In a sunlit garden tucked behind state parliament’s Macquarie Street gates, a group of actors in suits and twin-sets are sipping fake champagne. On set for the ABC drama Rake, they are playing politicians, lawyers and diplomats.
Matt Day’s character, a clean-cut tax lawyer, talks politics with the attorney-general, played by Geoff Morrell. His girlfriend, Missy (Adrienne Pickering), hobnobs with the wives and girlfriends.
In her pearls and tailored jacket, she looks as respectable as the rest but her eyes are anxious. As she talks, she looks about for former clients who could expose her as a one-time, high-class hooker.
That is how things are in Rake. Lawyers spend as much time in brothels as they do in court, husbands and wives cheat, and renowned economists hide cannibalistic yearnings.
Amid all the hypocrisy, Cleaver Greene – the rake of the title – is an honest rogue. In trouble with the tax office, drowning in gambling debts and reeling from one woman to the next, he somehow manages a successful career as a criminal barrister.
"The series settled around this idea we had for a character who was both terribly self-destructive and extremely charismatic," says Richard Roxburgh, the series co-creator and star. "There’s this tension between his shambolic personal life and his intelligence and professional success. People like that are always fascinating. You can’t help but wonder why they can’t get their shit together."
Roxburgh clearly relishes the role. He is devilishly charming as Cleaver, whether in court, at parties or by the side of a road at the mercy of a stand-over man.
"It was my love job," he says. "I’ve never done anything on screen that I had such a creative hand in. I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t ridiculously hard work but it was so beautiful. When we watched the episodes, we’d be crying in one scene then laughing hysterically in the next. We felt we had lightning in the bottle."
For all his excesses, Cleaver Greene rings true as a character. Very true for Roxburgh, who is a friend of the Sydney barrister and writer Charles Waterstreet. Friends call Waterstreet charming and exasperating.
Newspapers call him colourful. He has worked on high-profile cases, written books and produced films. He has dated famous women, battled alcoholism and, by his own admission, frittered away his wealth.
Though fictional, Rake draws some inspiration from Waterstreet, who worked on the series as a legal consultant. "He gave me a couple of good ideas," Roxburgh says. "In terms of the idea of a defence lawyer whose personal life is a disaster area, well, there was some interesting influence there."
Roxburgh also mentions an old university friend who was "highly intelligent, very funny and constantly being beaten up".
"These terribly flawed but remarkable people … a lot of the time the thing feeding their genius is also feeding their demons," he says. "The fountainhead of their brilliance is also the source of the things that are their undoing."
In court, Cleaver Greene has a knack for hopeless cases. He defends cannibals, bigamists, drug lords and murderers, entertaining jurors and scandalising judges.
"He is a perpetual champion of the irredeemable," Roxburgh says. "He’s not saintly but he thinks, ‘There but for the grace of God, go I.’ He’s a great lover of humanity. That’s why he can get away with anything. He loves people and that’s always appealing."
The cases, though often bizarre, have their roots in reality. The writers, Peter Duncan and Andrew Knight, combed newspapers and the internet for stories. In the first episode, Hugo Weaving guest stars as a mild-mannered economist with a taste for human flesh. Terrifyingly reasonable, Weaving’s character protests that he is not a murderer – just a cannibal. "That came from a story I read a few years ago about a pretty interesting case in Germany," says Duncan, who also directed a couple of episodes of the series. "It stuck in my mind."
Another episode, guest starring an uncharacteristically raunchy Lisa McCune, sees Cleaver defending a 40-year-old mother who seduced a juror for information after her daughter’s murder trial.
The cases never dominate the action. "There are so many legal dramas on television," Duncan says. "That was something we discussed – how do we make this different? We didn’t want it to be a procedural show. What’s really engaging is what’s going on in Cleaver’s life."
The script was compelling enough to attract an impressive cast. As well as Weaving – who hasn’t acted in a television series for more than a decade – and McCune, it stars Rachel Griffiths, Sam Neill, Sacha Horler and Russell Dykstra.
"We know a few people," Duncan says. "That helped but they all really loved it. Hugo is an old friend of Richard’s and he loved the script. We had a ball when he was on set. The same goes for Rachel. Lisa was great, too. She loved the idea of playing someone naughty."
For Roxburgh, the show was a chance to "get together with mates and make something we’d like to watch ourselves".
"As an actor, you can’t go around and grizzle about the work available if you have the ability to do something active about it," he says. "This gave us the opportunity to produce, direct and act in something stimulating."
Rake begins on ABC1 on Thursday at 8.30pm.