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By the time firefighters arrived, the blaze was out of control. Photo/Supplied

Ablaze: The devastating true story of NZ's most disastrous fire

TVNZ's drama based on the Ballantyne's department-store fire in Christchurch gives cause to take stock.

Not every top television drama lands with the zeitgeist-rattling thud of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or The Handmaid’s Tale. In this golden age of television drama, the bar is set high. You could spend a fortune at the movies and not see as many profound, entertaining insights into our times.

It’s no surprise that local television drama struggles to compete with Chernobyl, Years and Years or even Big Little Lies, which had blimmin’ Meryl Streep in it.

Still, things may be looking up. We got hooked on Three’s Waiheke noir thriller The Gulf. “Better than most kiwi drama,” as one online user review raved. Another pleasant surprise, if you can say that about a devastating true story of accident, confusion and mismanagement, is TVNZ 1’s drama, Ablaze, about what remains New Zealand’s most disastrous fire. On November 18, 1947, 41 people died in the blaze that destroyed J Ballantyne & Co, a classy Christchurch department store.

In an audacious move, the real footage that bookends the action is colourised. The dramatised events are in stark black and white. It serves to mark the line between life and art. This is not a documentary. But once you get past wondering how young women in the 40s managed to work with those elaborate period hairdos perched on their heads, this is gripping, moving and almost literally incredible television.

This is an era when women couldn’t come to work without gloves. But down in the cellar, the boys are smoking – “Perfect spot for a durrie!” – amid the fabrics and flammable pots of paint, etc. The point that stringently policed class hierarchies fail to keep human chaos at bay – in fact, catastrophically get in the way – is well made.

There are lingering shots of matches being lit and it’s not long before smoke is drifting on to the shop floor, to be puzzled over and mostly ignored in a manner that will have you yelling at the screen like a character in one of those smoke-alarm ads.

“Do not enter the store,” orders a fireman when the brigade is finally called. “We need to have permission of the owner.” Hell’s bells.

The staff are fanning themselves as the heat builds, and still they aren’t evacuated. “I’m sure they’ll let us know if there’s any cause for concern,” says someone, heartbreakingly. When permission is finally given to leave, workers have to cover up merchandise and put away equipment first. By now we’ve got to know Violet, pregnant and happy to hear she won’t be sacked for it, Doreen, who is falling in love … You know that, for 41 of these people, it’s too late.

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Ablaze sent me to check and, yes, the store was a death trap. “A curious blindness to fire-risk, as far as we can see, can alone explain the failure of the directors to install some warning-device, a fire-sprinkler system,” said the Royal Commission report. We are spared the worst you can read in witness accounts of people trapped at windows pleading for rescue, but the fire scenes are compelling.

Owner Kenneth Ballantyne emerges a hero – apparently he was, on the day. But the failings of management seem strangely downplayed.

The fire provoked change to try to ensure that this never happened again.

In the end, Ablaze is a moving tribute to those who died, their names listed at the end. Wide boy Cyril escapes and, watching the fire run its terrifying course, says, “Just like the war. Loyalty and devotion to duty – that’s what will kill them.” Yes, but with help from the failures of those who should have made the workplace safe.

You have only to read accounts of the horrific 2017 fire in London’s Grenfell Tower – 72 dead – to know this sort of combination of chance, disastrous human error and negligence is not safely in the past.

ABLAZE, TVNZ on Demand.

This article was first published in the October 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.