Seven days of TV viewing
ONE ruled Sydney’s sly grog shops. One ruled its brothels. The third was the one every gangster wanted on his arm. Kate Leigh, Tilly Devine and Nellie Cameron were the brash, sharp-tongued, sharpthinking and ruthless women who ruled Sydney’s underworld in the 1920s. Leigh and Devine were the queens of vice – there were no kings.
Now they are the characters brought to life by actors Chelsie Preston Crayford, Danielle Cormack and Anna McGahan ( pictured) in the latest and most colourful instalment of WIN’S crime drama franchise, Underbelly.
Underbelly: Razor is the dramatisation of the book Razor, which took six years to research as author Larry Writer delved into the history of the razor gangs that battled for control of Sydney’s underworld.
Underbelly: Razor tells the story of Devine and Leigh’s battle to reign supreme in a world built on sly grog, prostitution, illegal drugs, extortion and gambling.
It’s also the story of how that battle turned to pure menace when an interloper from Melbourne ( Norman Bruhn, played with chilling menace by Jeremy Lindsay Taylor) decided to take the town from the girls and, knowing you could be jailed for possession of a gun, brought in a new weapon to intimidate – the cut-throat razor.
Lavishly shot and costumed, Razor is as colourful as it is brutal. It’s a story richly told with violence, a huge dose of history and with an injection of humour.
For Kiwis Cormack and Preston Crayford, the lead roles of Leigh and Devine seem set to cement their careers in Australia.
For McGahan, it’s a heck of a step up from her two small television drama roles since graduating from drama school in Brisbane last year.
Preston Crayford has buried her thick Kiwi accent to take on the persona of brothel madam Devine, exchanging it for South London tones with a touch of cockney. When she auditioned for the role, she modelled the accent on Amy Winehouse, who had the same amount of disregard as Tilly for what anyone thought of her.
She refined the accent with a voice coach as she uncovered a character who she describes as ‘‘ brash, bold . . . lots of ‘ b’ words . . . brave and a bit of a bitch’’.
‘‘ Tilly was ruthless. She’d do anything to protect what she had established, and was incredibly resourceful,’’ Preston Crayford says.
Preston Crayford’s close mate Cormack is charged with a similar character in Leigh, a sly grog shops and gambling den owner.
Cormack was last seen on Australian screens as Scarlet ‘‘ Red’’ Meagher in critically acclaimed ABC drama Rake last year and her talents are again on show. She was drawn to the role because Leigh was such a strong female character which she says is so rare. Cormack describes the expletive-spitting Leigh as a woman defined by her gruelling upbringing.
She relished the scenes in which Leigh and Tilly Devine went head to head.
‘‘ Their relationship was like a great affair. They were obsessed with each other, for better or worse,’’ she says.
‘‘ Perhaps that fuelled them to stay at the pinnacle of the underworld they inhabited.’’
Razor is a heady and deadly dramatic mix. And it looks just the tonic the Underbelly franchise needs.