Mini Coopers? Who needs ‘em? For a real Mini adventure, all you need is a yellow British Leyland 1000 model, a few thousand miles of New Zealand countryside and Amy Archibald’s dog.
RICHARD GUNN, a Seventies Mini owner himself, looks at Goodbye Pork Pie, one of the world’s lesser-known road movies.
MINI Cooper owners have it far too good. Everybody loves and lusts after your cars as pedigree classics, prime examples of an era when British automotive ingenuity still led the world. Your vehicles don’t just possess genuine character by the bucketload, but also true performance and stupendous handling crammed into the neatest of little packages, and for those reasons, sail permanently high in the price guides. Own a Sixties Cooper and everybody wants to be your friend and have a go in it. And, to cap it all, The Italian Job, one of the most enduring British caper movies of them all, centres around your car. You own one of motoring’s true A-list stars.
But what about those of us with humbler Minis, those ones that sneaked out of the factory before John Cooper got to fiddle with them? The slightly battered Seventies and Eighties examples, painted in challenging colour schemes with black front grilles, and possessing all the raw power and speed of an rheumatoid tortoise scaling Ben Nevis? The BL-era 850s, 1000s and Clubmans that nobody goes ‘Ooooh’ over when they turn up at car shows after having broken down twice en route? Where is our Michael Caine? All we’ve got is Rowan Atkinson as Mr Bean, with his pea green, Reliant Regal-baiting example, trumpeting us. Nobody makes films where our cars steal the show. The best we’ve had recently is Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral demonstrating a woeful ignorance of the rules of the motorway in a ragged red 1000, and Tom Selleck plus moustache squeezing into one during Three Men and a Little Lady, just to show America just how quaint and old-fashioned Nineties Britain was. Laugh? Um, no, actually…
|Up, up and away…|
A stolen purse and Gerry gets his hands on a shiny new Mini via the local Hertz rental agency. Off to a flying start – no hanging around at junctions – and let’s see how fast this Mini will go…
This is not Stratford-on-Avon or Stoke Poges, but New Zealand! Still, the street scene has a wonderfully familiar feeling to it. Various GM and Fords can be seen – look twice though, that’s not a Chevette on the right…
|Trade ‘n’ save|
Just before the Blondini gang start dismembering the Mini…
Now known as Pork Pie, evidence of the Mini’s stripping can be seen… That bootlid was worth all of NZ$5
Now there’s little left of the Mini… Judging by the amount of loot they got for all the parts they sold, Mini spares were a valuable commodity in New Zealand in 1980..
A fiery end for Pork Pie… still, one good thing came of the inferno. It took out a Farina Cambridge with it!
But fear not, all brave owners of vaguely naff Minis. For there is a movie that champions our cause, one where the funniest and most talented character is small, yellow, slightly flatulent and hails from Longbridge. It’s possibly not a film you’ve heard of, thanks to it being made in New Zealand on a small budget at the tail end of the Seventies, and not actually being that good in a conventional sense. But for those of us who appreciate an automotive underdog – particularly one built by British Leyland – winning through against all the odds, it’s a hilarious and bizarrely heart-warming slice of cinema. Its name is Goodbye Pork Pie, and it was released in 1981. The story is of three misfits, brought together by chance, stealing a yellow 1978 Mini 1000 – the ‘Pork Pie’ of the title – and driving it across New Zealand pursued by police. The chase generates so much media attention that they become popular outlaws, nicknamed the Blondini Gang, as they struggle from Kaitaia to Invercargill with assorted following police Holdens proving that 300bhp 5740cc V8 engines are simply no match for 998cc and 38bhp of muscular Birmingham A-series.
Up until Peter Jackson’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy was made there, the land that gave us the All Blacks rugby team and particularly delicious lamb wasn’t exactly recognised as a nucleus of movie-making excellence. Consequently, Goodbye Pork Pie failed to excite anywhere else too much apart from New Zealand. But in its home country, which at the time of the film’s release was populated by 3,195,800 people and 69,884,000 sheep, Goodbye Pork Pie was the biggest film of the year. It’s still a massively popular cult down under, held in the same affectionate regard as The Italian Job is in this country. In fact, just as the Michael Caine ‘n’ Coopers movie has inspired an annual charity car run, so Goodbye Pork Pie has spawned its own event, with Minis travelling the same 1250 mile route that the yellow one does on screen.
