First Review: Underbelly

By David Knox on January 17, 2008 / Filed Under Reviews 28


True life crime has always been a point of fascination for television drama producers. Blue Murder, The Society Murders, Through My Eyes: The Lindy Chamberlain Story, Murder in the Outback, My Husband My Killer, the list is endless.

So the idea of dramatising the Leadbelly book by John Silvester and Andrew Rule is an obvious choice. This is contemporary history rich in larger than life characters, blood feuds, passion and revenge. Under the reign of Eddie McGuire, Nine swooped on an opportunity for dynamite storytelling.

In the hands of Screentime’s Greg Haddrick (MDA, The Society Murders, Jessica) and Brenda Pam (Mary Bryant) they have delivered a comprehensive essay, charged with sinister performances and terrifying truths.

In filming this vast story that took place between 1995 and 2004, Nine has shot every scene on location. Many are actual locations where the story unfolded on the streets of Melbourne. From Chinatown to churches, Brunswick to Brighton, the realism is one of the show’s best attributes. With some courtcases still pending, a few names have been changed.

Underbelly opens with a rocking soundtrack and hand-held cameras. It is sporadically narrated by policewoman Jacqui James (Caroline Craig) who witnesses a party brawl between underworld boss Alphonse Gangitano (Vince Colosimo), also known as the ‘Prince of Lygon Street’, and an associate, Greg Workman (Liam Amor) who owes him money. James’ young cop partner Steve Owen (Rodger Corser) faces off against Gangitano.

“You know who you’re talking to?” asks Gangitano.

Backing down, a defiant Owen triggers a personal animosity that will resonate as the war unfolds. After he leaves, Gangitano gives Workman a piece of advice from John F. Kennedy. “Forgive your enemies but never forget their names,” he says.

With this, he blatantly shoots the Workman in the back, an act seen by two party girls.

Gangitano is swiftly shielded by his protective friend, Jason Moran (Les Hill).

The Moran brothers (Martin Sacks, Kevin Harrington), Mick Gatto (Simon Westaway) and the senior safecracker ‘The Munster’ (Gerard Kennedy) converge at their meeting place, a grandstand at the Carlton Football Club oval. There they plot to cover Gangitano’s tracks and silence the eye witnesses who have been placed in protective custody by police.

But the girls are fearful and take Gangitano’s “offer” of an all-expenses “holiday” overseas in lieu of testifying in court. And so begins a cat and mouse war with police of missing evidence and unwilling, and murdered, witnesses that will characterise this story for the next decade.

Colosimo is magnificent as Gangitano. His presence dominates scenes with Mafioso malevolence. Both family man and thug, he is depicted as a man driven by power and pride. He is violent, vulgar with a hint of Catholic guilt.

Les Hill is equally outstanding as Moran, a friend who will be challenged by disloyalty. This is a role that could be seen as a television comeback.

The cast is bolstered by a formidable roll-call including Caroline Gilmer, Robert Mammone, Frankie J. Holden, George Kapiniaris. In a labyrinthine plot that sees the story handed on baton-like many more names will follow (Alex Dimitriadis, Kat Stewart, Damian Walshe-Howling, Marcus Graham, Dan Wyllie, Madeleine West, John Brumpton).

At risk of being overwhelmed by the dark, testosterone-driven drama of the story, Underbelly’s only lighter moments come from female perspectives (wives, spouses and girlfriends) and from Gyton Grantley’s simplistic portrayal of Carl ‘Babyface’ Williams. He begins as a personal driver to Gangitano but will rise through the ranks of the underworld as the 13-part story unfolds.

The streetwise dialogue by writer Peter Gawler is taut, profane and arrogant. Tony Tilse’s direction, balancing individual perspectives in a large, Greek (or rather, Italian) tragedy is expert. Images of Gangitano walking across the bonnet of a police car illustrate so much with so little. This is our own Sopranos.

If there are any criticisms to be found with Underbelly, they are few.

One or two shots give away that period Melbourne was actually shot in 2007. And while watching these gangsters thrive on power with ballsy disdain, it was hard not to think of the behaviour of some television executives in recent history.

This aside, Underbelly looks set to be one of the highlights of the 2008 television year.

