Underbelly: articles

Crime hits prime time as dark figures return

The opening line of one of Charles Dickens's historical novels, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times", was so good it became the sort of instant cliche that only crime writers would dare borrow.

The book's title, A Tale Of Two Cities, wasn't bad either.

Little wonder, then, that it's been mooched by the makers of the year's most successful television series as the subtitle to their second series, Underbelly: A Tale Of Two Cities.

Underbelly was a sort of Sopranos meets Bellbird for people who saw neither.

It showed putrid people, who nobody wants to know in real life, airbrushed into reel life with great bods, three-day stubble and domesticity, all filmed in a faux television advertisement style that turned them into objects of fascination.

Underbelly was Melbourne's recent nine-year gangland war as portrayed in the book Leadbelly: Inside Australia's Underworld, by John Silvester and Andrew Rule.

The sequel - well, really it's a prequel - is set in the 1970s and 1980s, and straddles the underworlds of Sydney and Melbourne. The southern city was the home of old-style gunmen, second- or third-generation criminals schooled on matters of robbery, intimidation and violence on the docks. Sydney's criminals were all this and more, because they'd discovered the best way of making big money was to corrupt the police.

Underbelly II's leading men are Terry "Mr Asia" Clark and Robert "Aussie Bob" Trimbole, two spivs who traversed both cities and who had murdered their way into becoming millionaire drug tsars. They had direct lines to police and politicians, which ensured they got away with murder in this country.

They both died overseas, one in British custody for a British murder, the other free as a bird, but the manner of their deaths only emphasised the impotence of Australian authorities to bring them to brook.

Their lasting legacy was to show Australians how easy it was to corrupt the very institutions of society that were suppose to guard against their predations.

Yet Australians have long admired outlaws and men who could could corrupt.

How else to explain cop killer Ned Kelly's continuing hero status? Some academics and filmmakers have even suggested Kelly was using north-eastern Victoria as a staging base for an Irish Catholic rebellion against British colonial rule.

The national fascination with the underdog lawbreaker has continued through Squizzy Taylor, Wally Mellish, Rene Rivkin, Mark "Chopper" Read, Alan Bond and a host of others.

The attraction of the rebel lives on in Underbelly II, with Matthew Newton's chiselled look as Terry Clark, borrowed heavily from Johnny Depp's cocaine smuggler in Blow, and Peter O'Brien's silver bodgie George Freeman, Sydney's original "colourful racing identity" who made millions under police patronage.

The first series gave the Nine Network one of its few big winners in 2008 and the DVD walked out the door to become the year's biggest seller.

This time, there is no book as such. But Silvester and Rule have written one that will be released when Underbelly II starts its run (the screening date is yet to be announced by the Nine Network).

But there are royal commissions, court case transcripts and bits and pieces in newspaper articles and books to draw from. Unlike the first series, Underbelly II deals largely with dead people. Of course, dead crooks possess twin benefits: they can't sue and can't dispute the storyline.

A longtime observer of Australia's battle to control organised crime since the early 1960s said the series sought to glamorise men and women who were not worthy of such attention but the fact remained that organised crime remained entrenched, although the focus had shifted.

He said two of Sydney's Mr Bigs were former associates of Freeman, but control had splintered, with biker gangs now ruling part of the roost while ethnic involvement had spread from Italians to the Lebanese, Vietnamese and Chinese.

In Melbourne, power had been split too. Much of Underbelly showed how other ethnic groups had demanded a share of the spoils from the southern city's traditional criminal rulers, shards from the days when the painters and dockers ruled the town with the "Carlton Crew", the Italians who met in Lygon Street.

"The irony is that much of the events that occurred during the late 1970s and the 1980s took place even while government was putting in place machinery to curb such activities," said the observer, who wished to remain anonymous.

By Damien Murphy
December 29, 2008
Sydney Morning Herald