A peek inside TV’s bleak House of Hancock
Were Gina Rinehart producing a telemovie of her self-published hardcover 2012 autohagiography, Northern Australia and Then Some, it might begin in 1909, when her father is born to pastoralists on the remote Mulga Downs station. Lang Hancock is destined to make “great sacrifices for this country”, exploring the Pilbara “with only snakes for companions”.
A cartoon from The West Australian reprinted in the book indulges a fantasy that Brad Pitt would play her father, with Gina directing the apocryphal Lang – the Mini-series. But Rinehart’s telemovie adapters would need to crib Lang’s childhood from other sources, as Gina’s book is stuffed mostly with Hancock Prospecting company speeches and her father’s interview transcripts railing against a “socialist” Liberal Party.
Rugged ranges and spinifex might dot the opening montage as Aboriginal children teach young Lang to track dingo, kangaroo and wild turkey, dissolving to adult Lang watching blackfella labourers get paid in tea, flour, sugar and tobacco. No Gina-employed scriptwriter would dare include real footage of Lang proposing to “dope up the water” so “half-castes” will “breed themselves out”, or subplots of indigenous women claiming Lang paterfamilias.
Adapters could step around Hancock’s asbestos doorstop that led a British company to offer to pay £70 a tonne in 1934, prompting his recollection in Debi Marshall’s 2012 book The House of Hancock, The Rise and Rise of Gina Rinehart: “Of course, I pegged out the best area at Wittenoom Gorge and went into asbestos mining.” Too dour a tale for commercial TV, considering Lang later blamed lives lost to asbestos-related cancer as “self-inflicted” or “self-aggravated”.
Lang – the Mini-series would leap to an iron ore legend. It might focus on the day some storms forced him to fly his single-engine Auster low, thereby “discovering” rusty iron in a Pilbara gorge: “In November of 1952, I was flying down south with my [second] wife Hope, and we left a bit later than usual, and by the time we got over the Hamersley Range, the clouds had formed and the ceiling got lower.”
Rinehart would bitterly rail against her father’s “jealous, hateful and vitriolic” critics who argue that the iron ore was already known to be there.
Maximising the guts
Producers Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder (CJZ) gained the rights to Marshall’s book, envisaging a four-hour mini-series opening on Rinehart’s childhood. Lang was 44 when Hope gave birth at Royal Perth Hospital to their only child in 1954. Lang had wished for a son, whom he planned to name George, but got Georgina instead. Some 30 years later, shortly after Hope’s death, a Philippine maid arrived. Rose Lacson would become Lang’s third wife and Gina’s bête noire.
CJZ approached Rinehart to consult on their planned Gina v Rose, but ended negotiations when Rinehart asked to vet the script. One family member was consulted, with their identity protected. Meanwhile, Screentime and Foxtel’s rival six-part mini-series, based on journalist Adele Ferguson’s book Gina Rinehart: The Untold Story of the Richest Woman in the World, was dumped. The official reason was that the Nine Network began production on the CJZ project first, but Rinehart’s subpoena against Ferguson, demanding the journalist’s notes, cannot have helped.
CJZ and Nine cut their show’s running time, to two fast-paced episodes, to maximise the “guts”. The renamed House of Hancock begins in 1980, with Mandy McElhinney (Rhonda in the AAMI commercials and Nene King in Paper Giants: Magazine Wars) cast as Gina. Before the first ad break, it’s 1983 and Rose Lacson (Malaysian-born Australian actor Peta Sergeant) has landed in Perth and answered Rinehart’s ad for a housekeeper for newly widowed Lang (Sam Neill).
Six months on, having discovered Rose and Lang are an item – sex three times a day, Rose would claim – Gina terminates Rose’s employment and applies to cancel her residency application. It’s the opening salvo in two decades of war. A retaliatory letter from Lang calls Gina a “slothful, vindictive and devious baby elephant”.
In 1985, Lang removes her as a Hancock Prospecting director, prompting Gina to write: “You have become the subject of dirty old man jokes from one side of Australia to the next. You’ve been wiped out financially by a manipulating Filipino [sic].” Rose, 36, and Lang, 76, secretly wed that July in Sydney, their cake decorated with a model train loading iron ore into a dump truck. Gina is informed of the event afterwards.
Lang’s final will, made shortly before he died in 1992 at age 82, places Gina in control of the company’s massive unworked iron ore tenements. House of Hancock deals with the two women’s court battles over Lang’s estate in just 30 seconds, focusing instead on Lang’s inquest. Here, Gina’s obsessive hatred of Rose plays out, prompting headlines about black magic, hit men, sex and drugs, and witnesses being paid to appear or stay away. Eventually the coroner determines Hancock died of natural causes.
Producer Michael Cordell says Gina could be “portrayed as a tough nut, but there is a lot of vulnerability” as she deals with the sudden death of her second husband, Frank Rinehart, in 1990. Survivor Rose is a “wonderfully complex character … though it’s sometimes hard to find the absolute truth” while Lang “adored her”, gaining a “new lease of life and shagging himself silly”.
In 1991, Lang undergoes triple bypass surgery. Back home in Prix D’Amour, the Gone with the Wind-style mansion he builds Rose in Perth’s Mosman Park, Lang sits in a wheelchair tucked in a blanket as Rose throws him yet another party, flying in his favourite entertainer, Danny La Rue, to croon love songs. It is the only party Gina attended at the mansion.