It was in March 1979 that the New Zealand Film Commission agreed to assist with funding Goodbye Pork Pie. Pitched to them as a homegrown version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – but obviously with less bicycles and more Minis – it was originally titled Meatballs until director and co-writer Geoff Murphy found out that a Bill Murray comedy of the same name was in production in America at the same time. So Goodbye Pork Pie – the title refers to being found out in a lie in Cockney rhyming slang incidentally – went into production, with Murphy, the future director of Young Guns 2 and Under Siege 2, at the helm.
His previous artistic endeavours included travelling around New Zealand in a bus as part of the Bruno Lawrence Electric Revelation and Travelling Apparition (BLERTA for short), a troupe of hippies who performed improvised music and absurdist theatre, and also blew up outdoor toilets in the name of entertainment. That he subsequently managed to raise NZ$400,000 to make Goodbye Pork Pie suggests some big leaps of faith by the financiers. The production also featured up-and-coming film luminaries Lee Tamahori (responsible for directing/ruining the last 007 flick Die Another Day, depending on your viewpoint) as an employment scheme sound boom operator, and Stuart Dryburgh, eventually to become the cinematographer on The Piano and Bridget Jones’ Diary.
Aside from the yellow Mini, there were three principal characters in Goodbye Pork Pie. Playing the driver, Gerry, was Kelly Johnson, while his companion John was portrayed by Tony Barry, who’d started his screen career in Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. Hitchhiker Shirl, played by Claire Oberman, provided the love interest…although there was little in the way of love, more just snatched opportunities on the part of Gerry.
The film starts in the remote town of Kaitaia, where Gerry Austin, one of life’s wasters, is hassling a woman with a Ferrari 308 GT4. When she drops her purse, he makes off with it straight for the nearest Hertz to use her cash and driving licence to hire a car so he can go looking for adventure. The licence he steals is in the name of Leslie Morris, thus signalling that this movie is an unashamed tribute to Austin Morris even before the yellow Mini makes its appearance.
The opening shots also capture the unique motoring atmosphere of New Zealand of the Seventies. The country comes across as a sleepy international backwater trapped halfway between Britain and America where British and European-designed BMC, BL, Rootes and Ford products mix with big-engined Yank Tank-style Holdens and Chryslers, with a few unfamiliar Japanese oddities thrown in for good measure. Imagine scooping up half of 1979 Coventry and dumping it in the middle of Chicago, and you get some idea of what is happening in the background.
Meanwhile, John has been dumped by his girlfriend, who has gone off to stay with her sister in Invercargill at the other end of the country. He decides to visit her and try and win her back, but even travelling by bus from Auckland to the south proves beyond his limited budget. He sees Gerry being stopped by police for not wearing a seatbelt and helps get him off with just a warning. In return, he is offered a ride to the next town. However, when the pair call in for petrol – even a Mini needs to fill up sometime – but accidentally forget to pay, the police take to their trail and the chase and legend of the Blondini Gang begins.
Fugitives they may be, but that doesn’t prevent Gerry and John stopping when they see an attractive hitchhiker by the side of the road. Despite Gerry’s questionable reassurances that “It’s okay, he’s queer and I’m driving”, blonde and busty 23-year old Shirl not only gets into the car with them, but within minutes of being picked up by two strange men acting slightly suspiciously, she’s telling them that she’s still a virgin, thus demonstrating conclusively that New Zealand was a VERY innocent place in the Seventies. Probably best not to try this line nowadays, girls.
What makes the adventures that follow stand out is not the sheer speed or thrills of the car chases, but the intelligent way the Mini is used to evade the theoretically superior and less cubically-challenged police. As with The Italian Job, Goodbye Pork Pie sees the Mini do things that only a Mini can do. Pursued by a police motorcyclist, the gang take to a muddy dirt track, safe in the knowledge that front-wheel-drive and go-kart handling will win out against the more powerful but less stable two wheels. Sure enough, the motorbike falls over a lot more than the Mini does. The cop is eventually shaken off completely when the car is hidden in a scrapyard, inside the shell of a Vauxhall-based Sixties Holden. Obviously staged and somewhat implausible it may be, but Mini Coopers escaping the clutches of the polizia in Turin by driving onto the roof of an exhibition centre didn’t do the credibility of The Italian Job much harm either.
Other stunts the Mini performs include driving through a shopping mall (a direct steal from The Italian Job admittedly), diving under an accident-damaged Hillman Avenger on the back of a tow truck (when the pursuing police Holden tries it, in true comedy fashion, it loses its roof-mounted lights), escaping through the main concourse of a railway station onto the platform, and then leaping into one of the box cars of a moving train. In fact, the only time things get completely unbelievable is when the Mini attempts to outrun a V8 Holden HQ in a straight race. The high speed chase, during which British Leyland manages to fend off General Motors, looks almost convincing…until an interior shot accidentally reveals the Mini’s large central speedometer in the background reading all of 40mph!
