Underbelly: articles


Sex, violence and Underbelly

YOU might want to make sure any children — or sensitive adults — in your house are tucked up in bed nice and early this Wednesday night, well before Underbelly splatters your TV screen with blood.

In just the first eight minutes of this highly hyped Channel Nine series, you’re hit with the kind of graphic sex not seen in an Australian drama since Chances.

And a man is kicked half to death before being sent the rest of the way with enough bullets to floor a herd of elephants.

Of course, it may be too late to save your youngsters’ eyes if they’ve seen the viral Internet video campaign for Underbelly.

The 60-second clip looks like a trailer for an extended, uncut version of Chopper — or, perhaps, Debbie Does Chopper.

Remarkably, this viscerally vicious show — based on the real-life gangland war that rocked Melbourne from 1996 to 2004 — will be going to air in prime time, at 8.30pm.

Rarely has a TV series been so widely discussed and dissected before a single second of it has gone to air.

The $13 million drama was even praised by a Supreme Court judge last week, albeit one who was considering banning it from being shown in Victoria. Justice Betty King has issued Nine with a subpoena demanding it hand over all episodes of Underbelly by 10am tomorrow.

Lawyers had expressed concern that the trial of a man accused of murdering a gangland figure could be jeopardised by the show. Justice King seemed to be looking forward to her legal review,

“Channel Nine should be congratulated. They have obviously got something good,” she said.

And it’s not just the legal fraternity which is taking an interest. Channel Nine staff have been approached by underworld figures asking for preview copies of the show, so they can see how they have been depicted.

Underbelly is so likely to be a success you can bet on it. Sportingbet Australia has opened a market on how many people will watch the first episode. A figure of between 2.5 and 2.6 million viewers is the top tip, at $3.50.

So, how good is it?

Gangland matriarch Judy Moran has seen several episodes and describes it as “rot” and “fictitious and stupid”, but then she might not be totally without bias.

TV critics have been blown away by the performances of a stellar cast that includes Vince Colosimo, Les Hill, Marcus Graham, Alex Dimitriades, Frankie J. Holden and Rodger Corser.

Sadly, some of the supporting cast — the police in particular — should be arrested for impersonating actors, but the main players, including a marvellously malevolent Colosimo, more than make up for that.

Someone seems to be getting shot, smacked or shagged in just about every scene and the fact that much of what you’re seeing actually happened makes it compelling viewing.

No one is closer to the story than Melbourne crime writers John Silvester and Andrew Rule, whose book, Leadbelly, was the creative seed for the project — and they are both highly impressed.

“I think it’s an exemplary blend of art and commerce,” Rule said.

“It’s not high art — for a very good reason, because high art wouldn’t rate — but it is art.

“In other words, it’s the perfect combination of Blue Murder and Blue Heelers. I think it will hit that broad mass of people who talk about these things over water-coolers.

“But it is pretty edgy and pretty graphic, particularly the sex scenes, for commercial TV. Your instinct is that it’s more a 9.30pm show than an 8.30pm show.”

Alan McKee, associate professor of television at the Queensland University of Technology, agrees that Underbelly is pushing the envelope for free-to-air TV.

“I haven’t seen so many t*** on Australian TV for 30 years; they seem to be making a statement with that,” he said.

“America has had this kind of niche programming for a long time, because of cable television, which basically went for rich, educated, urban elites — which is why you got things like Sex And The City and The Sopranos.

“Australia has never really produced niche programming. Everything, in terms of drama in Australia, has always been mass, least-objectionable programming — things like Blue Heelers, Sea Patrol.

“We don’t have any history in this country of offbeat, challenging drama.

“It’s as though the TV broadcasters in Australia still have this idea that they don’t want to offend anybody.

“There’s no sense of danger or challenge in Australian television I don’t think — on commercial TV.

“It does look as though Underbelly is going to be something very different.

“It looks as though it’s Australia’s first attempt to do a mainstream commercial show that has the edge and the bite and the challenge of the cable shows in America.”

Professor McKee said he was not sure why Nine was taking such risks now but, perhaps, the network was ”doing so badly they feel they have nothing to lose”.

Perhaps the biggest risk Nine is taking with Underbelly is that the high levels of violence and nudity might put off female viewers.

Fortunately, the show is also strong on drama and the relationships between such real-life, high-profile gangsters as Carl Williams, the Moran family, Tony Mokbel, Graham “The Munster” Kinniburgh and Alphonse “The Black Prince of Lygon St” Gangitano are fascinating.

“Television viewers are female; the only genre men watch consistently and with any enthusiasm is sport,” Professor McKee said.

“I don’t think it will (put women off). Women watch drama more than men so they’ll be hoping that women will be watching in order to be attracted by the relationships and the psychology of it.

“Men aren’t interested in psychology on TV. It’s like The Sopranos: woman are attracted by the complex exploration of really interesting, dangerous characters and the men will be attracted by the t*** and violence.”

And what attracts viewers of all kinds is a good gangster story, which is what Underbelly is all about.

As Rule points out, people are fascinated by larger-than-life characters. ”It’s a visceral thing we have with those who are willing to gamble life and liberty against fortune, which is what gangsters do,” he said.

“It’s something that the rest of us, for very good reasons, don’t do. It’s the path not taken.

“And as ‘Chopper’ Read said, posh people love gangsters.”

The level of lasciviousness on Underbelly begs the question: are gangsters really having so much more sex than ordinary folk?

“It’s not a milieu I hang around in a lot but, the little bit I’ve seen, they are the kind of blokes who hang out in places with scantily clad women a lot, like the restaurant that’s in the show,” Rule said. “And if you’ve ever been to a gangland funeral, as I have, you do tend to see a lot of extremely leggy blonde women with men old enough to be their fathers, who aren’t their fathers.”

Underbelly series premieres Wednesday, 8.30pm, Nine Network.

By Stephen Corby and Richard Clune
February 09, 2008
The Sunday Telegraph