THERE’S A YELLOWING clipping in my scrapbook showing a scene that could be straight out of a film: a gleaming black coffin, covered in red roses, carried by men in sharp suits and sunglasses, coming out of a Catholic church in Kew; a blonde crime clan matriarch in black, old men with craggy, wary faces, and muscled, moustachioed henchmen in ponytails, mingling in the mourning crowd with the elite of Melbourne society. Two worlds mourn mob patriarch, reads the headline. It’s a piece about the funeral of the murdered underworld figure Graham Kinniburgh, known as “The Munster”, in December 2003.
Kinniburgh, then the latest victim of the extraordinary gangland war that convulsed Melbourne’s underworld from the mid-1990’s to the mid-2000’s, had just been gunned down in the driveway of his house by “a killer or killers unknown”. It was the latest chapter in the Victorian criminal saga that had many Australians transfixed: but the death of the elderly fixer who was described in one of his many obituaries as “Nature’s gentleman” can also now be seen in retrospect as a turning point in the final unravelling of the puzzle which had frustrated police for years—and the final undoing of Carl Williams, the “bogan bandit”, the amphetamine lord who referred to himself as The Premier—because, so he said, he really ran the state.
In that photo of the pall-bearers, you can see the man who was one of Kinniburgh’s greatest friends, and who would soon emerge as “the last man standing”, the ultimate winner in what had been an unprecedented underworld war: Domenico “Mick” Gatto, ex-boxer, businessman, chess player and member of the “Carlton Crew”, an independent Cosa Nostra-style group that with their associates, the Moran gang (of Ship Painters and Dockers pedigree) had been the main but not the only targets of Williams’ relentless campaign of terror (the Radev gang also had a high rate of attrition). Very soon, Williams’ main hitman and close friend, Andrew “Benjy” Veniamin, would lie dead in a backroom of Gatto’s favourite Carlton restaurant and unofficial headquarters— shot dead by his one-time boss Mick Gatto in what the latter claimed was an act of self-defence, a claim which was backed up by the jury at his murder trial, which acquitted him.
More deaths followed—that of the last Moran male, patriarch Lewis; of Carlton Crew associate Lew Caine, Carlton Crew loan shark Mario Condello, among others; but Williams’ days of freedom were numbered. His use of, to quote criminal celebrity Mark “Chopper” Read, “junkies and dogs and scumbags” as hitmen, soon told on him, literally, and two of them, facing long jail terms, turned informer and he was finally arrested by relieved police from the Purana Task Force. Sentenced to a long jail term for several counts of murder, the thirty-five-year-old, who had once been severely underestimated as a fat, stupid loser by his rivals, will not see the outside world again till he’s at least seventy—if he survives that long.
LIKE MANY PEOPLE, I was fascinated by the saga, which I’d first really become aware of through a front-page piece about the shocking “execution” of Williams’ arch-enemy Jason Moran and his bodyguard Pat Barbaro in broad daylight, after a kids’ soccer match. The men were shot at close range in Moran’s van, in front of five children including Moran’s six-year-old twins, who were in the van at the time. That such murders could be so brazenly and callously carried out not only shocked the police and the public but also drew attention to the fact there was definitely an underworld war going on.
There had been plenty of other deaths before that one—starting with the murder in 1995 of a man called Gregory Workman by then-Carlton Crew boss Alphonse Gangitano; but they could seem random, the banal occupational hazard of those who lived by the sword. Now it was obvious these were not random acts but a combination of personal revenge—Williams had been severely injured by the Moran brothers several years before—and ruthless gangland takeover. Williams was signalling he was the new King of the Crims and that anyone who stood against him had their days numbered.
While it was all going on, I remember thinking: what an amazing story, surely someone’s got to use it for a novel or a film. It’s not often in real-life crime that events seem like something out of a crime novel—it’s often too random and too meaningless. Any policeman will tell you that criminals are nearly always stupid, as well as lazy, arrogant, reckless and often, these days, drug-addled. The highly intelligent master criminal beloved of crime fiction rarely exists. The characters inhabiting real-life crime are mostly uninteresting, flat, creepy and dull. I love crime fiction, not only for its gripping high-stakes plots and exploration of elemental forces and themes—life, death, good, evil—but also for the richness and complexity of its characters. Truecrime often seems like a poor narrative substitute—full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.