Don’t miss it.

Underbelly premieres in February on Nine.

28 Comments »

  1. joeljkt May 30, 2009 at 6:24 pm -

    they should make a move about it.

  2. Rebecca stow March 15, 2009 at 9:12 pm -

    undebelly i love it

  3. muskie February 15, 2009 at 4:14 pm -

    were from england and we are watching it :)

  4. tony corden February 11, 2009 at 8:18 pm -

    a show about morons for morons to watch think about it are these seriously people we can learn anything from but how to be a complete wate of space on this earth

  5. gotcha February 9, 2009 at 12:26 am -

    beast make it know blue murder is very true i can bet you on that

  6. gotcha February 9, 2009 at 12:21 am -

    im suz i love true crime

  7. Trish May 25, 2008 at 10:03 pm -

    I watched this in Dublin, Ireland. I enjoyed it immensely

  8. Leighan May 12, 2008 at 5:04 pm -

    This show is about the crime underworld, it is not about Melbourne, it just happens to be based there because that’s where is happened. I’m sure if Sydney had more interesting people/characters/crime scene then they’d do a show about them, oh hang wait, they did – PRICILLA QUEEN OF THE DESSERT!
    This show is a fantastic drama re-enactment of what it was like to live in a crime family I’m sure if you actually watched it for two seconds you’d get right into it. At first I wasn’t interested and now I can’t wait to see the last few eps.

  9. daryl March 13, 2008 at 5:59 pm -

    Who is that girl who was with “Benji” in last nights episode?

  10. James March 5, 2008 at 6:40 pm -

    Pathetic show. Terrible editing (the County Court was the Exhibition centre!!!!), totally ridiculous and un-convincing dialogue, performances are very very average too. Channel 9 is so desperate they need to pick actors who everybody can recognise and not finding actors who can actually represent the characters!
    Complete embarassment and I wish the ABC had taken this on.

  11. suz February 18, 2008 at 9:40 am -

    when does it look like showing ..I am in sydney and cant wait to watch it ..I love stories based on reality

  12. Marz February 6, 2008 at 8:16 pm -

    Just like some have said.. it will be a flop.. people will tune it and tune out real quick (if you need to wake up early on friday morning and ran out of sleeping pills then watch underbelly).

    The attempt to glorify the underworld saga with has-been tv actors and actors which are no longer active (simply because they didn’t have talent to keep their careers going) is the reason why it will suck to begin with.. secondly.. they don’t even freaken resemble the real character.. look at pictures of Vince and the character he is playing.. they don’t even look alike.. so retarded. The acting looks lame.. the production looks rushed.. and they fail to even give the impression that its about ruthless thugs.. actors ask.. “how do we look mean and tough?”.. director says.. “just tense up your lips and squint your eyes”

    what crap!

    bring back stingers!! thats wasn’t anything special but Church was the man!! he was playing a cop and he did a better job at looking hard then all these tools do!

  13. carl February 1, 2008 at 1:14 am -

    . . . they’ll get over it. ;)

  14. Anonymous January 27, 2008 at 9:47 pm -

    I THINK THIS SHOW IS OING TO BE GREAT CAN OT WAIT TO SEE IT, IT WILL BE GREAT TO SEE THE LIVES THESE PEOPLE LIVED BEFORE IT ALL ENDED….

  15. Anonymous January 18, 2008 at 5:36 pm -

    Apparently it’s screening Sundays 8.30.

    The reviews are really positive and apparently Vince Colossimo and Les Hill are fantastic in their roles.

    Michael Idato already said it was the Blue Murder of its time.

    I love Melbourne which is another plus!

  16. Anonymous January 18, 2008 at 3:45 pm -

    I really look forward to watching the Underbelly , I have all the books from 1 to 11 total of 11 books.

    This is going to be a really good series and exciting I am going to be a big fan with this. I know all about it.The story is about the Mafia in Melbourne and how it all happened. The person that said there is only one italian guy in the show. Just to let you know just cause your in the Mafia you don’t need to be Italian most of them are aussies.

