with actors, lets the dialogue scenes breathe, avoiding over-covering them, rarely cutting away to close-ups and allowing the actors to use the space and play off each other, sometimes quite theatrically.
There are wonderful moments of comedy, most of them involving McElhinney’s King. She simply delights in this sometimes bawdy overthe-top creature, maybe less a Shakespearean character than one straight out of Chaucer. Her energy dominates every scene in which she appears, Carlton wisely stepping back to allow her the stage.
In one lovely scene she bursts lustily into Packer’s office wearing a kind of riding skirt, cowboy belt and brown leather boots. After her monologue peters out he stares at her and his small eyes shift to her feet. ‘‘ Are you going to a rodeo?’’ he inquires gently.
Griffiths’s performance is less showy but in some ways more eye-catching because of her restraint, a masterclass in underplaying, a lesson in actorly wit and discretion. The support is classy too. Rodger Corser storms into a scene as the ubiquitous Harry M. Miller, smarmy, opportunistic and oleaginous, a show stopper. Angus Sampson’s Bowring is sympathetic, a man caught between someone he loves and her overweening ambition, and William Zappa not only looks like Murdoch, he speaks like him too.
But the surprise is Mark Lee’s Richard Walsh, who was head of Packer’s ACP for many years and, as much as anyone could be, was a kind of adviser and mentor to King. Lee nails the elusive, droll and cerebral Walsh, getting his voice spot-on and a world-weary wryness that never leaves his features.
I enjoyed this series enormously and love the way Butler and her team of filmmakers immortalise moments we once lived and ideas we once held and that helped shaped our culture. In some ways it’s like an obituary for the world’s best-known consumer titles, from lads’ mags to women’s weeklies, which are steadily losing their readers as the media landscape changes and digital rivals eat into their circulation.
But there is a kind of subtext too; the series suggests that as a new frontier opens up, a place of increasingly segmented niches, only magazines created by impassioned individual editors such as Boling and King will survive and be successful. THERE’S a vendetta of a very different kind in the History channel’s Hatfields & McCoys, a sixhour US TV-scripted drama screening on Foxtel’s Showcase. Three episodes document the resounding true story of the late-19thcentury blood feud between the West Virginia Hatfields and the Kentucky McCoys. The murderous conflict created a terrible circle of violence and became a cautionary tale about the way violence so easily perpetuates itself.
The term ‘‘ Hatfields & McCoys’’ even became legal shorthand for any pig-headed neighbourhood disagreement. And while the feud became easy fodder for TV comedians and talk show hosts — the last killing was traced to 1947 — it ended symbolically in 2003 when the families united in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks.
The series, set in the Appalachian Mountains along the Kentucky-West Virginia border but filmed in Romania for financial reasons, stars Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton and is directed by Kevin Reynolds. It’s a rather astonishingly well-produced western, dark and sombre, brooding and violent and, by its end, it’s as hard to tell why it started as it probably was at the time. Melancholy hangs over nearly all the scenes as the clash of clans inspires loyalty, passion, vengeance and sacrifice.
It’s the American network’s first successful foray into scripted drama, and when it aired last year it was the most watched non-sports program in cable TV history. The channel has had problems in the past with history when it comes to scripted shows.
The controversial $30 million miniseries The Kennedys, which eventually ran successfully on little-known US cable network the ReelzChannel, was originally set to air on History, which had commissioned the drama. It was to be its first scripted miniseries. Billed as ‘‘ an inside look behind the secret doors of the White House’’, it underwent an unsuccessful year-long effort to bring it into line with the historical record. This raised many questions about the boundaries between dramatic licence and documented fact, smear and tribute, when it comes to biographies of public figures — a loaded issue given enduring political sensitivities about the Kennedy legacy.
Then a last-minute decision was made by History channel executives to drop The Kennedys. They said in a statement: ‘‘ After viewing the final product in its totality, we have concluded this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand.’’
Well, Hatfields & McCoys fits well, a gritty western, saturated with heavily researched detail, full of sometimes suffocating ambushes, chases, bashings and killings, a tragedy of pride and bitterness.
Reynolds gives his images a lumbering sense of realism, characters shuffle and trundle under the weight of difficult times and, possibly, the amount of liquor they consume. And they speak in a florid biblical patois that reminds one of Deadwood. (The script is cowritten by Ted Mann, one of that series’ most distinguished writers.) The look is distinctive too. The images are slightly smudged in a deathly grey palette, reminiscent of ancient daguerreotypes or those Civil War photographs of Mathew Brady.
Costner is Devil Anse Hatfield and Paxton is Randall McCoy, patriarchs of their respective clans, friends and comrades during the Civil War, who clash on their return. Hatfield deserts towards the end of the conflict but McCoy is imprisoned in a northern concentration camp, implacably bitter when he finds what life Hatfield has built for himself when he eventually limps home.
When volatile, violent Jim Vance (Tom Berenger), Hatfield’s uncle, murders McCoy’s drunkard brother, another veteran, he fires the first shot in a war that will reach the governors of both Kentucky and West Virginia.
It’s really a mythic story of how the west was lost, as all America was, to pointless, ugly violence and men with guns who had little idea of the vacuum of loss they created. These men were not paragons or heroes but bitter and ugly killers.
Costner, who is also executive producer, is as good as he has ever been here, tired and grizzled, his eyes baleful and evaluative under his wide-brimmed hat, as cagey as he is obdurate. Paxton is effective too, though not as charismatic, his Randall McCoy gloweringly pious and permanently enraged. Berenger’s Jim Vance steps out of the screen too, a desperado, a coarse and brutal sociopath with a leathery charm. They are all professional men of violence, hard-boiled, vehement and vengeful, living through a time when the traditional moral and social restraints no longer operate.
The History channel is also screening America’s Greatest Feud on Saturday, a documentary that looks at the feud with a collection of historians, scholars and descendants, who explore the circumstances of the numerous deaths and revenge-filled deceptions that so affected both families.