What ever happened to the boy at the centre of the 1976 film classic The Devil's Playground? A new miniseries has the answer
It was two-thirty in the morning, and Simon Burke was sitting in Geoffrey Rush’s hotel room. Nearby sat director Fred Schepisi, an Australian film-industry legend and the man who’d kick-started Burke’s acting career when he chose him to play the central character in his semi-autobiographical 1976 classic The Devil’s Playground. Burke had recently been at lunch with Foxtel exec Brian Walsh when they got to imagining what may have happened to Tom Allen, the 13-year-old boy – played by Burke – who famously runs away from the seminary and hitches a ride to… somewhere in the movie’s last scene.
Burke’s clever idea: pick up Tom’s story 35 years later – with himself again in the role. “It seemed quite irresistible,” says Burke, who was also keen to use footage from the original film in flashbacks. First he needed Schepisi’s blessing. The two hadn’t seen each other in nearly five years. It was now or never.
“Fred’s formidable,” laughs Burke. “And when you meet someone at 13, you’re always 13 in their presence. I finally worked up the courage to share my idea, and he seemed to think it had legs. But first he said, ‘You go and pursue. I must have nothing to do with it, though – because once I start, I won’t be able to stop.’”
Burke’s idea eventually became Devil’s Playground, a six-part miniseries set in 1988 Sydney that follows a newly widowed Tom – now a psychiatrist asked by the Archbishop of Sydney (Fringe’s John Noble) to counsel his priests. What he uncovers, as you might guess, is a maelstrom of consistent child abuse – the same disturbing crimes revealed in a recent royal commission. “We dodged the idea during development,” reveals Burke, “because we knew that was where people expected us to go. But we realised we’d be desolate in our duty if we didn’t, given it was in the paper and headlines every day.”
The series – which also stars Toni Collette, Jack Thompson and Don Hany – examines the post-Vatican II rift that roiled the Church, and not unlike the BBC’s Broadchurch, explores how an insular community reacts when it becomes clear that one (or more) of its own has been up to no good.
Burke wasn’t able to make those authentic flashbacks work, but that’s not to say he didn’t have a few of his own during the shoot. “We were filming at Sydney Boys High School, where I went while shooting the original, and I was so involved I didn’t immediately realise we were in what had been my actual homeroom. And when thinking about how to say a line, I could actually hear young Tom in my head. It was a surprisingly emotional experience – otherworldly, freaky and potent. There always seemed to be something so right about this project.”