Larry Writer (above) is a Woollahra-based journalist, author and publisher who is set to become a household name when the new Underbelly television series, based on his 2001 book, Razor, begins airing on the Nine Network on August 21.
Filming of the series only wrapped up a couple of weeks ago and as a treat for My Darling Darlinghurst readers, Writer took some time off set to answer some questions and to provide an insight into the creation of the new Underbelly: Razor, as well as to share his favourite Darlinghurst places and secrets.
If you haven't already read Razor, you better chop-chop and pop off to the library or Ariel and grab yourself a copy because it is the authoritative book on 1920s and 30s Darlinghurst, a period which saw the birth of organised crime in Australia.
Scene from Underbelly:Razor
Writer's most recent book, Bumper: The Life and Legend of Frank 'Bumper' Farrell, published late last year, is also set in Darlinghurst and traces the career of a "rough as bags" cauliflower-eared policeman who patrolled the streets of Kings Cross, Darlinghurst, East Sydney, Woolloomooloo and Surry Hills from 1940 to 1976.
Bumper Farrell appears in Razor too, which follows the lives of sly-grogger Kate Leigh, brothel madam Tilly Devine and the crooks, crims, cops and prostitutes around them, and brings the mean streets of historical Darlinghurst to life in meticulously researched detail.
In 2002, Razor was the joint winner, with Mike Richards's The Hanged Man, of the Ned Kelly Award for Best True Crime.
It would be fair to describe Razor as a seminal work and with the impending television series, it is likely to experience increased popularity. Victorian-based authors Andrew Rule and John Silvester watched their Underbelly series of true crime books hit the bestsellers list and surpass the 1.5million sales mark following the first television series about Melbourne's gangland wars.
I look forward to seeing Razor and Writer enjoy the same successes.
And now, over to Writer:
''After the negotiations were completed for Screentime, makers of Underbelly, to use Razor as the basis for the new series, I was invited to come on board as a consultant.
"I’d heard horror stories of film-makers turning books into train wrecks, but from the first, I was delighted to find that the producers, scriptwriters, researchers, actors and directors’s respect and affection for the people and places in Razor matched my own.
"I read all the scripts as they were written and attended conferences, and there and on the phone I was asked all kinds of questions: What were the common expressions used in that era? What did the Tradesman’s Arms look like then? What is 'gingering'? What would a Darlinghurst street look like in 1928? Where did the gangsters access their cocaine? What brand beer, wine and spirits did Kate Leigh sell? What did Snowy Prendergast do before he became a gangster in Darlinghurst? What are the lyrics of Tilly Devine’s favourite song, 'The Marquis of Camberwell Green'? Whatever happened to the survivors of the razor gang wars?"
"The actors wanted to know their character’s back stories, how they spoke, what they wore, any other idiosyncrasies that could help them make their character real.
"The production designers moved heaven and earth to find authentic period clothing, razors and guns, furniture, props and cars.
"They also invited me to play a 'wealthy businessman' in a nightclub. I hope I don’t end up on the cutting room floor!"
Violet: Are you happy with the finished product?
Writer: ''I’m delighted. It rocks! It’s very Underbelly in that it’s fast and racy and assaults the senses, but the acting, direction and design is wonderful, and it’s true to the spirit of my book, and more importantly to the people and the places of Darlinghurst in the 1920s and 30s.''
Kate (Danielle Cormack) or Tilly? – who is your favourite and why?
"I am very fond of them both, but I think Tilly is a little closer to my heart.
"They are both brilliant mixes of good and bad, kindness and cruelty, greed and altruism, but I’m intrigued by the way Tilly fought her way up from abject poverty to be so successful, despite her husband Big Jim Devine, her treacherous gang, her own demons.
"Somehow, and against much of the evidence, she seems more vulnerable.
"I like too that she was always singing and knew how to party . . . even if those parties often ended in mayhem. I’m very glad that she was never my neighbour."
What would Kate and Tilly think about the television series?
"They’d be sitting on their lounge surrounded by their henchmen and women and loving every moment. Both had a keen sense of self-promotion. I reckon Tilly would be griping though that the actress who plays her, Chelsie Preston Crayford, is not nearly as beautiful as her."
