Simon Burke as Tom Allen Devil's Playground.
Simon Burke gained a whole new appreciation of the challenges facing producers when he served as an EP on Devil’s Playground, the six-part drama which premieres on Foxtel’s showcase on September 9.
Burke came up with the idea for the miniseries, which looks at Tom Allen, the character the actor played as a 13-year-old in The Devil’s Playground, Fred Schepisi’s 1976 seminal semi-autobiographical movie set in a Catholic seminary in Melbourne in the 1950s, 35 years later.
Set in 1988, the screenplay by Blake Ayshford, Cate Shortland, Alice Addison and Tommy Murphy follows Allen as a newly-widowed Sydney psychiatrist who is hired by the Catholic Church to counsel troubled priests. Allen discovers systematic abuse of minors by the clergy and in his efforts to bring one culprit to justice he encounters corruption and misuse of power.
“It’s very dark and very compelling, with a thriller element, as it looks at one man’s struggle with the whole idea of faith,” he tells IF. “I think there will be a lot of controversy.
“I also wanted to explore how someone my age looks back and asks himself ‘how did I get to be this man from that boy?’”
Burke originally discussed his idea over dinner with a long-time mate Brian Walsh, Foxtel’s executive director of television, during a visit to Sydney in 2011 while he was taking a break from performing on the West End.
Walsh sparked to the concept and said, “Pitch it to me.” Co-incidentally, the next day Schepisi invited Simon to the Sydney premiere of his film The Eye of the Storm. After the screening while chatting in Geoffrey Rush’s hotel room Burke nervously told the director about his thoughts on the miniseries, and immediately got his blessing.
Burke approached Matchbox Pictures, where he developed the project with Tony Ayres, Penny Chapman and Helen Bowden. He talked almost daily to Bowden for nearly two years and attended several scripts workshops as the project took shape and Rachel Ward came on board as set-up director and shot the first three episodes, while Tony Krawitz did the other three.
Ward, casting director Kirsty McGregor, Burke and Bowden took part in all the casting decisions. In every case the actor cast was their first choice for the role.
The ensemble cast includes Jack Thompson as the Cardinal, Don Hany as a power-hungry auxiliary Bishop, John Noble as a fellow Bishop, Toni Collette as a State Labor MP who campaigns for social justice, Andrew McFarlane and young NIDA graduate Uli Latukefu as priests, Leon Ford as a brother and Max Cullen as a retired priest.
“I never considered producing before but now I really have the bug,” he says. “I found the whole creative side of producing to be absolutely fascinating. It’s invaluable to have first-hand experience of the incredible challenges that all producers face.”
Burke hopes Devil’s Playground will resonate with audiences so strongly that Foxtel will commission a second series.
In October he intends to visit the US, where he hopes the miniseries will be picked up.