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Reality and TV Crime

Australian audiences have demonstrated an enduring fascination with stories of ‘true crime’. TV curator Kate Matthews explores the relationship that Australian crime and police shows have had with reality over the years.

‘I can’t imagine any drama that doesn’t have some connection with reality, whether it’s Alice in Wonderland or Blue Murder.’
Ian David, writer of acclaimed TV series Blue Murder, in conversation with Peter Galvin.

Australian crime shows have had a stormy romance with reality over the years. They are the shows most likely to attract controversy over their depiction of real events while simultaneously earning praise for ‘gritty authenticity’.

Blue Murder (1995) and Underbelly – Series 1 (2008) were both banned in their home states due to their potential to influence court proceedings related to the real events they dramatised. Both series’s popularity with audiences demonstrates an enduring public fascination with stories of ‘true crime’. They are, though, quite different in style. Underbelly mixes old-school cop show formats with Coppola-style cinematic flourishes. Blue Murder is more 'naturalistic’ in style, using an observational documentary look and feel.

Over the years Australian dramas, especially mini-series, have been enamoured of stories 'based on real events’, but have asked us to form quite different relationships with them. The swashbuckling adventure of convict Mary Bryant (The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant, 2004), for example, makes very different use of a 'true story’ to docudrama Police State (1989).

At the same time, the idea of authenticity is not exclusive to shows inspired by real events: it is also a matter of style. In both fact and fiction authenticity lies in the techniques used by filmmakers to convince the audience that what they are seeing is 'real’.

What we accept as realistic on screen has evolved over time. At the beginning of moving pictures simply watching a recorded action play back was, from accounts, shockingly real. Now we can watch an extended screen drama and judge it realistic or otherwise based on a whole bevy of reasons. Did the performances seem natural? The story believable? These qualities shift in themselves: a ’60s performance once hailed for its naturalism may well look theatrically mannered today. A comparison of sequences from the relatively recent Wildside (1997–99) and a 1965 episode of Homicide (1964–76), Australia’s first cop show, reveals an evolution in our understanding of realism.

Beginning with the later show, Wildside’s performances are naturalistic and its locations authentic looking. The hand-held camera incorporates incidental activity like passing traffic. These techniques suggest a world that extends beyond the frame and action captured on the fly. To media-literate audiences familiar with observational documentary and news footage, they evoke authenticity.

Wildside was part of an emergent group of 1980s and ’90s crime dramas that aimed for a new kind of realism, taking cues from cinéma-vérité, fly-on-the-wall documentaries and news coverage, and informed by primary research into the situations, characters and environments portrayed. Other local examples include Scales of Justice (1983), Phoenix – Top Quality Crims (1991) and Blue Murder (1995).

International influences in this period include the US series Hill Street Blues (1981–87), NYPD Blue (1993–2005) and the British mini-series Law and Order (1978). Actual documentaries were also influential, including the BBC’s four-part fly-on-the-wall series Police (1982) and the US feature The Police Tapes (1976), the latter a direct influence on Hill Street Blues. The ’90s saw the start of the boom in reality TV and factual programming and in this area the long-running US Cops (1989–current) is another example of viewers’ lasting interest in true crime.

To look at now, Homicide circa 1965 does not invoke authenticity. A voice-over explains self-evident action, while studio-based scenes have a stagy quality. Yet an article in The Age newspaper at the time, by director Ian Jones, defends the show’s use of violence with the claim that it follows a 'semi-documentary line’, treating violence 'objectively, without the implications, undertones, overtones and gimmickry which are often associated with film scenes of fights …’

Perhaps explanatory voice-over was as much an indicator of observational authenticity in the ’60s as frenetic hand-held camerawork was in the ’90s. In 1965, cinéma-vérité and fly-on-the-wall documentaries were still emerging as forms. Homicide’s early style came in part from technical restrictions: scenes shot on location could not include dialogue. A quick look at a documentary from the same year, Life on a Sheep Farm, shows similar qualities to the Homicide sequence.

What Jones’s statement about Homicide makes clear is that ‘realism’ and ‘documentary style’ are evolving terms. There are also ways in which more stylised, less realist forms of drama can capture aspects of reality: sometimes, as film theorist David Bordwell blogs, ‘exaggeration captures something true’.

