The recent inclusion of the 1995 Australian true crime mini-series Blue Murder as an offering on Netflix Australia provided an opportunity for many critics, present company included, to once again laud it as our best piece of true crime television made so far. While not walking back on this claim, there is another show that I would argue gives Blue Murder a run for its money in terms of being a gritty, true life depiction of policing, which I watched recently – the thirteen-part 1992 Australian Broadcasting Commission series, Phoenix.
A lot of 1990s Australian popular culture exists in a rather liminal space for me due to the fact that I spent a large chunk of the decade working in Southeast Asia. I don’t think I saw any episodes of Phoenix when it first came out, but I am pretty sure I caught parts of the first series (there were two) on VHS tapes that my partner’s mother sent us in the post when we were living in Hanoi, Vietnam. I am not even sure if Phoenix has as a current DVD release, as the discs I found were second hand and seem to have been released at least a decade ago.
Phoenix focuses on the Major Crimes squad, an elite group of Victorian cops. Series one sees them investigating a car bomb that explodes outside a Christmas in July celebration held by the police, which kills two of their number. This plot is loosely based on the real-life car bombing of the Russell Street police headquarters in 1986. As a side note, I was living in a student house up the road from the headquarters and can still remember hearing the explosion and watching the smoke from it from the window of my bedroom.
Anyway, the series has several fascinating aspects, occurring as it did at what was a crucial juncture in both the evolution of the Victorian police and Melbourne as a city.
Major Crimes is typical of what I imagine the Victorian police were in the day. A group of hard drinking, smoking, tough, exclusively male police, headed up by veteran cop, Jock Brennan (Paul Sonkkila). Brennan’s dedication to the job is total, a trait that has very obviously led to the disintegration of his marriage, and the only personal life of his we are allowed to see is the occasional one sided telephone conversation with his teenage kids, who live with his ex-wife.
Brennan and his squad have an almost siege mentality to those around them: the public, their superiors, and other elements of the police force, particularly internal investigations, who they refer to as ‘the toe cutters’, but also the individuals who work in what was then the still relatively new area of forensic science. The attitude of Jock and his men to forensics slowly changes as the story progresses, to the point where they realise that forensic proof is what is ultimately going to crack the case.
The other major cultural shift occurs when a female police analyst, Megan Edwards (Susie Edmonds), joins Major Crimes to help them make sense of the on the surface disparate intelligence they are gathering. She must deal with everything from disparaging sexist remarks, pornographic pictures left on the wall of her new office, to suspicions that she is not a real cop because her job mainly involves sitting at a compute. But, like the forensic team, her ability to take a more analytical and scientific approach to information very quickly becomes key to progressing the case.
It is a depiction of old school policing but also a dissection of it, at times almost anthropologically so. One episode sees Lochie (Andy Anderson), the most macho member of Major Crimes, bungle a raid and nearly get shot. He pisses his pants in fear, and the rest of the episode shows in incredible detail the derision he suffers from his fellow officers and his own shame, which threatens to completely unravel his masculinity and ability to function on the job. Another episode deals with the investigation of a series of rapes which may be linked to the bombers. This includes an unsparing depiction of Megan’s attempts coax a rape victim, who is understandably terrified after her ordeal, to tell the police what she knows.
The series has two other fascinating dimensions.
First, the story telling style is incredibly non-linear and, associated with this, is not afraid to take its time. The Major Crimes squad are led down all sorts of investigative avenues, the significance of which is often not explained or, at times, even really sign posted. Armed robberies, a series of brutal rapes, drug trafficking. One episode is completely given over to setting up a raid on a suburban panel beating business that may have a link to the car in which the bomb was planted.
Second, Phoenix is a rare evocation of Melbourne, my hometown, as a noir city. The only parallel I know is the Crawford crime drama Division 4, which screened from 1969 to 1974. Filmed in the dead of winter, Phoenix has a bleak, washed out feel. The city was in the grip of a series economic recession in the early 1990s, one of the reasons I left to work overseas, and you can feel how utterly depressed the place was on the screen. Phoenix also depicts Melbourne prior to the widespread gentrification that started to happen from the mid 1990s onwards, a world wood panelled pubs and dingy boarding houses, populated by the criminal class that existed before drugs and protecting those who sold them became the city’s dominant illegal activity
The second series of Phoenix followed in 1993 and concerned a Major Crimes investigation of a series of violent burglaries of senior citizens. It was also spun off in 1994 into a two-part series called Janus, which depicted the police’s efforts to break up the activities of a vicious criminal family, based on Melbourne’s real life Pettingill clan. The same family was the inspiration for the 2010 Australian film, Animal Kingdom (which I reviewed on my site here), subsequently spun off into the American series of the same name.