Mistress, Mercy review: How Renee Chignell herself stole the show

by Graham Adams / 16 July, 2018

Manon Blackman as Renee Chignell. Chignell herself also appears in the TVNZ docu-drama Mistress, Mercy. Photo

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Renee Chignell steals the show in her screen debut.

In the mid-80s, I edited a current affairs magazine in Auckland. One of my responsibilities was to go to the printer’s premises in Anzac Avenue to check the film for each issue and sign off the pages before the printer started the run.

The person who organised the film and stood beside me to note any required changes was Peter Plumley-Walker. He left an indelible impression on me because of his intense gaze and extravagant moustache that made him look like a comic-book version of a RAF officer. He didn’t say much and I couldn’t work out what particular role he played in the small printing business.

I once asked the owner what Plumley-Walker did exactly.

He laughed — slightly derisively — and said: “No one knows.”

It could have been a summary of Plumley-Walker’s secret life until his naked and bound body was found below the Huka Falls in 1989 — and then everyone suddenly knew what cricket umpires did in their spare time. And even though my contact with Plumley-Walker had been brief, I remembered him instantly when his photo was splashed across the media after he was identified as the victim of a bondage session gone wrong.

My passing contact with him gave me a particular interest in the case and when I happened to meet lawyer Chris Harder at a party, the topic came up. Harder was the defence lawyer for Renee Chignell’s boyfriend Neville Walker in the pair’s three trials and when he discovered I was an occasional ghostwriter for publishers he asked if I would meet him at his office to discuss writing a book with him about the case.

When I met him, I surprised him by saying I didn’t think a book would sell well. The details had been exhaustively picked over in the media for two years as the three separate trials proceeded and I doubted that many people would want to pay to read the rehashed story in print yet again.

Mercy, Mistress, Mercy was published in late 1991 with Christopher Harder’s name on the cover and Bryan Staff credited as “author’s editor” inside. I have no idea how well it sold but I did notice it often enough in bookstore bargain bins to wonder if the print run had vastly exceeded the publishers’ optimism about sales.

Nearly 30 years later, however, the story has been given new life because Renee Chignell has appeared in a Sunday Theatre docu-drama, Mistress, Mercy: The Renee Chignell Story.

In 2009, she broke a 20-year silence to talk to Metro journalist Donna Chisholm about Plumley-Walker’s death and how it changed her life. But she had never agreed to appear on camera until the Gibson Group told her they would be dramatising the case for television. Chignell told Woman’s Day that she chose to take part only because the programme was going to be made with or without her help, and she reckoned that by participating she’d at least be able to have some control over how she was portrayed.

Xavier Horan as Neville Walker, Chignell's boyfriend.

During the trials — which ultimately saw her and Walker acquitted of murder — her lawyers didn’t call her to the stand and also told her not to say anything to the media waiting outside the courts. This is the first time the public has had the chance to hear her speak.

The producers are lucky she agreed because Chignell is the glue that holds the docu-drama together. Producer Gary Scott acknowledged that without her, “We wouldn’t see a great deal of point in doing it.”

Chignell is the standout star of the show, even though all her screen appearances are of her simply sitting in a studio addressing the viewer. Her direct-to-camera interludes are dotted among re-enactments of scenes at court, at the townhouse in Remuera, on Auckland’s Karangahape Rd, and at Huka Falls, alongside archival media footage. Her trump card: “I was there. I know what happened.”

She’s engaging, honest about her motives in entering the sex trade, and open in assessing her relationship with the much older Neville Walker.

As she speaks, she leans slightly forward with her head tilted to the side and at times seems to struggle to find the words to describe the momentous events that shaped her young adult life.

Nevertheless, she is articulate and expressive and you can hear only a faint hint of rounded Westie vowels. She is also quaintly proper, always referring to Plumley-Walker as “Mr Walker” — even though she had strung him up with chains in her Remuera townhouse, naked, the day he died.

Peter Plumley-Walker.

But Chignell’s star turn presents a dramatic problem inasmuch as there is a stark contrast between her and the young woman who plays her as an 18-year-old, and which can’t be entirely attributed to their age difference. Manon Blackman’s performance is uniformly bland and she seems generally too poised, polished and genteel for the audience to easily accept her as the younger Chignell. She just doesn’t look like a young woman who would walk the streets at 15.

The scriptwriters could have given her much better lines to work with as well. The detective who arrested her, Les Payn, related in Metro that when Chignell was asked by another officer to state her occupation, she replied, “I don’t know.” Then, “she turned to me and said, ‘What am I?’ And I said, ‘You’re a dominatrix.’ She says, ‘Okay, yeah, if that’s what you call it. What’s that?’”

That is a lot more interesting and revealing of her character than a television detective asking: “What’s your occupation, Renee?” and Blackman chirping: “I’m a dominatrix.”

Some of the drama’s interest, especially perhaps for older viewers, will lie in the archival footage — showcasing bouffant hairstyles, a proliferation of trim moustaches, and long-forgotten newsreaders such as Tom Bradley and Richard Long — but the story also highlights the fact that some problems apparent then still fester 30 years later.

Prison witnesses featured prominently and controversially at the trials, as they related lurid scenarios about Plumley-Walker’s death that Chignell and Walker had supposedly described to them in custody.

Since then, jailhouse snitches” have been used in several of New Zealand’s most high-profile and contentious murder trials — including those of David Tamihere, Teina Pora, and Scott Watson — and debate over their use rages still.

But even after the conviction for perjury of one of Tamihere’s jailhouse accusers this year, the best we have achieved decades later is Justice Minister Andrew Little saying in April that a review of the use of snitches is warranted, only to back off that suggestion a few days later, saying that he was “not proposing to initiate anything”.

And there is the abusive relationship that Chignell endured with Neville Walker. She was so scared of him she didn’t apply for bail on one occasion when she had the chance to leave prison because she felt safer inside away from him. Her first thought when she was arrested was that this was a good opportunity to get away from Walker.

We know a lot more now about the hold that violent and controlling men have over their partners but — 30 years on — we have the highest rates of family violence in the developed world, despite campaigns to increase awareness of abusive relationships and rescue programmes that try to save women from their tormentors.

The dramatisation of the case on national television may, of course, also have an unintended salutary effect. Dominatrixes everywhere will be alerted to the fact that there is no point in having a safe phrase like “Mercy, mistress, mercy” if you are in the habit of leaving your trussed-up client alone for 20 minutes while you go out to have a ciggie and a coffee.

Chignell’s claim that she thought that Plumley-Walker would have rattled his chains and called out if he was distressed clearly does not represent best health and safety practice.

B&D workers may want to check their routines. It could save them an awful lot of trouble.

Watch Mistress, Mercy on TVNZ On Demand.

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