Underbelly, true crime and the cultural economy of infamy

Underbelly, true crime and the cultural economy of infamy
Melissa Gregg and Jason Wilson
Introduction – Barbarians at the Gate
Sitting down to the April 23rd 2008 screening of the true crime drama Underbelly,
Brisbane viewers may have been perplexed by the first commercial break, featuring an
advertisement for Victorian Tourism. The genteel strains of indie folk starlet Joanna
Newsom singing “The Sprout and The Bean” as a young girl followed an oversized ball
of string around the city were an unusual foil following the opening scene of “Barbarians
at the Gate”, in which the fictionalized Carl Williams calls Derryn Hinch’s radio program
to deny involvement in a number of unsolved murders. This scene occurred well into the
narrative arc of the first season of the Nine Network series, which involved a succession
of up to 30 killings in Melbourne’s criminal underworld during the years 1993-2004,
alongside the often hapless efforts of police to restore order. Why anyone would be
contemplating Melbourne as a holiday destination in light of the show’s sordid account of
this history of bloodshed and violence is just one question this paper is inspired to
From a certain point of view, advertising for Melbourne’s tourist economy and
Underbelly’s preoccupation with crime, sex and murder are hardly so contradictory. The
wildly successful series can be seen in retrospect to have deepened and enriched the
city’s brand appeal to a range of demographics. Evidence includes new, dedicated
“Melbourne Crime Tours” operating through traditional small business and popular
media avenues alike. These enterprises only coincide with the city’s makeover as a hub
for creative industries, cultural tourism and the so-called “night-time economy”,
exemplified in the ACMI development at Federation Square, the “small bar” culture
envied by other national capitals, and various underground scenes celebrated in an annual
Laneway Festival and documentary series like Not Quite Art.
Underbelly’s place in the creative economy of Melbourne, and the significance of its
subsequent departure to Sydney and a NSW Government-sponsored production base, are
part of a wider set of issues about the legitimate and underground economies in effect in
Underbelly’s narrative material, and in its screening and reception. We can see no better
demonstration of this than a scene from later on in “Barbarians At the Gate”, where the
death of Andrew ‘Benji’ Veniamin in suspicious circumstances in the backroom of a
Lygon Street restaurant is memorably depicted. The pivotal moment of Veniamin’s death
at the hands of Mick Gatto is intercut with a series of shots illustrating the brewing and
filtering of a classically prepared Italian barista coffee. Melbourne’s much-vaunted café
culture is here linked with a city-wide network of organized crime and the entrenched
business hierarchies presumed of a particular segment of the city’s significant Italian
population. Underbelly couches murder – in this episode and others – in terms of
changing leisure and consumption practices. If in this episode it is tied to the image of
café culture that has spread throughout the country, other plots in the series figure murder
as an externality of the night-time economy that has rejuvenated Australia’s inner cities.
In Underbelly, even an espresso isn’t innocent; like the Charcoal Chicken restaurant Carl
favours as the place to order a hit, it is a vernacular point of entry for the show to
investigate the social, economic, ethnic and gender anxieties that defined recent decades.
Marketing campaigns for Season One placed images in a range of urban topographies
that could be associated with scenes of criminality and intrigue, for instance under
railway lines [Figure 1] and close to late-night strips [Figure 2].
Figure 1. Tunnel advertising for Season One near Marrickville Station, Sydney
Figure 2. Footpath campaign for steel case box-set, Erskineville Road, Sydney
In addition the franchise pursued a recognisable format heading in to Season Two, A Tale
of Two Cities, with in-store product placement echoing the street-level symbolism of
police tape and chalk-outlined bodies [Figure 3].
Figure 3. Underbelly stand, Terminal 3 Bookshop, Sydney Domestic Airport
At a time when global media theories speak of “trans-media convergence” (Jenkins 2006)
Underbelly reveals the steadfastly local dimensions affecting television production,
consumption and circulation. This paper describes three aspects of this trend.
1. Underbelly’s extension and renovation of an established public appetite for true
crime narratives. The show repeatedly associates criminal violence with suburban
material aspiration, presenting such events as alternatively continuous with and
dangerous to Australian suburban life. By putting the vocabulary of aspiration in the
mouths of criminals, and by situating these stories in the suburbs, Underbelly suggests
that ruthless, murderous competition may not be incompatible with the Australian Dream.
Our analysis shows how casting choices trigger complex mediatised memories that
further compromise the viewer’s reading of criminal characters.
2. Underbelly’s depiction of the brutal economies of drug production and
distribution, which underwrote ecstasy consumption in the golden age of Australian club
culture. Exposing a generation’s denial of the criminal elements behind ecstasy’s
fetishised status, Underbelly chastens celebratory accounts of club culture, shedding light
on the infrastructure behind the leisure economies of our inner cities.
3. Underbelly’s capacity to offer a retrospective genealogy for the spectacular,
drug-inflected, criminal hypermasculinity which is now – in the bodies and behaviours of
professional sports stars in particular – a visible part of the Australian mainstream.
