The latest instalment of Underbelly has turned to true-ish crime to spice up the story, writes Nick Galvin.
When it comes to tales of colourful crims and dodgy cops spiced up with plenty of sex, drugs and violence, we can’t, it seems, get enough. At least that’s what the producers of the latest series of Underbelly are counting on.
After the hugely successful first series chronicling the hyper-violent Melbourne gang wars between 1995 and 2004 and the less notable second series that was a prequel to the Victorian bloodbath, the producers are returning once more to the well with Underbelly III: the Golden Mile.
This time the setting is Kings Cross and one of the key protagonists is nightclub owner John Ibrahim. Anyone with an interest in recent Sydney history will recognise the familiar names that crop up almost immediately. Graham “Chook” Fowler, Trevor Haken, Bill Bayeh and Kim Hollingsworth all make an early appearance alongside George Freeman and Lenny McPherson.
Like previous series, the latest Underbelly has attracted its share of controversy. For a while, it looked as though the whole series could be scrapped because of legal action from a former Kings Cross policewoman, Wendy Hatfield. Hatfield has gone as far as the Court of Appeal in a bid to be allowed to preview the series so she and her lawyers could decide whether she had been defamed. That case is still awaiting a final determination.
Then there is the lingering question over how much input Ibrahim has been allowed into the way he is portrayed. Producers have denied Ibrahim acted as a “consultant” but he has reportedly been a regular visitor on set and not been shy about offering his opinion.
At the outset we are told the series is “based on events” between 1988 and 1999 but it appears The Golden Mile pays even more distant homage to the facts than the first two series, partly due to legal complications but also to add spice to the narrative.
Thus we have the introduction of characters such as cops Gerry Lloyd (Sigrid Thornton) and Joe Dooley (Wil Traval) and crims Harry “Hammer” Hammoud (Salvatore Coco). And while Thornton’s federal police character is supposedly a composite representing several personalities involved at the time, bringing in so many wholly fictional players indicates a marked drift away from Underbelly’s “true crime” roots established by the first series, which was was based on a book by journalists John Silvester and Andrew Rule.
Sometimes the truth can be too hard to handle, even for a supposedly hard-hitting series such as this. Much of the police corruption in Kings Cross at the time involved protecting organised paedophilia, a subject at once so sad and horrific that it could never become fodder for prime-time entertainment. This is entertainment after all, not documentary. But, the further the Underbelly franchise strays into the wholly fictional, the weaker its claim to be something more than another (slick) good-cop/bad-cop/cool-crim show.
Condemning the series on the basis of the first show would be unfair but Underbelly appears to be mutating into “true-ish crime”. That is unlikely to hold the attention of even remotely sophisticated viewers.
Underbelly: the Golden Mile begins on Nine this Sunday at 8.30pm.