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A small fortune favours the bold
A UK region 0 DVD review of THE GREAT BOOKIE ROBBERY by Slarek
 

What is it about some crime stories that makes it so easy for an audience to identify with the criminals? Robbery or caper tales have a particular appeal, with the idea of a group of rebels sticking it to The Man harking back to a distorted and romantic view of the outlaws of the Old West, non-conformists who got rich quick through a combination of ingenuity and daring. The very idea excites the rebel within, that part of us that wants to kick against the establishment but is kept in check by an overriding need to be a functioning part of it. Never mind if it was your money they hauled off in the raid or your mother they frightened out of her knickers as they did so, in crime movies banks are seen as a legitimate target for robbery and an increasingly complex challenge for the criminal mastermind. After all, how many bank robbery tales have told their story from the point of view of the bank, unless one of the staff is in on the deal? It's hardly surprising when you think about it. There's a guilty pleasure in seeing the institutions you are mortgage-enslaved to for your working life getting stiffed by a handful of desperados. Take that, banks!

No matter what the target, the more daring the robbery, the bigger the haul, the more it captures the public imagination. So large is the fame of the 1963 Great Train Robbery in Britain that when Michael Crichton's identically name film was imported back in 1979, a full 26 years after the event, it had to be renamed The First Great Train Robbery to avoid any confusion with the considerably more notorious real-life case. Every country probably has a crime of equal notoriety, and Australia's prime candidate took place on 21st April 1976 and the Victoria Club in Melbourne, the venue of choice for bookies to meet settle accounts after big race meetings. The actual amount stolen remains unconfirmed to this day, but estimates vary between three and twelve million dollars. The entire robbery took just eleven minutes to complete, with not a single shot fired and only one guard was hurt. It quickly became known as The Great Bookie Robbery.

The nature of the relationship between the police and the Melbourne criminal fraternity of the time meant that the authorities had a damned good idea who was behind the raid, but just didn't have the evidence to back up their theories. One of the gang, Norman Lee, was arrested and charged, but was later acquitted, and the full facts of the case might never have been established beyond rumour had Lee not been shot and killed by police during an attempted raid at Melbourne Airport in 1992. As part of the subsequent inquest, Lee's lawyer, Phillip Dunn QC, revealed the full details of the Victoria Club raid, including the identities of the participants, all of whom had by then been killed. But with no-one successfully convicted of the crime and the money never recovered, the technicalities of law state that it remains technically unsolved.

In 1986 the robbery became the subject of an Australian TV miniseries, directed by Marcus Cole and Mark Joffe from a script by journalist Philip Cornford (with extensive uncredited re-writes by producer Ian Bradley and co-director Cole). Working ten years after the event from the documented facts and their own research, the filmmakers were still ten years ahead of Phillip Dunn's all-revealing statement, but apparently did gain access to Norman Lee, who doubtless had some input on the fine detail and even arranged for them to shoot at his house, the actual location where much of the planning for the robbery took place.

What Lee apparently chose to keep to himself was the most extraordinary aspect of the robbery, that the cash didn't actually leave the building from which it was stolen until some weeks later. The gang had rented an office two floors above the Victoria Club and simply transferred the money there, then made a deliberately noisy getaway to convince all and sundry that the spoils had been transported to a faraway location. The reason this is not in the film is simply that no one involved knew this to be the case until Phillip Dunn's revalations ten years later. (A similarly bold stunt was pulled by South African bank robber, Andre Stander and his gang, who knowingly robbed a bank located below the offices of the task force that had been assembled to catch him.)

