On the day I visited the set of Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War, Lachy Hulme was pacing a lot, trying to maintain the tension in between takes of a scene involving a blistering tirade.
He was so unnerving I was relieved when I was told he wouldn’t have time to speak with me, and would I mind terribly if we could reschedule with a phone interview later? I’d already been told he’d previously remained in character, roaring at crew members, and one poor bloke working in hotel reception.
“He’s a pussycat, he’s not scary!” Hulme later laughed.
“When you’re playing a role like Kerry you can sort of get away with a bit of bad behaviour.”
Hulme comes to the role fresh from playing in Beaconsfield, for the same producer, John Edwards. It was a an acting opportunity that clearly strikes him with passion.
“For Beaconsfield everyone praised the ‘subtlety of the performances’ and I thought ‘F*** that’s going to go out the window with this next one.’ There’s nothing subtle about Kerry. He’s right in your face.
“It was an incredible opportunity and it was really in the second last week that it occurred to me roles like this come around very, very seldom.
“I thought ‘I hope I’m making the most of this.’ I hope I’ve given it my all. But looking back I’d be hard put to see a role like that on the horizon for a while. It was an exceptionally good time making the show.
“Daina Reed (director) is a friend of mine so finally for us to be able to sink our teeth into something as big a project as this was heaven. And the cast, a lot of whom I hadn’t worked with before, and a lot of whom I had, was an exceptional group of people.
“It was a dream come true, no f*** that, it was a wet dream come true!” he laughs.
There’s an image I hadn’t planned on.
Hulme says the two-part miniseries about Packer establishing World Series Cricket will change our perceptions of the media magnate.
“People in this country and elsewhere have a pretty fixed view of the type of person that Kerry Packer was. I think the general consensus if you ask the person on the street is that he was a bit of a tyrant, a bully, a man’s man. And there is certainly that aspect of him,” he says.
“But the thing that was such a joy for us to learn was that he was eccentric and sensitive. He was an incredibly fluid and lateral thinker. And he loved like-minded people who thought outside the square.
“His best friends were the cricketers. Those guys became his equals and confidantes and compatriots. Some of the other people, John Cornell, David Hill, incredibly creative minds were people he valued so highly.
“He was almost an iconoclast when it comes to anti-establishment thought.
“A great contrast for Kerry would be Rupert Murdoch. If you look at Murdoch you see a man who has spent his entire adult life trying to buy his way into the echelons of society, whether it be New York, London or here in Australia.
“But Kerry was completely the opposite. He did not like stuffy, high-society people. He liked salt of the earth, hard-working people.
“By his own admission he had lowest common-denominator tastes. He once said his idea of hell would be a night at the opera listening to Dame Joan Sutherland sing. But his idea of heaven would be plonking down on the couch watching an episode of Charlie’s Angels.
“He loved cricket and he loved television and he wanted his favourite game of cricket on his favourite toy, Channel Nine, and when the establishment said no he said ‘I’ll show you how it really should be done.’”
After Packer fought the cricket establishment, he reinvented cricket broadcasts. The technology employed by TV sports director David Hill would revolutionise broadcasts around the world.
“Day / night matches, limited overs, colour uniforms, the drop-in pitch, families of women and children coming to the cricket for the very first time -that was Kerry,” he explains.
“World Series Cricket was an explosion of colour and light into one of the most traditional, boring games in the world. And that explosion came straight out of Kerry Packer’s imagination.
“You don’t have to be a cricket tragic to enjoy the show. I’m not a cricket tragic. But as a youngster I remember being absolutely fascinated and blown away by it because we’d never seen anything like this before.
“And on top of that they produced a number one hit single out of it in Come on Aussie, Come on!“
The project follows on from the success of Paper Giants on the ABC, but is no sequel. It was also a ‘passion project’ for Nine boss David Gyngell, who has always been close to the Packer clan.
“Where Gyngell and Channel Nine were invaluable not just to me but the whole production, was that if we needed research materials they had it at their fingertips. So we had access to a lot of unseen footage of Kerry, the players and their interaction,” says Hulme.
“We saw Kerry’s one and only appearance on The Don Lane Show.”
By choice, Hulme did not consult with any remaining Packer family for his research.
“There are no scenes with Kerry and a 7 year old James Packer, so there’s nothing that James would be able to tell me.
“I know that Gyngell and Jamie are close friends so Jamie is obviously aware this is happening.”
He is also aware that viewers have already praised Rob Carlton’s performance as a younger Packer in Paper Giants. The two actors are friends, having worked together in Chandon Pictures. But he also didn’t spend much time dwelling on the unusual circumstance.
“I didn’t put a lot of thought into it because this is not a sequel to Paper Giants. It’s a different network and a different story. Paper Giants was the story of Ita Buttrose whereas this is the story of Kerry Packer. So I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.
“They came and asked me if I’d be interested. I said “Of course I’d be interested,” and they said ‘Here’s the script.”
In attempting to nail the character, Hulme says he identified a slight lisp in Packer’s speech. These idiosyncracies helped him get beneath the skin of this most challenging role.
“He was beaten by his father on a pretty regular basis. So I made the decision that that’s where the lisp came from. So then you start to work on ‘Why did his father beat him, how did that make him feel and how did that manifest itself as a grown man?’ So you start doing all the mathematical stuff.
“That’s why I’m an actor. I love doing all that stuff,” he insists.
“It’s ultimately for me the story of the lonely rich guy who started a secret club called World Series Cricket and the friendships that he made in that club lasted him until the day he died.”
Howzat: Kerry Packer’s War airs 8:30pm Sunday August 19 and 26 on Nine.