Policing Melbourne’s TV mean streets: Homicide at 50

HomicideIt’s been a day for nostalgia. Foremost I’ve been thinking about the passing of Australia’s great reforming Labor Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, who died this morning at the age of 98.

But I’ve also been giving a lot of consideration lately to another Australian icon, probably the most influential Australian television show ever made, the crime drama, Homicide.

At 7.30pm on Tuesday 20 1964, Channel 7 showed the first episode of Homicide and what Australians would see on their TV screens would never be the same. Homicide’s influence was truly revolutionary. It was introduced at a time when an estimated 97 per cent of drama content came from the US and Great Britain. It was the first locally produced show to hit number one. It spawned several similar programs, including Matlock Police and Division 4 and established many of the key conventions of Australian true crime television: the team of dedicated police solving a crime per episode and a commitment to realism.

Homicide ran until 1975. The individual Homicide episodes have aged remarkably well in my opinion as self contained hour-long pieces of hard hitting TV crime drama. They are also a fascinating glimpse into the class, gender and social relations of Melbourne society in the sixties and seventies. If you want proof, check out this clip for episode 475, which aired in 1975, towards the end of Homicide’s run. It deals with the murder of a gay man and still feels confronting, even today.

Homicide is a fascinatingly contradictory cultural product. It both forms part of the yearnings for a new Australian cultural identity that began to stir in the early sixties, and is a reaction against aspects of it. The show is rife with uncertainly about changing gender relations and the growing assertiveness of youth culture, which the mainstream media in Australia and across much of the Western world associated with rising crime and rampant juvenile delinquency.

In this respect, a less commented on but no less potent part of Homicide’s popularity derived the way it allowed viewers to get an up close and personal glimpse of shocking and lurid crimes and the people who committed them, without leaving the comfort of their lounge rooms.

I’m going to be talking and writing a bit about Homicide, as well as Matlock Police and Division 4, as part of a fellowship that myself my friend Dean Brandum (the man behind the wonderful Technicolour Yawn website), will be doing next year at the Australian Film Institute Research Collection (AFIRC) based at RMIT University.

The two of us will be looking at how the Victorian police and Crawford Productions shaped popular perceptions of police work and crime through their co-operation on Homicide, Division 4 and Matlock Police.

Related to this work, I’ve been engaged in several Homicide-related activities over the last few days. Last night I took part in a terrific panel discussion organised by AFIRC, which was attended by many of the cast and crew who worked on the original show (I also got to meet Terry Donovan, the star of one of my favourite Australian crime movies, Money Movers).

A piece I wrote on show’s ongoing legacy appeared today on Crikey’s Daily Review site. You can read it in full here. I also did a short interview on the show and its significance for ABC Radio National’s Hindsight program, the audio of which is available to listen to here.

I’m really looking forward to working with Dean and the ARIRC staff on this research. And as for actually being paid to watch old episodes of Crawford’s TV crime shows, that is something I can handle with both hands.

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2 Responses

  1. Interesting comment “it allowed viewers to get an up close and personal glimpse of shocking and lurid crimes and the people who committed them, without leaving the comfort of their lounge rooms.”

    I guess the same applies even today to shows like Underbelly which were very popular particularly their earlier series, no doubt for the same reason.

    btw if you guys need a research assistant, I’m available…

  2. Ha! I’ll keep it in mind.
    Yes, the same does apply to today’s ‘true crime’ shows. Homicide provided the template.
    Cheers,
    Andrew

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