Connecting country, suburb and city in repressed criminality, the series blurs the lines
between ordinariness, celebrity and infamy. It is in these unresolved tensions that
Underbelly constitutes a televisual history of Australia's present, one that countervails the
official pieties of “the ordinary” that characterised the Howard years (Brett 2005; Brett &
Moran 2006; Gregg 2007), and troubles the political priorities of today’s law and order
Underbelly as true crime TV.
At one level, Underbelly enacts a bankable genre in publishing, cinema and television:
true crime. Along with other examples like horror (Carroll 1990), true crime is a crossmedia genre with a long history, yet it has avoided the same degree of critical attention as
a platform encompassing print, television, cinema, photography and even electronic
entertainment.i True crime stories offer heightened, narrativised versions of historical
criminal events. As moral campaigners justly argue, they turn criminals and their
activities into a species of entertainment. For this reason, true crime as a popular literary
form has often been seen as disreputable, and open to the charge of being exploitative, as
crimes up to and including mass murder are turned into money-making forms of
consumption. But it is also a way of addressing anxieties – whether they relate
specifically to crime and disorder, or have a broader reference (Murley 2008; Seltzer
True crime is related but distinct from two neighbouring genres. Crime reporting as a
form of journalism clearly shares the preoccupations of true crime (and sometimes
personnel – the authors of the Underbelly books are themselves crime reporters) but
crime reporting is produced under different circumstances, on a different timescale, for a
different, less specialised audience. True crime writing has tended to appear in books or
in specific magazines, and while crime reporting always has journalism’s alibi of keeping
citizens informed, true crime writing struggles to place itself as history or criminology. It
always faces the charge that its appeal is to prurience, morbid curiosity, or even to dark
sexual urges. True crime also needs to be distinguished from crime fiction, although that
distinction is less secure than at first it might appear (Seltzer 2006). While clearly true
crime deals with actual events and crime fiction is essentially imaginative, more
successful true crime writers purposefully focus on recounting events with a strong focus
on characterisation and narrative shape, and tend to mix up their accounts with moralising
asides or black humour.
While it draws ultimately on real events, Underbelly is an adaptation of Leadbelly (2004),
from the Underbelly true crime series by Melbourne writers John Silvester and Andrew
Rule. These authors started as well-connected crime writers for Fairfax’s The Age
newspaper in Melbourne (Silvester’s father was deputy Victorian Police Commissioner,
and later head of the Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence). They moved beyond
this into publishing as editors and quasi-ghost writers for the initial volumes in
Melbourne criminal Mark “Chopper” Read’s Chopper series.ii Starting as true crime,
these books generally defied categorisation, bringing together idiosyncratic stories of
criminal autobiography, self-aggrandising tall tales, poetry, black humour, and,
eventually, crime fiction. They aided in the development of Chopper Read’s peculiar
celebrity in Australia, making him a regular in tabloid newspapers and TV current affairs,
as well as a marketable touring speaker, at least until his recent illness. The books also
inspired the Australian film, Chopper (Dominik 2000), itself now a true crime classic,
and the launching pad for actor Eric Bana’s Hollywood career.
Following the successes of the early Chopper books in the 1990s, from 1997 Rule and
Silvester turned to writing the Underbelly series. The Underbelly books were
comparatively loosely organized, providing chapter-by-chapter collections of shorter true
crime tales. Understandably, they were Melbourne-focused, given that this was the beat
and milieu for the co-authors, and the location for which they had the biggest archive of
journalism. The books also contained stories from around Australia. Their local origins
made them stand out in the larger true crime market, but so too did a distinctive writing
style. Despite the writers’ background at The Age, the books employed a refined tabloid
register: jokey and clipped, but sometimes also caustically judgemental about the moral
and intellectual failings of the criminals whose world they detailed.
The books foregrounded the peripheral world of criminal and drug cultures, violence and
murder – the sociopathic social networks rarely mapped in Australia in other media or
genres. The Underbelly series of true crime compendia ran to 11 volumes. The series had
a number of break-out titles: Tough (2002), an omnibus of selections from the series;
Rats (2006), about unsolved crimes; Gotcha (2005), which dealt with hits and arrests; and
the stand-out hit, Leadbelly. The latter focused on Melbourne’s so-called “gangland war”,
a linked series of murders that became entwined with a conflict over control of the
increasingly lucrative market for “party drugs”. These books pitched themselves well,
and they have been very successful. Priced between $20 and $25 in paperback, and
engagingly-written, they are prominent in airport bookshops, department store book
sections, large chains like Angus and Robertson, as well as specialist bookstores (see
Figure 3).
Underbelly 1 and Rule and Silvester’s Leadbelly dealt with the same series of events,
although the television version projected a different tone and foregrounded different
preoccupations, as we will see. Both trace a war that is sparked by Alphonse Gangitano’s
execution of Greg Workman (Gangitano is played by Vince Colosimo, the promotional
face of the show) and starts in earnest with the non-fatal shooting of Carl Williams
(Gyton Grantley) by Jason and Mark Moran (Les Hill and Callan Mulvey). The tit-for-tat
murders that follow are between Carl’s allies on one side, and the Moran family and the
so-called “Carlton Crew” of inner-city gangsters on the other. On television, the story
was complicated by a range of subplots that developed particularly in relation to the
sexual appetites of the main protagonists and the compelling portrayal of Carl Williams’
wife Roberta (Kat Stewart), Underbelly’s answer to Lady Macbeth. Along with sex, the
television programme offered greater character development to exploit the formidable
ensemble cast. It also made the perspectives of police (and presumably, the wider
community) more central, with a voice-over narration by female Detective Jacqui James
(Caroline Craig). This commentary had a markedly different tone to the authorial voice of
the Underbelly books, and as such it was a crucial feminizing gesture to ensure the
show’s prospects for mainstream success.