But just occasionally there are real-life crime stories, real-life crime characters, that seem to have strayed from the pages of novels or the scenes of a film. This was one of them. Of course, many criminals on the top rungs of their shadow world—what the French call la haute pegre, or high-end scum—do model themselves on fictional characters, such as those in The Godfather, or Scarface, or Goodfellas, or the Sopranos series. Melbourne ganglanders were no different, with many aspiring to classic Mafia chic. Some of the better-educated ones may even have seen themselves as Shakespearean characters: for instance the loan shark Mario Condello loved Julius Caesar, Macbeth and Hamlet. Others, like Alphonse Gangitano, who was known as the Black Prince of Lygon Street, take on colour from historical figures and pride themselves on their ruthlessness and their somewhat superficial command of cultural references and “good manners”—until it comes to violence, of course.
Williams was not that sort. A career criminal from what kids call a “boganacious” Australian criminal family of long standing, he had little interest in any cultural references of any sort. And neither had the Morans, much, though in their case there is that Irish-Australian Ned Kelly-style mythologising. Not to speak of the Painters and Dockers historical connection, and the connection with violent death. Moran women often have to mourn their men: Moran matriarch Judy not only buried two sons, Mark and Jason, but also two husbands—her first husband Les Cole, father of Mark, was also shot, years before she got together with Lewis Moran. And Jason’s wife Trish not only buried her husband and her father-in-law but lost her own father Les Kane as well— he was shot dead when she was a child. (Gangland families, like aristocratic ones, seem to like breeding within their little circles.) Williams’ reign of terror broke all the rules of the criminal world and created its own myth, a myth that sooner or later would, I thought, be brought to the screen.
THE FIRST ATTEMPT to recreate the bizarre, highly coloured, dangerous world of the Melbourne ganglanders and their associates was, in fact, based on a recognition of the fact that there were several echoes of Shakespeare in this real-life drama. This was the 2007 filmed version of Macbeth, which set Shakespeare’s words and his terrifying story of ambition, ruthlessness and murder against a background of the Melbourne underworld war. It worked well—certainly better than many other attempts to make Shakespeare “relevant” to modern audiences. But though it attracted a certain amount of attention, that was as nothing compared to the enormous success of Channel Nine’s dramatisation of the Melbourne gangland war, Underbelly.
The thirteen-part series was shown all over Australia earlier this year— except Victoria, where it had been banned in order not to prejudice the trials of several criminals associated with the war, including high-profile drug baron and recently-recaptured escapee Tony Mokbel (and the revelation of the story of just how he eluded justice deserves a complete episode in itself). It was a huge hit for Nine, and when the DVD of the series was released, early in May, it quickly became the fastest and biggest-selling television DVD release ever in Australia: even before it appeared, 60,000 copies had been pre-sold. The series has since sold to fifty overseas territories, including Russia, Turkey, Canada, and many other countries.
Sometimes hype can be bigger than the actual thing, though. I’m suspicious of hype at the best of times. And because I’d kept up with the real story for years, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to watch the dramatisation. Besides, one can become wary about extravagant compliments being showered on Australian films or television series—too often, you are disappointed as a viewer. However, remembering the extraordinary power, intelligence and complexity of an earlier filmed “criminal saga”—Blue Murder, the famous mini-series recounting the life and crimes of Roger Rogerson and his underworld friends—I thought it was worth taking a look, at least at the DVD (without the ads).
I was hooked just about straight away. Brilliantly structured, richly depicted, gripping, beautifullyscripted and superlatively well-acted, this series is an absolute triumph. It depicts the claustrophobic world of career criminals with extraordinary aplomb and conviction— but also depicts the police, from episode one, in a rich and interesting manner. You always get the sense of that thin blue line—the way in which cops always have to be aware of a world of violence and depravity and betrayal, a world we lucky people in the mainstream world hardly ever have to face, because of their efforts. It also emphasises how the police, despite certain bad apples, are by and large decent, courageous, honourable men and women trying to do their duty in the face of often insuperable obstacles: for though they may know who is behind certain criminal outrages, they cannot of course act like the criminals themselves would and simply blow away the opposition but must proceed painstakingly through the methods and rules of the law.
The series was criticised in some quarters (though not by the police) as “glorifying criminals” but I don’t see that at all. Of course, some stupid people may see the helter-skelter, high-octane, drug and sex-fuelled lives of the underworld bigwigs and their retainers as “glorious” (and be warned, the series is very graphic in its depiction of these “lifestyle choices”), but given that the vast majority of these same underworld figures end up dead or behind bars for life, I can’t see that the series could be accused of acting as a careers adviser for future Melbourne Macbeths. The vast majority of viewers will be sickened by the sordid, vicious and callous nature of these people, and the way in which their “lifestyle choices” impact on their many victims, including their own close families, especially their children, left fatherless and forever conflicted. Because that is also brought out strongly in the series: the massive impact that this internecine struggle had on the innocent—the gangsters’ own children, the children of informers ruthlessly gunned down, the parents of paid thugs and lowlifes of all descriptions who had not known that their children had been keeping very bad company.
