Rebel cause in radio daze

STEVE KILGALLON
Last updated 05:00 02/03/2014
David Gapes (Matt Whelan) and Morrie (James Compton)

REBEL CAUSES: David Gapes (Matt Whelan) and Morrie (James Compton) hatch a plan to bring rock 'n roll to New Zealand

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Given the bureaucracy, the arrests, the protests and a death, David Gapes says that if he knew then what he knows now, he probably wouldn't have bothered with Radio Hauraki.

"We had a hell of a lot of fun doing it, but it was hard - so hard that if the same circumstances happened again, I don't think we would do it again," reflects Gapes, 48 years after the establishment of Hauraki, New Zealand's pirate radio station, caused the break-up of the state-owned radio monopoly.

"Certainly now, with hindsight, it was too damn hard and we lost the life of one of our closest friends."

Craig Newland shares similar feelings about his own labour of love. It has taken a 12-year struggle, punctuated by the untimely emergence of a rival film, the loss of distribution and funding deals, and enforced paycuts for cast and crew, for his fictionalised version of the Hauraki story, Three Mile Limit, to finally hit the big screen on March 6.

"It's definitely my Everest of all Everests," says Newland.

"If someone had told me it would take this long and be this hard, I would probably never have embarked on it."

When cast and crew were finally ready to start shooting, Newland heard that the New Zealand Film Commission had rejected funding the film at the final hurdle.

He had to front his staff and ask them to agree to defer some payments until after the film was released.

"They said to me that if the Radio Hauraki guys had just packed up their kit at the first sign of trouble, they would never have gone to air."

Newland is too young to have heard the original generation of pirates, but he vividly recalls one of those pioneers, Fred Botica, giving a speech to his class at Auckland's Dilworth school. And as a 17-year-old student radio DJ, he knew the story well and was an avid listener.

"There was nothing like it, it stood out for a young kid as the station to listen to," says Newland.

His career took him from DJ to programme director to station owner. He sold his first, Tauranga's Classic Rock, in 2000, and cashed out of his other interests in 2007 to fund his filmmaking ambitions.

So it was natural that the first project for Newland's one-man band, No 8 Films, would be the Hauraki story. While it had been told in print, the tale had never made it to the screen - Gapes always thought this was inevitable, but assumed it would be in the form of a documentary, not Newland's cheerful adventure-drama. He doesn't mind: "It makes us look really good," says Gapes.

"We weren't bad; but I don't know whether we were that good."

A brief history lesson. Back in 1966, radio was a state-controlled monopoly and popular music all but banned. So journalist Gapes and his friend Denis "Doc" O'Callaghan - later joined by New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation employees Chris Parkinson and Derek Lowe - hatched a plan in a Wellington pub to launch a "pirate" station, broadcasting outside government control from a ship moored in international waters. They would play the Stones and the Beatles and the Kinks - all the music you couldn't otherwise hear.

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The government ran interference as much as it could and, thanks to its interventions, it took three attempts for Hauraki's ship, The Tiri, (restored by Gapes and his crew working 18-hour days), to leave harbour; the second time police boarded and cut the fuel lines. But eventually, at 11am on December 6, Radio Hauraki spun its first disc - Matt Munro's Born Free.

While the original Tiri would run aground on rocks, the replacement, Tiri II, continued broadcasting until June 1, 1970, when the under-fire government agreed to issue Hauraki with a licence, allowing it to broadcast from onshore studios. After 1111 days at sea, the final song broadcast from the ship was, again, Born Free.

During that last night of celebrations before the ship sailed to shore, DJ Rick Grant fell overboard and could not be saved. "He was," says Gapes, "a star DJ, a fantastic bloke."

Newland's film doesn't sidestep Grant's death; in fact, it sticks rather faithfully to the truth, even if some characters are amalgams and some events truncated or shifted in time for dramatic effect - and the leads, played by Matt Whelan and James Crompton, are clearly modelled on Gapes and O'Callaghan.

Gapes says the only major difference he's spotted between fact and fiction is the portrayal of government broadcasting and marine minister, Jack Scott, reimagined as the machiavellian Jim Willis (David Aston) on screen. In reality, says Gapes, Scott was conflicted - sympathetic to their cause but part of a government which wanted him to act.

For Newland, here was an iconic story of New Zealand entrepreneurial spirit and daring and it didn't need much changing. But he believes it also has international appeal and has sent it to plenty of film festivals, already winning awards at Washington and Cleveland in the US.

That it took so long for such a story to be told could be blamed, in part, he says, on Richard Curtis's 2009 farce about British

radio pirates, The Boat that Rocked, which featured Kiwi actor Rhys Darby among others.

"There's a bit of a story about how that came to be," says Newland, then pauses.

"I actually can't say too much about it."

Did they steal the idea?

"You can join the dots. I can't talk about it."

But he will say that he began writing his script in 2000, produced a short in 2008 - Radio Pirates - designed as a sales brochure, took it to Cannes that year and set up some tentative distribution deals. Then the Boat that Rocked came along in 2009, his deals disappeared and Three Mile Limit went back on ice.

"I think its really important for people to realise Three Mile Limit is completely different," he says staunchly.

"The only similarities are that there's a boat."

Eventually, after that setback and the Film Commission's rejection, Newland shot the film in just 25 days - having effectively taught himself to direct - by raising the the money from private investors.

The test of whether they will recoup their investment will come next weekend when it opens, but Newland says that early overseas success has given him confidence.

A film career that took 12 years to kick off should gather some pace after that - he has plans to put another slice of Kiwi history on screen, with a film about former prime minister David Lange. And he's about to start work on another delayed project, a film called Frozen Moments, which was halted when his lead, Liam McIntyre, was cast in Spartacus.

It means reshooting footage already in the can, but such a setback is a mere triviality for Newland.

"I've developed into a very good hurdle-jumper, you could say," he says.

- Sunday Star Times

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