As is often the case with true crime, Underbelly’s first season hit snags because of its
interactions with the real-life events it drew on. In February 2008, Justice Betty King
banned the screening of Underbelly in Victoria, much to the Nine Network’s chagrin,
ruling that it might prejudice then-current trials (AAPa 2008; Bartlett 2008; Bradley
2008; Butcher 2008a, 2008b, 2008c, 2008d; Ziffer 2008). Later, Roberta Williams
parlayed the show into an extension of her own celebrity through a number of moneymaking opportunities (AAPb 2008; Battersby 2008a; Royall 2008). Merchandise and
support groups were set up through online social media platforms – consolidating the
status of the Williams brand [Figure 4]. Community groups vocally objected to this use
of the series to capitalize on an earlier life of crime (Houlihan 2008; Benns 2008),
particularly since a range of media outlets aside from Nine assisted the efforts of
Williams and others in the wake of Underbelly’s popularity. In a touch of irony, with
screening issues preventing legitimate access to the programme in Victoria, this major
initiative in true crime television came to circulate via criminal networks selling knockoff copies as well as illegal internet download sites (Jackson 2008; Holroyd 2008;Weekes
Figure 4. Unofficial Underbelly fan merchandise for sale on E-Bay in 2008
This bleed between reality and fiction, criminality, consumption and celebrity was
exacerbated on a number of levels. The real-life personae of Underbelly characters
became regular features of mainstream media interviews, especially through the
infotainment platforms of current affairs. Today Tonight and A Current Affair maintained
regular updates of Roberta Williams and Judy Moran, while The Australian Magazine did
the same for suspected killer Mick Gatto (Stewart 2008). Roberta Williams attracted still
more fame by updating her former husband’s Facebook account (Bradford 2008;
Battersby 2008b) and launching a “tell-all” autobiography (Williams 2009).
The 2009 release of I, Mick Gatto, by Melbourne University Publishing, crystallized the
increasingly complex economy of infamy developing around Underbelly. Clearly seeking
to cash in on a mass-audience, the press came under attack from a range of quarters. Alan
Kohler, chairman of the publisher’s board, and also ABC television’s finance reporter,
was moved to apologise to subscribers of his weekly newsletter, The Eureka Report: “if
seeing me launch Mick Gatto’s memoirs upset you, I sincerely apologise. I can assure
you it does not mean Eureka Report has any less integrity or that I am going soft on
crime. It was just a book launch”.
Noting the disapproval he had endured from friends and family, including from his wife,
Kohler couldn’t resist forwarding an account of the launch as part of his apology to
subscribers. The email conveyed an almost schoolboy excitement at the celebrity
underworld amassed by the event:
We launched Mick’s book today – it was a big success and certainly the rummest
crowd we’ve ever had at a book launch. When I arrived the crowd stretched down
Bourke Street past a deeply disturbed Hill of Content like a big scene from The
Sopranos. There were men giving each other stubble rash with all the kissing,
many dark glasses and black shirts, some toupes, quite a bit of collagen and botox
on the ladies, I think. It was, in short, a magnificently colourful event, very well
attended by the cream of Melbourne’s underworld and other glitterati.
Taken from a report sent to the publisher’s board of directors, and circulated to a group of
clients paying Kohler for financial advice, the tone of the email is symptomatic of the
wider cultural fixation on criminal underworld economies that were proving lucrative for
many more ostensibly legitimate businesses.iii
The casting choices of Season One and Two assisted in the confusion of ordinary
celebrity and infamy. Most of the key roles were played by well-known actors from
previous TV appearances. For instance, Lewis Moran was played by Kevin Harrington,
who built his reputation playing both David Bishop (son to Harold Bishop) on
Neighbours and the archetypal “Howard Battler”/ “ordinary Australian” Kevin on the
popular ABC drama Seachange.iv Harrington’s other major roles include local films The
Dish (Sitch, 2000), Australian Rules (Goldman, 2002) and The Honourable Wally
Norman (Emery, 2003). This is just one illustration of the major conflict between the
“characters” played by actors and the history of associations accumulated in the CVs they
brought to the project. Underbelly’s large ensemble cast included long-serving veterans
of iconic “family” programmes such as Home and Away, Neighbours, Blue Heelers and
The Secret Life of Us.v In this way, Underbelly can be read as the flipside to the televisual
mainstream of the period it claims to represent; a counter-narrative to the televisual
memory provided by peak shows of the preceding decade, whether in mainstream family
fare or next generation youth programming. This accumulated viewing knowledge
heightened sensitivity to questions of corruption at the heart of the show, given the
public’s parochial susceptibility to bestow innocence and venerability to these faces.
