Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Welcome back to the circus

There was a moment during Howzat: Kerry Packer's War, shown last week on BBC4, when you realised what a life-force Packer must have been. It came after he'd signed up the players and the scale of the conflict he had provoked became apparent, to him and to them.

In a room were Australia's top cricketers, men that Packer had persuaded to jeopardise their careers to join him; all of them famous, unyielding characters like the Chappell brothers, Rod Marsh, Dennis Lillee, Max Walker, Dougie Walters. They stood taut in their tight shirts and their flared slacks, but underneath was uncertainty and doubt. It rose like cigarette smoke in the room. David Hookes for one had decided to tell Packer he was withdrawing. He'd even rehearsed his speech in the mirror as he put on his kipper tie.

Packer walked in. The testosterone levels, already substantial, rose. The players formed a semi-circle in front of him. He went around each of them individually, asking whether they were in or out. They nodded and grunted in turn. He came to Hookes.

'David?' He said. His gaze was utterly level.

Hookes looked around, swallowed, tried to remember the speech he'd given to the bathroom mirror, couldn't.

'I'm in, Kerry...'

Packer smiled. He cracked a couple of jokes ('what the fuck are you doing here Tangles? I don't remember signing you up...') and the party started. There were lots of parties in Kerry Packer's War (I am unilaterally removing the abominable 'Howzat' from its title), and they were the kind of parties you wanted to be at, with their swimming pools and their girls, their Martinis and their stubbies, the teetotal Kerry always on their edge, in his suit, alone.

At heart, World Series Cricket was a cult of personality, and the personality was Kerry Packer's. What was remarkable was that Packer was only 40 when he made it happen, barely older than some of the players. Lachy Hulme did not particularly resemble Kerry - who does? - but he brought that heavy, fleshy presence to the screen.

The things that age the screen Packer and set him apart from his men are his girth, his widow's peak, his love of breakfast and dinner (he explodes in a Chinese restaurant because someone wants to share his sweet and sour: 'I ordered it, it's mine...') and his other appetites: for a fight, for power, for control, for acceptance; and the cost they extracted. That, and the loneliness that men like Packer have, were all there in Lachy Hulme.

His rages were forces of nature, instant, bullying eruptions that splattered loathing and fear over anyone and anything nearby, and yet the reason that Packer succeeded was the loyalty that he felt and inspired. That is at the centre of any cult. Packer had a secretary who wouldn't leave the office until he did, however late he stayed. He promised Tony Grieg and Ian Chappell jobs for life, and they got them. When Hookes had his jaw broken by Andy Roberts in a Super Test at Sydney Showgrounds, it was Packer who drove him to the hospital. He wanted to do right by cricket, and he did. Once he had wrenched it apart, he pulled it back together as something new, something modern and forward-moving. The scenes at the end of the final episode, as the floodlit SCG fills up, are cathartic and visionary for Packer.

Someone reviewed Packer's War in the Guardian and said that it should have been a documentary. That couldn't be more wrong. Aside from the tremendous fun of dressing actors up as 70s cricketers – a too-chunky Tony Grieg, a strangely fey Clive Lloyd and toe-curlingly good takes on Rod Marsh and Ian Chappell – and the deep joy of recreating the gear – the SP helmet should get a spin-off series of its own – there was a veracity to the drama that documentary can lack.

That may seem strange, but memory and perspective shift as the years deliver their verdict and the old-boy talking heads that prop up the documentary format are often speaking a kind of refracted truth. The drama here went right to it, whether for comedy, in a wonderful scene where a couple of players from each side try on the coloured clothing for the first time and then parade in front of their team-mates, to the sly insights of a cricket groupie interviewed in the stands: 'The West Indies boys, they're gentlemen... Do I go with them? Not the married ones, no...'

The only bum note was the creation of the character Gavin Warner as WSC's catch-all executive, a man ruthlessly abused by Packer; a spare butt to kick. He was probably based on Andrew Caro, and there's an interesting view on the show from Caro's daughter here.

To take that documentary perspective for a moment, it's evident now how much cricket owes Kerry Packer and WSC. There is a way to repay that debt beyond the broadcast rights issue that Channel Nine retain, and that is to admit the players' records from WSC into the books. It was, some have said, the hardest cricket they ever played, and yet the stats lie fallow, given less weight than a county player racking up a century against a team of students or the runs and wickets from long-forgotten rebel tours.

Barry Richards taking a double hundred off Dennis Lillee - now that has meaning, wherever it happened, and it's a reconciliation we could all enjoy. Cheers Kerry, you mad, wonderful old bugger.


Tim McMillan said...

Great review, I thought the show was better than expected. All these years later “Bodyline” is still mocked, albeit in a kitsch, fond way, but this seemed to get a lot right and the “action” scenes were far better. Some from the Centenary Test, such as Cosier catching Randall at short leg and the final wicket before Lillee was chaired off were spot on.

Along with Marsh and both Chappell’s being uncanny Thommo had a good likeness and that could have been “Tangles” larking about in the background. A few things disappointed (surely Walters wasn’t ALWAYS smoking and although being an English ten year old at the time means I could be wrong I always remember Rick McCosker as being muzzer free). But even noticing these, and thinking Greigy was taller than that, show that it was mostly recreated with a fine eye for detail.

It goes without saying the G.Haigh’s “The Cricket War” is a peerless, must read on this era, cricket’s equivalent to “England’s Dreaming”. Though, looking at Amazon it seems getting hold of it may be difficult.

Now, if only we could find those SP “in one” batting gloves to go with the “The Master” flat backed SP bat that’s still in my parents back room…

Gary Naylor said...

Very good Jon - so pleased that you had the same opinion as me (reviewed here It was splendid entertainment and very fair.

Of course the stats should be included and they would make quite a difference (see

By the way, do you think much of John Crace in The Guardian? I'm afraid I don't.