Names may have been changed here to protect the not-so-innocent, but in every other respect The Great Bookie Robbery is remarkably true to the known facts, with only a few flourishes added for dramatic licence (one of which is openly admitted to on the commentary tracks). Mind you, embellishment really isn't needed here, so audacious are some elements of this particular caper. Take the initial planning. Gang leader Mike Power is coming to the end of a stretch in Parkhurst prison on the Isle of White when his cell mate shares his plan for the robbery in exchange for a share of the loot. At this time the British authorities operated a scheme known as Terminal Leave, which allowed prisoners who were approaching the end of their sentence a week's leave to acclimatise themselves with their home and family in preparation for their release. Taking advantage of this, Power is met at the prison gates by his girlfriend Carol and young son David, then secretly flies to Melbourne, meets up with his old comrades, outlines the job, takes part in an armed robbery to set himself up with some funding, and shoots back to the UK. When the police drop round to follow up a report that he's been spotted halfway round the world, he ambles sleepily out of his bedroom and wonders what the fuss is about.

Some characters inevitably play to genre conventions, particularly the gang's inevitable weak link (the overly nervous Jaffa) and potentially incendiary crazy (the sullen, mad-eyed Cracka Park). But there's some neat red herring work going on here, with their potentially negative attributes played up just before the robbery only to be held in check during the job itself. Cracka in particular is nicely developed against type, the early suggestion that he and Mike have a troubled history dissolving to reveal a man of dogged loyalty and even occasional sensitivity, turning up unexpectedly on Carol's doorstep like a wilderness ghost to help fund her husband's bail money and later entering into a committed relationship with Carol's pretty and danger-hungry sister Annie.

The film aligns us with Mike and the gang from its opening scene and its allegiance never wavers. The police are represented only intermittently by the cheerless Detective Edwards and he's in cahoots with the Temple brothers, two unpleasant representatives the nastier side of the Melbourne underworld. The nearest the investigating team come to upsetting the gang's plans is Chicka White, an undercover cop who latches onto Jaffa but whose threat potential is repeatedly delayed because Mike never swallows Jaffa's suggestion that he's someone worth trusting.

The traditional generic pleasures of the planning and execution of the robbery are extended here by the gang's need to carry out smaller jobs to fund the big one, and the crew interplay and character detail is given the sort of screen time that feature film length dramas rarely allow. The performances are crucial to why this works so well, with just about every part well cast and convincingly played, John Bach's icy cool as Power and Bruno Lawrence's brooding menace as Cracka Park being the obvious standouts. Considerable kudos are also due to Andy Anderson, Scott Burgess and Gary Day as fellow crew members Tony Loft, Robbo Robbins and Colin Reynolds respectively, while Catherine Wilkin strikes just the right note of patient weariness as Carol, the flipside of her thrill-seeking sister Annie, whose still-naïve enthusiasm for the criminal life is nicely caught by Madeleine Blackwell. And yes, Australian soap fans, that's Paul Sonkkila of Sons and Daughters and Ray Meagher of Home and Away as underworld heavies Bob and Merv Temple.

There's none of the mouthy mockney posturing that has blighted British crime drama in recent years, but an impressively understated approach to character and incident that is both compelling and believable. The Great Bookie Robbery is an old-fashioned heist drama in the best sense of the term, free of the MTV-inspired visual trickery, tinted visuals and post-modernist referencing that seem almost de rigueur in its modern TV and film equivalents. Cole and Joffe's taut, economical direction, Ellery Ryan's purposeful camerawork and Kerry Regan's scalpel-sharp editing put it up there with the best British TV crime dramas of the period, while the no-nonsense efficiency and excitement of the action sequences rival those of a fair few big screen thrillers. Like the work of the gang, this is a thoroughly professional job. The old maxim proves true – they really don't make 'em like this any more.

sound and vision

The Great Bookie Robbery was designed from the start to emulate the style of British TV crime series of the 70s and early 80s and if you're familiar with the touchstones (The Sweeny, Minder, etc.) then the look of the series will be instantly familiar. Shot entirely on 16mm and largely on location (including many of the actual locations in which the robbery and planning took place), the 4:3 image lacks the pristine sheen of 35mm and high-def, but has that particular grittiness unique to this format, and neither I nor the filmmakers would have it any other way. Grain is obviously going to be evident, but the transfer is otherwise very good, with the contrast and black levels generally solid and colours largely true to life, a little muted in places but bright enough when they need to be. The sharpness and detail are as good as you'd hope for and frequently a lot better.