In Season Two, Italian-Australian criminal Robert Trimbole, played by Roy Billing, was
an oddly sympathetic character, humanised by a devoted love interest and a particularly
inconvenient case of prostate cancer. Trimbole faced regular racism from business
partners in pivotal moments of the story, which drew attention to the strength of the
Italian business empire in place at the beginning of Underbelly 1.vi Trimbole’s “gift of the
gab” assures his success as an entrepreneur and his deft subversion of bureaucratic
process. His “people skills” ultimately provide the basis for his escape from Australia –
and this life – without punishment for a series of arranged murders. Trimbole’s
manipulation of official systems mark him as a characteristically Australian battler
against authority, in a tradition of larrikin criminals stretching as far back as Ned Kelly.
In many ways, this is only fitting for an actor known for playing the unremarkable
Of course, such casting can always be attributed to Australia’s relatively limited pool of
bankable television actors. But in 2008 Nine’s capacity to attract such talent to a major
project was significant. First, it functioned as a reassurance that Nine still had the power
to amass an all star cast: Underbelly was proof that Nine could deliver quality as well as
quantity. In addition, the judicious distribution of roles can be read as Underbelly’s
strategically unapologetic backlash to the comforting content upon which other networks
had come to rely. Director Peter Andrikidis’ comments at the 2008 Australian Film
Industry Awards are instructive: “Underbelly has changed things. It broke all the rules –
sex, violence, language… and two million people came (to watch)” (The Australian,
7/12/08). vii Underbelly’s peerless visual style, energetic editing, witty dialogue and highlevel violence, all punctuated by an irrepressible soundtrack of local and international
artists, was a corrective to the stagey innocence of the preceding decade in Australian
television drama. It was Australian television’s return of the repressed: a direct challenge
to tired-out models for industry success.
The following section shows how Nine found itself in an almost paradoxical position.
Having always built its brand on celebrity, Underbelly became something of a morale
boost internally, while externally it deployed celebrity in new ways. In sum, the
significant impact the series had was to make the word “Underbelly” a master signifier in
a resurgence of true crime reporting and programming.viii The breadth of stakeholders
making entrepreneurial use of the series – to the moralizing disapproval of vocal sectors
of the community – distracted attention from the Nine Network’s preparedness to do
exactly the same thing.
Underbelly as post-broadcast TV.
After years of local television production enamoured with Reality TV formats,
Underbelly’s success marked an unexpected resurgence of local drama. It arrived in
tandem with SBS’s gripping multicultural cop show East West 101, Channel 10’s Rush,
and Seven’s cross-generational prime-time family drama, Packed to the Rafters. Several
factors combined to induce Nine to commission its ambitious programme. The first was
the loss of its own preeminent status within the domestic industry. In 2007, after decades
of dominance, Nine lost the ratings battle to the Seven Network. A range of publications
outlined in detail how Nine’s hitherto failsafe model – blockbuster US imports supported
by home-grown content driven by well-paid and heavily promoted in-house celebrities –
had faltered.ix Management troubles and ownership transitions exacerbated the central
problem, notably in the wake of Kerry Packer’s death and son James’ liquidation of
media assets. Heavy-hitting US shows on Seven – among them Desperate Housewives
and Grey’s Anatomy – joined local lifestyle staples such as Better Homes and Gardens to
capture a larger audience share and younger, more lucrative viewers. In this context, the
2008 season launch at Nine’s Richmond studios had CEO David Gyngell promising to
“make right what we have done wrong” (The Age, 6/12/07).
When Underbelly was commissioned, Nine was also considering the likely impact of the
looming US writers’ strike, which would deprive it of important US primetime dramas
and sitcoms. Of course, the writers’ strike would effect the other commercial networks
too, but second-placed Nine could ill-afford the further erosion of audiences and
advertising revenue. The new drama was seen as a gamble before its launch, and was
even criticised in the media after initial screenings (Ziffer 2008b). With the ban in
Victoria finally evident, Nine had little choice but to launch its major investment, one of
up to 40 new shows for 2008 (Idato 2007).
The Sopranos, meanwhile, offered Nine an international example of a morally ambiguous
crime drama which drew large audiences and critical acclaim. The network had shown
little respect for fans of the mafia saga by burying it in an inconsistent late-night timeslot
over several seasons. Yet The Sopranos provided a bankable precedent for Underbelly’s
aspiration to incorporate sex and violence in compelling television. Although Underbelly
was true crime, and The Sopranos a fictional narrative, its richly detailed scenes, flashy
use of music and noirish title sequence all emulated the quality production values
increasingly expected by audiences in the wake of the HBO drama.
Screentime made the programme with assistance from Film Victoria and the Australian
Film Finance Corporation, which folded into Screen Australia in 2008. Significantly,
then, these stories of criminal excess – whose outcomes were not clear as production
commenced – were seen as worthy financial ventures by key institutions brokering state
subsidies for the creative economy. While Screentime had little organisational experience
with drama production, as opposed to boutique vehicles such as Stuart MacGill
Uncorked, key personnel commanded long histories of involvement. In particular, Greg
Haddrick, one of Underbelly’s main writers, co-producers and Head of Drama at
Screentime, had been writer or script editor on iconic programmes including Sons and
Daughters, Home and Away, and big-ticket mini-series The Potato Factory (2000), The
Society Murders (2006) and The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant (2005). (The latter
was directed by one of Underbelly’s directors, Peter Andrikidis.) Haddrick also created
an earlier attempt at adult “quality drama”, MDA, for the ABC.
