Note: this piece was written as part of the original 1986 press kit for The Fire-Raiser
In 1978 I wrote a short history of Nelson Central School for its centenary, and came across a number of interesting figures. Two in particular stayed in my mind — a gifted headmaster, a man of many talents and interests, who had a rare ability to waken his pupil’s minds; and an arsonist who burned down buildings in Nelson in the 1890s, among them the school whose history I was writing.
Six or seven years later Stephen McElrea [former drama producer, later TVNZ Head of General & Special Interest Programmes] asked me to write a five-part TV serial, a costume ‘kidult’ — and I found these two men surfacing in my mind. They were ready-made for a story. All that was needed was to bring them into conflict, and of course, add a group of children.
I didn’t give Stephen exactly what he wanted. The Fire-Raiser isn’t set as far back as he would have liked. I took my arsonist out of the 1890s and set him down in 1915 because I thought it would be interesting to look at the anti-German feeling of that time and work a school pageant, patriotic pageant, into the plot.
Nelson is changed to Jessop and shrunk in size, though some of the geographical features remain. The original arsonist and headmaster are thoroughly fictionalised, and some meaty roles for women are added. As for the children — Kitty, Irene, Noel, Phil — I wanted a balance of sexes and a range of social types. And I wanted the girls to take part in the physical action and not be watchers.
Keeping this balance wasn’t hard. In fact, I began to be more interested in the girls than in the boys; they seemed to be easier to write for because they had an inner life the boys seemed to lack. So then I had to work on the boys: make them rounded figures as well.
In fact, I became so interested in these children that they began to behave almost as they would have in a piece of fiction for adults. The adults too became real — and as a result I got more pleasure from writing The Fire-Raiser than I’ve had from any of my pieces for TV.
There’s a book — same name — published by Penguin. It follows the story fairly closely but adds one or two things, rounds the characters a little more, puts into words all those things supplied by images on the screen. I hope viewers and readers will enjoy both versions.
- Aside from The Fire-Raiser, acclaimed novelist Maurice Gee created WWll series The Champion, and wrote for police show Mortimer's Patch. His 1987 adult novel Prowlers follows the children of The Fire-Raiser into adulthood. Gee's novels have also inspired a number of screen adaptations, including Under the Mountain and In My Father's Den.