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