WAR OF WORD­SMITHS

First watch A new drama por­trays one of the mag­a­zine world’s great ri­val­ries

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blundell

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

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