Pike River docu-drama - TV review

by Greg Dixon / 21 November, 2016

Photo/Prime TV

Pike River is a compelling, significant 90 minutes of television. 

It is six years since the Pike River mine exploded, killing 29 brothers, sons and fathers. And it is three years since all charges were dropped against mine boss Peter Whittall and the last chance for a personal accounting for what happened seemed to die.

Justice has not been done. And perhaps worse still, the bodies of those men will never be returned to their families.

But in the years since November 19, 2010, the awful story of what happened at Pike River – and even more importantly, why it happened – has been told through much excellent journalism, not least in the Listener by Rebecca Macfie, award-winning writer and author of the definitive book on the disaster, Tragedy at Pike River Mine: How and Why 29 Men Died (2013).

So I suppose one might wonder what, after all this time, a documentary could add to all that we know and all that’s been said about this terrible loss of life.

In fact, Prime’s Pike River was not billed as a documentary, but as a “docu-drama”, which may lead to further wondering about how tasteful an idea it is to include dramatic recreations by actors of the grim events and the people involved – including the 29 dead and the two survivors – in such a recent and still bitter tragedy.

Yet Pike River is a compelling, significant 90 minutes of television. It is a skilful, seamless fusion of those dramatic recreations (with a good cast, too, including the great Roy Billing as Whittall) with extensive and often moving interviews with families, local leaders and experts that, even if it added nothing substantial to the known facts, added much to a sense of what it meant for the families to live through the tragedy and then to try to live with its consequences.

As Steve Rose, father of Stuart Mudge, one of the 29, said: even more than an epic story of “greed and villainy and bad bastards”, it was “about friendship and love and about the strength that comes from that”.

But perhaps not forgiveness. It is to the shame of Pike River’s former management that they failed to take part – on legal advice, we were told. But what would or could they say now in the face of the ongoing grief and anger of a mother such as Leeza Verhoeven, who lost her son Zen Drew? “The whole thing is so massive,” she said through tears, “I can’t get my head around it and I sure as hell can’t get my heart around it, either. It’s too big, too big. They killed our men, our boys. They killed them.”

The documentary makers carefully laid out that huge story: the failure to fully explore the complex geology in the years before the mine was started, the underestimation of local conditions once it was, the cost overruns and the pressure on management to deliver on the big promises. An early voiceover summed up the documentary’s viewpoint clearly enough: an “overconfident, under-informed, largely Australian management” commercially “dug their own grave. Tragically, 29 men are now buried in it.”

If Pike River can be seen to be a little late to the story, I think that’s okay.

The documentary makes up for it with an eloquent, in-depth retelling that keeps the disaster in front of New Zealanders, lest they forget the tragedy or the lack of any meaningful justice for the families.

And it underlines, too, the importance of New Zealand On Air’s Platinum Fund, which supports this kind of programming that might not otherwise be made by our ratings-sensitive broadcasters.

But most importantly, it reminds us again of that most basic of workplace rights: no one should die on the job.

Pike River, Prime, Monday, November 21, 8.30pm, and thereafter on demand at skygo.co.nz and primetv.co.nz.

This article was first published in the November 26, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener. 

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