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Sons of infamy

May 10, 2012

Oz bikie culture's darkest day hits the screen, writes Andrew Murfett.

THE annals of Australian true crime heave with tales of personal anguish, friendships needlessly gone awry and, in many cases, a life coming to a violent and untimely end.

Yet even in the firmament of local true-crime stories, few remain as evocative as the violent confrontation between two motorcycle clubs in the Sydney suburb of Milperra on Father's Day, 1984.

The Comancheros, the notorious outlaw motorcycle gang, had split into two factions. One kept its name; the other became the Bandidos. The two developed a ferocious rivalry, and the stubborn pride of the combatants ensured the only resolution was a bloody battle. Six members and one unfortunate bystander paid the ultimate price.

Bikie Wars: Brothers in arms.

Anthony Hayes (left) as Caesar Campbell, Matthew Nable (centre) as Jock Ross and Callan Mulvey as "Snoddy" Spencer.

For Australian true-crime aficionados, a drama series based on the ''Milperra Massacre'' is an enticing proposition, and the rights to Bikie Wars, the best-selling book detailing the hostility between the clubs and the collateral damage this rivalry fomented, had been optioned several times. However, it never moved out of pre-production.

So when Underbelly producer Screentime informed veteran writer-producer Roger Simpson it had secured the rights late last year, his interest was piqued.

''We've been waiting for this story to be told,'' he says.

Callan Mulvey in Bikie Wars: Brothers in arms.

The ''role of a lifetime'': Callan Mulvey plays Bandidos leader Anthony ''Snoddy'' Spencer.

His brief in development was simple: make the story consumable as a six-part series. The book's second half, focusing on the aftermath and legal trials, was scrapped. Bikie Wars would not be a courtroom drama.

''We also wanted a point of difference to Underbelly,'' Simpson says.

To him, the series was, in essence, a traditional western about outlaws and the inevitable tragedy inherent in those stories. The parallels were obvious - the men were on motorcycles instead of horses, but bikies were the outlaws of Australian society.

Although US TV series Sons of Anarchy depicts bikie culture today as revolving more around criminal operations such as gun-running, prostitution and drugs, the Australian clubs in the 1970s were a different proposition.

They were comprised mostly of former military personnel (many Vietnam veterans) struggling to ease back into civilian life. The men were attracted to the organised structures and skewed values the motorcycle clubs offered.

Yes, the love of the freedom of the road and the chance to operate outside society was enticing, but the hierarchy, brotherhood and camaraderie - similar to what they experienced in the military - were sacred to them and they were prepared to defend it.

For actor Callan Mulvey, who plays Bandidos leader Anthony ''Snoddy'' Spencer, it's a simple equation.

His character begins the series as a drifter. We learn that as a child he saw his mother commit suicide, and he ended up in a boys' home where he was treated poorly and nearly drowned. He survived but was left with a crippling fear of water, a phobia he confronted by joining the navy.

''They were tough guys,'' Mulvey says. ''If what they believed in was tested, they acted viciously. But I envy the camaraderie and sense of belonging in knowing someone will take a bullet for you and do anything, any time.''

The first two episodes chronicle Snoddy's rise in the ranks of his club and the bitter split from his mentor, Comancheros supreme commander Jock Ross.

As a leader, Snoddy's egalitarian style contrasts with Jock's totalitarianism. But after the Milperra Massacre, Snoddy unravels, unable to cope with the guilt of leading his brothers into an avoidable confrontation.

''It was alpha males butting heads and nobody backing down,'' Mulvey says.

''Some small events escalated because they wouldn't swallow their pride. The massacre didn't need to happen but I can see why it did.''

Speaking to Green Guide between takes on the final week of shooting, the 37-year-old was effusive in describing Snoddy as his ''role of a lifetime''. And there is little doubt the book's authors were on Team Snoddy.

Between takes, the actors disperse into small groups and pull out smartphones to check messages, wearing wigs, facial hair and tattoos. It's an unintentionally amusing sight to the outsider.

Richard Sutherland, who has appeared as a bikie in three recent roles - Killing Time, then The Straits and now Brothers - is the most credible up close. Sporting a convincing red wig and a 1970s-style headband, it's not surprising to learn he based his outfit on late-1970s Joe Cocker.

During a night shooting in Frenchs Forest, Sutherland mixed with Bandidos members who were extras on the show.

''It was interesting to get their perspective,'' he says, warily. ''The real parties and the relationships between girls were much more extreme. You're not going to put gang-bangs on commercial television, for example.''

The cast had little previous experience with the bikie ride of choice, Harley-Davidsons. Before they sat on the beasts, they attended a two-day riding course.

The three days in which the production blocked off three uninterrupted kilometres of roads for shooting was clearly a highlight for the cast.

Still, not all cast members were so enamoured. Anthony Hayes, so memorable last year as Gary in The Slap, plays enigmatic tough guy Caesar Campbell in Brothers.

''I have played a few suburban hard men in my career,'' Hayes says, ''but the bikes were daunting. It was hard to set up for a camera riding with others who don't know what they're doing. I ended up smashing it into a gutter my first go.''

Hayes is one of several actors not wholly captivated by the bikie culture. ''It's hard to talk about what I really think about things because those guys are still out there,'' he says, carefully. ''I don't want to get into trouble with any of them.

I think these clubs started for the right reasons but what they've become now is removed from the origins. The drugs came later. And the end of this story was almost the birth of what they have become.''

Casting, producer Simpson says, was critical. Several actors do not ride the bikes, opting for casting doubles. The prerequisite was that all actors at least appeared comfortable on the bikes. ''It had to look real,'' he says. ''We didn't want it to look like a bunch of actors. They had to become bikies.''

Damian Walshe-Howling, who plays Hayes' adopted brother in the series, says the group's camaraderie was strong on set. ''There's been a few people hurt a little,'' he says. ''But we've had a few nights out together, and a few barbecues. We've all come to respect each other as performers because we've been through some serious scenarios together.''

That's not to say there were not challenges. The main sets were housed at a warehouse in west Sydney that was also home to Underbelly: Razor and Crownies. The latter was occasionally filming concurrently with Brothers late last year. Sydney's record summer rainfall also played havoc with the shooting schedule.

''The weather has been an enemy to us,'' Simpson says. ''Bikes travelling at speed on wet, slippery roads with actors not wearing helmets is inherently dangerous. The bikies never wore helmets, it was a badge of honour. So we've had to be conscious of safety.''

According to Mulvey, there have been further trials.

''It's difficult in that there is never enough time or money,'' he says. ''We've had a lot of things in the production that have been hard to achieve because of that.

''But what we've got in the can is incredible for the resources we have. This will tell the story in a truthful, respectful and entertaining way.''

Bikie Wars: Brothers in Arms airs on Tuesdayat 8.30pm on Channel Ten.


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