Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo is a well worn, seen-it-all-before, paint by numbers mini-series that you’ll love to bits. Airing this Sunday and Monday night on ABC1, Paper Giants takes a look at the creation of Cleo magazine and what it meant for Australia in the ’70s. It depicts a time of revolutionary ideas, bad hair and even worse clothes (or awesome hair and even more awesome clothes, depending on how you view it), and of s-xual awakening. Cleo may have just been a magazine, but what it represented to its readers impacted on the changing identity of a nation.

In a career-defining role, Asher Keddie is an absolute stand-out in what is already a very good cast. Keddie practically is Ita Buttrose. Her mannerisms and voice are just a note or two away from the real Ita and her performance perfectly highlights the balance of distance kept between Ita and the other characters of the mini-series and the strong investment in the product she’s championing.

Rob Carlton isn’t given anywhere near as much to do as Kerry Packer, but still makes an impressive screen presence. The Cleo staff feel slightly under-developed in this, but there is a lot of material to work through and just two 90 minute episodes to do it in. Matt Day, Jessica Tovey, Annie Maynard and Ian Meadows are all highly engaging as the staffers bringing the magazine to life. I’d have loved to have spent more time with them beyond this mini-series.

The strength of Paper Giants is its visual design. While all the sets and costumes really pop with an excess of colour, the mini-series is made to feel authentic through the use of archive film used in its establishing shots. While the intelligence of the set design of the quite excellent Mad Men was no doubt an inspiration, it’s the use of the archival footage that really lends a greater sense of authenticity. The footage never once feels out of place and goes a long way to add to the excitement of the beginning of this era of change.

The only flaw is the feeling we’ve seen it before. The characters feel rich, but the roles they fulfil just feel stereotypical. It’s almost as if the writers ran through a list of genre tropes and ticked all the boxes. It’s unfair criticism given it’s based on actual events and people, perhaps, but it never quite shakes that feeling of familiarity.

Paper Giants doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s vibrant, engaging and flat-out entertaining. Tune in, if for no other reason than to see a plethora of v-brators on ABC television.

The details: Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo airs on ABC1 Sunday and Monday at 8.30pm.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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