The ABC brings 80s pulp crime classic to the small screen with larrikin energy but mixed results.
Alexander Bertrand grabs the wheel as Les Norton. Image courtesy of Roadshow Rough Diamond.
Television loves a good criminal, and Les Norton is about as good as it gets. For decades, pulp novelist Robert G. Barrett chronicled the Kings Cross bouncer’s adventures on the wrong side of the law – based in part on stories he heard during his time working as a DJ in the Cross – with his books selling over a million copies across twenty novels before his death in 2012.
They’re unashamedly un-PC tales packed with larrikin behaviour and Aussie vernacular, the kind of rough-as-guts novels public libraries would refuse to stock; the ABC’s 10-part adaptation (from the producers behind the recent Romper Stomper sequel) often feels more like a light-hearted take on Underbelly.
Last Sunday’s episode set the scene: on the run out of Queensland after a nasty fight, and looking to start a rugby career, Les (newcomer Alexander Bertrand) found himself a temporary job on the door of the back alley Kelly Club after helping boxer Billy Dunne (Page Lochard) clear out a bunch of bikies.
After learning that the tiny Kelly Club is merely a front for Sydney’s liveliest illegal casino, run by kingpin Price Galese (David Wenham), Les quickly teamed up with Galese’s small-statured enforcer Eddie (Justin Rosniak) to help liberate some underage Thai sex slaves from a brothel run by Doreen Bogner (Rebel Wilson). Though Galese insisted he was acting out of the goodness of his heart; when Doreen goes missing not long afterwards, that goodness seems to have found its limit.
With Rebel Wilson’s name plastered all over the credits and her character's disappearance leaving no body behind, you don’t have to be a psychic to predict the twist that's coming. This posed a problem for this Sunday’s episode, as the plot revolves around Galese and crew trying to identify the mysterious woman who has hired an out-of-town hitman to rub him out.
The fact that the audience knows more than the characters isn't a fatal flaw; it's a structural challenge that a smarter series could have dealt with. After all, these criminals aren’t exactly a brains trust, and part of the show’s appeal is seeing how they’ll get out of situations that are often made worse by their own bungling. but Les Norton isn’t polished enough to pull it off – nor to get away with many missteps.
The 80s-era Cross is reasonably well reconstructed and energetically shot (the series’ directors include Jocelyn Moorhouse and David Caesar), but this series focusses more on the crimes and the characters than recreating in the past. It’s the right approach: with a number of Barrett’s original characters cast as female to improve the gender balance, and a distinct lack of 80s-era prejudices and attitudes, this is a sanitised look back at the mean streets of Sydney, tailored for a contemporary audience.
Whether this rose-coloured view of the recent past is enough to hold an audience (who are not exactly short of grittier crime options) remains to be seen. Norton himself is a colourful character, and Bertrand is a definite stand-out in the role, but two episodes in and everyone around them– with the possible exception of probationary Constable Emily Gold (Syd Zygier), who has her eye on Les in more ways than one – struggled to make an impression.
Crime capers are tough to pull off; there are plenty of entries in the genre that never made a mark (does anyone remember that there was a television version of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels? Didn’t think so). They need sharp dialogue, memorable characters, a distinctive setting, tight plotting and a wry sense of humour, all held together with a light touch. So far Les Norton has shown signs of getting there, but all the pieces aren’t in place yet – and no amount of Angus Sampson’s all-Aussie honey-throated narration could fill the gaps.
3.5 stars ★★★☆
Producers Daniel Edwards and John Edwards
AUS, 2019, 10 episodes
Distributor: Roadshow Rough Diamond
Premiered: 4 August, 8.30pm on ABC and iView