In the TV version of this soiree, which bookends the two hours of House of Hancock, Rose wears a lavish red sparkling Spanish ruffle dress split to the thigh, and sings Pat Benatar’s Love is a Battlefield karaoke-style: When I’m losing control / Will you turn me away / Or touch me deep inside…
The eyes of iron ore heiress Gina narrow in contempt as Rose runs her hand down a marble column.
Monday night, September 2014. Pretend it’s Perth, not Terrey Hills on Sydney’s north shore. Rose had Prix D’Amour demolished in 2006, subdividing and selling the land. Standing in is Symingtonia, built in 2002. Lion statues and a triple-dish fountain greet visitors.
“Lose yourself in luxury!” reads Symingtonia’s rental website, an exhortation contestants followed when The Biggest Loser was filmed here. Likewise, the gold-trimmed Georgian baroque interior once ensnared renter Kyle Sandilands, until the radio announcer fell into dispute with his landlord and dubbed Symingtonia a “13-toilet shithole”.
Pretend it’s Lang’s birthday, 1989, or thereabouts in the amalgamated vagueness of TV storytelling. In the grand ballroom, Danny La Rue-inspired drag queen Amelia Airhead sings If My Friends Could See Me Now, amid tuxedos, heels and pearls. Sam Neill is dapper as Lang in thick-rimmed spectacles, a tuxedo and dyed hair.
“Can you imagine trying to find a present for this guy?” Rose trills, waving her hand dramatically. Two maids open the gold door beneath the Crema Marfil double staircase and whip the cover off a Rose-like mannequin. “And then I realise: another me!”
Cake cut and guests pretending to be excited about fireworks on the estate that will be added in post-production, Peta Sergeant reflects on playing Rose, her “grandiose physical gestures that precede the word she is looking for”, her vulnerability and pethidine addiction. She sees parallels between Rose and Gina.
“They had a lot in common, the biggest of which was that money was the currency of affection through both their childhoods. They both married men about 40 years older. Gina couldn’t see that, going on about how disgusting it was that Rose was clearly a gold-digger. The story is so human. I’m sure Gina would be horrified that I see similarities. It would probably set her ablaze on the inside.”
If you’re wondering about Rinehart’s current travails – her court battle over the $5 billion Hancock family trust with her two eldest children, John and Bianca, from her first marriage to storeman Greg Milton, that’s all dealt with in a flash-forward in the show’s final minutes.
However, that’s more airtime than Gina herself gives her eldest three children, failing to mention them at all in Northern Australia and Then Some, while youngest daughter, Ginia – “she is most like me” – garners several dedications and photographs.
Time for Lang Hancock’s death in the guesthouse of Prix D’Amour. Hair back to grey, wearing a nasogastric tube, his skin pink and blotched, Neill as Lang lies in bed, with two paramedics – a real one, Alex, and an actor, Aaron – rehearsing how they will use an old ’90s-era defibrillator to try in vain to jump-start Lang’s heart.
Lang’s assistant, Reg Browne (David Hynes), rises from his desk at Lang’s strange breathing. “Nurse! Nurse! NURSE!” he yells. A real nurse, Arianne, rushes in and attempts to perform CPR. McElhinney as Gina enters the room in a dressing gown with actor Nathan Wilson, playing a young John Hancock. She races to Lang’s bedside. “Dad! What’s happened?”
She picks up the phone: “Ambulance? Wellington Street, Mosman Park … 151. My father’s having a heart attack; I don’t know what’s happened, he was perfectly fine yesterday.” Then, in her Gina-refined voice, McElhinney adds: “Can you pick up some McDonald’s on the way?” The room erupts in laughter.
Rehearsal tension broken, the scene is filmed over and over. And just before the fifth take, McElhinney puts shaking hands to her face, murmurs “Oh, fuck”, and as the camera rolls again, turns in a spine-tingling performance of raw agony.
Later, at the 3pm lunchbreak, I ask McElhinney if she was drawing on anything personal. “Sometimes in terms of the stakes it’s useful to tap into a little bit of your own life,” she says, her voice dropping. “My dad died four years ago, and I watched him get very, very sick, and it was a very traumatic time. I don’t use it for emotional masturbation reasons,” she laughs, “but it’s just good to think of that in terms of the stakes.
“For Gina, she was incredibly close to her father and believed him to be the iron man, to be immortal.”
McElhinney makes clear it’s an interpretation of Rinehart, based on watching her interviews, which only present a public persona. She has not met Rinehart, so has to apply a character actor’s imagination to how her childhood shaped her. “I was allowed to discover my destiny, whereas hers seems to have been preordained. She’s also improved on the business her father left her. She is her own woman, from all accounts.”
Does McElhinney understand Gina’s hatred of Rose? “I guess in our story the family drama is something everyone can relate to. Marriages within families don’t always go well. Lang marrying Rose was incredibly distressing and confusing to Gina, because Rose seemed to represent everything that she was told to be wary of. Both women suffer in our story from a misunderstanding of each other.” The two women did have a few similarities, agrees McElhinney, but private Gina and open-book Rose are fundamentally “chalk and cheese in the way they relate to the world”.
It makes for great drama. Or, to the casual observer, high camp in a split skirt, a safari suit and a muu-muu.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 31, 2015 as "Bleak house". Subscribe here.