WAR OF WORDSMITHS
First watch A new drama portrays one of the magazine world’s great rivalries
MEDIA magnate Kerry Packer is alone in his rather gloomy office. It’s 1981 and his prized editor Ita Buttrose has just been poached by Rupert Murdoch’s lieutenant Ken Cowley to edit The Daily Telegraph, making her the first female editor of a major metropolitan newspaper in Australia. Packer reads the press announcement while standing at his desk, two fingers spread in a V shape on the item.
His poker face gives little away. He asks to be connected to Cowley. ‘‘ I’ve just called to tell you couldn’t get a better editor,’’ he says, deadpan. He nods several times and hangs up. Then he looks quizzically at the newspaper again for a long moment. Abruptly he hurls almost everything on his large desk to the floor, turns and picks up his chair and hurtles it across the room. He prowls, silent for a moment, then stands looking out of his window. ‘‘ F . . king Rupert,’’ he snarls.
This is the way Paper Giants: Magazine Wars begins. It’s a decade on from the events of Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo, the first season in this epic series that depicts the so-called ‘‘ paper wars’’ that saw Packer and Buttrose turn the magazine world on its head. Written by Keith Thompson and Justin Monjo and produced by Mimi Butler, the new two-part drama is again impressively directed by Daina Reid. This time they tell the story of the golden years of the glossies and the battle waged by larrikin Nene King and refined Dulcie Boling to make their respective publications, New Idea and Woman’s Day, the No 1 seller in the country.
The Packer scene at the beginning links the two seasons, as does the casting of Rob Carlton as the feared ACP boss. The luminous, contained Rachel Griffiths plays Boling, possessed of a freezing smile, while an irrepressible Mandy McElhinney inhabits the some- times destructive life force called King. While The Birth of Cleo narrative was structured as essentially a two-hander dealing intimately with Buttrose’s life and somewhat more discreetly with Packer’s, Magazine Wars involves several stories within stories, all disparate journeys.
There’s King and her relationship with the love of her life, the initially dissolute Pat Bowring (Angus Sampson), the very private Boling, young journalists Nick Trumpet (Khan Chittenden) and Beth Ridgeway (Caren Pistorius), both championed by King, and the Machiavellian, grimly omnipresent Packer.
The first episode starts a little slowly, with so many characters to establish and a new decade to contextualise. It’s now 1987, years after that first pre-title scene featuring the Packer rage at Murdoch. King is working for Boling at the Murdoch-owned New Idea. Boling, restrained and regal, is the consummate businesswoman, King the office wild cannon, but together they have pushed New Idea’s circulation above the one million mark. Their conflicts grow to open warfare and when King is refused editorship of the booming TV Week, a staple of the supermarkets, she is fired.
Meanwhile Packer, having sold the Nine Network to a gullible, puffed-up Alan Bond (Steve Rodgers), has bought Woman’s Day in Sydney. Its circulation is 400,000 behind that of New Idea, so he hires the sacked King, who stops at nothing to put Woman’s Day ahead. She anchors the brand and defines the voice.
‘‘ I want exclusives; I want you to get into the parties no one else can; I want to get the shots no one else can,’’ she rants at her staff when she takes over. ‘‘ I want to know everything about this town who’s flying in and who’s flying out; who’s sleeping with who; who’s having a breakdown; who’s having a boob job.’’ She’s shouting with almost sexual excitement as she charges through the office of Woman’s Day, her arms waving, her voice a screech. ‘‘ You hear me? I want it all. And pictures. Lots and lots of pictures.’’
As producer Mimi Butler says, the true story was a natural translation for enthralling TV drama, its structure almost Shakespearean. ‘‘ The Packer and Murdoch kingdoms set the scene for Nene’s rejection by Dulcie, where the disaffected heir-apparent goes off, raises an army and comes back to demand a slice of the kingdom,’’ she says. ‘‘ The characters were strong and clear and defined.’’ And the battle between the women, the continual butting of heads, becomes personal and hurtful, with emotional consequences for both.
Together — led by King, initially, to the chagrin of Doling, according to this script — they helped change the Australian media into a relentless, corrosive machine, both of them selling millions of copies of their magazines each month. Marketplace economics relentlessly drove any decision about what was relevant, fair and necessary information for public consumption about an individual, rather than any thoughtful debate about what was legitimate. This was not journalism, it was gladiatorial conflict in which privacy seen to be irrelevant, nonexistent, or waived in pursuit of photo opportunities.
The machine they created became omnivorous, feeding a monster of cross-pollinating companies, controlled by alchemists — aka publicists — who understood the DNA of celebrity and the chemistry of fame.
But King also understood implicitly that people feel a connection to stars and are pulled into their gravitational field, regarding them as soul mates. She was able to transform stories about them into a subliminal message about money, self-esteem and an almost certainly unattainable lifestyle. ‘‘ I love gossip and I love celebrities,’’ she tells a bemused Packer. ‘‘ I’m a typical Woman’s Day girl, down at the shopping centre in my T-shirt and tracksuit pants, clinging to all the wrong places I might add, checking on the sales.’’
It’s an image that seems to appal Packer, though he’s fond of leering at the wellpadded King.
Carlton’s performance again is a stunner. As he did in The Birth of Cleo, he plays Packer in a haze of cigarette smoke, a compelling characterisation that captures that neutral, dangerous gaze that relays no warning. It’s the look of a man who knows acts of aggression are more effective without notice. But he’s oddly charming too, with a soft smile and a small dip of the head revealing affection, the small eyes quietly tracking every woman who crosses his gaze.
Again the series is snappily and intelligently directed by Daina Reid, Monjo’s script for the first episode tight and abbreviated — a series of set-pieces propelled by a rollicking period soundtrack from Stephen Rae, most scenes underscored by songs. And again Reid, so good
Rachel Griffiths as Dulcie Boling and Mandy McElhinney as Nene King