It’s not only the writing and directing which are excellent. The richness and complexity of the portrayal of the various characters—the criminals, their families and associates like the extraordinary gangland lawyer Zarah Garde-Wilson, and the police (though these characters are composites)—is a huge credit to the Australian acting profession, too. The portrayals are uniformly good, subtly nuanced and feel extremely real. The killers and criminals are never “excused”; they are shown in their own setting, in their own personas, without comment; but there is never any doubt in the viewer’s mind that whilst these people are human, with a range of human traits, they are also vicious, ruthless criminals. Their vaunted “loyalty” and “mateship” are a sham; their so-called devotion to their families just so much bull.
What is interesting too is the mix of ethnicities of the criminals, and how these give them different sources and bases. The world of criminal Melbourne is certainly a multicultural one—in this lot, we have Bulgarians, Italians, Greeks, Lebanese, Bosnians, as well as the more “traditional” Anglo-Celtic clans, like the Morans, Williams, Kinniburghs and Pierces. Some of the “European” criminals, like Gangitano (played by Vince Colosimo), Condello (Martin Sacks) and Veniamin (Damian Walshe-Howling), are shown to have religious feelings and allegiances—more tribal than anything else, more to do with superstitious attempts to protect themselves with good magic than any real spirituality (though the complex and disturbing portrayal of Veniamin, who is shown as a devout Greek Orthodox who actually thinks occasionally about metaphysical issues—much to the incomprehension of his materialist bosses, the Williamses—is rather different from that of the others). In the world of the “European” criminals, God and the Devil are still strong presences—especially, of course, his satanic majesty. Not that they ever ask for the Devil’s help, they just embody his work on earth. And they only ask God’s help when they are in desperate fear.
This religious and metaphysical aspect to the series is rare in Australian film and television. It is well approached too, nothing is over-emphasised, and often the film-makers have relied not on words but on telling images—like a terrified Condello’s clutching of his rosary beads as he vegetates in hiding, waiting fearfully for Williams to move against him—beads which he even clutches when indulging in the usual sordid sexual recreations he has become accustomed to. And even though the Williams family show no sign of being disturbed by anything as alien as spiritual doubts, there is a scene when the cynical, hard-bitten Roberta is shown in credulous tears over the “revelations” of an obviously shonky psychic, who tells her that her slain friend “Benjy” Veniamin is still watching over her.
MOST OF THE CHARACTERS depicted are, of, course, men: the neo-feudal world of the criminal fraternity does not have much space for women. Women are usually seen as either molls or wives, and in either case are expected to stay well out of “men’s business”, no matter how blue-blood their criminal pedigree. Equal opportunity and feminist rights are foreign concepts in this very politically incorrect world. There are, however, as in the feudal world, exceptions: very strong women who are just about as bad and as determined as the men. Roberta Williams is certainly depicted by the actress playing her, Kat Stewart, as one such character: foul-mouthed, feisty and very, very forward. The real-life Roberta is apparently recorded as saying that she could have “throttled” Stewart, as she had totally misunderstood her, and certainly she had never been as rude and horrible as all that! However, she said she was “touched” by Damian Walshe-Howling’s powerful portrayal of “Benjy”. Meanwhile, Judy Moran loved the unflattering depiction of her arch-enemy Williams (played by Gyton Grantley) but strongly objected to the portrayal of her family; of course, her sons were good boys, just a little led astray.
These and other underworld figures connected with the real-life drama apparently haunted Nine’s set, trying to contact the actors to try and get a sympathetic portrayal out of them (at least, that’s all one hopes—not to make them an offer they couldn’t refuse!) The only underworld figure who did meet the actor playing him was Mick Gatto—and according to veteran actor Simon Westaway, who played him, he simply told him, “Be strong.”
In the end, it seems to me that it is the enigmatic Gatto, cleared of all charges, clean as a whistle and home free, the intelligent man who let others do the mythologising for him, and didn’t big-note himself, who checkmated everybody. Openly in the public eye these days as an arbitrator and mediator—his most recent being in “defending the interests of certain clients” of Opus Prime—the man they once called the Don now stands unassailable, almost respectable, amongst the ruins of the old criminal empires, like a victorious Fortinbras standing in the ruins of the rotten state of Denmark.
Sophie Masson’s latest novel is The Maharajah’s Ghost (Random House Australia).
The four-DVD set of Underbelly is widely available, except to Victorians.