September 3rd, 2014 By David Knox
If the Catholic Church disapproves of Foxtel’s upcoming Devil’s Playground series, actor Simon Burke isn’t aware of it. But maybe they haven’t seen it yet.
The 2014 “sequel” to the 1975 film by Fred Schepisi puts the subject of abuse by the clergy front and centre.
“We didn’t get any co-operation from the Catholic Church when asked for, during filming. But nor did we expect it. What we did have was miraculous support from a lot of people of faith –both those in the church and those who have left it,” Burke said.
Burke revisits the role of Tom Allen, which he first played as a 13 year old. Now as an adult Tom is a psychiatrist and secular confessor to the Catholic clergy.
The 6 part Matchbox Pictures series blends elements of mystery, thriller and drama. But it is the themes of abuse that will likely serve as a talking point, which Burke observes are already on the table in the wider community.
“Every time you open the paper the viewing public (becomes) softened up for our series. (Cardinal) George Pell and his trucking remarks –what could be more shocking than that? Our show does ask some very big questions and it does take you on a rollercoaster, but I don’t think anything that we postulate could be as appalling as George Pell saying that clergy abuse is likened to a trucking company dealing with a randy truck driver,” he says.
“In many ways people like Pell have helped us to ready the viewing public for something which is really honest. But in no way in the world is this a hatchet job on the Catholic Church. There are characters in my show that are people of faith who are wrestling with their relationship with the Church but still feel for it very deeply and still want to fight for it.”
It’s been 38 years in between roles. Revisiting the part that elevated him into the industry is something of a passion project for Burke, who serves as both actor and co-producer. The idea emerged from a conversation with Foxtel Executive Director of Television, Brian Walsh. But it was pitching the idea to the esteemed director Fred Schepisi that was the most daunting part.
He had his chance at a party following a screening of Schepisi’s The Eye of the Storm.
“Fred is such a towering figure in my life,” he reflects. “I will be 13 with Fred until the day I die. I’m in awe of him.
“I was looking at him across the room thinking ‘F*** how am I gong to bring this up?’ We were in Geoffrey Rush’s hotel room with a whole lot of people, and it was 2 or 3am and I suddenly steeled myself, and went up and said, ‘I’ve had this idea, what do you think of it?’ And I waited for him to go ‘What a load of bullshit!’
“But his immediate reaction was ‘There’s something in that.’”
Schepisi insisted he would not be involved but remained in touch as a consultant to Burke’s first foray as a producer.
The 1976 film was part of the renaissance of Australian filmmaking, but Burke feels that over time our memory of the story has shifted.
“A lot of film historians and scholars have a false sense that the film was about clergy abuse or paedophilia. But there’s not even the slightest hint of it. It’s a film about puberty set against the context of ridiculous rules of a particular institution in the 1950s,” he explains.
“I remember being absolutely taken by the hand and led through the valley of death by Fred. It was such a personal project for him which I knew because it was based on his own experiences as a 13 year old in a seminary in the 1950s.”
Schepisi had a knack for getting what he needed on the screen without subjecting his cast to its terribly adult themes.
“He’d say things like ‘Alright you little w*nker, time to do the w*nking scene.’ Probably things that you may not be able to get away with from chaperones on sets these days! But of course he is incredibly sensitive and a smart director.”
In the 2014 version, Tom Allen is the sole character revived. But there were discussions about revisiting two of the adult Brothers and using footage with Schepisi’s blessing.
“We had permission from Fred to use footage from the original if Tom was to go into flashback. It was part of the original concept. When in the world has a 48 year old character been able to flashback to his character and it would be the same actor? It was irresistible but it always seemed like we were being too cute,” he says.
“Instead it’s more the work of Blake (Ashford, writer) and the cinematographer with some really oblique references, particularly visual references and the tone and colour.
“I was also very keen that we had a 13 year old boy, not related by family to (my character), but who embodied the sort of kid that Tom was in the original film.”
That role goes to young actor, Jarin Towney. But the show boasts a stellar cast including Don Hany, Toni Collette, John Noble, Jack Thompson and Andrew McFarlane.
“The generosity of people like Toni Collette and Don, in a private way of (recognising) what this project meant to me was really unexpected. They were so sensitive to that. I’ve seen it a few times now and I can’t work out who I love more in it: Toni, Don, John Noble or Andrew McFarlane,” says Burke.
Burke will introduce the original film in a retrospective screening this Sunday night on FOX Classics, but he stresses it is not required viewing to enter the 2014 series.
“It’s almost like the movie is a DVD extra for the series. It makes it a richer experience,” he says.
“But it is completely unnecessary to watch the film to enjoy the show. It’s really a starting point.
“It feels like it is absolutely, as a society, the right time to explore dramatically on screen what we are seeing in the papers. So there is such a strong link, being the Catholic Church, that makes the two projects inextricably linked.”
Whether the new version lives up to the original is now in the hands of the audience, but Schepisi gave the series his approval.
