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'Glamorous' TV life of slain mob boss

Nick Bryant | 11:37 UK time, Monday, 19 April 2010

By strange coincidence, I was about to sit down to compose a fresh blog on whether television series like the smash hit, Underbelly, glamorises and glorifies crime, when the news came through that Carl Williams, the Melbourne mobster, had died in prison.

For the uninitiated, Underbelly has been one of the great Australian TV ratings success stories of the past few years, and a much-needed fillip for Channel Nine. Carl Williams featured in fictionalised form in Underbelly's first series, which centred on Melbourne's gangland wars over the past 20 years and sealed his reputation as the country's most famous mobster.

The series was banned in Victoria, because of ongoing investigations and active criminal proceedings, which only added to Williams' cache and gave his story even more of a folkloric feel. Pirate copies soon got over the border. In the view of Andrew Rule, the journalist from the Melbourne Age who co-wrote the original Underbelly: Gangland Wars book, he was the most well-known criminal in Victoria since Ned Kelly.

To fill in some of the back-story, "Fat Boy" Williams was found guilty in 2007 of murdering three of his gangland rivals, and sentenced to at least 35 years imprisonment.
But Williams and his family have rarely been out of the headlines. On the morning of his death, the Melbourne Herald Sun, the city's influential tabloid, carried a front page splash about how Victorian taxpayers were footing the bill for his daughter's private education. Though Williams could hardly be described as telegenic, his story was made for TV.

Underbelly has now become one of the most bankable franchises in Australian television. Its second series, a prequel to the first, centred on the New South Wales and Victoria underworld in the Seventies and Eighties. Its latest instalment, Underbelly: The Golden Mile, focuses on Sydney's Kings Cross between 1988 and 1999, where, in the words of Channel Nine's publicity blurb, "bent cops, straight cops, cool criminals and colourful characters all converged to make their mark".

Like all successful franchises Underbelly relies on a formula. It is stylishly shot and lavishly produced. The costumes and outfits veer on the side of gangster chic. There is much more flesh on display than in your average Aussie drama. The acting is also better than average, and the series have showcased some of Australia's up-and-coming stars. The latest Underbelly features the Lebanese Australian actor, Firass Dirani, who was the stand-out of the film, The Combination.

But does it glamorise crime?

The former Supreme Court judge, James Wood, who led the Royal Commission into corruption in the New South Wales police force - crimes which are dramatised in the latest series - is vehemently opposed.

"There's nothing honourable or admirable in relation to the people who are depicted in these programs," Justice Wood told the Sydney Morning Herald. "For the impressionable kids out there watching these programs, they think it's a lot of fun. It's bloody well not a lot of fun. It's harming a lot of people and carries huge risks. You've got a high chance of ending up in a prison for 20 or 30 years. These shows don't show that."

Meanwhile, the manager of one of the biggest strip clubs in Kings Cross, believes that Underbelly will produce "a whole new generation of dirtbags".

Channel Nine has responded to the criticism by describing Underbelly as a "cautionary tale," because few of the characters, other than the straight police officers, came out of it well or with any honour.

Certainly, Carl Williams met a very unglamorous end: clubbed over the head with the stem of an exercise bike, an attack, ironically, that was apparently captured on CCTV.


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