Screaming headlines: Nene King (Mandy McElhinney) plays to win in the latest instalment of the Kerry Packer tale.It’s been an idea that just keeps on giving.
A few years ago, producer John Edwards (Love My Way, Rush, Tangle) pitched the concept for a drama trilogy about Kerry Packer to the ABC.
The three parts would span the launch of Cleo magazine, the World Series Cricket story and the 1984 royal commission on the painters and dockers’ union, with its ”Goanna” code name for Packer and allegations of tax evasion and criminal activity.
The ABC was interested only in the first part, and the mini-series Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo screened in 2011 and averaged more than 1.2 million viewers.
Channel Nine’s interest was then spiked, given that Packer had been Nine’s proprietor – twice – and a towering figure in its history. So Nine green-lighted Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War, about his assault on the cricket establishment, which last year drew more than 2 million viewers.
Following the success of Cleo, the ABC opted for a sequel and approved the development of Paper Giants: Magazine Wars. The drama stays in the world of women’s magazines, moving a decade on from Cleo’s 1970s setting and focusing on the battle between New Idea and Woman’s Day under the editorships of Dulcie Boling and Nene King.
Meanwhile, Nine has gone into production with Power Games: The Packer-Murdoch Story, a mini-series about media moguls Sir Frank Packer and Rupert Murdoch.
So, to date, from Edwards’ original idea have come four mini-series on two networks, two potent incarnations of Kerry Packer, by Rob Carlton and Lachy Hulme, and an energetic reflection on Australia’s media history.
Interestingly, no network has yet felt inspired to touch the final part of the originally proposed trilogy.
In two 90-minute telemovies, Magazine Wars spans a decade from the mid-’80s, focusing on the rivalry between two smart, ambitious and very different women: Boling (played by Rachel Griffiths), who headed New Idea and ran multiple publications for Murdoch’s magazine division, and King (Mandy McElhinney), her deputy.
When King is denied a promotion, she jumps ship and takes the job editing Woman’s Day for Kerry Packer, and a vigorous fight for readers erupts.
Mimi Butler (Rush, Howzat!), who assumed the producer role on Magazine Wars at Edwards’ request, says, ”Dulcie and Nene will deny that there was ever a war; they’d say that they just got on with their jobs”. But from the title, through the wardrobe and production design to the depiction of the women’s lives and personalities, the drama creates an opposition.
Griffiths’ Boling is almost regal in her composure, her office an oasis of elegant calm. Where her professional domain has china teacups and glass vases filled with roses, King’s favours a riot of colour and porcelain figurines. Boling’s wardrobe runs to classic colours and power suits with pearls; King goes for bold colours – black and gold jumpsuits, animal prints – and dangly earrings. ”Basically, they’re chalk and cheese,” McElhinney says. ”There’s no real friendship there, they’re colleagues.
”Dulcie is methodical, businesslike, and has a great business mind; Nene’s more of a creative thinker – she has a drive and a passion. She’s impulsive, she has great instincts, she responds to things quickly and makes decisions quickly. Dulcie’s more considered.”
The story spends a lot of time with King at home with her beloved partner, Patrick Bowring (Angus Sampson). Boling’s house is seen relatively briefly and reflects the tasteful order evident in her office.
Butler says the reaction of most people who discover that they’re going to be dramatised onscreen is that ”they’re terrified”, adding that ”Nene didn’t want it to happen”. ”She’s got a wonderful sense of humour and she sort of smiled at me and said, ‘But darling, even if I don’t help you, you’re going to do it anyway, so I’d better be part of it’.
”We’re asking them to trust us,” she continues. ”We won’t get everything perfectly as they want it to be portrayed. We’re not sanitising it – it’s a warts ‘n’ all portrayal. But we’re trying to honour and protect them as best we can.”
Boling and King agreed to meet the actors who would be playing them and McElhinney and Griffiths both describe the women that they play as ”generous” with their stories and insights. ”Nene’s incredibly emotionally available,” McElhinney says. ”She’s a very brave woman. She’s very funny, self-deprecating and witty, and she’s got a real-life force about her.”
Of Boling, Griffiths says, ”She’s very, very smart and she has a lack of doubt about her ability.
”I wanted people to see a woman of great substance. I wanted to make sure that we could see her merits and also what may lie beneath.”
Dramatising recent history, involving real people many of whom might have markedly different memories of events, is tricky. ”When you’re adapting a true story, you don’t want to bend the truth too much and this story had a natural dramatic structure that we loved,” Butler says. ”But because it’s dramatised, there are bits where we’ve had to take the spirit of what we know and we’ve condensed stuff.”
As in the Cleo mini-series, fictional characters have been created to get the story to places that real life might not go. Here it’s cadet reporter Beth Ridgeway (Caren Pistorius) and photographer Nick Trumpet (Khan Chittenden) and through their experiences, a sense of the swingin’ ’80s – the heady club scene, the drugs, the spectre of AIDS – is evoked.
At that time, Boling and King were fiercely competing to drive up circulation at their magazines, and their publications changed radically and irrevocably, moving decisively away from knitting patterns, scone recipes and respectful coverage of royal family tea parties. Instead, there were screaming headlines trumpeting Prince Charles’ intimate conversations with his mistress, and photos of Sarah, Duchess of York, aka Fergie, poolside at a French villa, having her toes sucked by an American financier.
The push spearheaded by Boling and King crashed through established boundaries and reshaped one branch of the media for decades to follow. And, boosted by exposes of royal misbehaviour and early examples of the kind of intense and intrusive coverage of celebrity life that is now common, the magazines’ readerships rocketed.
”I think that there’s always been a sort of giddy excitement when somebody changes the rules,”Griffiths says.
Paper Giants: Magazine Wars premieres on ABC1 on Sunday, June 2, at 8.30pm.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.