How enjoyable was the writing process of Razor?
"I became obsessed with the people and the era during the three and a half years when I was researching and writing Razor. I enjoyed every moment, and it was such a pleasure.
"I had a fulltime job so I’d be up at 3am before I went to my day job, and then again till late at night. Most of my weekend was occupied on the project.
"I was in such a zone I didn’t realise I was working terribly long hours. When I finished I fell in a heap. My family was very glad to have me back from living in the 1920s."
You lived at Hensley Hall for a time. Have you lived at any other houses in the area?
"Hensley Hall was the only place I lived in Darlinghurst, though when I was in my teens and 20s I lived in many share terraces in Paddington and Kings Cross. Now I live in Woollahra with my family.
"In 1958, when I was eight, I lived with my Aunt Dolly in Hensley Hall. I remember sword fighting my brother with copper sticks from the laundry, and him spitting toothpaste out of our first floor window onto a passerby who banged on the front door.
"Often, before I set off to Darlinghurst Primary School or to the movies, my aunt told me if I saw them coming I should steer clear of Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh."
What is your favourite thing about Darlinghurst?
"I like the places that figured in Razor that are still there to see and experience: The Strand Hotel (above) where Frankie Green shot Barney Dalton and Wally Tomlinson; the Tradesman’s Arms pub (now the East Village), Charlotte Lane where Norman Bruhn was assassinated, Tilly’s former brothel and home at 191 Palmer St, the little lanes around Palmer St, (Chapel, Berwick, Woods, Palmer) which are beautiful and peaceful today but were once Tilly’s kingdom; even the empty space where 104 Riley Street used to be beguiles me – that’s where Kate Leigh lived and sold sly grog and shot Snowy Prendergast dead."
What's your favourite restaurant in the area?
"It’s just closed down but the Bayswater Brasserie was a great haunt in my younger, single days . . . Arthur’s night club too. I enjoy the schnitzel at Una’s.
"Billy Kwong’s (above) serves superb food but I don’t go often, because I don’t enjoy queuing for a table and then being hustled out the moment I’m finished so the people standing outside in the street in the cold with their noses pressed to the front window eyeing my table can be seated."
What's your favourite pub in the area?
"The Dolphin in Crown Street . . . Yes, I know I’m a dinosaur, but I like it not for what it is today, but for what it was, a wild and crazy Irish sports pub, where Bumper Farrell would go to drink Guinness and sing Irish ballads (very badly but enthusiastically)."
What's your favourite secret in the area?
"I have to say the Razor hangouts. How many times do we go past the East Village pub, or the Chard Building on William Street (above) without even thinking that the Tradesman’s Arms was the most notorious pub in town, and the Chard Building was once the site of the Fifty Fifty Club, Phil “The Jew” Jeff’s temple of cocaine, prostitution, illegal alcohol and gambling, where Tilly and Kate and Nellie Cameron and Guido Calletti and Frank Green and Big Jim Devine and the other gangsters mingled with Premiers, sports stars, business leaders and celebrities."
What's your favourite Darlinghurst building?
"The old Darlinghurst Police Station (above). With its ageless sandstone and pointy round roof it reminds me of a castle in a fairy tale, and in many ways it was.
"This is where the baddies were locked up, where Bumper Farrell ruled, where those fabulous mug shots that have been published in Peter Doyle’s magnificent books City of Shadows and Crooks Like Us were taken, and where Lance Hoban, an old time cop who I interviewed for Razor, found a cache of Guido Calletti’s razors that had been confiscated when he was arrested."
Inspector William Mackay (Craig Hall) patrols the dangerous streets of Darlinghurst.
''Darlinghurst is my heartland in many ways, and I adore it. It retains the dangerous and gloriously seedy miasma of earlier times, and it continues to resist change and fads better than many Sydney suburbs.
''I hope it never becomes too cool, and I hope they never demolish Hensley Hall.
''Oh . . . and it’s lucky to have a chronicler like you, Violet.''
Underbelly: Razor will premiere on the Nine Network on August 21.
All Underbelly: Razor photographs courtesy of, and copyright to, the Nine Network.