“It’s not for me to say whether it works or not but I guess I’ve never been more nervous in my life than when Fred and (wife) Mary were watching it,” he recalls.
“I’ve never in my life heard Fred be so fulsome in his reaction to something. For him it works completely so that’s good enough for me.”
Devil's Playground is not solely about abuse: Simon Burke
It's 30 years on, but the friction within the Catholic church is still obvious in this updated TV series, writes Giles Hardie.
By Giles Hardie
Simon Burke is back where it all began, in more ways than one. We sit in the playground at Sydney Boys High School which today is doubling as St Venables, the school at the centre of Devil's Playground the Foxtel sequel to Fred Schepisi's 1976 film The Devil's Playground for which a teenage Burke won the AFI Best Actor Award as Tom, a boarding student at a Catholic seminary.
"Serendipitous - that's a good word for this project for me," says Burke of the new series. "The ducks all lined up." He mimes a praise to the heavens - "Thank you!" - before chuckling "maybe I should be Catholic!"
Though he has stopped short of finding faith, Burke is deeply affected by the echoes of his first big role that he recognises everywhere in this production for which he is also executive producer.
"I went to this school for example. It's my alma mater. Which is also weird. I had my first pash under that tree over there."
It's been a long journey back to the kissing tree for Burke. "I'd been in London doing some West End stuff for about five years," he recalls. "I came back to do a show for Adelaide Cabaret Festival. It was about where one starts. As luck would have it [Foxtel director of television] Brian Walsh came down. I caught up with him for dinner and he was raving about the film and what an important part of Australian culture it is.
"He said 'that kid you played, I wonder what that character would have gone on to'. So we kind of almost light-heartedly talked about what sort of man he would have turned into and before I knew it really we were talking about maybe a sequel.
"As luck would have it, out of the blue I had a call from Fred Schepisi the next day, who I hadn't spoken to in two years, and he invited me to the premiere of Eye of the Storm. At the party afterwards I was trying to find my moment. About 2am in Geoffrey Rush's hotel room, I put my cards on the table, said I'd had this idea, what do you think of it? Fred just basically gave me his blessing to explore it.
"Then I got very excited doing the calculations. The film was set in the '50s and my character was 13, so to be my age the story is set in the '80s which is a very interesting time in Australia, a very interesting time in the Catholic church. And what immediately became clear was the need to have a lead character find out what the audience already know. There was nowhere near the awareness of clergy abuse there is these days. Tom could become an early crusader for busting this whole thing wide open."
Burke is quick to clarify that abuse is not the sole plot point of the new series. "I think what we've managed to do is to make it a really important strand of the particular story we're telling. We're also telling the story of a broken up family. We're telling a really fascinating story about the political machinations behind the closed doors of the Catholic church, this kind of political thriller aspect. Marrying those three has been really challenging. There's something for everyone. Not a lot of laughs though."
For Leon Ford, who plays one of the brothers, wearing a clerical collar has brought home the reality of the changed perception of the church in society.
"It's a really strange feeling to walk around in public with this on," says Ford. "People aren't friendly. More sideways glances than you'd expect. In Kings Cross when we had to walk to set a few of the guys had things yelled at them as they were walking.
It's very uncomfortable watching. If any grown-up looks at a photo of themselves at 13 it's such an awkward age.
"Basically, all that a guy dressed like me now has to do is have a bit of physical contact with a boy and we all look at it as quite suspicious because of what's happened. It's really sad, I think."
That undercurrent has made for a unique bonding experience among the cast.
"I think everyone's really aware of the seriousness of it all. It's funny, in war films you can really joke about stuff because it was a long time ago and even the boys at the time had that trench humour. But this one, there's no appropriate humour. They've sort of brought us all together as a cast by the things they've asked us to read and watch, and by discussions they have with each group. It's not justifying or forgiving it, but trying to work out why its so prevalent in certain institutions."
That research has helped Ford justify some of his character's toughest actions. "It's obviously earth-shattering but I've got to justify not going and calling the police and screaming or breaking down. The bond is the crucial thing. The reason the secrets didn't come out."
For Burke, the original film portrayed that brotherly bond perfectly, not that he watches it too often. "It's very uncomfortable watching. If any grown-up looks at a photo of themselves at 13 it's such an awkward age. Looking at 90 minutes of yourself running and walking and crying and jerking off, its very confronting. It was also a pretty confronting time of my life too, at the time. My parents split up during the making of the film. It brings back a lot of stuff, but in a good way."
While Burke is confident that the series will reward newcomers, he hopes others will enjoy the reminders of Schepisi's work.
"If you've never seen the film you're not going to miss out, but by the same token I'm just over the moon at how evocative it is in really subtle but undeniable ways. I'm not the most visual person in the world but someone as unvisual as me can certainly get the references. [Plus] we've recreated the famous shower scene so I get to show my bum!"
Devil's Playground, Tuesday, Showcase, 8.30pm