  17. The Beast January 18, 2008 at 11:15 am -

    To the two above posters. Thursday night is not one of the worst nights in TV, that distinction belongs to Friday & Saturday nights. Thursday 8.30 PM was a respectable time slot that does work, which was indicated when Sea Patrol launched with just under 2 million viewers. However, it managed to lose .7 million viewers in the space of twelve weeks. Yeah, I’d say that was pretty abysmal.

    Let’s face it, Melbourne’s underworld scene really isn’t that compelling or engaging, for God’s sake it’s Melbourne not Sicily or NY. It does come across as try hard, as the Sopranos was very popular and both involve guns, murder and mayhem and the organised crime.

    I think it also tries to be another Blue Murder knock off (from the mid nineties).

    Ultimately though I think it’s going to be poor characterisation, poor attempts to capture the time period and poor acting (What, is Vince the only Italian actor in Australia) which will let it down.

  18. Anonymous January 18, 2008 at 7:52 am -

    This show is about the compelling story and the characters. It’s not about Melbourne.

    We’ll see what the ratings say. To whoever said Sea Patrol sank abysmally, that is not true. It was on a Thursday night one of the lowest rating nights of the week, it had absolutely no lead in and did well considering.

    How can it be an attempt at the Sopranos if it’s based on reality? It’s got one of the biggest budgets ever for an Australian drama so it isn’t cheap and Channel 9 since it’s got David Gyngell back will be Australia’s top network again to whoever said 9 was dying.

  19. Anonymous January 17, 2008 at 11:06 pm -

    Sea Patrol didn’t sink to abysmal ratings it settled on about 1.2million which considering it’s lead in was quite good. And it’s back bigger and better this year! Nine to me seems refreshed and re-energized while Seven seems stale and out of ideas.

  20. Anonymous January 17, 2008 at 9:54 pm -

    City Homicide and Blue Heelers are specific to Melbourne-and we all know how well they rated. Anon 1 doesn’t know what he/she is talking about.

  21. The Beast January 17, 2008 at 9:52 pm -

    Shintaro, wipe your mouth, you’re dribbling again.

    Do you remember Sea Patrol? That was hyped up to the hilt, god it was even plugged on ACA and Getaway, though ultimately it held the audience for a few episodes and slipped into abysmal ratings land.

    Underbelly, will be seen by most as a cheap, pathetic attempt at the Sopranos to try and boost a dying channel by giving it some edge and win the ratings war. It will have luck at the beginning, though ultimately either the writing or fickle nature of the audience will give over and it will sink.

    FLOP!

  22. Anonymous January 17, 2008 at 9:50 pm -

    So if Underbelly was set in Sydney, rather than Melbourne ,anon, it would of been alot better eh?
    What Rubbish, it has nothing to do with cities, it has to do with power and criminal elements that can be seen anywhere- I am looking forwards to seeing Underbelly, should be one of the highlights for 2008 for nine.

  23. SHINTARO January 17, 2008 at 8:48 pm -

    I’ve never known a bigger buzz about a new drama.
    If it can hold the switch-on audience for the first episode, which sounds likely, then I think it’s going to go gangbusters.

  24. Anonymous January 17, 2008 at 6:55 pm -

    A great yarn specific to Melbourne – just like Neighbours…. and we all know how that rates

  25. David Knox January 17, 2008 at 6:14 pm -

    Underbelly will be 8:30, most likely on a Sunday or Monday.

    Anon: So therefore, why watch any show that isn’t set in your home city?

    The story isn’t about Melbourne. It’s about people and power.

    A great yarn is a great yarn.

  26. Anonymous January 17, 2008 at 6:00 pm -

    I live in Sydney and I cannot wait for this, so you’re wrong ‘annonymous’. This will be a hit, although more people in Melbourne will watch it many outside will as well because it makes for great drama nonetheless!

  27. Anonymous January 17, 2008 at 5:17 pm -

    Who the hell is going to watch this outside of Melbourne????

    I don’t care if 9 is throwing however many million dollars at this, it has no hope outside Melbourne despite what the usual suspects would have us believe.

  28. Anonymous January 17, 2008 at 4:02 pm -

    David, do you know what day and timeslot Underbelly will be airing? What time/day do you think it will work best?

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