Division 4 – The Return of John Kelso (1971), a superb early episode of Division 4 (1969–75), now reveals a heightened quality, a brooding melodrama that brings to mind the plays of Tennessee Williams. It looks dated but still packs a punch and creates a believable emotional reality.

Similarly, the delightful comic-dramatic Good Guys Bad Guys (1997–98) makes no claims on realism but has a raw energy and anarchic quality that delivers its own sort of truth. Then there is Cop Shop (1977–83), a show that is more soap opera than crime drama, but tells us something about its era, with its anxious exploration of relationships between men and women at a time of feminism and social change.

East West 101 (2007–current) is an interesting marriage of visual approaches. It shares many creative team members with Wildside (1997–99), and in places has a similar gritty naturalism to the earlier show, melding a cop-show vision of urban crime and decay with a distilled vision of multicultural Sydney. However, these qualities are part of a broader palette that also includes surreal dream and flashback scenes. Screen language and literacy have evolved to a point where a coherent constructed reality can incorporate different styles.

In television’s first decade international shows dominated drama programming, with the Vincent Report finding that 97 per cent of drama on Australian television in 1961 is imported from the US. What local production there was tended to disguise its Australianness in the hope of earning overseas sales. For one of Homicide’s first stars, Jack Fegan, simply portraying Australian detectives in Australian locations was reason enough to praise its realism.

'For ten years’, says Fegan in Homicide publicity materials, ‘I’ve been cast as an American or an Englishman … In Homicide we don’t have to act, we’re playing real, and natural Australians. Too often, when a play calls for an Australian, he’s the CJ Dennis type of character (see The Sentimental Bloke, 1919) who nowadays is a rarity. We hope to present the average Australian as he really is … a normal person who speaks and acts in a normal way.’

Homicide was set in a real location – Melbourne’s Russell St police headquarters – following a fictional version of the city’s Homicide Squad. For the first time, Australian police were the central characters in a weekly TV drama. Victoria’s police force saw this new development as an unprecedented public relations opportunity. Police PR Officer Inspector FW Woonton remarked in an interview that:
'Convincing the public that a policeman can be as human and understanding as the next fellow is a hard message to get across. Films casting police as the central figures seem to achieve this result.’

Victoria Police provided Crawford Productions and Homicide with in-kind support, such as access to uniforms, cars, police consultants and case records. The series prided itself on its accuracy in relation to police procedure. Early writers’ guidelines by Terry Stapleton reflect how the production managed its relationship with the police:

Every Homicide script is carefully screened by a former (real-life) Homicide detective. In addition, senior representatives of the Victoria Police watch the show each week. Since we are reliant on the Victoria Police for a great deal of cooperation, it is vital that we conform to their standards. This requirement reflects itself continually in the matter of scripting, and it is for this reason that our detectives invariably behave properly in their dealings with the public and even with criminals. Some forms of action commonly seen in certain overseas productions are not suitable to our show. If we do have one of the detectives getting tough it must be justified beyond any possible criticism.

Homicide’s detectives are honest, hardworking cops who stick to proper procedure but have a human side. Sometimes Homicide shows the human side of criminals too, or gives a nod to the social context of crime, but the moral position of the cops is not in doubt. They are the good guys.

Fast forward 18 years and Scales of Justice (1983) is eliciting a very different response from the police. An early instance of observational-style crime drama, it paints a damning portrait of entrenched, systematic corruption from the lowest to the highest levels of an unspecified state police force. Its broadcast sparked a media debate – not only about its subject matter, but about whether it was so realistic audiences wouldn’t be able to distinguish fiction from fact.

Helen Thomas wrote in Melbourne’s The Age on 29 September 1983,

How 'accurate’ should fiction be? To what extent can the community be expected to perceive the difference between documentary and docudrama? How responsible, in fact, is what New Journalism has termed 'faction’, the merging of fact with fiction? More specifically, should something as significant within the present status quo as the police force be portrayed in any way but factually? Judging from the general reaction of Australia’s police – and Victoria’s chief commissioner Mr Mic Miller, particularly – the answer to the last questions would seem to be a resounding no-yes. That is, 'no’ if the fictional account places police in a light less than exemplary, like Scales; 'yes’ if it’s a Cop Shop, Homicide, Division 4 ...

