The joker in the Packer

HE WAS an anti-establishment eccentric. A macho bully. A man renowned for his fearsome personality and a near-fanatical work ethic.

Like most Australians, this was the perception of Kerry Packer the actor Lachy Hulme had held. Yet the more he researched the life of the late Australian media mogul, the more he felt Packer's notoriety may have shielded some of his more amiable characteristics.

''While there are certain aspects that are true, the more I have learnt about him the more [my perception] has changed,'' Hulme says.

To a fault, Hulme contends, Packer surrounded himself with dedicated, creative workers who strove for excellence.

''Like Kerry, those around him all thought outside the square,'' Hulme says. ''He had an ability to think laterally and had a love of other eccentrics. Unlike Rupert [Murdoch], he had no desire to fit into polite society. He … believed in hard work.''

We're sitting in an office tower on Queen Street, which is today doubling as Packer's late-1970s bunker. Filming is going briskly for what is arguably Nine's most high-profile scripted project of this year.

Howzat! follows the Kerry Packer story through its middle-to-late chapters and documents the birth of cricket's modern era.

The spark for Howzat! was last year's well-received ABC mini-series Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo. Produced for the public broadcaster by John Edwards (Offspring,Puberty Blues), it told the story of Ita Buttrose and, inadvertently, Kerry Packer.

Edwards had pitched a sequel to the ABC that related the story of Packer's involvement in World Series Cricket, which, much to his surprise, they turned down.

However, the morning after Paper Giants aired in April last year (it generated blockbuster ratings, particularly in younger demographics), the series became a hot property. Nine boss David Gyngell contacted Edwards and began negotiating for his network to land the next Packer mini-series.

''David Gyngell had a personal interest in the subject and the ABC had passed on it,'' Edwards says. ''We were surprised the ABC passed. They eventually tried to buy it back. But David got it moving quickly.''

Veteran Sydney actor Rob Carlton was superb in Paper Giants as Packer and was safely assumed to be continuing in the role for Howzat!. But Carlton and Edwards could not reach an agreement. ''It's hard to talk about,'' Edwards says. ''Discussions with Rob stalled and we decided to look at other possibilities. We've gone, we believe, with the best choice for the role.''

Edwards was well aware of the risk in changing actors.

''I take full responsibility,'' he says. ''When I raised with Nine that we were better off looking elsewhere for the role, it was a big deal. We did some rigorous screen tests. It was a very difficult decision, but it was not done lightly.''

Hulme, he says, is capable of bringing great complexity to a character. The 41-year-old had previously auditioned for the part of Packer in a project that did not proceed, and had compiled an impressive amount of research on the character.

''He had a real plan of attack on how to play him,'' Edwards says. ''That certainly helped.''

Asked how it felt for Hulme to play the Packer part just 12 months after another actor had done so to wide critical acclaim, he shrugs.

''It's a different network, a different story,'' he says, dismissively. ''Rob is a friend of mine. This is not the sequel to Paper Giants, which was the story of Ita Buttrose. This is the story of Kerry Packer.''

It's indisputable how much Hulme threw himself into the role. Having only just shed the 25 kilograms he stacked on to play the role of miner Todd Russell in Beaconsfield, he regained 20 kilograms to inhabit the Packer persona.

In person, his ability to re-create the unmistakable, visceral bark of Packer's seems uncanny. Between takes he walks with Packer's inimitable swagger and - much to the crew's amusement - often stays in character.

Director Daina Reid, who also directed Paper Giants, was clearly impressed by Hulme when she worked with him to build the Packer character from the ground up.

''There is so much subtlety and humour from Lachy,'' she says. ''He is intimidating as a character and a performer. He has taken the role very seriously. He can be pretty scary. He has been astonishing. For me, it's in the nuances, and the homework he has done is amazing.''

Not everyone was so enamoured - Hulme is said to have taken the Packer character a little too literally at times and delivered the odd spray to an unsuspecting photographer.

The scene being filmed today captures Packer giving his secretary a firm dressing down, based on her unfortunate wardrobe choice. Hulme has little problem re-creating that infamously volcanic temper. The tension in the room is palpable. And after four takes, lunch is called.

Hulme points at Green Guide. ''You! Son! Follow me.''

He leads us to a small office, cracks open a window and begins chain-smoking cigarettes.

He breaks character for a moment to ensure we are comfortable inhaling the smoke. We are.

''Howzat! really is the story of a very lonely Packer who had no friends and started a secret club with a secret password,'' Hulme says. ''The password was World Series Cricket. And, as a result, he formed the best friendships of his life.''

Having met the cricketers involved with Packer, such as Tony Greig and Ian Chappell, Hulme realised everything he had assumed about Packer was wrong.

''He was an incredibly gregarious man,'' he says. ''But he had a gentle soul under that big, rough exterior.''

When we suggest that cricket changed because of Packer, Hulme cannot help sliding back into character.

''It didn't just f---ing change, son. It was a revolution,'' he barks. ''Kerry saved the game.''

How would he feel about television today, then?

''I think he'd lament the lack of resources being put into news and current affairs on all networks,'' Hulme says. ''He would have exploited digital a lot quicker. He was constantly thinking of improvement. He was never afraid to throw resources at a situation. In the heyday of Channel Nine, there were no committees. It was just Kerry. You wanted a decision made, you go to the boss. He made the decision, and nine times out of 10 he made the right decision.''

Hulme felt vindicated recently when he bumped into cricket legend Greg Chappell.

''Chappell said the World Series years were the best two years of his life,'' Hulme says. ''Kerry hated the British press calling it a circus, but eventually he embraced it. It was a circus. They travelled the world and … played the best cricket they'd ever played. It was a wild ride.''

Howzat! screens on Sunday on Channel Nine at 8.30pm.

The story The joker in the Packer first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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