Rich vein of history for show

Chris Priestley (second from right) with Peter Eliott, Cameron Bennett, Sonia Wilson and Nigel...
Chris Priestley (second from right) with Peter Eliott, Cameron Bennett, Sonia Wilson and Nigel Gavin. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Musician Chris Priestley is fascinated by the often untold stories of New Zealand and Otago’s past, so much so that he has gathered a group of fellow music and history buffs together to indulge his passion and bring the resulting show to Dunedin’s Fringe Festival, Rebecca Fox discovers.

Be they an arsonist and attempted murderer or a tightrope walker from the 1800s, Chris Priestley loves discovering their stories.

The musician has always had a love of history but it was not until he ended up in Dunedin for a year in 2009 that it became a consuming passion.

Living a quieter life in Dunedin than in Auckland, he had time to think, to write his own music for a change - hence his search for interesting characters to write about.
‘‘It was an outlet for me. I decided to write about the history I liked doing most.’’

Priestley, an Auckland cafe and live music entrepreneur and co-founder of Real Groovy Records, realised there are not a lot of contemporary songs written about interesting people from New Zealand’s past, so he decided to write some himself.

Chris Priestley performs in the ‘‘Unsung Heroes’’ show. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Chris Priestley performs in the ‘‘Unsung Heroes’’ show. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

‘‘It all started in Dunedin in 2009. I was sitting in a room in the middle of winter writing songs.’’

Little did he know then that the project would gain so much interest.

He gathered a few musician friends, including Nigel Gavin, Cameron Bennett, Emily Roughton, Jess Hindin, Neil Billington and Bryan Christianson, together to record the songs and he released a CD called Unsung Heroes and soon after another album, this time focusing on folk heroes.

Along the way he began to collect old photographs, books, images and newspaper clippings and tuck them away on his computer.

When lockdown hit he suddenly had time to do something with them, discovering he had several hundred for many places like Devonport and Dunedin.

‘‘It was hugely beneficial for me.’’

He decided to create a slideshow of images and clippings to show in the background of the performances. The number of images he has means he can target the slideshow to the region they are performing in.

‘‘It brings the show alive a bit more I think.’’

But it took some time before he was happy to take it on the road as he had to learn the computer skills to do it. ‘‘I’m not a computer whizz. There was a lot of trial and error needed before I locked down what I had to do.’’

Not content with that, he got an old friend, actor Peter Eliott, on board to read the accounts of these heroes in the newspapers of the time. For Eliott, who has known Priestley for years as both their wives danced together, shared his love of history and often chatted about the ‘‘odd story’’, it seemed like a ‘‘bit of fun’’.

Narration is nothing new for Eliott, who has been nominated and won awards for his work on television series Captain’s Log and Explorer which were also projects featuring history.

‘‘I’ve always loved it. Acting is storytelling and there are a wealth of stories out there. You don’t have to play a character, it’s just lovely telling a story,’’ he said.

However, it is the first live theatre he has done for a few years as he finds it very tiring, but he has many other irons in the fire doing voice work, auditions, writing and researching.

Some of the slideshow of historic images that play at the Unsung Heroes performance include ...
Some of the slideshow of historic images that play at the Unsung Heroes performance include (above) the Gemmel Crossing Toll in 1925, an Otago Girls’ High Shool gym class in 1905. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED / ARCHIVE NZ

One of the enjoyable things about the project, he says, is its telling of stories most people have not heard. Like the story of Huria Matenga Ngaronoa who swam out in a storm with a line to secure a ship and help save the lives of all on board.

‘‘It is an unbelievable feat of extraordinary derring-do. It’s amazing stuff. It’s time we started hearing our own stories.’’

Some of the stories reflect the often tragic and brutal happenings of the time.

‘‘Some require a nod and a wink as some say never let the truth get in the way of a good story.’’

Eliott is also full of praise for Priestley, describing him as an unsung hero himself due to his involvement in the cafe live music scene in Auckland and the folk club.

‘‘He’s kept a lot of folkies alive with events at 121 and before that at Atomic. He also writes a damn fine song.’’
Priestley says most of the songs are written by himself or fellow group member and journalist Cameron Bennett, but there are a couple they perform by others.

‘‘Mini Dean was written by Helen Henderson, from Southland, so why’d we write another one? God’s Own Country is another one. It’s written by Thomas Bracken who is buried in Dunedin. Craig Bracken, the great-great-grandson of Tom, helped put it to music.’’

A view of Stafford St in 1862. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED / ARCHIVE NZ
A view of Stafford St in 1862. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED / ARCHIVE NZ

Bennett has written a song about the ghost at St Bathan’s Vulcan Hotel and coincidentally Priestley’s sister-in-law works there so he has plans to stay there.

Lockdown also gave Priestley a chance to write more songs as he often tucked away ideas of people he would like to write about.

‘‘Some sit there for five years, then one day, it’ll be like that’s what I was missing... Having the time really helped especially with the subsidy paying the rent. It gave me time to perfect the show and get it ready to go on the road.’’

One from the South that sticks out is Darling Jennie, about Jennie Anderson, a tightrope walker and dancer from the mid-1800s who drowned crossing the Waitaki River in a Cobb and Co coach in the middle of winter.

Another is Cyrus Hayley, who was convicted of attempted murder, threatening to kill and threatening to destroy property, and given three life sentences in April 1872 and incarcerated in Dunedin gaol. He fled a hard-labour gang working on Bell Hill and, pursued by a warder, was shot in Moray Place.

He also has songs about conscientious objector Archie Baxter and politician William Larnach.

This tour will be the first for the new line-up with Priestley, Eliott and the slideshow alongside Bennett, guitarist and ‘‘old friend forever’’ Gavin, and French-born singer Sonia Wilson.

‘‘We all share a passion for history and putting on a show.’’

They have done a few gigs to test out the format and are pleasantly surprised by how popular it has been.

With plans to play smaller, intimate venues, they can operate within Covid restrictions. A grant from the New Zealand Music Commission also meant it was more financially viable to do so.

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