Variants on Homicide (1964–76), where hardworking detectives solve new crimes each week, have been a familiar fixture on the small screen. Crawford Productions soon followed with Division 4 (1969–75) and Matlock Police (1971–75). Later additions include Hal McElroy and Southern Star’s Blue Heelers (1994–2006), Water Rats (1996–2001) and Murder Call – Black Friday (1997), and Simpson Le Mesurier’s Stingers. As a broad group these shows tend towards a vision of law enforcement as a functioning system, embodied by their police protagonists. They remain a TV staple to this day in shows like City Homicide (2007–current).

In the 1980s and ’90s, however, shows like Scales of Justice (1983) emerged to paint alternative, or more complex, images of the police, at a time when the Fitzgerald Inquiry and the Wood Royal Commission rocked public perceptions of Australia’s police forces with their findings of corruption in Queensland and New South Wales. While Scales sparked police protest and media debate over the extent to which fictional characters and events should be presented as ‘authentic’, some shows blurred the boundaries even more by dramatising real, recent events.

Police State (1989), while not a crime drama as such, re-creates the Fitzgerald Inquiry for the screen. It sits at an odd junction between drama and documentary, as it is largely based directly on transcripts of the inquiry. In one curious sequence that further complicates the distinction between real and represented events, Sergeant Colin Dillon plays himself, delivering his own testimony once more for the screen. Despite its basis on publicly available transcripts of a public inquiry, legal wrangles occurred as Police State went to air and the ABC ultimately screened an altered version.

Phoenix (1992–93) is also based (loosely) on real events – the investigation into the 1986 Russell Street bombings. This excellent series grabbed attention for its documentary-influenced cinematography and unprecedented attention to the detail of police procedure and forensics. Both were considered groundbreaking by critics at the time. Phoenix builds gripping drama through an accumulation of detail, rather than a format approach. It presents a largely positive view of the police, albeit one that shows a Special Operations Unit stymied by bureaucracy and departmental infighting.

Police State screenwriter Ian David wrote the stunning mini-series Blue Murder (1995), directed by Michael Jenkins (Scales of Justice, Wildside). Blue Murder focuses on the friendship and work relationship of two real-life figures, high-ranking NSW detective-sergeant Roger Rogerson and career criminal Neddy Smith. It presents a world where co-dependence and cooperation between cops and criminals is a normal part of police culture. David’s research involved interviews with many people connected with the story – and as a consequence he found himself called as a witness in the inquest into the death of one of the key players, Christopher Dale Flannery.

The mini-series was in production as the Wood Royal Commission of 1994–97 into NSW police corruption gathered steam. The Commission, interested in many of the events depicted in Blue Murder, ultimately found that ‘systematic and entrenched corruption’ existed within the force. By this time, Blue Murder had been banned from broadcast in NSW in case it influenced consequent court proceedings involving Neddy Smith. The ban was not lifted until 2001.

Blue Murder (1995) conveys a powerful realism. It features the observational camera techniques and naturalistic performance style that director Michael Jenkins and his team began to work with in Scales of Justice and later pushed into experimental territory in Wildside. Yet on a closer look this naturalism combines with the heightened qualities of drama and the crime genre. Years’ worth of events are condensed, as in any drama based on real events, into a dramatic structure of a few hours’ length. Ian David’s dialogue bubbles with wit and subtext – we can only guess whether these characters were so interesting in real life. His script also includes some signposts for its own constructed nature, discreetly acknowledging the conflicting perspectives of major players in the story. It has several narrators and there are hints that they may not be 100 per cent reliable.

Underbelly – Series 1 (2008) was also banned for fear of prejudicing court results (in this case in Victoria). Compared with Blue Murder, it shows how real events can be adapted for screen quite differently. Series one of Underbelly dramatises Melbourne’s ‘gangland wars’ and is more explicitly stylised and less naturalistic than Blue Murder. It references the gangster cinema of Tarantino, Coppola and Scorcese, but at the same time portrays a police detective unit reminiscent of Homicide-style cop shows. Importantly, while the gangsters of Underbelly largely represent real people, the large taskforce that investigated these cases is condensed into a handful of fictional police characters – dedicated, hardworking cops in the vein of Homicide or Blue Heelers.

