Mur­der and lies

Your Week­end TV re­viewer Jane Bowron shares her small-screen highs and lows.

The Press - Your Weekend (The Press) - - Feature -

The homi­cide branch of the New Zealand po­lice force will be cring­ing as the na­tion sits down to watch to­mor­row’s Sun­day Theatre: Catch­ing the Black Widow (TVNZ 1, 8.30pm).

You may re­call the case. Back in 2009, mur­der mas­querad­ing as sui­cide was car­ried out in an or­di­nary Christchurch sub­ur­ban home when He­len Mil­ner poi­soned her hus­band Philip Nis­bit.

It took nearly four years, un­til 2013, for Mil­ner to be charged with the killing. If it wasn’t for the dogged per­se­ver­ance of Nis­bit’s sis­ter, Leeanne Cartier, Mil­ner would prob­a­bly have got­ten away with it.

The per­for­mances of Aidee Walker as Cartier and Kather­ine Mcrae as Mil­ner are equally bril­liant in this last NZ on Air-funded Sun­day Theatre for the sea­son. When Cartier stayed with her sis­ter-in-law just weeks af­ter her brother’s fu­neral, she was dis­turbed to dis­cover that Mil­ner was shacked up with an old boyfriend.

Cartier was even more alarmed when Mil­ner showed her Nis­bit’s typed sui­cide note with a sig­na­ture that looked de­cid­edly bo­gus. That note mys­te­ri­ously dis­ap­peared, and an­other one, with­out the hand-writ­ten sig­na­ture, was later handed into the po­lice by Mil­ner.

Do­ing her best to hide her suspicions, Cartier be­gan her own de­tec­tive work while hav­ing to lis­ten to Mil­ner paint­ing her brother in an ap­palling light. Ac­cord­ing to Mil­ner, Nis­bit was a vi­o­lent wife-beater, who had racked up huge debts and was work­ing as a male es­cort.

Mil­ner also main­tained Nis­bit had found out that his son from his first mar­riage wasn’t his, and that this dis­cov­ery, along with his nar­colepsy, was what drove him to sui­cide.

Cartier lived in Aus­tralia and flew back and forth to Christchurch to gather more damn­ing ev­i­dence, rack­ing up huge per­sonal debt as she tried to put a rocket un­der the po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

She was do­ing all the hard yards while the po­lice viewed her sleuthing ef­forts as am­a­teur, in­tru­sive and ob­ses­sive. They even cau­tioned her for ha­rass­ing Mil­ner af­ter Cartier sent an­gry texts ad­mon­ish­ing her sis­ter-in­law for sell­ing off her de­ceased brother’s pos­ses­sions.

The scenes be­tween the two women, es­pe­cially in the coro­ner’s court when Mil­ner is in the box and Cartier gets to grill the widow, walk a fine line be­tween com­edy and drama.

Dressed in raunchy cloth­ing (in the style of Cheryl West from Out­ra­geous For­tune), Cartier is in di­rect con­trast to Mil­ner’s stodgy ap­pear­ance that helped the black widow carry out her men­ace in “plain” sight.

What makes Catch­ing the Black Widow such a good watch is that the char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion in this true story is rooted in an en­tirely recog­nis­able New Zealand. More of these please, NZ on Air.

The sec­ond se­ries of Or­di­nary Lies (Fri­day, TVNZ 1, 8.30pm) is set in a sports­wear fac­tory in Cardiff where we will see six char­ac­ters each act out a lie that lands them in the cac­tus.

Con O’neill, that ac­tor with a voice that sounds like a baby’s sock is stuck in his throat, plays Joe, a man­ager, who sus­pects his wife of in­fi­delity. Surveil­lance cam­eras are in­stalled in the home as the all-see­ing eye turns Joe into a twitchy, ob­ses­sive snoop.

What he is view­ing (with­out the sound) causes him to un­ravel and makes us long for him to pull the plug on the cam­eras. This is an anx­ious watch with the back story com­ing a lit­tle late to the res­cue. How­ever, there are enough tan­ta­lis­ing glimpses of the other or­di­nary liars’ sto­ries in­ter­wo­ven through­out Joe’s story to make you tune in to see how our next Pinoc­chio fares.

When I was at pri­mary school, I came home dis­traught one day and told my mother that I’d heard round the traps that Aus­tralia was en­tirely pop­u­lated by crim­i­nals. It had been a shock – at the time, our neigh­bours had their grand­daugh­ter vis­it­ing from across the Tas­man, and she and her mother seemed to me to be quite lovely peo­ple.

Af­ter ex­plain­ing Aus­tralia’s con­vict his­tory, my mother added this: “Some of the con­victs did noth­ing more than steal one loaf of bread to feed their chil­dren.” It’s a sim­ple sen­tence but I think you could show it to a bunch of dif­fer­ent peo­ple, ask them which word or phrase is the most im­por­tant, and sud­denly know a lot about them.

Here’s my take. “Con­vict” in this in­stance is a mis­nomer – or at least, an anachro­nism. It’s a long time since we’ve jailed some­one for steal­ing a loaf of bread. “Loaf of bread” rep­re­sents a des­per­ate need rather than a greedy want. Even the way my mother said it made me pic­ture some­thing ragged and stale. “To feed their chil­dren” was the clincher, es­pe­cially for a child raised on Dick­ens. Des­per­ate times, des­per­ate mea­sures. Par­ents do­ing what they are sup­posed to do. Break­ing the law to keep their fam­ily fed.

In 2017, when we hear the sto­ries about kids go­ing to school with­out lunch af­ter they’ve left the house with­out break­fast, we mut­ter: “A good mother would do any­thing to make sure her chil­dren were fed.” And ig­nore the fact that no-one – no-one at all – sur­vives on a ben­e­fit with­out some com­bi­na­tion of help from food­banks; char­i­ties; the kind­ness of fam­ily, friends and strangers; and ly­ing to WINZ.

We ask where the fa­thers are. Some­times the fa­thers are one or more of these things: vi­o­lent, dan­ger­ous, hid­ing, un­known, un­well, dead, ad­dicted, not in­ter­ested.

When we hear about New Zealand’s high rate of child abuse, we say: “A good mother would do any­thing to pro­tect her chil­dren.” And over­look the fact that of­ten the most dan­ger­ous thing a woman can do is at­tempt es­cape. And even while we’re ask­ing that ques­tion, we stop fund­ing safe houses.

Some­times we say: “A good woman would not have chil­dren she couldn’t af­ford.” And then we in­sist that once a woman be­comes preg­nant – how­ever that preg­nancy oc­curred – she must have that child whether she wants it or not. We also say: “A good woman would not lie,” and yet our abor­tion laws func­tion al­most en­tirely on the ba­sis that a woman want­ing to ter­mi­nate a preg­nancy must lie and say, not that she wouldn’t be a good mother right now, but that she will go mad.

Which is why some good women are liars and cheats.

Stills from Catch­ing the Black Widow, a tele­vi­sion drama­ti­sa­tion of Lee-anne Cartier’s quest to bring “black widow” He­len Mil­ner to jus­tice.

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