Although created for a free-to-air, broadcast television network, the wider environment
for Underbelly’s screening was one in which the broadcast business model was eroding,
with digital storage and transmission through peer-to-peer file-sharing allowing
consumers greater control over viewing (Turner and Tay 2009; Meikle and Young 2008;
Spigel and Olsson 2004). With bans in place in Victoria, copies of Underbelly –
including episodes yet to be screened – found their way across borders principally
through illegally copied DVDs and file-sharing networks (Miller 2008; Ziffer 2008c).
This large-scale embrace of pirated material meant that a series tracking the history of
organised crime enjoyed its own criminal networks of production and distribution.
Indeed, the amount of media attention devoted to covering this black-market activity
amounted to a public education program regarding the use and convenience of BitTorrent clients. Here the mainstream desire for Underbelly awakened an accompanying
mainstream awareness of the illicit practice of file-sharing, a further instance of the
show’s role in blurring legal and illegal cultural economies. Labourers selling knock-off
copies of Underbelly on building sites were an interesting juxtaposition to the faninitiated consumption practices documented in recent media studies (See for example
Jenkins 2006). Celebratory accounts of the interplay between television users and
producers rarely mention distribution via such deviant networks, let alone potential
impacts on the administration of justice. True crime television’s illicit circulation in
Victoria almost mocked the imperial, US-derived articulations of “convergence culture”
and its privileged networks of educated broadband users.
Although Nine lost advertising revenue in Victoria (an estimated $3.9 million on the back
of approximately $15 million in production costs)x these losses seemed justified when the
Underbelly 1 DVD release became the highest-selling in Australian history. With the
second season debut also breaking ratings records (2.5 million viewers in its first week),
Nine ultimately received accolades for “saving” Australian drama (Elder and Riley
2008). Yet even “post-broadcast” television is vulnerable to public opinion and
legislation governing programming standards. Throughout 2008, Underbelly was
regularly held up along Nine’s other major success – the expletive-spouting TV chef
Gordon Ramsay – as demonstrating unwarranted levels of sex, violence and profanity on
broadcast television (Akerman and Roberts 2008; McWhirter 2009a). 2009 continued the
trend, as a viral video of sex scenes appeared online prior to the season debut, inciting
outrage from Christian groups. The Australian Family Association condemned
Underbelly 2 for its “excessive pornography” in early episodes (McWhirter 2009b) and
non-specialised television journalists in the blogosphere lamented the depiction of heroin
importer Allison Dine (Anna Hutchison) in this “Tale of Two Titties”.
Given the terrain we have outlined, Nine’s willingness to encourage sensationalism and
raw incivility can be understood as bankable strategies to generate viewers’ interest in a
multi-channel, fracturing media landscape. With Underbelly, Ramsay, and its sports
roster (including the NRL) as bright spots of success, the station moved towards an
increasingly hypermasculine programming flow, which itself echoed the macho, even
misogynist corporate culture at Nine.xi In-programme advertising during free-to-air
screenings in 2008 played to the gangster theme, featuring Ramsay and The Footy Show
celebrities in a mock line-up with Underbelly characters to emphasise a “bad boy” image.
Here the link between celebrity, criminal and sport star is made explicit in Nine’s
marketing strategy, in a way that found resonances in subsequent news stories.
Underbelly critically juxtaposes some key categories that have underpinned mainstream
cultural and political discourse in other ways. Carl and Roberta Williams’ normative
suburban heterosexuality is counterposed to the urban, homosocial affections and
affiliations of the Carlton Crew. Doing criminal business in the banal surrounds of
Charcoal Chicken and neighbourhood barbecue areas, Carl combines the trappings of
ordinariness with murderous ambition. Season One’s narrative as a whole replays the
Howard-era caricature that opposed a valourised, ordinary suburbia with inner-city “latte
sippers”. The series followed this logic remorselessly, as the “aspirational” suburbanites
Carl and Roberta orchestrate the destruction of the “cosmopolitan” Carlton Crew to take
over the ecstasy market. In each of its manifestations Underbelly provides a commentary
on the perils of interrupting established ways of doing business between men. In Season
One, an unknown outsider’s cocky ambition invades the territory and the established
hierarchy of a comfortable circuit of profitability, just as the changing television market
could be seen to be threatening Nine executives’ success in the mainstream entertainment
industry. The real life knowledge of the events that followed Carl Williams’ entry to the
Melbourne drug market were probably enough for many people to find this unappealing
television. But the prospect of following the web of rivalry and power plays that drove
the senseless spiral of violence took on a certain curiosity factor for these wider cultural
associations. It was an Australian story that bore elements of Shakespearean tragedy, and
more immediately shared an affinity with American cinematic crime epics like The
Sopranos, The Godfather trilogy or Scarface.
