REVIEW: National Treasures is a show that lives up to its name.
Debuting on TVNZ1 earlier this month (Sunday nights 8.30pm, then available on TVNZ OnDemand) without much fanfare, this Antiques Roadshow-meets-Get It To Te Papa had the potential to be this decade’s That’s Fairly Interesting, but is instead something far more deeper, resonant and emotionally satisfying. It’s the televisual love child of Jeremy Wells’ The Unauthorised History of New Zealand and James Belich’s The New Zealand Wars we didn’t know we needed.
Aimed at providing an insight into who we are and where we come from, National Treasures invited people from all over Te Ika-a-Māui and Te Waipounamu to submit their objects, keepsakes and taonga for assessment and discussion as to their cultural and historical value. The best items are planned to be displayed in an exhibition at Te Papa.
While most come under the critical eye of a panel of experts based at Auckland Museum (Tāmaki Paenga Hira), some, too large to be transported, receive a visit from avuncular co-host Scotty Morrison. Along with wife Stacey, our guide back in Tāmaki Makaurau, he is the heart and soul of this special series. They, along with their eclectic “experts” (who include Oscar Kightley and Te Papa’s Matariki Williams and Katie Cooper) bring a sensitivity, empathy, impressive knowledge and aroha in their interviews with Kiwis from all walks of life, allowing them to tell their stories the way they want to (which in some cases involve waiata or risque tales).
What’s also a delight and impressive is the way Te Reo Māori is seamlessly weaved into the programme, organically spoken with subtitles, or quickly translated by the Morrisons themselves. It feels like a template for the way forward for how our homegrown programming should be presented.
Of course though, it’s the history (and especially the quirky bits) that we’re here for – and National Treasures certainly doesn’t disappoint. In the first two “commercial hour-long” episodes so far, we’ve revisited the infamous underarm ball incident, recalled how AJ Hackett bungy got its start (including footage of a bemulleted “Alan” Hackett leaping off the Eiffel Tower), remembered Bob Marley’s only concert in 1979 – and the legacy it left – and revived memories of a classic example of Kiwi ingenuity - the Thermette.
Due deference is given to each subject or person, with engaging chats augmented by the terrific use of archival footage dusted off from, in many cases, decades past. But for every lighter tale, there are far more serious ones and, following television tradition, this cleverly crafted series bookends each edition with stories likely to bring a tear to the eye. There has been haunting imagery of the Tangiwai Disaster evoked by John Archer, whose Christmas as a young boy in 1953 was shattered by witnessing bodies floating down the river past his home and Monique McLennan remembering her lucky escape from the PGC Building during the 2011 Christchurch Earthquake.
However, the most shocking and heartwrenching so far was the opening salvo – inspired by a graffitied school desk circa 1980. Welby Ings was a woodwork teacher at was then known as Seddon High School. As part of the Muldoon government’s crackdown on immigration, officials even visited schools to try and catch the children of “overstayers” out. Determined to protect their students, Ings and others established an early warning system with the front office which gave them time to hide them in a trapdoor underneath the lathe. “What made you teachers do this?” Kightley asks
“Love,” Ings replies without skipping a beat. “People think teachers teach reading, writing and arithmetic – you don’t. You try and grow someone.
“Sometimes there is something higher than law – and it’s justice.”
As Kightley tears up and the pair ruminate on how far and little we’ve come since then, in terms of inclusivity and eradicating racism, Ings comes up with the memorable line: “History doesn’t repeat itself – it rhymes.”
That sequence sums up National Treaures’ power and mana as an educational, enlightening and emotional watch. Gather the whānau together and seek it out as soon as you can.
New episodes of National Treasures debut at 8.30pm on Sunday nights on TVNZ1. They are also available to watch on TVNZ OnDemand.