A GROUNDBREAKING NEW SERIES ABOUT WORLD WAR ONE.
War News is available to rent or buy through the Gibson Group Vimeo On Demand page.
Imagine a current affairs show reporting on World War One live from the battlefield. War News does that in a gripping new five-part series on Prime that tells the story of New Zealand at war from 1914 to 1918.
Funded by NZ On Air’s prestigious Platinum Fund and made by award-winning Wellington production company Gibson Group, War News is a fictional current affairs show covering the major events of WWI from a New Zealand perpsective. The genre-bending series transports viewers to 1914-1918 by placing a TV current affairs team at the coalface of the war.
War correspondents Jack Crawford (Jason Whyte) and Paul Jameson (Richard Dey) report from major battles on Gallipoli and the Western Front while Joe Stevens (Paul Yates) weighs in from the Middle East. In New Zealand, news anchor Ray Harkness (Mark Mitchinson) and in-studio military expert Robyn Michaels (Nathalie Boltt) analyse battlefield strategies, examine changes in New Zealand society and culture, and bring in experts to debate important aspects of the war at the front lines and at home.
“We needed a fresh and affordable way to make a WWI programme really modern and engaging”, says producer Gary Scott, who created the series with former Gibson Group Chairman Dave Gibson and writer David Brechin-Smith for this year’s WW100 commemorations.
“The Arab Spring revolts had just happened, and most of the real news had come from camera phones. So we said ‘let’s imagine what it would look like if you could report on WWI like it was happening today’. It meant we could include the archive footage and experts that you would see in a typical war documentary but not become a slave to them.”
“I couldn’t quite get my head around how 100-year-old history and a modern news show could connect at first,” says War News writer David Brechin-Smith (The Cult, Insiders Guide series, The Hopes and Dreams of Gazza Snell). “But I imagined this conflict recorded via all sorts of media, and it started to make sense. My challenge was to take this history and present it in a format that a modern audience could connect with.”
Director Mike Smith (Seige, Nothing Trivial, Underbelly: Land of the Long Green Cloud), whose job was to convey the concept of a TV news team covering WWI without throwing the audience off, said it was important “not to see any technology. So you never saw a cellphone in 1914. You don’t see microphones, you don’t see cameras.”
What the audience does see is one period telephone and suggestions of how footage was recorded. Reporter pieces-to-camera, Skype conversations, dramatic helmet-cam excerpts, shaky eyewitness accounts and leaked recordings are juxtaposed against the calm, formal Arts and Crafts design of the War News studio, where Ray Harkness brings all the stories together.
The Gibson Group crew recreated significant battlefields around the Wellington region: Gallipoli at Red Rocks, Passchendaele at Avalon Studios, the Sinai and Palestine deserts on the Wainuiomata coast, the trenches of the Somme at Paekakariki’s Queen Elizabeth Park, and an old dam in Wainuiomata as the walls of Le Quesnoy, a French town dramatically liberated by the NZ Division in its last major battle of the war.
Reporting from these "battlefields" was a test for seasoned actors Richard Dey and Jason Whyte, who played war correspondents reporting from the front lines.
“Many times during filming I found myself thinking of those who had been there and had survived or lost their lives,” says Whyte. “Sitting in water waiting for the director to call action as explosions were rigged and water towers primed, I seriously questioned whether I would have been as brave as those who had offered their souls for peace.”
Director Mike Smith had a similar revelation working on the series. “Because I grew up in the late 60s and 70s I had a slight anti-soldier, anti-cop mentality. I did a show a couple of years ago called Siege and it changed my feelings about cops. War News has done the same about soldiers. So many of them went over there for good reasons, for reasons they believed in, and they just got massacred.”
As studio anchor Ray Harkness, Mark Mitchinson (Siege, Bloodlines, Nothing Trivial) enjoyed the chance to cover issues that were happening in New Zealand during WWI, from conscientious objection, to the prohibition of alcohol debate, to anti-German sentiment.
“There was a lot happening back home that was really quite oppressive, quite staunch. They were really going hard at home. And that was the thing about that war. It really harked back to our 'Empire' roots.”
To convey differing points of view, Harkness has studio guests going head-to-head. In one episode, pro-conscription MP Maui Pomare argues with King movement leader Te Puea Herangi over whether or not Māori should be conscripted into the army to fight what was generally seen as a Pākehā war.
Robyn Michaels, played by Nathalie Boltt (District 9, Bloodlines), puts a WWI skew on the modern-day weather presenter. But instead of telling us the forecast, her studio segments examine in detail key battles and the strategies of the commanders, and put the war into historical context.
“It was one of the hardest auditions I’ve ever done,” says Boltt. “I had to learn a good chunk of the war, stuff I’ve never paid attention to. It was hard to imagine how they were going to put it all together, these people dressed in period outfits in a newsroom, but it makes sense in the context. “ She auditioned twice before being given the role, and rehearsed constantly during studio recording breaks.