Underbelly and the night-time economy.
In the final section of this paper we want to expand on the sense that Underbelly offers a
retrospective on the period when a legitimate or overground leisure economy expanded in
tandem with an underground, linked economy based on the production and marketing of
illegal drugs. In doing so, we want to be explicit from the outset in saying that the
escalating violence depicted in Underbelly 1 and 2 is of course driven by a lamentable
mix of hotheaded paranoia, machismo and greed on top of a significant degree of mental
instability fuelled by social alienation of various kinds. We do not write to excuse the
violence in the show, or trivialize the impact of its many depictions of murder. However,
we do seek to highlight the massive expansion, even mainstreaming of the use of “party
drugs” throughout the last two decades and point to the ways this significant historical
shift continues to resonate in the show’s framing and reception. We do this for the
purpose of revealing a new slant on the ideas of “ordinariness” that have been taken as
read in Australian cultural criticism for many years (Gregg 2007).
The original conflict between the Morans and Williams is over market-share in this
booming drug trade, just as A Tale of Two Cities depicts the conflicts surrounding the
establishment of a new heroin syndicate in Sydney. In early episodes of Season One, Carl
makes use of his new insider status for personal profit. He surreptitiously uses the
Morans’ pill press to make high-quality MDMA to sell at lower prices than the existing
cartel. Anyone who saw it will remember the pivotal and formative scene in which
Roberta and Carl consummate their desire for each other – and a better life – laid out on
the couch, as pills roll endlessly out of the machine in the next room. The high-end
lifestyles, the long list of contract assassinations, the employment of bodyguards, and the
endless legal battles that follow are all financed with drug money gleaned from supplying
the clubs of Melbourne with the industrial quantities of ecstasy pills which are integral to
the culture of post-MDMA clubbing.
The divide between the metropolitan consumption culture and the suburban origin of the
drug suppliers (a distinction that would also feature in the Mary Louise Parker vehicle,
Weeds) is observed in the text in several ways. Unlike the middle-class club-hoppers that
consume the product, the suppliers and dealers only ever snort lines. The criminals
themselves don’t take pills. Instead, in Season One, their drugs are cut up in the open in
the club which is only populated by other underworld figures and dancers who, as is also
the case in Two Cities, seem to be forever dancing just for them. This individualised and
exclusive experience is a contrast to ecstasy’s all-welcoming embrace. The show makes a
point of completely distancing its dealers from the drugs at the heart of the story.xii In
Season One, this seems a particularly pointed critique of the commodity fetishism that
characterizes expanding middle-class ecstasy consumption.
The experience privileged in each text is that of the drug pushers, the key silence is the
point of consumption. The dealers themselves aren’t shown to be MDMA users,
preferring speed or cocaine to assist both their crimes and celebrations. Nor are they ever
shown in mainstream clubs. On rare occasions they are filmed entering and leaving, with
a particular focus on bouncers letting them in ahead of the queue (the role of security
staff in enabling the illicit night-time economy is an additional dimension to each city’s
“Underbelly”). Warring suppliers remain on the outside, in alleys and carparks – the
liminal spaces that are also amenable for the violence that inevitably ensues (see Figure 1
and 2 for how DVD advertising haunts these zones of propinquity for criminality and
violence). When the protagonists do engage in drugs they are always in cocooned or
protected venues – the strip club, the hotel room, individual homes. They are never part
of the same public, social, communal setting that is the defining aspect of ecstasy’s mass
appeal. These zones instead provide shelter for the externalities of the night-time
economy – the spaces that the middle-class consumer would prefer no to see. Here the
echoes with The Sopranos’ line of business – waste management – are apparent in the
analogous link to the toxic, shameful and frightening aspects behind legitimate business
Underbelly shows us the structural links between violence, drug production and
distribution and the now-mainstream practices of hedonistic weekend drug consumption.
Screening in 2008-9, at a time when a spate of misbehaving football stars only made
these connections more prominent, the show provided a context and a history for
understanding them. These externalities that complicate both celebratory accounts of
drug and club culture, and progressivist accounts of the renewal of inner-urban precincts
by means of the “night-time economy”xiii, are part of the industrialization of global club
culture over the last decade or more. Vastly expanded venues dedicated to after-hours
leisure, many of which have been driven by deliberate policy change, mean that “Superclub” equipped areas appear prominently in Sydney’s Darling Harbour, Brisbane’s
Fortitude Valley and Melbourne’s CBD. These designated entertainment precincts not
only attract forms of cultural tourism from beyond the city, but they do so from within
the city as well, bringing revelers in from the suburbs to inner-urban areas. Here it is only
a natural progression that Underbelly 3: The Golden Mile is set in the nation’s most
resilient “red light district”, Kings Cross. Meanwhile rumours at the time of writing that
Underbelly 4 may be set in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley add weight to our reading of the
show in terms of city branding and complimentary cultural economies.
