For the fourth series of Underbelly, we’re taken back to the mean streets of the 1920-30s when Darlinghurst was nicknamed ‘Razorhurst’ and two women ruled the streets. Colin Delaney steps back in time.
It wasn’t too hard to make Sydney’s Eveleigh St. terraces and Redfern’s infamous ‘block’ look run down and dilapidated. But build a couple of extra facades, roll in some beautiful old cars, bring in a few kids with grubby faces plus a few loitering, rugged old chaps and you’re thrown back to Darlinghurst in the hell-raising ‘20s. Gentrification has taken a turn for the worse: this is Underbelly: Razor.
This new Underbelly series is the true story set in the 1920s and ‘30s when madams Kate Leigh (Danielle Cormack) and Tilly Divine (Chelsie Preston Crayford) were bitter rivals and running all types of the vice on the streets of Sydney.
Encore was invited to the set to watch all hell break loose, for the scene when Leigh and Divine’s henchmen face off in the infamous Kellett Street fight. Clubs, bats and old chair legs swung and clashed against limbs of brown tweed and close-shave haircuts while broken whisky bottles and ocker profanity filled the air.
“It’s got a much more larrikin Australian quality,” says David Caesar, director of this episode. “We talked about whether we go film noir [but] when I think of film noir I think of jazz and I think of dames. It’s not about dames – and yet the main characters in this are women – they’re not about looking good in a frock. I mean they have punch-ups with each other and put hits on people. They’re loud about it and not being a femme fatale at all. They’re much more brassy. That’s one thing about Underbelly in general, it does have that Australianness to it. It’s unique, with this real lack of respect that I like.”
Ain’t No Costume Drama
“To me Underbelly is a graphic novel,” says Writer/Producer Peter Gawler. “Whether you’re telling a 1920s story or a 1990s story. It’s not like a BBC costume drama, it just ain’t. We’re doing interesting things with contemporary music in period arrangements. It’s our own take on the period.”
That said, in the script, they’ve tried not to extrapolate too much. “You want to be faithful to the spirit of the truth,” says Gawler, dismissing old rumours it interferes with a good story. Some characters were amalgamated but the key players have records and trial transcripts, they made their mark on the streets, to the police and in the newspapers of this town.
The book to which the series is based, Razor, by Larry Writer, “was so well researched and so well organised and indexed,” says Gawler. “It allowed us to all be literally on the same page at the same time. Larry made himself available; we could call him anytime, day or night and he could come up with the answer quickly. He remains involved with the project to this day. He’s been available to talk to the actors, to key directors, designers. That’s been a Godsend.”
The era has required a few challenges and changes to style from previous Underbelly outings, but courtesy of the Redfern back lot as well as a studio in Concorde West, “it’s not as difficult as you might think,” says Caesar. “You always have to be careful which way you’re filming because of buildings [but] we always have walls of corrugated iron to dress in things we call ‘nasties’.
If this is Channel Nine’s attempt to break into HBO-styled programming, it seems to be working, with support by Screentime, impressive production design by Paddy Reardon (Chopper, Japanese Story), married to crisp cinematography by DOP Mark Wareham (Cloudstreet).
“The stuff that we’re getting looks a million bucks,” says director Shawn Seet (The Strip, Dangerous). “Wareham brought a meticulousness that we didn’t have before and an eye for detail, but we haven’t lost any of that energy or vibe. The images he puts on screen are luscious and vibrant. He, like Jo Pickering, who shot the other series, they understand that a story lives in that image, they’re filmmakers, not technicians.”
“This show is much more classic in the way its shot as opposed to other Underbellys,” says Caesar, “which are more hand-held and frenetic camera movement. But once you see the finished product it’s still in the same family, the style is consistent, even though it’s 80 years in the past.
For the future, Gawler remains relatively tight-lipped on what’s next. Nevertheless, the Underbelly brand has become a bankable name for entertaining Australian crime drama, building its own style and a loyal following. Not only that but it’s been a reliable and trustworthy employer for its cast and crew – more than can be said for some of its characters.
Underbelly: Razor premieres with a movie length first episode on Sunday 21 August, 8.30pm.