Underbelly Razor

06 Nov
Chelsea Preston-Cormack as Tilley Divine

I missed the earlier installments of the Underbelly series, and after seeing this season, that’s something I regret. What I’ve seen has been impeccable drama. It is rare to encounter a historical series that marries great dialogue and characterisation with historical accuracy, but Underbelly Razor has done just that. Remarkable, too, because it comes from the WIN Network, who usually avoid broadcasting anything of substantial quality at all costs.

The clever use of music from recent decades covered as jazz numbers from the nineteen twenties is a touch of genius. It stamps the series as modern (just in case you’re not watching it in HD), and draws the audience into the period with much-needed humour. The dialogue only occasionally diverted from the vocabulary of Australian English in the period, and the settings for the action of the series are impeccably depicted. Few films manage such superb historical aesthetics, but it is especially remarkable for a television series.

The series’ two protagonists, Kate Leigh and Tilley Devine, are played by Danielle Cormack and Chelsie Preston-Crayford respectively, and their performances have been thoroughly engaging. While Danielle Cormack is a familiar and welcome face on our screens, I’ve never seen Preston-Crayford, and she is equally noteworthy. She also gained my attention because she’s playing the namesake of one of Canberra’s best-known cafes, and this explains a lot for those of us who live in the capital!

Danielle Cormack as Kate Leigh

Dealing with Australian history in this manner is refreshing. I have recently been working on a play set in Sydney in the 1880s and was surprised that I could not find a single novel, film or play that takes the city as its setting in this era. Our focus on the bush was not just dominant; it was absolute. The focus of Underbelly Razor on a Sydney story in the era of Dad and Dave, when we generally like to see ourselves as a quaint agrarian outpost of the British Empire, is both novel and redresses an unfortunate imbalance. I hope its a sign of a maturing national image.

Underbelly Razor is, of course, not without its historical faults, though most are negligible. The one notable problem is the way the police are depicted. The senior ranks of the New South Welsh police seem genuinely concerned with law and order, which seems to be at loggerheads with the histories I’ve read covering law and order in Sydney in this period. The police were as actively involved in the underworld as Tilley Devine and Kate Leigh, and to depict them as antagonists is taking a lot of dramatic licence! The inherent and utter corruption of the New South Welsh  Police Force is known to have been a key factor in the development of the Sydney underworld from the early nineteenth century until the end of the twentieth, and this series treats police corruption merely as a minor theme.

I will accept this as dramatic licence, as the research required to depict the rest of this world must have been substantial, and I can’t see how the writers could have been entirely ignorant of the key role the police played in the Sydney underworld. And forgiving them this licence leaves possibly the best television series I’ve ever seen; and I love television! Underbelly Razor has the production qualities of our best films, with excellent performances, great dialogue and a great story, well told.

Now I want to see the earlier seasons!

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Posted by on Sunday, 6 November 2011 in Nine Network, Television


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