Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo

Year: 2011
Production Co: Screen NSW
Director: Daina Reid
Writer: Imogen Banks/John Edwards/Christopher Lee
Cast: Asker Keddie, Rob Carlton, Tony Barry, Maeve Darmody, Matt Day, Jessica Tovey

This was a TV miniseries so I wouldn't normally cover it, but like The Queen, The Special Relationship and Farewell, I'm still finding true stories about real people very inspiring lately no matter how much they're some screenwriter's interpretation of events.

I didn't even know Ita Buttrose founded Cleo, but she's played by Asher Keddie (from the second series of Underbelly) and while it would be very hard to find someone to play someone who's so recognisable, Keddie does a fantastic job of the poise and the lisp. Likewise Rob Carlton as the profane and ockerish alpha male Kerry Packer, lord of his domain as long as he's out of the shadow of his domineering and cruel father Sir Frank.

Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo is as much a story about the emergence of feminism in mainstream Australia as it is a story about the magazine and the people who created it, maybe more so. It's the early 70s and Australian Consolidated Press prepares to launch a local version of the newly minted hit of US publishing, Cosmopolitan.

But when the Hearst Corporation – which owns the rights – pulls out and makes a deal with rival Fairfax Publishing, ACP overlord Sir Frank reluctantly gives his lieutenant and son Kerry the go ahead to launch a locally created competing version to beat Hearst and Fairfax to newsstands. Kerry brings in young house reporter Ita and gives her a blank cheque and a very short deadline to assemble her team and create a monthly that speaks to Australian women finding their feet when it comes to economic, social and sexual equality, and Cleo arrifes just in time to help usher feminism into Australia.

At times it rankles the old-world, blokey upper echelons of the ACP brass, including Kerry himself on occasion. The scene of Sir Frank – a brilliant Tony Barry – vetoing a story about how men can be turned on by having their armpits licked is hilarious.

Most members of Ita's staff get their moment in the sun as we follow their stories and how the emerging independence for women affects them. For office secretary Leslie it means deciding what sort of man she wants to spend her life with, ultimately realising she can live her life without a man altogether if she wants. Ita ironically gets the rougher end of the stick when her attentive husband leaves her to find himself. It's never made explicit, but it appears she embodies the conundrum equal rights would force on many women – that they can't really have it all without something suffering.

But the heart of the show is a kind of love story between a prickly mogul and the woman he supported behind in his own inimical way. Like the best dramatisations it gives you the feeling of being a fly on the wall and even if it's complete fiction, it's a great story well told. Archive footage of historic events that defined Australia during the period and onscreen dates add to the realism, and the producers also did a fantastic job of tracking down the props and dressings that would transport their sets convincingly back to the mid 70s, even digging up a creaky old Sydney bus from the era.

It's very interesting to contrast what happened then to the position of the players now. As the final supertext says, Packer needn't have worried about ruining his father and grandfathers' legacies, turning PBL into a $6b empire that spanned the country's entire media. Buttrose went on to break all the circulation records with Womens' Weekly. Today Cleo is little more than a blog on paper for 15 year olds with no more cultural impact than a Simpsons comic, and the biggest irony is that ACP ended up producing the local version of Cosmopolitan anyway, where it's a sister publication to Cleo to this day.

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