Actor Richard Dey, who plays War News correspondent Paul Jameson and had to dodge bullets and explosions during recreations of fighting in the Gallipoli hills, says “one of the difficult things about the shoot was to remain respectful to the men who died fighting, at the same time as adapting it to a modern context.
“Thankfully, due to the hard work and research of the writer, the crew, producers and director, we were able to capture footage that will inform and education young generations of folk that maybe had never heard of Le Quesnoy, Gallipoli and the like. So that they may also remember them.”
5 x 1 hour for PRIME TV
Gary Scott is a long-time producer with Gibson Group. He has a strong background in journalism and history and is a producer, director and writer of prime time factual programmes. His recent production credits include the prime time factual series Along For The Ride for TVNZ, and the 70-minute historical docudrama Nancy Wake: The White Mouse. His other contemporary projects as executive producer include the popular factual documentary series Undercover, NZ Detectives and Line of Fire.
Chris Tyson is the Gibson Group's resident line producer/producer. She has worked with the Gibson Group since 1986 on a wide variety of projects. Her feature flm credits include Fresh Meat, The Irrefutable Truth about Demons and Via Satellite (for Satellite Films) and her telemovie credits include Tiger Country, Clare and Blonde Cargo (for Hofmann & Voges Entertainment GMBH). She has worked on comedy series such as Skitz, the international children’s series Paradise Café, and on several drama series including Cover Story, Mirror Mirror, The Strip as well as the award-winning Insiders Guide to Love, The Hothouse and Aftershock.
Dave Gibson is an award-winning producer of film and television. He helmed the Gibson Group for more than three decades before taking up the role of Chief Executive at the NZ Film Commission in 2014. In 2012 he became a member of the Order of New Zealand Merit in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
Mike Smith - Director
A vastly experienced director, Mike has helmed episodes of numerous TV series including Outrageous Fortune, Nothing Trivial, Sunny Skies, Serial Killers, Willy Nilly, The Strip, Duggan and the international series Power Rangers. Earlier in his career he directed significant New Zealand TV series including Heroes, A Country Practice and The New Adventures of Black Beauty. His notable recent credits include the Napier-based Jan Molenaar TV movie Siege, winner of five drama categories at the 2012 film and television awards. He is currently working on the Prime murder-mystery series The Brokenwood Mysteries.
David Brechin-Smith - Writer
David is an award-winning screenwriter. His credits include Gibson Group productions The Insider’s Guide to Love and The Insider’s Guide to Happiness, both of which won him best script awards. He has also worked on The Strip, The Cult, The Hothouse and the international series Paradise Café. He co-wrote Brendan Donovan’s feature film The Hopes and Dreams of Gazza Snell and has a number of film scripts in NZFC-funded development.
Mark Mitchinson – War News anchor Ray Harkness
Mark was born in the UK and moved to New Zealand as a young boy. He returned to England in the 80s to study as an actor at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. He returned to New Zealand in 2002 after years in the UK running his own business. Here, he resumed his acting career and notably won a best actor award in 2011 for his role as Colin Bouwer in Bloodlines. His television credits include his award-winning role in Siege, as well as key roles in Nothing Trivial, Rage and Outrageous Fortune. His film credits include The Hobbit, Tracker, After The Waterfall, Sione’s 2: Unfinished Business and Show of Hands. He is the star of the web series High Road.
Nathalie Boltt – War News military strategy and history expert Robyn Michaels
Originally from Johannesburg, Wellington-based Nathalie is an actor, writer and producer known for her role as sociologist Sarah Livingstone in the Oscar-nominated feature District 9. She has previously appeared alongside her War News co-star Mark Mitchinson in Bloodlines and Siege. Other credits include Doomsday, Inspector George Gently, The Poseidon Adventure, Nights in the Garden of Spain and The Wotwots. Her short film The Silk has won multiple awards in international film festivals.
Jason Whyte – War News correspondent Jack Crawford
Jason is one of Wellington’s most experienced theatre actors and collaborators, having won several Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards for both acting and production. He has also won the NZ Screen Awards Best Performance by a Supporting Actor for his role in The Insiders Guide to Happiness. His screen credits include Home By Christmas, Kombi Nation, Avatar, Nancy Wake: The White Mouse and Passion in Paradise, and he is a founding member of the international theatre sensation Apollo 13: Mission Control, playing Flight Director Gene Kranz.
Richard (Ricky) Dey – War News correspondent Paul Jameson
Richard is a Wellington-based actor and writer with many stage credits to his name. He is also a fight choreographer for film and television, and his screen credits include Tangiwai, Project L and Legend of the Seeker.
Paul Yates – War News correspondent Joe Stevens
Paul's many acting credits include the comedy show Away Laughing, the telemovie Tangiwai and Peter Jackson's The Frighteners. Among his writing credits are Willy Nilly, Facelift and Girl vs. Boy. He also created the comedy series Sunny Skies with director Mike Smith.