Of course, that writer is not the only one feeling the heat. Nine (which publishes this masthead) is anxious to avoid a repeat of the scenario that bedevilled its original Underbelly series back in 2008, when the show was prevented from going to air in Victoria because it was deemed a risk to ongoing legal proceedings. When it did finally air the following year, it was with some names changed and faces pixelated, lest any potential jurors be unduly influenced by what was on screen.
This time, despite the fact there’s an ongoing inquiry into the events it depicts, Callaghan feels they’re on safer ground.
“The Royal Commission’s findings are yet to come out so we don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says. “We’ve been pretty careful to ensure that everything we cover is pretty much in the public domain.”
While stressing he is no legal expert, Callaghan thinks it’s a fair bet that any cases that might arise from the Royal Commission into Management of Police Informants are likely to be judge-only affairs anyway. “How the hell would you find 13 Victorians who don’t know anything about those cases,” he reasons.
Although it is not officially an Underbelly offering, Informer 3838 is clearly cut from the same cloth (and made by the same production company and screened on the same network). The gratuitous nudity is kept to a bare minimum, so to speak, but there are the obligatory scenes of Carl Williams (Gyton Grantley) and Tony Mokbel (Robert Mamone) doing lines of coke and knocking back top-shelf liquor while braying like hyenas.
It opens in a blaze of garish colour, with a brassy blonde staring at herself in a mirror lit by a flickering fluoro light.
“I was the most notorious police informer in Australian legal history,” she says in voiceover. “I broke all the rules. I betrayed everyone, friends and enemies. I had wealth, position, opportunity. Why did I do it? You’re about to find out.”
The woman is, of course, Nicola Gobbo, who represented major criminal figures including Williams and Mokbel at the height of the gangland wars that raged in Melbourne for more than a decade from the mid-1990s. She also represented Hodson, a relatively minor crook whose brutal execution – alongside his wife Christine (played here by Jacquie Brennan) – prompted Gobbo to turn on her clients and co-operate with police.
That, at least, is the version of events Informer 3838 presents.
For Ella Scott Lynch, who plays Gobbo, it matters less that it’s the definitive explanation than that it’s a plausible one.
“As an actor you’re always trying to understand why people do things,” she says. But with Gobbo – or the version in the script, at least – “there was this chameleon quality. Depending on what situation she was in, she was quite a different person. In a funny way, that’s the key to understanding the character.”
But playing someone who is constantly shifting poses a challenge for any actor. “The scenes where we really got to explore that, I felt incredibly uncomfortable because I felt like I was playing two entirely different people,” Scott Lynch says.
The situation was made even trickier by the fact that throughout rehearsal, and even into filming, “stuff was chopping and changing daily,” she says. “There were lawyers going over the scripts. At times we were losing characters, or characters were having their names changed. It’s not like the usual fictional script where you’re given this golden thing that can’t change.”
“It was tricky,” concedes Callaghan. “Writing it while [the Royal Commission] was unfolding was really difficult. We took some leaps of faith, but what we’ve done I think is very much what she [Gobbo] has said.”
Perhaps the greatest sticking point in the whole project though was not Gobbo but Paul Dale, the former drug squad detective charged with orchestrating Hodson’s murder. The case against Dale was thrown out when Carl Williams was murdered in prison in 2010, which is more or less where the series ends. He has always maintained his innocence and has even written a book putting his side of events – and at least one member of the Informer 3838 production was convinced.
“Stephen Peacocke, who plays Dale, read his book and sincerely believes he’s innocent,” says Muldoon.
The show makes absolutely no judgement on Dale. Hodson, though, is clearly in the frame as a career criminal, albeit one who is also a family man.
“An actor’s natural instinct is that no matter who you’re playing, you’re sympathetic to them,” says Muldoon, who adds he felt compelled to make sure Hodson was not too sympathetic.
Writing it while the Royal Commission was unfolding was really difficult.
Rory Callaghan, Screentime CEO
“Hodson is not a malicious guy, but he’s not a good guy either. It’s about trying to find that balance. He’s pathetic. Yes, he’s a fun-time party guy, but he’s just a fun-time party guy. He’s a wide boy from England, he’s giving his children drugs. He’s profoundly irresponsible.”
And importantly for the producers, he’s dead, which means he can’t sue, unlike many of the others involved in the story.
But will they?
“It would be a surprise if we don’t start to get a trickle of emails from people we don’t know from Victoria Police very soon,” says Callaghan. “But it’s a good story that should be told, and it will remind everybody of what went down.
“We’re prepared,” he adds, “but we think we’re on solid ground.”
Informer 3838 screens on Nine (the owner of this masthead) on April 20 and April 27 at 8.45pm.
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.