Some time ago, back in the mists of the unrecorded recent, the heavy guns of ABC Publicity began their long distance “softening up”. As the hour grew nearer, a fearsome array of batteries joined in, nightly salvo after salvo, pulverising the senses of viewers as they sat helpless in their easy chairs.
Then mortar barrages joined from the sides of buses, and we were sniped at from taxi backs and billboards as we sat ever marooned in traffic. So, by the time it actually sneak-previewed on the ABC’s website, we could have been forgiven for thinking that Rake was as overexposed as Richard Roxburgh’s left buttock.
Given the saturation high explosive propaganda and the Hillsongy zeal invested in it by our national broadcaster, it is perhaps astonishing to report that Rake is actually good. In fact, so good is it, it is probably the best Australian drama series in a very long time, being that most unusual local beast, television for grown-ups.
Roxburgh’s Sydney barrister Cleaver Greene is a coke-snorting, best mate’s wife-rooting, boozer and gambler, a beaten-up, oft-beaten ne’er-do-well whose muse is a former favourite whore, and whose psychologist ex-wife is more like his therapist.
Every thread of his life is troubled and vexed - his house of cards could collapse in the mildest northerly. He is ever under threat of being de-barred for his idiosyncratic approach to his work, the women in his life are a snip from nipping off his testicles as he sleeps, and the mob are carefully measuring his feet for cement shoes.
In other words, he is true to life. Especially as the series is set in Sydney, Sinny, Sin City, the underbelly long before Underbelly.
It also rings true because in company with writer/director Peter Duncan, and Roxburgh, the series was co-created by colourful Sydney legal identity (and now newspaper columnist) Charles Waterstreet. So, we can be sure, the references to the decadence of life in Sydney and its eastern environs, are all finely authenticated.
(This also suggests a possible deciphering of the strange character name of Cleaver Greene, surely the oddest since Porter Moresby. The English actor Sydney Greenstreet played a gallery of rogues in Hollywood, most notably Kaspar Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, and Signor Ferari in Casablanca. In naming his own cosy denizen of the demimonde, has Waterstreet swapped his own “street” for “Greene” - the clue being the “Sydney” in Greenstreet’s name? As for the “Cleaver”, well, that tends to be Mr Greene’s legal (and life) modus operandi, though it has also been suggested it was the first name of a leading civic official of Albury, where Messrs Waterstreet and Roxburgh both grew up.
Possibly like Mr Waterstreet, despite all the other mad things going on in his life, Mr Greene is good at his job. He is devastating in court, seducing, entrancing and daring juries by turn, and rapier-steely in his cross-examinations of witnesses, and Roxburgh makes full creative use of every clever quip, impassioned speech and candid insight his writer(s) give him. In fact, so good is Greene at his job, that in a recent episode he gained an acquittal for a feral artist (played by a suitably gravel-basso David Field) who had rendered a street boy into a customised San Sebastian.
There’s the rub with Cleaver Greene. He was upset when he realised he’d managed that acquittal, because despite all the coke and booze and demimonde-modish jiggery-pokery, and the hardboiled Hammett-Chandler facade that Roxburgh affects with his raspy, fag-end expirations, Greene is a moral man. He believes in good over evil and all that, provided he can bet on the nags, snort powder from little bags, and get his end in with at least one new woman per ep. Not that he always quite gets the latter, but then he is supposed to be in love with his reformed whore-muse, “Missy”, isn’t he. And, to that degree, it would appear he ascribes to that ultimate moral value, love.
As such, Greene's Rake is less than Hogarthian, though the tapestry of Sydney characters we pass by in this tinselled lower ring of Hades, including Hugo Weaving’s cannibal Friedmanite economist, Noah Taylor’s police informant lowlife, and Sam Neil and Heather Mitchell’s doggy menage a trois, is nothing if not that.
Rather than from Hogarth’s brush, Greene would seem to spring more from the pen of Voltaire, Hogarth's cross-Channel contemporary, in Candide’s journey through trial and pain towards a life that is truthful and sustainable, rather than viewed through a philosophical lens, which in Greene’s case would be the bottom of a bottle.
Despite being possibly a tad underturbo as the shagger, a mite thoughtful for a punting mob associate, and subcutaneously snaggy for a knuckleman, Roxburgh remains convincing as Greene, not in spite of his character’s manifest flaws, but because of them: Greene feels composed of nothing but them. And while “Missy” muses out loud upon the “dirty little thing” that all “decent” people keep locked away as their secret, be these fantasies, affairs, brothel hops, or a preference for S&M, bondage, or Other, Cleaver Greene is presumably up for any and all of them, and anything else on life’s menu too. Well, anything rich and sticky.