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Devil’s Playground

Original airdate: September 09, 2014
Directed by: Rachel Ward, Tony Krawitz
Written by: Blake Ayshford, Cate Shortland...
Produced by: Penny Chapman, Helen Bowden...
Episodes: 6 episodes
Running time: 300 minutes

"Devil's Playground" follows on from the 1976 movie by Fred Schepisi, "The Devil’s Playground". It begins in 1988, by which time the character of Tom Allen has become a psychiatrist, a widow and father of two children. When he agrees to act as a counselor and therapist to the clergy, Tom soon finds himself caught up in a scandal that the church is trying to cover up. With its rigorous formal structure, this ambitious and expertly handled series examines the power of the Catholic church.

Cast & Characters

Simon Burke (Tom Allen), Don Hany (Bishop Quaid), John Noble (Bishop McNally), Andrew McFarlane (Father Andrassi), Anna Lise Phillips (Alice Kelly), Jarin Towney (Elliot Darcy), Morgan Davies (Bridie Allen), James Fraser (David Allen), Leon Ford (Brother Warner), Uli Latukefu (Father Matteo), Ben Hall (Finton Kelly), Matt Levett (Brendan Mahony), Toni Collette (Margaret Wallace), Jack Thompson (Cardinal Neville), Jessica Wren (Catherine Darcy), Jason Klarwein (Matthew Darcy), Pip Miller (Brother Cosgrove), Coco Jack Gillies (Megan Darcy), Avani Farriss (Rachel Darcy), Malcolm Kennard (Joe Kelly), Rory Potter (Cavanagh), Fletcher Watson (Peter Kelly), Darren Gilshenan (Father Lenken), Joe Petruzzi (Bishop Mafucci), Max Cullen (Father Joyce), Justin Smith (Detective Blacket), Lochie Nazer Hennings (Dan Rivers), Lewis Defina (Greg Harrison), Amy Kersey (Cheryl), Alan Dukes (Father Donoghue), Christopher Stollery (Justice Minister), Kane Johnson (Jase), Bradley Towler (Street Teen), Luca Donoghue (Baby Darcy), Rob Flanagan (Coach)

Production Notes

The 2014 “sequel” to the 1975 film by Fred Schepisi puts the subject of abuse by the clergy front and centre. 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. “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.” (Source: David Knox, TV Tonight)

Awards & Nominations

☆   Australian Astra Award – Outstanding Performance by an Actor (Female)
☆   Logie Award – Outstanding Performance by an Actor (Female)