TV3’s Westside weaves together New Zealand nostalgia with the pits and peaks of life for the notorious West family. Amelia Petrovich looks back on the history lessons of episodes past.
At the end of year 12, my entire class voted to study Medieval England over New Zealand history and my poor teacher dissolved. With a furrowed brow of dismay, you could see him asking “how?”
How could a class of 30 or so young Kiwis be more interested in ye olde England than the myriad stories in their own homeland? Why bother updating any curriculum at all if a bunch of kids who’d never been out of Wellington still got romantic and dewy-eyed about ‘the motherland’?
In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder if a show like Westside would’ve turned our squishy wee minds closer to the scandals of home instead.
Gritty, witty and retro-pretty, Westside is now nearing the completion of a stunning season two. The Kiwi drama, written by James Griffin and Rachel Lang, kicked off in 2015 as the prequel to the multi-award winning Outrageous Fortune. Based around the life and times of Ted and Rita West with their increasingly wayward son Wolfgang in tow, Westside’s strengths seem never-ending. The series boasts a stellar cast, scrumptious aesthetic and seriously sharp writing.
I know, though, that it’s the detailed tapestry of historic Kiwi controversy that would’ve really brought back the light in my old teacher’s eyes.
The Wests of the ’70s and ’80s are in the business of crime, the severity of which ranges from petty theft to poisoned lamingtons all within the show’s (nearly) two seasons. It’s a wild ride and a good excuse to revisit some of New Zealand’s most infamous crimes and arrests. By watching Ted and Rita effing and blinding at each other about #Just70s/80sThings I’ve learned more about the weirdly crooked recent history of New Zealand than my frazzled, patriotic history teacher could’ve ever hoped to impart.
Season one, episode three: The New Zealand Dawn Raids
In a podcast interview with Graeme Hill, Westside director Murray Keane said a backdrop of historical New Zealand events enabled a focus on the opinions and views of the era.
Episode three of season one focused on the potent racism seeping through Kiwi society in 1976, around the time of the New Zealand Dawn Raids. The raids singled out alleged Pacific Island overstayers basically as a scapegoat for a crashing economy. Police would raid houses at dawn to catch their occupants before they woke to turf them out onto the street, which often swiftly lead to a deportation flight.
Ted West and the gang are embroiled in the Dawn Raids, not because they’re overstayers themselves (and to be honest, Te Ara says that overstaying was frequently only ‘alleged’ at the moment of a specific raid anyway), but because they’ve decided to steal from the right South Auckland supermarket at the wrong time.
Surprised that the cops have reached the scene of their pre-meditated crime first, the crew quickly realise this time that the batons aren’t for them.
When he sees a young boy escape the scene, Ted’s Hendo-hardened heart softens and he takes in the kid himself. The boy comes to be a crafty and endearing character named Falani, who might not seem unfamiliar if you were an Outrageous fan.
Ted’s decision prompts an onslaught of indignant racism from Phineas who, like many New Zealanders at the time, accused “coconuts” of stealing jobs. As the years have rolled on and we’re less keen to be associated with hate for immigrants, it has been argued that the dawn raids themselves were racially motivated, with most of the ’70s immigrant influx consisting of people from Australia and the U.K.
Against all odds: Falani steals no jobs – only a car and Phineas’ wife Carroll – so the lovable scamp is let off with a West warning; “You can always steal from the rich because they deserve it, but never from the poor.”
Season one, episode four: The ‘Mr Asia’ drug deals
In episode four, Rita has run away and taken up a life of hard partying to absolve her guilt about that one time she tried to kill her son. This leaves Ted alone and unhappy, so the gang finds something to speed the plot along. Despite the strict ‘no drug-selling’ code, Ted is so distraught that he accepts Bilkey’s offer to get in contact with “some guy named Marty Johnstone”.
Marty “some guy” Johnstone happens to be the infamous Kiwi drug trafficker involved in the ‘Mr Asia’ syndicate, which managed to import huge quantities of marijuana into the country during the late ’70s through Johnstone’s friendship with a Singaporean ship-hand.
The syndicate went on to gain a reputation within New Zealand’s criminal underworld and, under the leadership of Terrance ‘Mr Big’ Clark, graduated to heroin importation both here and in Australia.
As well as a link to an iconic historical crime ring, Marty Johnstone’s portrayal in this episode seemed like a bit of a television industry in-joke. The 2011 season of Australia’s Underbelly featured Daniel Musgrove in the role of Marty Johnstone, four years before he hopped the ditch and appeared as Ted’s second in command, Lefty Munroe, in Westside.
Once they finally meet, Ted decides that Johnstone is not the kind of guy he likes and decides to crack his safe rather than make friends. This is probably just as well, because the real-life Marty Johnstone, along with big boss Terrance Clark, became a paranoid heroin addict and was murdered in 1979 when he lost out on a major drug shipment in Thailand.
Season one, episode six: Carless days
Carless days were a misguided attempt to mitigate the damage done by the second ‘oil shock’ of 1979. The policy was short-lived and pretty broadly hated, requiring car owners to pick a day of the week they would opt-out of driving and indicate this on their windscreen with a coloured sticker.
If you were caught driving on your carless day, not only were you unable to get where you were going, but you’d also be given an annoying fine.
The gang’s petrol heist plans are thwarted by the policy when Bert picks the wrong day of the week for a business trip, and Rita begins to pressure Falani into a confession when he mentions he knows about exemption stickers.
Carless days did sweet f-all to reduce petrol consumption and were canned in 1980, but their brief existence generated a black market for exemption stickers and forgeries. An ‘X-sticker exemption’ could be applied for if you needed your vehicle seven days a week for work, but crooks like the Wests reckoned it was easy enough to get your hands on them through other means.
Season two, all episodes: The 1981 Springbok Tour
Where its counterpart focused on one main historical event per week, season two is made up of eight episodes which all touch on aspects of the 1981 Springbok Tour amidst the turmoil of gangs, heists and family life.
Westside writer James Griffin told Graeme Hill that slowing the show down this series felt inevitable, and that the heated atmosphere of New Zealand in 1981 was a “no-brainer” for the minds behind the Wests.
Patu!, a 1983 documentary on the civil disobedience of the Springbok Tour (Video: NZ On Screen)
For the majority of Kiwis a rugby tour is normally cause for celebration, or at the very least grumbling acquiescence, but South Africa’s pro-apartheid stance and the Government’s approval of the tour turned the nation into a hotbed of protest and controversy.
Director Murray Keane said that due to the scale of the debate, even families like the Wests were swept up in the madness of the Springbok Tour, many surprised that they were suddenly expected to have an opinion at all.
In episode four Falani and Bert trek down to Hamilton to watch the infamous match, where around 3000 protestors stormed the field and were met by pro-tour supporters who attacked them. Police were forced to cancel the match and in turn forced protestors to leave the venue and spill out onto Victoria St, where pro-tour supporters and their fists were waiting.
So far the gang have taken a road trip to Gisborne to steal money from a South African supporter and the opportunistic Bert has been forced to establish him as a snitch for the anti-tour movement, but with three episodes yet to air there are still numerous aspects of the tour for Westside to weave itself into.
I for one hope the weaving is as abundant and deft as ever. I’m no New Zealand crime historian, but at this rate the classroom of a partially fictitious and retro West Auckland could make a scholar of me yet.
Brush up on your New Zealand history by watching season one of Westside on Lightbox below:
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