In 1989 the story of the teenage dominatrix and the cricket umpire’s body found floating below the Huka Falls catapulted the names Renee Chignell and Peter Plumley Walker into the national consciousness. Nearly 30 years later, the showcase docu-drama Mistress, Mercy dives beneath the sensational headlines to unravel the truth in a murder case that rocked New Zealand.
When 18 year old Renee Chignell discovered the lifeless body of cricket umpire Peter Plumley Walker in her homemade B & D dungeon in 1989 her life changed forever, and so did New Zealand society.
Charged with murder, Renee and her much older boyfriend Neville Walker were arrested and tried three separate times in a headline-grabbing court battle that ran two-and-a-half-years from 1989 to 1991. It was a sensational case the likes of which New Zealand had never seen before with secret witnesses, courtroom theatrics and questions raised about police interrogations and payments to jailhouse informants.
It was also one that also exposed the nation’s underbelly. Forced to look up the word ‘dominatrix’ in the dictionary, middle New Zealand would never be the same, and the case left an indelible imprint on the national psyche.
Producer Gary Scott of Wellington’s Gibson Group (Nancy Wake: The White Mouse, The Secret Lives of Fussy Eaters) says he was initially drawn to the case as a fascinating piece of New Zealand social history and also because of Renee’s story.
“Everyone I’ve spoken to said the first thing they had to do was look up the word ‘dominatrix’ and figure out what it meant. Reporters, lawyers, cops. The fact that someone worked as a dominatrix back in 1989…. Well, we forget now it’s the first time that word had been used in public. Some of the more lurid details of what the job involved were just astonishing to everyday people.”
“Ultimately though, the story of an 18 year-old girl whose in way over her head, was one that hadn’t been told, and that’s where we started. I think everyone who knows anything about the case wonders, ‘how did she get there?’ And then, given the trouble she was in ‘how did she get out of it?’ It’s an extraordinarily difficult circumstance for an 18 year-old.”
He says many of the facts have been forgotten over time, and that despite finally being acquitted many still think Chignell was found guilty.
Three decades later Mistress, Mercy with the help of meticulous research, court reports, transcripts and the testimony of Renee Chignell herself tells a first-hand account on television for the first time.
“There’s a responsibility to be historically accurate we have to be clear what we are saying is based in fact and we’re not giving a false impression of events,” says Scott. “On the other hand some evidence was permanently supressed, and a programme can only ever be a summary, and the opinions of people involved are often diametrically opposed.”
Director Mike Smith agrees, and says telling the story was a very exacting process.
“The story is very complex and human, and unusual and relevant – it speaks to New Zealand at the time, but it also still resonates today. Our challenge was to depict it truthfully, I believe the closer to the truth you can get the more powerful a story becomes.”
“I hope that people watching it will have the same approach we took which is not to be judgmental but to look at what happened and who was involved and see the humanity of it.”
PRODUCER – Gary Scott
DIRECTOR – Mike Smith
RENEE CHIGNELL - Manon Blackman
PETER PLUMLEY WALKER – Edwin Wright
NEVILLE WALKER – Xavier Horan
LAWYER STUART GRIEVE (QC) – Joel Tobeck
LAWYER CHRIS HARDER – Gavin Rutherford
Detective JOHN DEWAR - Phil Brown
Detective LESTER PAYN – Ricky Dey
NGAIRE CHIGNELL – Roz Turnbull