Howzat! is an Australian television mini-series (2×90 mins) first broadcast in Australia in 2012 and now being shown in the UK on BBC4 to coincide with the start of the latest Ashes Cricket Series. I confess to not having had particularly high hopes at the outset, but I found the story to be compelling, even though I knew the outcome. The series deals with the challenge to ‘World Cricket’ in 1977 posed by the Australian media mogul Kerry Packer, owner of the commercial Nine Network in Sydney. Before Murdoch, Packer was the businessman prepared to take on the cricket establishment in Australia and ultimately in London where the International Cricket Conference had its HQ. Recognising that the most famous cricket players were very poorly paid, Packer realised that he could lure them into contracts to play cricket for his cameras (he had been refused exclusive TV rights to international cricket played in Australia, despite offering far more money than the state broadcaster). When he secretly signed 35 leading players, the cricket authorities fought back and for two years Packer’s ‘World Series’ existed alongside a weakened official programme of official international cricket. The ICC eventually regained control of the players, but Packer got his exclusive contract and cricket was never the same again. Packer has since been credited with many of the innovations that characterise modern cricket (day/night cricket, the white ball and coloured clothing etc.).
My description of the conflict might not sound too enticing if you aren’t a cricket fan but as a drama this mini-series has several advantages. Firstly it has the eternal battle between Aussie and Pom – the brash Australian and the stuffed-shirt Englishman. Social class is also part of this with the cricketing authorities located in Lords cricket ground in London and Packer and the players generally around the pool and the barbie. In reality, however, Packer isn’t as uncouth as he acts. He came from a wealthy family and his father had edited the newspapers within the media empire. There is a nice moment in the script when Packer demonstrates that he knows exactly what ‘fancy phrases’ mean and part of the pleasure of the film is watching the stuffed-shirts (the ‘old farts’ as the similar Rugby Unions officials were memorably termed) under-estimate Kerry Packer. The film is partly a biopic and we learn that Packer’s interest in cricket is very much linked to his memories of his father. But it is also a boardroom thriller (Packer spent rather more money on his challenge than the company could really afford) as well as a historical film about sport. Having said that, there wasn’t much actual cricket in the first episode and what intrigues most is the politics of the game.
Howzat! has a conventional narrative structure and visual style. The script by Christopher Lee and the central performances by Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer and Abe Forsythe as John Cornell are very good and lift the film above routine drama. Packer is a larger than life character, rich and boorish but with a keen eye for a business opportunity. He is a universal figure whereas Cornell is defined solely in Australian terms. It seems an indicator of the production’s intentions to appeal only to a local audience that the Cornell character is never properly explained. He is the one who, as fast bowler Dennis Lillee’s agent, takes the original idea for World Series cricket to Packer. Cornell is young and attractive with a beautiful young wife – but the narrative does not also explain (until the final credits) that he is also the comic foil for Paul Hogan the comedy superstar of Australian TV and with Hogan he produced the hit film Crocodile Dundee in 1986.
The series was made by Southern Star Productions (now part of Endemol) with support from Packer’s own Nine Network. It might be seen as a vanity project except that Packer himself died aged only 68 in 2005. The politics of the series are interesting in their attempt to present Packer as the driven man, haunted by his father’s preference for Kerry’s brother Clyde. Packer in this film narrative has no home life or seemingly much interest in women – the script instead offers a typical mix of bullying cruelty laced with sentimentalism in Packer’s working relationship with his secretary Rosie and the suggestion that Packer opened the hallowed Members’ Pavilion of the Sydney Cricket Ground to women in 1978 (a significant move in the antediluvian world of cricketing behaviour). This ‘personal story’ obviously precludes any real discussion of the overall questions about the power of the media moguls in Australia on other media organisations and indeed on other sports organisations. It tends to focus on the central battle in which Packer is clearly a force for change.
The second episode includes more cricketing footage and more focus on the players. I suspect much of the script is fairly bland in its attempt to represent the players and their camaraderie and personal rivalries. Some of the reviews of the series in the UK have joked about the players’ appearance (those 70s shaggy haircuts and facial hair, huge collars, browns and yellows etc.) I actually thought the actors looked the parts pretty well. A personal observation is that, at the time, Tony Greig was probably my least favourite sporting character – a white South African as England captain during the apartheid era – but in this series and in the glowing tributes from former players that followed his death in 2012, he comes over as a much more attractive figure.
I think there are other Australian mini-series like this, including one about the battles between Packer and Murdoch that I’d like to see coming to UK television. In the meantime, Howzat! is still available on the BBC iPlayer and a DVD is released in the UK on July 22. If you have any interest in cricket this is a ‘must watch’ and there is plenty for the non-sports fan as well.