Nancy Wake: The mouse who roared

BRAVE AND HOT-TEMPERED: Shortland Street actress Rachael Blampied as French resistance fighter Nancy Wake.
BRAVE AND HOT-TEMPERED: Shortland Street actress Rachael Blampied as French resistance fighter Nancy Wake.

A new docu-drama starring Shortland Street actress Rachael Blampied looks at the life of New Zealand-born French resistance fighter Nancy Wake. 

Brave, sexy, hot-tempered and determined - Nancy Wake was one of World War II's most famous resistance fighters.

The Wellington-born woman joined the French Resistance in her late 20s and became a British special agent. She was so successful, the Gestapo nicknamed her The White Mouse for her ability to evade capture.

For her war-time efforts, Wake was awarded many medals and her life has been well-documented in books, newspapers and on television. She died three years ago, aged 98, in London and her escapades continue to fascinate.

This week, a new, locally made docu-drama called Nancy Wake: The White Mouse tells the story of how Nancy came to live in France and become involved with the Resistance. It also features some of her daring adventures and touches on her relationship with wealthy Frenchman Henri Fiocca, whom she married in 1939.

The drama aspect of the show was filmed over two weeks with Wellington doubling for European city scenes and Central Otago as the French countryside.

It stars Rachael Blampied (Bree in Shortland Street) as Wake and includes comments from former Australian rugby international Peter FitzSimons, who wrote Wake's biography, plus anecdotes from ex-TV3 reporter Jonathan Kinsella, who interviewed Wake in London in 2005.

When Blampied discovered she would be playing Nancy she read Peter FitzSimons'

book and Wake's autobiography. She also took up smoking, hit the gym and dyed her blonde tresses dark brown.

"I knew that Nancy was The White Mouse because a few years ago she died and there was a huge article about her in the paper," says Blampied.

"It sort of outlined who she was and I remember reading that. Really, all I knew about her was that she made some extraordinarily long bike ride in the war."

In 1944, Wake reportedly cycled 500km in 71 hours through German checkpoints after her radio was destroyed by an operator who feared capture by the Germans.

"I trained at the gym and cycled a lot. I was terrified that I was going to have to do a huge, big, long bike ride," says Blampied.

Thankfully she didn't, but she had to learn to smoke (fake) cigarettes since Wake was a smoker.

"I smoked fake cigarettes for six weeks," says Blampied. "I'd go to a party and pull out my fake cigarettes. They were herbal cigarettes. I didn't want to look like someone who wouldn't smoke. I would be smoking and asking my mum, 'Do I look natural?' and she'd say, 'No' and I'd try again. So I'd ask smokers for tips like, 'How do you breathe the smoke out?'   "

Blampied describes Wake as being "progressive" and "hot-blooded".

"Like Peter FitzSimons says, she doesn't stop to think about things too much because when you do, that's when you get scared and you don't do anything. She was very spontaneous and hot-blooded.

"She would just do it and think about it later - which in many regards with the war was exactly how she needed to be."

Blampied says Wake was incredibly lucky to not have been killed during the war.

"Some of the situations she found herself in during the war beggar belief. She would be smuggling food in her suitcase and a Nazi officer would offer to carry it for her on a train station and she goes, 'Yeah sure'. He could stop and open it at anytime.

"Nobody thought she would be involved in a covert operation, which is how she managed to get away with a lot of the things she did. She just flirted her way past the guards."

Interestingly, Wake's husband Henri understood his wife's determination to assist the Allies.

"They were the love of each other's lives," says Blampied. "But Nancy just knew that she needed to do more than just sit around. I think it stems from being a Kiwi, or at least an Australasian, in that we don't like sitting around when something's going on.

"We tend to get stuck in. And she wasn't particularly contented with sitting at home while Henri went to work at his factory.

"She loved the lifestyle that she married into, but there does come a point where you think, 'OK. This is bigger than me now. I need to stand up and do something'."

Blampied says she felt a huge sense of responsibility playing Wake.

"I was terrified," she says. "It's so difficult. It's a huge honour to play a character like that and you can only hope you do her justice."

Nancy Wake: The White Mouse
TV 1, Sunday, 8.30pm

-The TV Guide