This blog had an unprecedented amount of traffic yesterday — sadly very little of it related to me or my novel The Half-Child, which has been shortlisted for Best Fiction in this year’s Ned Kelly Awards (just thought I’d mention it) — but because people were searching for photos of Tilly Devine, Nellie Cameron and Kate Leigh, the real-life figures fictionalised in last night’s television premier of Underbelly: Razor. ‘Nellie Cameron’ was the dominant search term — I suspect because the actress who plays her, Anna McGahan, is drop-dead gorgeous.
I had photos of these notorious women on this site as a result of cross-posting a review by my partner Andrew Nette of Femme Fatale, an exhibition we both attended earlier this year. The exhibition contrasted the glamorous femme fatale of film noir and pulp fiction with archival material about female criminals from the NSW Justice and Police Museum. And in a shameless show of opportunism, I am posting some more.
Unsurprisingly, the real Nellie Cameron and Tilly Devine looked decidedly different from the gorgeous young actresses cast to play their roles. Jo Hilder notes in her blog post How to Make a TV Series About Two Real Middle-Aged Women Without Any Real Middle-Aged Women that in 1930 Kate Leigh would have been 49 and Tilly Devine 30 years old. Neither their clothes nor their teeth looked that good in real life.
In his book Razor on which the current series of Underbelly is (loosely) based, Larry Writer describes Nellie Cameron as “pretty in a wide-eyed, open-faced, toothy way…Sometimes a redhead, sometimes a blonde, she was noisy, laughed a lot, could fight like a dervish, was a cheap drunk and bathed infrequently.” As a prostitute Cameron “accommodated as many as ten customers a day, seven days a week”. But she bathed infrequently? — It doesn’t bear thinking about.
At the risk of being called un-Australian, I confess I’m not normally one for watching commercial television. But I had a go at Underbelly: Razor because 1) I was intrigued about these women after learning about them at the Femme Fatale exhibition; 2) I’m currently reading Razor, kindly sent to me by Larry Writer; 3) I felt too crappy to work on my own novel, which is what I’d normally be doing on a Sunday night.
The show is soap-opera with cut-throat razors. More entertaining was the commentary on Twitter. There were those jumping on the anachronisms (‘The Nips Are Getting Bigger’ in 1920s Sydney?), bemoaning the accents, coveting the fashions and admiring the eye-candy (take a bow Richard Brancatisano). Oh, and a boisterous group draining their glasses every time there were tits on the screen.
I’m sure the glamorous cast, if not the tits, will keep people watching. But I think I’ll go back to reading Razor instead. I like my crime stories as unsanitised as the real Nellie Cameron.