Two subsequent seasons of Underbelly have focused on different episodes in Australia’s underworld history, with varying degrees of faithfulness to the facts and varying depictions of police. The series continues to enjoy huge ratings – demonstrating an ongoing public appetite for these stories which, in some distant way at least, relate to us. It also continues to generate debate over what responsibility fiction has to be faithful to the truth. In 2010, series three (The Golden Mile) drew criticism over what Dylan Welch of The Sydney Morning Herald called ‘its casual relationship with the truth’. Former Justice James Wood of the Wood Royal Commission blasted the series for glamorising gangsters, a police detective sought legal advice over her portrayal and questions emerged over the involvement in the scripting process of one of the main subjects, Kings Cross ‘identity’ and nightclub owner John Ibrahim.

Cop shows construct authenticity through their style and in this sense the reality they offer us is constantly evolving – from the now archaic ‘documentary style’ of the early Homicide years to the observational approach of Wildside to the stylised Underbelly. Each in its way invites us to suspend disbelief. The recurring question is whether they supplant actual reality in the mind of the public – especially with a subject like crime, which few people directly experience. Yet it is implicit in drama that what we are watching is a representation, rather than reality itself.

There can be so much at stake with stories of policing and crime, especially those based on real events – the anxieties of society at large, individual and collective reputations, even individual liberty. Because of this, it is likely that debates over reality in fiction will continue.

Titles in this collection

Blue Heelers – A Woman’s Place 1993

This first episode of Blue Heelers combines police drama with soap elements and introduces us to the show’s key country locations and the central 'family’ of contrasting characters.

Cop Shop – Episode 109 1978

This episode of Cop Shop is notable for bringing together Mel Gibson, Steve Bisley and Joanne Samuel a short time before they all starred in George Miller’s landmark Mad Max (1979).

Cop Shop – Episode 485 1983

This episode is a good example of the relatively adventurous single-episode stories featured in Cop Shop at this point in its run. These appeared alongside the more usual crime and soap-oriented plotlines.

Division 4 – The Return of John Kelso 1971

This superb hour of drama was Division 4’s most awarded individual episode. It sustains a mood of simmering tension and the supporting cast deliver deliciously malicious performances.

East West 101 – The Enemy Within 2007

A simmering vision of western Sydney and consistently powerful performances define this cop-show take on the fault lines of a post 9/11 world.

Good Guys Bad Guys – Car Wars 1998

A crime series set in a drycleaners.

Homicide – The Decimal Point 1965

When Homicide first aired, Australian television drama, complete with Australian cops and accents, was a novelty on screen.

Homicide – The Friendly Fellow 1973

This was star Charles 'Bud’ Tingwell’s favourite Homicide episode.

Homicide – The Superintendent 1970

This extraordinary episode breaks away from many of the usual Homicide conventions and dispenses with the customary police investigation in record time.

Matlock Police – Episode 1, Twenty-six Hours 1971

From an opening sequence strongly reminiscent of Easy Rider (1969) to a rollicking country car chase at its climax, this is a bumper first episode.

Murder Call – Black Friday 1997

Murder Call’s take on the crime genre combines a slick look and feel with offbeat story-lines that hark back to the clue-puzzle tradition of fictional sleuths.

Phoenix – Top Quality Crims 1991

Seminal procedural police drama, loosely based on the bombing of Victoria’s Russell Street Police Station in 1986.

Police State 1989

The script for this docudrama-style telemovie was developed using the transcripts from the Fitzgerald Inquiry into Queensland Police corruption.

Scales of Justice 1983

The quasi-documentary style of this series adds a gritty reality to the typical car patrol of a police crew on any evening shift around Sydney streets.

Stingers – Ratcatcher 1998

The first episode of Stingers wastes no time setting up its premise, diving straight into the action, allowing us to get to know the characters as the crime story unfolds.

Underbelly – Series 1 2008

This 13-part crime drama is based on real events in Melbourne from 1994–2004. Dealing with gang warfare-related murders, it was controversial even before it was completed.

Water Rats – Dead in the Water 1996

This feature-length pilot packs in more action, location shoots and story strands than a standard episode of Water Rats.

Water Rats – Goes With the Territory 1999

This episode marks the introduction of Steve Bisley’s character to the long-running crime drama. Of note is the economy with which this major change in cast is addressed.

Wildside – Series 1 Episode 1 1997

The raw style of Wildside is characterised by intense, semi-improvised performances, observational camerawork and sometimes frenetic editing.