"We started in Bluff and ended up in Opua and, in-between, we've been on coal trains, freight trains, steam trains, railcars, even a jigger or two".
This highly popular series, produced by Jam TV, has garnered awards across most production categories, and rightly so. All aspects of the programme, from filming, to editing, to the soundtrack, make this a stand-out series, and Marcus Lush is the perfect minstrel to tell the tale.
On his journey along the railroad, Marcus catches the train wherever he can, but if the tracks are gone or out of use, he walks, rides, cycles and pedals his way along the old railway line tracks. Along the way he meets locals and recounts the social history of the area, all with his trademark mix of warmth and wryness.
His off-kilter, insightful and always entertaining commentary guides us around (with thanks to the Raurimu Spiral) a rarely seen and often spectacular landscape; one Off the Rails not only makes visible, but turns into compelling television.
"The people we've met along the way have been amazing: passionate about trains but equally knowledgeable about New Zealand history and some of our more famous — and infamous — characters."
Historians, artists, poets, train drivers, train crash survivors, tea ladies and trainspotters bear witness to local legend. Stories of famous co-travellers (Mark Twain) disasters (Tangiwai) and southern gothic baby-killers (Minnie Dean) are collected alongside quirky present-day tales.
It's such an easy-going ramble that that you don't mind the interspersed train trivia and engineering esoterica that in less entertaining hands would be be dry as concrete: Did you know the Clyde Dam was built on an earthquake fault-line?
"I've always liked riding on trains but now they seem to have permeated my life. I've found out so much about our past that I didn't know, from tragedies like the Seacliff fire and Hyde rail crash to engineering wonders like Denniston on the West Coast."
Super 8 home movie effects and archival footage evoke more innocent times. Off The Rails's innovation was to combine the essentially homespun charm of the subject matter with jump-cut editing and snappy camerawork, and rock things along with a soundtrack loaded with contemporary pop music.
Off the Rails showed that with energetic storytelling, authentic local subject matter (that might have previously been considered ‘unfashionable' or parochial) could make quality and high-rating, television.
Off the Rails won Best Director for a Non-Drama and also Best NZ Information/Lifestyle Programme at the 2005 Qantas Television Awards.