Underbelly: articles

Killer script Underbelly's secret

THERE’S a lot to like about Underbelly and even more to love.

Channel 9’s drama series on Melbourne’s gangland war is well shot, well acted and well edited.

But what really makes the series stand out is how well written it is.

There are a lot of ingredients you need for great television but without a great script the others are useless.

This explains why most Australian produced television is simply unwatchable.

I know it’s Critiquing 101 to publicly whip the likes of Home and Away and Neighbours but how the scripts of those shows survive the first editing process — let alone see life on screen — is a mystery that may never be solved.

The production budgets of most American shows might tower over those in Australia but it’s the dialogue that makes them so watchable, not the million dollar car explosions.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s NYPD Blue, The Sopranos, CSI, Sex and the City or Cashmere Mafia, the writing is almost always original, witty, provocative and entertaining. And, whether they know it or not, that’s why people tune in.

Underbelly — now the most watched show in most capital cities — is in the same category.

The screenplay is based on the novel Leadbelly by Melbourne Age journalists John Silvester and Andrew Rule but was actually penned by three writers from Underbelly’s production company Screentime, Peter Gawler, Felicity Packard and Greg Haddrick.

The script took about 12 months to write, beginning in June 2006, with each writer putting together an entire episode themselves before their scripts were edited.

Haddrick, the head of drama at Screentime, said his favourite character to write about was Roberta Williams, the ambitious, vulgar and indulgent wife of Carl Williams, the druglord and serial killer who provides the fulcrum for the show.

“It’s hard to single one out but I’d have to say Roberta,” he said.

“Mostly because she’s a very outspoken and forthright character.”

When you have brilliant writing and brilliant characters, acting becomes the easiest game in town but you still have to love the likes of Vince Colosimo, Les Hill, Daniel Amalm and Dan Wyllie, who stole every scene as the unwittingly hilarious drug addict Richard Mladenich (before being skewered by a hail of bullets in episode three).

The only regrettable aspect of Underbelly is that in 10 weeks it’ll be gone and most of the only Australian shows left will be as clunky, ponderous and clichéd as ever.

By Neil Hickey
March 06, 2008
The Courier-Mail