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Inside The Luminaries

by Karl Puschmann, NZ Herald

The Luminaries has been described variously as “a dazzling feat”, “the consummate literary page-turner” and “an 800-page doorstop”.

My favourite description, however, being someone who gave up on local author Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning, epic novel almost immediately after starting it, is “six-part television series”.

“I think a lot of people will be relieved that they can watch the TV series having bought the book but having never fully read it,” laughed actor Erik Thomson over the phone from Adelaide. “It’s a heavy book. Now there’s an easy option.”

I’m not sure if “easy” is the right word. While the scope of the book has been narrowed and focused, none of Catton’s bold ambition has been lost in translation. Having penned the series herself, she regularly jumps between two timelines and keeps things moving as fast as a shooting star. Backed by the BBC, the show is gorgeous to watch with an opulence not often seen in local drama.

'To get an opportunity to do something so rich and well-funded was an absolute gift'

“A lot of the stuff we do in this part of the world is contemporary and domestic because we don’t tend to have the money to do these big, broad, epic, period pieces,” said Kiwi-born Thomson. “To get an opportunity to do something so rich and well-funded was an absolute gift. They’re very rare,” admitted Thomson, who has most recently been on our screens as dad Dave Rafter in the popular family drama Packed to the Rafters and as columnist George Turner in the literary comedy series 800 Words.

Both those chaps couldn’t be further from Dick Mannering, his character in The Luminaries, who Thomson describes as “an entrepreneur and whoremonger”. While cheerful, he’s an unsavoury fellow.

“Yeah, that’s a fair assessment,” Thomson mused. “I didn’t want him to be a Dickensian evil character. Men in those situations need to have charisma and a joie de vivre about them that is infectious to whoever it is they’re seducing to work for them. He’s got a theatrical quality to him. Amid this fairly dark and brooding BBC period drama, I wanted to bring a character with a lot of colour. That in itself makes his line of work even more unpalatable and insidious. I just relished the opportunity to do that.”

As anyone who has read the back cover blurb of the novel knows, astrology and star signs play a major part of not just the story but also its very construction. So the big question is, does Thomson believe in such things?

“I find it interesting. If my star sign in the Adelaide Advertiser says don’t go outside today, I’ll still go outside. I don’t believe it, but I don’t discount it offhand,” he said, before revealing that he does share classic Taurus traits, like stubbornness, determination and a creative streak.

“I think William Shakespeare was a Taurian, as was Laurence Olivier,” he smiles.

As the world shifts into its new Covid-19 reality, Thomson believes The Luminaries will act as a wonderful showcase for New Zealand and its talent on both sides of the cameras, “showing the world we are the best place to make drama series”.

“It is giving people something fantastic and epic, something to sink their teeth into and get away from the news and the drudgery of the day-to-day in isolation or quarantine.”

He also believes it could lead to people giving the source material another crack.

“It’s the book that’s on everyone’s shelf but it’s one of those things that everyone is intending to read,” he says.

“It’s a daunting task until you get into it. So hopefully this will help oil the wheels.”

The Luminaries: Backed by the BBC, the show is gorgeous to watch with an opulence not often seen in local drama.
Lighting up the screen: New Zealand-born actor Erik Thomson, best known for Packed to the Rafters and 800 words, stars as Dick Mannering in the new TV adaptation of The Luminaries. Picture supplied