kris have made their Wellington digs a Tokelau music free zone. In this documentary they join their parents and sister on a life-changing journey home. Aged 12, Dad Amosa was one of the first locals awarded a scholarship to be educated in NZ. Mother Metita left as part of a major resettlement plan. Neither has returned to Tokelau in 35 years. The Dominion-Post called the result “a great little documentary”; The Press rated it the best NZ documentary of 2004.
Kōtuku Rerenga Rua (the second flight of the heron) explores the impact of a near-death experience on Kōtuku Tibble. The teacher and media personality (from te teo Rugby World Cup commentator, to running language lessons on TV show Pūkana) talks about being reborn as the husband, father and leader he believes he is destined to be. Co-directed by Tim Worrall and Aaron Smart (The Road to Whakarae), the short documentary was made in te reo Māori for web series Loading Docs. Sadly Kõtuku Tibble died in his sleep, a few months after Kōtuku Rerenga Rua was completed.
Made by the NZ Broadcasting Corporation in the mid 1960s, this half hour TV documentary sets out to summarise New Zealand. More than a promotional video, it takes a wider view, examining both the country’s points of pride and some of its troubles. In a brief appearance Barry Crump kills a pig, although the narration is quick to point out that the ‘good keen man’ image he epitomises is also a root of the country’s problem alcohol consumption. The result is patriotic, but certainly not uncritical. Writer Tony Isaac went on to make landmark bicultural dramas Pukemanu and The Governor.
In this 2014 documentary, singer Whirimako Black explores the World War II experience of her late father Stewart Black (who enlisted as Tai Paraki), and its legacy for his whānau. With her daughter Ngatapa — also a singer — Whirimako returns to Cassino in Italy. The 1944 battle helped forge the reputation of the Māori Battalion, but they suffered heavy losses, and it left survivors like Paraki with trauma and shame. The pair respond in word and song to the place — and to their koro’s memories, which were captured by director Reuben Collier for earlier doco Monte Cassino 60 Years On.
This tale of body-snatching botanical aliens invading 70s Wellington shared the 1973 Feltex Award for Best Drama. Dominated by Davina Whitehouse’s performance as a retired teacher-turned ET foster parent, it included early TV roles for Paul Holmes, Grant Tilly and Susan Wilson. Vincent Ley’s script won a Ngaio Marsh teleplay contest, and its realisation stylishly traverses local summertime environs — Silence was one of the first NZBC dramas filmed in colour. Director David Stevens went on to success in Australia (writing Breaker Morant, and The Sum of Us).
Rizk Alexander found himself in a rare situation during WWI — he was an Ottoman subject who chose to fight for the British Empire. His brief life still holds a fascination for his descendants. From a Syrian Christian family, Alexander had only been in New Zealand three years, when the 17-year-old signed up for war. Hoping to fight the Turkish Ottomans, he instead ended up on the Western Front, proving himself at the Battle of Messines in 1917. Later gassed, Alexander returned to Wellington to recuperate but he never fully recovered, dying in 1924. He was 27.
When Vince Pierson’s old comrades tried to track him down, years after the Korean War, they couldn’t find him. Pierson had taken another surname when he joined up, to disguise the fact that at 19, he was underage. As a gunner attached to HQ, he was with the New Zealand artillery supporting Australian and Canadian infantry at the Battle of Kapyong. Pierson belies his 85 years with sharp recall and vivid stories of people and places. He shows as much empathy for the Koreans as for his comrades, while describing battling intense cold and stifling heat — and the other side.
In each episode of this popular TV series, actor Paul Gittins investigated the story behind the epitaph written on a gravestone. In this third episode from season one, Gittins visits the grave of Walter James Bolton, a Whanganui farmer who was the last man to get the death penalty in New Zealand. He was hanged on 18 February 1957, found guilty of poisoning his wife of 43 years with arsenic derived from sheep dip. Gittins meets Peter Waller, a campaigner for Bolton’s innocence, who claims to be his son. Bryan Bruce revisited the case in 2007 on his series The Investigator.