On Australian crime drama – from ‘Scales Of Justice’ to ‘Bikie Wars’

Been watching a few rather decent Australian crime dramas lately…

Firstly there’s Bikie Wars: Brothers In Arms, a recent based-on-true-events series revolving around the Comanchero-Bandido split that culminated in the 1984 Milperra Massacre (that’s not a spoiler, it’s presaged in an on-title screen before each episode).

Reviews I saw moaned about it being slow going, with lots of unanswered questions hanging in the air (like why did Jock Ross want to ‘expand’), but I’ve found it pretty decent viewing three episodes in. Plenty of familiar faces: Callan Mulvey (Drazic from Heartbreak High and Mark Moran in Underbelly series one), Damian Walshe-Howling (Benji Veniaman in Underbelly series one), Jeremy Lindsay Taylor (Norman Bruhn in Underbelly season four, Razors), Lauren Clair (Tracey in Underbelly series one), Richard Cawthorne, Anthony Hayes, Luke Hemsworth, Fletcher Humphrys etc. One bum note, though – what’s with ex-Australian rugby league player Matthew Nable (Gary Jubelin in Underbelly season five, Badness) and that terrible Scots accent?

Also based on real events is 2011’s Killing Time, which focuses on the events leading up to the imprisonment of Andrew Fraser, brief-of-choice for a bunch of Melbourne crims that includes the Pettingill family (subject of the film Animal Kingdom and the thinly-veiled earlier TV series Phoenix). With the notorious Walsh Street killings as its fulcrum, infamous real life grotesques such as Kath Pettingill, Dennis Allen and Victor Peirce all involved, and police incompetence/corruption endemic, it’s pretty dark stuff – and far less stylised than anything in the Underbelly franchise.

David Wenham is very strong in the lead role, and there’s beefy backup from the likes of Colin Friels as Lewis Moran (qv Underbelly series one, where he was played by Kevin Harrington), Richard Cawthorne and Fletcher Humphrys from Bikie Wars, Kris McQuade (Jacs Holt in the Prisoner reboot Wentworth), and Ian Bliss (science teacher Mr Bell in Heartbreak High, and Thomas Hentschel – originally anonymised as ‘Mr L’ – in Underbelly series one). All round, Killing Time is very strong.

Also recently I saw for the first time Joh’s Jury, a telemovie about the perjury trial of former Queensland Premier Johannes Bjelke-Petersen in the wake of an inquiry into corruption…

Good to see some familiar, solid faces in the cast: Norman Yemm (The Sullivans), an early appearance for Noah Taylor as a tetchy young juror, plus a strong performance from Malcolm Kennard (who appears a few years later in both Bikie Wars and Killing Time). In terms of staging, nothing outstanding, but a nice little mood piece that helps provide a bit of context for us non-antipodeans wading through period crime drama.

On the writing side, though, it packs a punch, thanks to the pen of Ian David (who would later be responsible for Killing Time). Previously he had written two other similar docu-drama style TV films about bent cops: Police Crop, about an investigation into corruption in New South Wales, and Police State – which covered the Fitzgerald Inquiry that forms the backdrop to Joh’s Jury.

Immediately after Joh’s Jury, David scripted the peerless mini-series Blue Murder, which looked at the symbiotic relationship between crooked detective Roger Rogerson, and career standover man Neddy Smith. That one covered a whole slew of grim true crimes, like the murder of Sallie-Anne Huckstepp, and includes real-life wackoes like Chris Flannery (as featured in series two of Underbelly as well as The Great Bookie Robbery and feature film Everynight … Everynight). Matching the bite of the story toothmark by toothmark, Blue Murder is directed in a gritty, almost documentary style by Michael Jenkins, who also handled Scales Of Justice in much the same way.

Meanwhile, handling direction for Joh’s Jury – as he did for Police Crop – is Ken Cameron. It’s unflashy (well, how flashy can a film largely set in a jury deliberation room be?), but gets the job done. Cameron also helmed a few other works of note, including internationally successful mini-series such as Brides Of Christ and Bangkok Hilton. Then there was The Clean Machine, a semi-fictionalised movie about a team of police ‘untouchables’ set up to get rid of corrupt cops in New South Wales, which he co-wrote alongside Terry Hayes. Hayes, who earlier had scripted also worked on Bangkok Hilton, later penned breakout Oz psychological horror film Dead Calm and then a clutch of Hollywood pictures (Payback, From Hell)…

The so far unmentioned element linking many of these dramas is the production environment. Many of them came out of Kennedy Miller Productions, the ambitious Australian company set up by George Miller and Byron Kennedy to manage the birth of Mad Max. Kennedy Miller then gave us lightning in the same place a second time with Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, which announced the arrival of professional, popular Australian film making, particularly in America.

Whilst Byron Kennedy died in 1983, the company went on to produce an impeccable run of theatrical features, TV movies and mini-series, including Dismissal, about the constitutional shenanigans that led to PM Gough Whitlam being booted out, The Cowra Breakout (about a little-known mass escape of Japanese PoWs from an Australian camp), Bodyline – about the notorious 1932/3 Ashes tour – and, of course, the third installment of their post-apocalypse franchise, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in 1985.

The magic did not stop there – next came historical mystery The Riddle Of The Stinson, then Vietnam, about the Aussie involvement in southeast Asia, Hollywood star-packed hit The Witches Of Eastwick, the more parochial The Year My Voice Broke, domestic epic The Dirtwater Dynasty and then the aforementioned The Clean Machine.

Rounding out the 1980s were Dead Calm, which gifted the world Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane (well, I take it we’re not calling Omen 3, BMX Bandits or a telemovie about the Hillside Stranglers year zero for these three actors), followed by Bangkok Hilton (another strong performance from Kidman), and then from writer-director John Duigan 1991’s Flirting, a continuation of his earlier The Year My Voice Broke. In both Duigan films young Noah Taylor was afforded the opportunity to shine – much as he would again in Joh’s Jury. John Duigan had previously notched up story credits on Vietnam, which he co-directed along with Chris Noonan, who also helmed The Cowra Breakout and The Riddle Of The Stinson for Kennedy Miller, before taking on Police State for ABC in 1989. It was back to Kennedy Miller that Noonan returned in 1995 for his biggest hit: Babe, the talking pig kids’ flick. And there we leave KMP, as we’re straying far from the crime drama path.

But the point is clear: in the 1980s-1990s there was a real concentration of creative talent in Australian television and film, which – particularly when backed by strong production support, whether from an independent like Kennedy Miller, or from a broadcast network like ABC – meant that the local industry was boxing well above its weight.

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