John Edwards: “I tried to sell Paper Giants as a longer series”

Prolific producer John Edwards talks to TV Tonight about key projects including Paper Giants, Beaconsfield, Rush and more.

He’s known, even envied, in the biz as one of the busiest producers around.

Last year John Edwards had four television projects on air in one week. This year he has seven projects in production, airing or development: Paper Giants, Offspring, Rush, Spirited, Tangle, Beaconsfield and Kerry Packer’s World Series of Cricket.

Nearly all the projects involve collaborations with women, but he has previously collaborated with men.

“Truthfully the women have been the more successful collaborations and I don’t think any of the women have particularly got too much in common, but they are all very different sorts of women. It’s more of happenstance, I think,” he explains.

“As a deliberate process for a number of years I have tried to put in place those kind of contrasting, complimentary tensions which I think are helpful. Collaborating with somebody who just agrees with everything you do is not particularly useful in my view.”

For this Sydney-resident, three of the on-going projects have also been Melbourne-based. That’s a lot of time spent in airport lounges.

“I’m very connected to where I live,” he admits. “I’ve lived within sight of the one bay for almost 50 years. I’ve lived in probably 15 different houses in that time but I’ve realised that I am very parochial by temperament and by spirit.”

Edwards’ first project to air in 2011 Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo enjoyed extraordinary success from critics and audience -so much so that it led to a network stoush over a potential sequel, which so far has been approved by Nine in via the Kerry Packer story.

“We did discuss a run of sequels with the ABC many months ago,” insists Edwards, who also revisited the idea after the first Paper Giants went to air.

“We tried to discuss it with the ABC that day. In good faith we went to the ABC first. We said ‘Come on guys.’ But other events overtook us during that day.

“It was kind of all in the press releases, pretty much. It’s been played down a little but there was one small detail.

“The truth is that Nine were in the position where they could block information and block access to information and so on and when you have suddenly created a commercial entity like we did we with Paper Giants I don’t think anybody’s behaviour or reaction is surprising, really.”

In fact Edwards wanted to tackle the Cleo saga as a longer vehicle.

“I tried to sell the Paper Giants story as a longer running series. I always thought it was much better as a longer running series,” he says.

“Frankly we were a little bit neither fish nor fowl. Even though it turns out that as a piece of programming it worked very well, it would have been better a bit shorter or a bit longer, in my view. But that wasn’t to be. I think it would have been more interesting as a series length and there would have been a lot more terrain to explore. Doing longer forms is more interesting to me, anyway.”

But Edwards, who partners with Southern Star, will explore a sequel idea with the ABC involving the magazine wars and Ita Buttrose.

“We’re all forgetting Packer used the money that he got from Alan Bond and he didn’t just sit there and do nothing with it or spend it all on horses and gambling. He took over the magazine business. He bought all of Fairfax’s magazines and he went to war. There was the Nene King / Dulcie Bowling war, for example. I mean it is a pretty great story,” he explains.

“That’s the terrain I would like to be exploring and I think and it’s a very interesting and very different kind of terrain.

“Maybe the examination of a more decadent and more materialistic period is dramatically more fulfilling.”

Having wrapped on Offspring season two, Edwards is now in production on both Rush and Tangle. In July he begins on Beaconsfield a three hour story that dramatises the 2006 mining collapse, also for Nine. The story will focus on the rescue of Brant Webb and Todd Russell.

“The nearest model to it is Apollo 13. It’s the mechanics of how it (the rescue) is achieved, its incredibly interesting,” says Edwards.

The project will touch upon the media circus surrounding the disaster, including the death of 60 Minutes reporter Richard Carleton, but there are no plans to detail media including Naomi Robson, David Koch or the frenzy that followed after their rescue. Of late, Edwards has been more concerned with knocking 20 minutes out of the script.

“(Writer) Judi McCrossin is really great at that sort of stuff and it’s a real passion project for her. She loves it deeply and it’s a pretty fantastic script and the biggest problem is getting it down to size.

“There were 250 odd people involved in the rescue and we at the moment have got 120 speaking parts. Even at that it’s very hard to manage. Which bits do you lose? So that’s the difficulty. That’s the struggle we’ve got.”

He won’t confirm rumours of Shane Jacobson in the cast, but says, “We’re going to end up with a terrific cast but it’s getting the balance of who they are. It’s not done.”

Season four of Rush promises a bigger story arc across its 13 episodes.

“If I’m asked what are my favorite three or four TV shows ever is Edge of Darkness which started with an intensely, personal story which was dark but becomes global. That is our aspiration. We stumble on to something, which stumbles on to something which unfolds in a bigger picture and that’s unusual for us. We have also got a couple of new characters,” he says.

“I bet you don’t even know them. I mean it’s not somebody who has worked in Australia before, who I think is pretty great.”

Finally Spirited co-produced with Claudia Karvan and Jacquelin Perske airs on Foxtel in July. But Edwards insists his was more a “grandfather” role, guiding Karvan and Perske for their first producing task.

“It was a role that I’ve not had before but it was perfectly enjoyable and this year it took on a little bit more distance too. I am little bit more standing-back and been there for problems or as an objective, so-called outside voice,” he says.

“I put the together financing stuff and it happened very fast but it was always their show. So it was unusual for me to work on a show where I was a more distant and aloof advisor, pretty much in the way that Errol Sullivan used to be to Sandra Levy and me a generation ago.”

Next up will be Offspring season three and looking at whether his other babies, such as Rush, are to be renewed.

“At the moment its just about getting it made,” he insists.

Tackling things one step at a time seems like something of an understatement for this very successful storyteller.

6 Responses

  1. It’s a real shame the ABC did not see the opportunity to turn Paper Giants into a longer form series – that’s lack of leadership and guidance from the Head of Drama. Unless someone steps up to that role these kind of opportunities will continue to be lost.

  2. I think Paper Giants would have been better as a series. As much as I enjoyed it (best show for me that week!), stuffing all that into 3 hours over 2 days means it lacks things like characterisation and depth. Honestly, did we really care for any of the ladies at Cleo besides Jessica Tovey’s character?

  3. Maybe women know how to work hard and therefore make great producers. Clearly he cannot be across 7 series in production – that is just ridiculous. Obviously his personal focus doesn’t mean much – great that he’s trained up the next generation of producers.

  4. Firstly, fantastic interview ! I think Paper Giants could definately have worked as a longer series, so much interesting history around that time that would have worked in wonderfully. I wish John Edwards was working on the Freemantle production that is in the pipeline about the early days of Carlotta from Les Girls.

  5. I loved Paper Giants, and I’m really looking forward to Kerry Packers World Series Cricket. It was a fascinating chapter in Gerald Stone’s book about Channel Nine, Compulsive Viewing, and should lend itself to a great mini series.

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