One component of clubbing in the contemporary night-time economy is drug use, and the
drugs which are characteristically linked with post-rave club culture – ecstasy,
amphetamines and cocaine – can’t be made, sold, obtained or consumed legally. A major
compenent of the night-time economy otherwise celebrated in local council planning
documents therefore consists of substances that remain criminalized. Nevertheless, the
combination of clubs, dance music and drugs is now a mainstream element of youth
culture, no longer a marginal or especially resistant practice. As such, there is regularized
contact between “ordinary Australians” and the criminal individuals and organizations
who supply drugs to clubland: precisely the characters depicted in shows like Underbelly.
Increasingly, this interface between criminality and the mainstream is in plain view.
In many cases during and since the screening of the show, drug consumption, violence
and the interface of celebrity with infamy have become a form of almost predictable
spectacle. The 2008 episode “Earning A Crust” screened in the same week that Wayne
Carey appeared on Andrew Denton’s chat show, Enough Rope, trying to deny his
association with Jason Moran (Carey had been a character reference for the Moran trial).
It was also the time that swimming star Nick D’Arcy, who was then competing in
Olympic trials, was charged with battery after a night of drinking. The NRL football
season would be marked on several occasions by examples of players engaging in
precisely the activities depicted in Underbelly during off-field “celebrations”. This was
the season that followed Rugby League star Andrew Johns’ confession to the use of
ecstasy throughout his career – a time that coincided with the period Underbelly
documents. It was also the year that began with another League star Jarryd Hayne
reportedly shot at in a Kings Cross street. (ABC Online, 3/3/2008)
Further off-field incidents throughout 2009 only reinscribed the links between
hypermasculine celebrity and infamy, and a sorry history of footballers crossing shady
lines of criminal activity and association. In this context, Underbelly offers a
retrospective insight into the moment when club and drug culture took hold as the
background for these wider events. Its depictions offer a historicising function,
pinpointing the conditions giving rise to these larger cultural phenomena. The corrupt
policing practices of the 1970s were just the beginning of a broader culture of silence
around the drug trade, for ultimately it was in the period of Melbourne’s “gangland wars”
and the tenure of the conservative Howard Government that Australians became the
highest per capita consumers of ecstasy in the world. The 2004 National Drugs Strategy
Household Drugs Survey found that 21 per cent of Australians aged 20 to 24 had used
ecstasy, and that 13 per cent had used it recently. For all Australians aged over 14, in
2004 the number who had tried ecstasy was equal with the number who had tried
cannabis, at 11.4%. (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) (For comparison, it’s
instructive to note that according to the ABS around 15% of Australians attended an AFL
match in 2005, and only 9% attended a Rugby League match.) Underbelly revealed, once
and for all, the true picture of a nation’s pastimes.
Ordinary Australians?
While it’s true the pudgy white boy from Broadmeadow was a heavyweight on
the bathroom scales, he was no athlete. He was an ex-supermarket shelf stacker
with a pill press and a taste for fast food, fast women and fast bucks. (Rule, 2008)
Underbelly’s distinct televisual properties contribute to making idyllic portrayals of
Australian suburbia somewhat anachronistic. Carl Williams’ ultimate arrest at the end of
Season One takes place at a neighbourhood park, in the middle of a barbecue (as John
Howard was fond of saying, it’s a real “barbecue stopper”). Set to the tones of Nick Cave
singing “The Carnival is Over”, the scene is emblematic of the show’s regular placement
of ordinary Australian leisure practices alongside criminal indulgence and murderous
rivalry. Underbelly makes the familiar settings of everyday life ripe for narrative charge
and – as the aesthetic styles of previous decades take precedence in later series – shows
an alternative cultural economy for mass entertainment and consumption.
Years of watching Blue Heelers had taught Australians to expect that the cops always win
in the end, that the complications of any episode could be resolved with a drink down at
the local pub. Underbelly denies us the luxury of this kind of Australian-pastoral
television. Although the forces of law and order managed to bring Carl Williams to heel
at the end of the series, their victory was delayed, messy and partial. If, as the series
showed, the city and its leisure economy are now interwoven with organized crime, we
know that Williams is only likely to be replaced with someone else who is equally
willing to conduct the same sort of business. Carl’s successors may or may not be as
openly murderous or disruptive, but the deals and violence will continue. The faces may
change, but the structure is embedded. In this sense, Season One’s Head of Homicide
Garry Butterworth (Frankie J. Holden) perfectly embodies the weariness of the white
male patriarch no longer able to protect the city from its lost innocence. His character’s
death symbolizes a breach of the conventions of Australia’s prime-time cop shows.
Underbelly’s narrative suits Australia’s wavering belief, in an age of international
terrorism, that answers will be found and offenders charged and prosecuted. It relies on
viewers’ commonsense assumption that further outrageous slaughter is always just over
the horizon.
Watching from Queensland, and later in Sydney (in an apartment building on the very
street that Underbelly 3 will be set) we recognize that the issues being raised by this
remarkable series aren’t isolated to particular cities, neighbourhoods or time-periods. In
closing, and to contemplate our own investment in this show, it’s worth reflecting on the
intimate bond that linked the fate of fictionalised Detective Steve Owen (Rodger Corser)
of the Purana Task Force and the upstart Carl Williams. The ambition shared by the two
men – one who makes a point of his clean, white collar image, the other who wears shorts
and thongs to most of his business meetings – asks us to question how very different they
are. Williams oversees an appalling amount of bloodshed to maintain his achieved status,
while Owen acknowledges that attending the funerals of gang members is an important
networking event and career stepping stone. A lingering lesson from Underbelly is that
the white collar professional and the suburban entrepreneur have more than a little in
common, particularly in the desire for self-motivated class mobility that many claimed to
be the commendable “aspirational” spirit of the decade.
