This week, Prime’s groundbreaking docu-drama series War News takes viewers into the atrocious conditions at the front line of the Passchendaele Offensive, a battle which left a deep scar on New Zealand’s military heart.
The Gibson Group series, created with NZ On Air’s prestigious Platinum Fund, transports viewers to WWI by putting a fictional TV current affairs team at the coalface of the war, reporting back to anchor Ray Harkness (Mark Mitchinson) in the studio.
This episode finds War News correspondent Jack Crawford (Jason Whyte) knee-deep in a sea of thick mud as he awaits zero hour with the 2nd Otago Battalion in the dark pre-dawn hours of October 12th, 1917.
To recreate the miserable conditions at Passchendaele, a field outside Avalon Studios was completely dug up to create deep, muddy craters. “We spent about a week just filling it with water so that when the actors got into the mud, it was that deep and that nasty they couldn’t actually walk through it,” says production designer Nick Riera. “It was similar to what the soldiers had gone through.”
In a sobering scene just before the battle to take a ridge leading to the Belgian town of Passchendaele, Crawford asks 2nd Otago Battalion commander Major William Turner (Cohen Holloway) how his men are feeling. “Exhausted, nervous. They’re normally a fairly buoyant bunch before an attack, but not today. Not today.”
War News writer David Brechin-Smith praises Holloway’s performance in the scene. “He conveys a feeling of resignation. You haven’t slept properly for days, and you know your chances of survival are slim.”
As Crawford, Wellington actor Jason Whyte (Siege, Avatar, Until Proven Innocent) found the Passchendaele scenes especially gruelling, spending two nights filming under a constant deluge in a heavy leather coat. He gained a crucial perspective on the catastrophic battle in which New Zealand’s army suffered more than 3,500 casualties within a few hours.
“The shoot was difficult, but I had the ability to hear ‘cut’ and be given a hot water bottle and go home to my family each day,” says Whyte. “These men had months and years of these conditions. Braver than me, much braver.”
Also in this episode, Crawford’s fellow correspondent Paul Jameson (Richard Dey) goes head-to-head with bullish generals over their Passchendaele plans. He has a particularly tense interview with British Expeditionary Force commander Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig (Tim Gordon), who is determined to push ahead with the offensive because he believes the enemy is close to cracking.
Jameson also meets Kiwi flying ace Keith Park (Vere Tindall), and explores the Arras Tunnels in northern France, a “town beneath a town” that sheltered up to 30,000 Allied soldiers. Meanwhile, America enters the war and anchor Ray Harkness investigates the hard line being taken on anti-conscriptionists, who were often labelled "shirkers" and "malingerers".
War News, Prime Sunday 6 July 2014