Who knew? The very first centrefold for Cleo Magazine nearly turned out to be Mike Willesee.
Willesee was smart, handsome and had a good body according to the editorial ladies of the newly-formed Cleo magazine. But he backed out before the photo shoot, much to the disappointment of Editor Ita Buttrose. She had lost her coup, left to frantically instruct everyone to get on the phones and find a replacement.
Famously, the first edition carried a nude Jack Thompson, with a hand subtly covering his manhood. Cleo was born.
In 1972 Australia was watching Number 96, Julian McMahon’s dad was Prime Minister, we drove Holden Kingswoods, and lay on Bondi Beach trying to get the brownest tan we could get. Women in the workplace had no equality despite Helen Reddy having sung “I Am Woman” two years earlier.
But US magazine Cosmopolitan was a hit with women with its liberal editorial and Sir Frank Packer, who owned Australian Consolidated Press, appointed journalist Buttrose as founding Editor of an Australian rival. At the same time Packer sold the Daily Telegraph to Rupert Murdoch for a whopping $15m -considered too much at the time.
Now a two part ABC miniseries, Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo, recreates the era under producers John Edwards and Karen Radzyner.
Seen through the eyes of Buttrose (Asher Keddie), who is credited with assisting with the production, this is a story of the arrival of the modern Australian women as much as it is of its central character.
But the magazine might not have appeared at all were it not for Kerry Packer (Rob Carlton), the 35 year old son of Sir Frank (Tony Barry). Kerry backed Buttrose when Sir Frank got cold feet at the magazine’s open discussion of sexuality. The elder Packer didn’t even care for the name.
The disagreement over the magazine between father and son epitomised a rift between them, but Kerry Packer was determined to prove himself. As a result Buttrose was in the middle of both a publishing and family tug of war. She also faced personal problems within her marriage.
Whilst Keddie may not be a dead ringer for Buttrose she has the voice down pat: the tone is pitch perfect, complete with the slight Buttrose lisp (we would have expected nothing less). Keddie captures the inner strength of Buttrose, forging a path in a male-dominated world, navigating through pioneer publishing, inspiration and compromise.
Carlton is quite brilliant as Kerry Packer, the chain-smoking son who shows flashes of his future mogul might. He veers from indignant silence to roaring like a lion.
Paper Giants also has a sub-plot centering around a romance between Buttrose’s secretary Leslie Carpenter (Jessica Tovey) and ACP lawyer Daniel Ritchie (Matt Day).
Whilst early talk of the miniseries makes mention of a look at the Whitlam era, the script by writer Christopher Lee zeroes in on Buttrose and Packer, driving its social snapshot via two captivating characters. Director Daina Reid gives these actors plenty of room to work their magic.
Faithfully, the production reeks of the era’s horrid mission brown punctuated by gaudy fashions and 70s porn hairdos (Ian Meadows as photographer Andrew Cowell is pornstar sexy). The soundtrack takes some slightly liberal use of music from Sherbet (and no, it’s not Howzat!), Russell Morris and Dragon but it certainly takes you back.
If there are any misgivings with this exellent 2-parter it is that Buttrose’s later life, notably her championing of HIV-AIDS education during media hysteria, are equally as valid as her early publishing days. A wider biography would have given other shades to her character and public role.
That said, this is a naked centrefold look at Australia’s social history.
Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo airs 8:30pm Sunday April 17 and Monday April 18 on ABC1.