The Dolby 2.0 mono soundtrack inevitably lacks the dynamic range and spread of more recent TV dramas, but is clear and free of noise and hiss. One thing that did strike me is how loud it was for Dolby 2.0, prompting me to crank my amp volume way down to avoid an eardrum split.

extra features

Originally broadcast as a series of six programmes running for one hour apiece (including commercial breaks), the series here has been compiled into three episodes of just shy of 90 minutes each. Despite an overall running time of 263 minutes, each of the episodes features a screen-specific filmmakers' commentary.

The first is delivered by Mark Joffe, who helmed the first two shows that comprise episode 1. He provides much of the technical info I was curious about, including how the series was originally broadcast, the shooting format and the budget – a then high 3.8 million dollars – but also plenty of information on the cast, the location, the shoot, and the true-life background of some of the characters. The subject of working with an ensemble cast throws up some interesting stories, not least the job of preventing actors with time on their hands from trying to upstage each other. Despite some dead spots I learned quite a bit here, and the background trivia is sometime amusing, from the post-production change of "wanker" to "whacker" to avoid censorship problems, to a screening of the first two shows at the Victoria Club itself for an audience of bookies, who though it "a hoot."

The second episode (comprised of parts 3 and 4) was directed by Marcus Cole and it's he who moves into the commentary chair, along with actor Andy Anderson, who plays Tony Loft in the series. With the two able to bounce off one another, this is a slightly livelier affair than the first and equally informative. Both men share memories and anecdotes from the shoot and their knowledge of (and in one amusing case encounter with) the Melbourne underworld, and Cole is not shy of revealing a continuity error caused by his having to steal a couple of shots from Joffe's episodes. Pleasingly and most surprisingly there's almost no overlap with the first commentary.

As part 5 was directed by Joffe and part 6 by Cole, the commentary for episode 3 is handled by both. Clearly still good friends, the two take an entertainingly light-hearted but still revealing approach to their work, adding further to the background information on the making of the series and the real-life criminals the characters are based on. There's some particularly good stuff here, including a guarded dismay at the direction TV drama has taken – they note, for example, that recent crime shows all seem to have a blue tint (a bit of stylistic nonsense I have also been known to gripe about), that modern series are more the result of committee meetings than filmmaker inspiration, and that the only station currently making genuinely cinematic drama seems to be HBO. They are joined in the last third by actor Andy Anderson, which makes this the busiest commentary of the lot. One thing that is very pronounced here, though, is that the commentary goes gradually but markedly out of sync with the picture, increasing to a disorientating 32 seconds at worst. The arrival of Andy Anderson seems to reset the time shift but it happens again, and by the end credits the commentary is 13 seconds ahead of the picture.

summary

A must for fans of well told heist stories, The Great Bookie Robbery should have a special appeal for those left unmoved by the mechanical mood, by-the-numbers casting and look-at-me filmmaking of more recent efforts, and should teach most viewers something about a crime whose fame on its home turf does not seem to have spread to our shores. It's a hugely enjoyable and involving series, and one of those works that creates and retains a dramatic tension even if you are familiar with the real case. Eureka's DVD release sports a decent transfer, and although it only has one extra, it's so loaded with information about the case and the production that you are in no way left wanting. Recommended.

The Great Bookie Robbery

Australia 1986
263 mins
directors
Marcus Cole
Mark Joffe
starring
John Bach
Catherine Wilkin
Gary Day
Bruno Lawrence
Andy Anderson
George Spartels
Denis Moore
Paul Sonkkila
Ray Meagher
Candy Raymond
Gary Sweet
Scott Burgess

DVD details
region 0
video
4:3
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Director and actor commentary
distributor
Eureka! Entertainment
release date
20 August 2007
review posted
19 August 2007

See all of Slarek's reviews