Correlli: articles

How escapee inspired Jackman drama

Truth and fiction... Hugh Jackman and his future wife, Deborra-Lee Furness, in the TV series, Corelli.

THE weight-loss wonder whose former jailers insist is called Robert Cole is more than a clever contortionist. He just likes to keep a low profile.

For more than a decade "Cole" has resisted telling fellow inmates he was once played by Hugh Jackman in a television series based on an extraordinary chapter of his life.

The armed robber born Andrew David Robertson is the brother of one of Australia's best known actors, Denise Roberts - or Robertson. And they are two of three central players in a story of love, lust and murder that has never been told in full.

Robertson, who shed a fifth of his body weight to escape from the maximum security Long Bay Hospital on Tuesday, is not known as Cole by his family or police.

He has been jailed on and off since the late 1990s, but two years ago was legally declared mentally ill.

As such, since November 2003 he has been a forensic patient - a sick person in jail. Those who know the system suspect the 36-year-old has played his jailers off a break.

Robertson was the basis of the main character in the 13-part ABC drama series Corelli, first screened in 1995.

His actor sister Roberts created and co-wrote Corelli from what she knew of Robertson's unorthodox relationship with Robyn Brentnall, a prison psychologist.

Brentnall, who is no longer allowed to practise in NSW, is the third person, along with the siblings Roberts and Robertson, in this case of art imitating life.

In Corelli the prisoner played by Jackman falls in love with the psychologist of the title, played by Deborra-Lee Furness, who has since become Jackman's wife.

Roberts played the role of Helen Buckley, a prison officer. Some time during the production process, or soon after the series first aired, the Herald understands, Brentnall and Denise Roberts had a serious falling out.

Brentnall had quit Corrective Services, for which she had been an adviser, before the series first aired. She was struck off the practising roll by the NSW Psychologists Registration Board eight years ago.

When Robertson was released from prison about the time Corelli first went to air he lived with Brentnall at Ryde. The boyfriend of one of Brentnall's daughters, Andrew Mazzitelli, was also living in the house.

Mazzitelli and Robertson, then respectively 20 and 25, committed a series of armed robberies on small businesses in north-western Sydney in early 1995.

Brentnall became concerned about the pair's behaviour and reported her suspicions to police. She also asked that they investigate her allegations against Denise Roberts of theft of intellectual property copyright.

Robertson and Mazzitelli were arrested at Hunters Hill when police dragged them out of a car. Robertson was wearing a wig at the time. Both men were jailed.

Brentnall, meanwhile, was working as a senior counsellor at Baulkham Hills TAFE. Within a year she went back to police with more information, this time a murder plot.

Another of Brentnall's former inmate clients, a man convicted in 1987 of murdering his girlfriend, had been released after serving most of his sentence.

The killer, Guy Wallace Tiskins, was 29 and impotent when he strangled Carol Mason, who was 59, at Fairfield Heights in 1986 after she made fun of his inability.

Like Robertson, Tiskins had fallen in love with Brentnall while inside. Upon release he sought her out. Police were later told that Brentnall had rejected Tiskins but let him know her problems with Roberts over copyright.

Tiskins allegedly wrote letters to Roberts threatening to kill her if the matter was not resolved. Police spoke to Roberts about the threats from Tiskins but did not have enough evidence to charge him with any offence.

Roberts was granted an interim apprehended violence order against Brentnall, without Brentnall making any admissions of wrongdoing, in July 1995.

A month later Roberts withdrew her complaint. Brentnall was struck off by the NSW Psychologists Registration Board on February 3, 1998, after a Professional Standards Committee hearing.

Last night Roberts said she feared for her brother. "I think he's more dangerous to himself than he is to anyone else," she told the Seven Network.

"I dread to think what he'll do if he is taken back there."

By Stephen Gibbs
January 20, 2006
The Age, with AAP

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Julie Goes To Jail

As the heavy iron prison gates clanked shut behind her, shattering her wholesome image, Denise Roberts had just one fear: What would her fans think? Determined to be unrecognisable, the popular ABC TV star hid her blonde locks, wiped off her make-up and set her face hard—removing all trace of sunny GP receptionist Julie.

"It's actually nice to get out of the heated rollers and never-a-hair-out-of-place look," Denise grins, as a gang of inmates shuffles past. "No-one could mistake me for Julie here."

Denise's stint in prison is her new freedom. She plays jail warder Helen Buckley in Correlli, a drama series about a female clinical psychologist working in a men's prison—staring Deborah-Lee Furness in the title role and real prison warders and ex-criminals as extras.

Denise came up with the whole Correlli concept and works hands-on as the show's associate producer, involved in everything from story ideas to casting. When the chance came to take a role in the show, she leapt at the challenge: no make-up, no jewellery, no need to keep smiling.

"Being in such a long-running series as GP, it's very important to me that I do a good job of this role in Correlli. I don't want to let my audience down," Denise explains.

If anything, her audience will be blinking in amazement at Denise's transformation. There is almost nothing womanly about the way she portrays this bitter, butch character. Denise based Helen on the contributions of real female prison officers while researching the Correlli idea, and the writers followed her suggestion.

"These women said it's hard retaining your femininity when you're surrounded by men who give you undivided attention each day and you have to maintain authority.

"It's a dilemma—it's a bit like eating a steak in front of a starving man," she laughs.

Denise came up with he idea for Correlli on a holiday in her native Scotland. She caught up with a childhood favourite cousin who now works as a prison psychologist—and his experiences set her thinking about TV.

Just weeks later, back in Australia, she struck up a chance conversation at a cocktail party with a woman who was, you guessed it, a prison psychologist.

"I thought this has go to be fate—I'm meant to do this show. I'm an opportunist, and when something slaps you in the face twice, obviously there's a message behind it."

Premiering on the ABC on July 26, Correlli took more than four years to get from idea to screen, with Denise juggling her GP commitments all the way. For several weeks she was plane-hopping between Correlli in Melbourne and GP in Sydney, staggering home in the dark to snatch weekends with her daughter Kylie and husband Andy.

"I didn't have time to scratch myself. I forgot to buy soap the other day and had to wash myself with shampoo! I was the sweetest-smelling actor on the set—even the hairs on my arms were conditioned."

Story: Karen Lateo
Pictures: Tony Feder