Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo

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.


  1. In the Summertime was a one hit wonder in the 1970’s. If you google it you can read the lyrics.
    I thought Paper Giants was wonderful – so refreshingly different.

  2. Anyone know the song in this show that has a line that goes ‘In the summertime, in the summertime’. Beatles song perhaps? Sounds like it is to me. I know this is really vague but I have to hear that song again! Please reply!

  3. Another brilliant drama from ABC. Keep them coming – save us from more police/forensic drivel that seems to saturate the commercial channels! I loved Laid and Rake – also brilliantly refreshing TV. Keep it up ABC.

  4. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Also looking for a song list. Is it just me or were some of the songs from a couple of years later? Dragon’s “This Time” was from 76? But certainly lyric-wise they seemed like a good choice.

  5. What a great insight into the magazine world.The acting was brilliant by all ,Asher was outstanding she had all the moves , great great ……. would love to here the sound track again .

  6. Throughly enjoyed the show. Great story!
    Character of Kerry showed more humanity than his reputaion.
    Trying to find a list of songs used in show.

  7. Absolutely fabulous!! Asher Keddie & Rob Carlton and indeed the whole cast….terrific piece of television. Took me back to my twenties in the 70’s. Everything so memorable. Ita Buttrose is a true icon and it’s great to see her portrayed so well. More please!!

  8. This show was just awesome. Love Asher Keddie she is a fabulous actress. The era was captured perfectly and really took me back. Thank you so much – thoroughly enjoyed.

  9. Thumbs up if you wanna see them do another miniseries on Frank Packer’s other birth, TCN9? It was a rushed birth because they had to beat ABN2 to air, so it should be exciting for TV nerds like me.

    I’ll be watching this, anyway.

  10. Keddie’s a great actress; I saw her many times on stage in Melbourne, but when will the powers that be realise that she’s not a hit with tv audiences. She lacks warmth on the small screen and in interviews, she’s never won most popular awards and the shows she’s in pull a cult following at best.

  11. I think Asher Keddie is an amazing actress but seriously is there no one else? She’s in Everything! Perhaps it’s because everyone else has headed for the US

    She’ll start to be known as Asher K – Eddie Everywhere soon

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