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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Pa­per Gi­ants: Mag­a­zine Wars,

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.

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