As the Blondini Gang get closer to their destination, money becomes increasingly scarce, and they resort to selling off bits of the Mini to make ends meet. By the time Invercargill is almost in sight, the car has lost its seats, doors, bootlid, bumpers and even its entire front end, its headlamps bolted to the bulkhead instead. All this has managed to raise over a grand, suggesting that Mini parts prices were much more expensive back in 1979 then they are now. When John eventually reaches the home of his girlfriend’s sister – Gerry having been caught by the fuzz after falling out of the vehicle at speed – the car is little more than a bare shell with an engine. And when a stray spark from some dragging bodywork ignites leaking fuel in the boot, it goes out the way all true Mini heroes should, by being totally destroyed. To its eternal credit though, it does manage to take an Austin Cambridge Farina with it.
Three Minis and three Holdens were used during filming, and such was the low budget of the movie that the Holdens – in full police livery – were also used for towing production equipment and caravans as the crew of 24 travelled the same route through NZ that they would eventually bring to the cinema screen. The Minis just had humans to carry because that was about all they could manage. Responsible for supplying them was the New Zealand Motor Corporation – effectively the Kiwi arm of British Leyland – which donated one car for free, and sold the film-makers the other two for NZ$4000 each.
If, by the end of the movie, these two Minis were returned undamaged, NZMC agreed to buy them back. However, with one Mini deliberately set on fire, another one having its front wings, doors, seats and bootlid removed as well as a hole cut in the roof before also being set alight, and the final car being accidentally rolled during stunt rehearsals, the company never had to make good on its promise. In fact, the crew ended up having to rob parts from yet another Mini just to make good the car that had been overturned.
Unaccustomed to finding themselves the subject of cinematic interest, the local communities en route responded well to all the attention. ’Yellow Mini Maniacs’ proclaimed the headline in the Marlborough Express, while ’City To Feature In Film’ said the Southland Times with a depressing lack of imagination. Meanwhile, ’Amy Archibald’s dog and Alan Burt also had star parts’ exclaimed the Northland Age, suggesting that, while Northland was undoubtedly a place that was fond of canines, it probably wasn’t the kind of location you’d want to go for a lively and interesting time.
Completed in 1980, and screened at Cannes before it went on general release, Goodbye Pork Pie opened in New Zealand on February 6, 1981. To help promote it, Minis were parked in cinema foyers and car rallies for the diminutive Issigonis creation were organised in Auckland and Wellington. By the end of the year, Goodbye Pork Pie had become the first ever New Zealand film to break just on domestic receipts alone, taking around NZ$1.5-million. Which may not sound like much now, until you consider that Hollywood blockbusters Star Wars and Jaws also netted the same amount when they were released in the country.
Its success took director Geoff Murphy and actor Kelly Johnson totally by surprise. “I had my doubts that anyone would like it,” recalled Johnson recently. “But when I went and saw it at the St James on the first Friday night, the house was packed and people were laughing out loud. It was a real thrill.” Murphy remembered ringing a cinema manager the check how the film was doing two weeks after it opened. “I can’t talk to you,” the manager told him. “The foyer is like a riot. There is such a crowd I haven’t been able to get them all seated.”
Not everybody was impressed though. The Southland Times, for example, blamed Goodbye Pork Pie for all manner of emerging social evils. Displaying the same flair for snappy writing it had demonstrated with its flamboyant ’City To Feature In Film’ headline, it claimed that “Geoff Murphy’s film depicts the theft of petrol, the flagrant breaking of speed restrictions and examples of dangerous driving…connivance in the drug scene, the defrauding of the railways and shoplifting.”
Just imagine how shocked it would have been if the remake of The Italian Job had been filmed there?
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Despite the treatment meted out to the Minis in the movie, one of them survives, now much better cared for as part of the collection of the New Zealand Film Archive in Wellington. It’s no static prop either In September this year, it took pride of place at the head of a convoy of over a hundred Minis in Auckland in a recreation of a similar run staged in 1981 to publicise Goodbye Pork Pie. All the other Minis are missing, presumed well and truly dead, and nobody is too bothered about what happened to the Holdens.
Incidentally, Kelly Johnson, who played Gerry, is now a successful lawyer, but still finds himself being asked to steal Minis when he visits clients in prison. And if anybody knows the subsequent movie career of Amy Archibald’s dog, please let us know!
Long since deleted on VHS, Goodbye Pork Pie is, happily, available on DVD for a mere £5.99. Try a large DVD stockist, the internet or alternatively anywhere in New Zealand!
Written by Richard Gunn.