Underbelly: articles

Death of a culture

The third Underbelly series dives into the murk of NSW police corruption

'WHO knows?" Jo Horsburgh keeps saying as she ushers journalists into the Nine Network's small theatrette.

Horsburgh, Nine's head of drama and co-producer of Underbelly: The Golden Mile, adds: "The fact is, we're as nervous about the third series as we were before the first went to air."

We're at a hastily convened screening to see a finished edit of the first two episodes of The Golden Mile and, rather like the producers, not really sure what to expect. The big question is whether viewers will still have that seemingly insatiable thirst for the full-throttle action and larger-than-life stories about real events that Underbelly serves up.

The new 13-part series looks at the events in Sydney's Kings Cross, the so-called Golden Mile, that led to the 1997 Wood royal commission into the NSW police. Wood concluded that a state of "systemic and entrenched corruption" existed and The Golden Mile hurtles us into the corruption, murder and betrayal that led to the inquiry.

Des Monaghan, the other executive producer with Horsburgh and writer Greg Haddrick (they are from production company Screentime), introduces the episodes, also with some trepidation.

"There was so much corruption in the NSW police force that it was said to be the worst in the world, and the Cross was the centre of it all," he says. "It's all hard to believe now but I promise you it's true, because we dared not invent it. The more implausible it seems, the truer it is."

Horsburgh pipes up again. "The new series is not just gratuitous tits," she says a little shrilly, clearly referring to much-criticised nudity in the previous series, Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities. The most tired joke in the industry last year was: "There's so much sex in the show, Nine should replace the 'C' in Cities with a 'T'." It obviously still rankles, despite the extraordinary ratings success of the series.

Monaghan smiles grimly and outlines why some characters have disappeared or been amalgamated into fictional protagonists.

"We just can't show people breaking the law unless they've been convicted; we can only deal with things the law allows us to," he says. "And this was our biggest challenge because so many cops were allowed to resign rather than face prosecution."

Well, on the basis of the first two episodes, both written by Felicity Packard and directed by Tony Tilse, my verdict is that the latest Underbelly is flat-out terrific. It's also undeniable that it appeals to our worst instincts. This is TV that brings deviant actions from the margins of experience into the mainstream, where we can be seduced by them.

The Golden Mile does it with a sense of the epic seldom seen on local TV. It was surely a logistical nightmare: there were 220 chief and supporting cast, 1125 extras, 60 full-time crew and 127 locations providing the background for 245 sets. And while the producers maintained a cosy relationship with Kings Cross traders, there was an unofficial agreement there would be no filming at night, so the teeming, violent criminal Cross of the 1990s was recreated in sedate Lane Cove, on Sydney's north shore.

The series slides through many marginally interconnected narratives, including the story of the charismatic John Ibrahim (Firass Dirani), who came to the Cross as a teenager and now owns clubs, and the adventures of Kim Hollingsworth (Emma Booth), who was ejected from the Goulburn Police Academy in 1995 after it was revealed she had previously worked as a prostitute.

The first episode, which establishes the Ibrahim gangster plot, seems initially like a circus: an arrangement of high-octane violent acts and comic high-jinks. It opens on a parade of nut cases, screwballs, bloodied psychos, drug dealers, brothel keepers, call girls and cops straight and bent. Their names flash up on the screen to the full-on accompaniment of a big band-pop mashup version of Puttin on the Ritz.

"Whatever your persuasion, whatever your poison, it was for sale in the Cross," says the taut, ironic narration, a significant device in the new series. The voice is again that of Caroline Craig, who played senior detective Jacqui James in the first series and voiced the second.

Her witty, evocative narration provides just the right sense of continuity. We feel we know the woman behind the voice who represents the world of the insider; hardly objective but full of a knowing sadness. The narration emphasises this is real storytelling based on actuality, yet suggests there is something archetypal about the stories.

Once it settles, there is an almost calculated restraint about the way the program is presented, offering viewers a chance to think hard about the stories, the different worlds they present and the ideas that underlie the drama. And for all the chaos it depicts, the series is very tidy; within the confines of its tawdry world everything that happens does so for a purpose.

You know that all the ingredients set out at the beginning of an episode will be used and used well. It is mischievous, cunning and very stylish.

A dark, neon-lit palette gives The Golden Mile a visual distinction that exactly communicates its view of a fate-haunted universe. The production team, led by designer Paddy Reardon, gets the Cross just right, obviously fascinated by the way freedom and debauchery could be pursued at the same time. Reardon says he took the motif for the series from Kings Cross's neon and the famous signs advertising clubs such as The World Famous Love Machine, Stripperama and the Pink Pussycat.

The vibrant, fluoro-lit exteriors contrast brilliantly with the seedy interiors of motel rooms and the grey-and-metal, slightly eastern European feel of the Kings Cross police station where many scenes are set. The corrupt cops live in oddly modest Sydney houses, with their airconditioning and swimming pools seen as luxury additions crudely tacked on, financed with payoffs.

The sometimes seemingly discontinuous stories - short, crowded and full of menace - flash between the beautifully realised locations. In fact, there are so many broken scenes, short-cut moments and incidents linked by narration and Burkhard Dallwitz's brilliant musical score that the first industry joke about the show is to call it Underbelly: The Golden Montage.

The acting consequently has a jagged, impromptu quality, with much overlapping dialogue, scenes shot on the run or covered by Joe Pickering's cameras in such a way you get only bits of performance.

Sometimes it's as if you're watching the home movies of the stoned-out crims or the smirking, crooked cops.

Dirani is totally convincing as the complex Ibrahim, and Booth displays a wide emotional range as the luckless Hollingsworth. Peter O'Brien reprises his underworld boss George Freeman from the second Underbelly series.

It's a tensely drawn picture of raunchy, sardonic evil and Dieter Brummer's portrayal of straight-out greed as crooked cop Trevor Haken is astutely developed.

Comic actor Rob Carlton, so good in Chandon Pictures, draws attention in the ensemble scenes as the obsessively tidy middle-aged detective Neville "Scully" Scullion. And watch out for Sigrid Thornton, who turns up as Australian Federal Police inspector Gerry Lloyd in an awe-inspiring, power-dressing miniskirt.

Just as with the earlier series, the latest Underbelly is the kind of show you watch with a mixture of horror and fascination. Attraction and repulsion are constantly at work.

Underbelly, Nine, will go to air after the Winter Olympics.

By Graeme Blundell
February 13, 2010
The Australian