To understand the winners in the cultural economy of infamy this paper has outlined, we
might further speculate on the trajectory enjoyed by Gyton Grantley, a QUT Creative
Industries graduate and multiple award winner for depicting the criminal Carl Williams,
and our own position as cultural studies scholars publishing articles on the same series of
events. Like so many of his peers depicted in the film All My Friends are Leaving
Brisbane (Alston 2008), Grantley moved state in pursuit of better prospects, the role of
Williams ensuring his ongoing employment in quality productions such as East West 101
and Arena’s :30 Seconds. As we tune in for Underbelly 3, what will be clear is the extent
to which our own cultural capital also provides the social mobility to move between jobs
and states, labour and leisure, as well as the freedom to selectively engage with the
infamous activities literally on our doorstep. It is this discomforting knowledge, of the
relative stakes involved in reaping the profits of the nation’s various cultural economies,
that Underbelly forces its viewers to confront.
This article has significantly benefited from the research assistance of Ian Rogers and
Tim Laurie, and the generous comments of several readers and reviewers.
For a critical account of recent manifestations of the genre see Seltzer (2006).
The specifics of this history can be heard in the public conversation between Melissa
Gregg and Andrew Rule, “Exposing the Underbelly”, hosted at the Australian Centre for
the Moving Image, Melbourne, October, 2009. See http://www.acmi.net.au.
Thanks to David Gregg for forwarding Kohler’s correspondence.
For discussion of the rhetorical appeal of the “ordinary” and the “battler” during the
Howard Prime Ministership see Brett (2005), Brett & Moran (2006), and Sharpe &
Boucher (2008).
Blue Heelers alumni alone included Carolyn Craig, Martin Sacks and Damian Walshe-
Howling in S1, with John Wood joining the cast in S2.
It also highlighted the strategic use of ethnicity in marketing the sexier image of the
first season. Billing’s Trimbole, short and overweight, is the avuncular rogue to
Gangitano’s (Vince Colosimo’s) smoldering intensity.
In its notorious use of both male and female nudity, Underbelly 1 and 2 each
challenged politically correct programming of recent decades, if not feminism per se.
Graeme Blundell, one time star of Alvin Purple (1973), welcomed the return to this 1970s
full-frontal style in his review for The Australian, perhaps conscious of its benefits it
afforded his own career. A feminist reading of Season One certainly seemed possible, as
the competing egos of the male protagonists led to similarly pointless ends for the bulk of
the script. One episode, “Wise Monkeys” was entirely dedicated to the perspective of
female characters, which could be read as tokenistic if it did not translate so literally to
multiple awards for lead actress Kat Stewart (Roberta Williams) and supporting actress
Madeleine West (Danielle McGuire). In the final episodes of Season One, it is the female
detective Jacqui James who finally elicits the pivotal confession. Season Two was far less
optimistic, with the initial attention given to Asher Keddie’s glamorous detective Liz
Cruickshank eventually abandoned in the anti-climactic final episodes. It might be
possible, then, to read Tale of Two Cities as a prequel in the strictest sense to the feminist
twist that closes the first season.
Not to mention a new line in low-brow porn: actresses hired for pole-dancing roles in
season one followed Roberta Williams’ lead appearing in men’s magazines in 2008-9.
In titles such as Gerald Stone’s Who Killed Channel Nine (2007; updated 2008), plus
Paul Barry’s update of The Rise and Rise of Kerry Packer (2007). Boned by Anonymous
offered a more humorous take on the inside workings of the station’s current affairs.
Calculated on the initial rate of $40 000 per 30 second advertisement for Underbelly 1,
and Victoria’s 25% market share of the national total (Casey 2008). By Season Two,
advertising rates were attracting up to $60 000 for 30 seconds, causing concern for
businesses seeking to profit from the show’s success without bombarding viewers, see
McIntyre (2008).
Underbelly was screened in the years following a notorious incident involving one time
Nine Network Head, Eddie McGuire, best known to audiences as host of the Melbournebased The Footy Show light entertainment program and the Australian version of Who
Wants to be a Millionaire?. McGuire was widely reported as having implied that a
leading female news anchor would be “boned” – an alleged colloquialism for “fired” –
for her lack of conventional beauty. The close association between “boned” (fired) and
the more familiar synonym for “boned” (fucked) is typical of Nine’s reputation for
deliberately intimidating female employees – although it should be acknowledged that
such conditions are hardly restricted to the one network or industry. The long-standing
“underworld” culture at Nine was already recognized in the 2006 headline for the Media
Watch episode that covered the McGuire story for the ABC: “Nine’s Gangsters”.
This continues in the second season’s narrative, where heroin dealer Terry Clark kills
off associates who have themselves become addicts.
Flew (2008) defines this as “a term that is used to describe the diverse range of
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