Andrew L. Urban.
At the risk of ‘spoiling’ the hottest yarn on television this year, it can be said that Seven’s new true crime series, Undercurrent (9pm Wednesdays x 6 from January 30, 2019), shows up the most miserable chapter in Tasmania’s crime investigation history, contrasting with a text book case of ‘how to’; it points the finger at the suspects in the decade old cold case of Bob Chappell’s murder. The police and the legal system should rejoice. But they are shitty. (And trigger happy, threatening anyone pursuing this line with legal action. The series is not showing in Tasmania for legal reasons. Even this review is embargoed from the hapless Isle.)
It was a case of the truth, the half truth and nothing is the truth as police fixated on Chappell’s partner of 18 years, Sue Neill-Fraser, the DPP prosecuted the half baked case based on flimsy circumstantial evidence and the jury fell for the ‘theory’ (as the judge called it) put forward by the Crown. But within that single sentence lies material for a 6 x 1 hour documentary that traces the story from its very beginning … but not quite to its end. You see, the story isn’t finished.
On February 5, 2019, the Supreme Court in Hobart will hold yet another hearing in a three-year sequence of hearings in which Sue Neill-Fraser is seeking leave to appeal (again) against her conviction and 23 year sentence. Justice Brett will then decide if her appeal can go ahead.
Produced by Missing Man Productions’ Eve Ash and Sydney based CJZ Productions, Undercurrent, is gripping from the start, showing the cinematic flair Ash demonstrated with her award winning 2013 doco on the same subject, Shadow of Doubt. That film raised doubts about the police investigation. This series leaves no doubt: they charged the wrong suspect.
On the case in Undercurrent is ex-homicide detective Colin McLaren (who will be cross examined via video link on February 5), whose book Southern Justice (Hachette) also on this case came out on January 29 – the eve of the first episode of Undercurrent: The Boat and the Body. We follow this as an active investigation with its surprises, especially for those who know the details of the case; those who don’t may end up thinking the series is a fictional drama, produced to make Tasmania’s legal system – especially the police – look bad. But it isn’t. It’s a fact filled and frightening documentary.
Weaving together the basic elements of the story with the enormous emotional ramifications makes the series compelling. Like a thrilling book you can’t put down, each episode takes us into the darkness of the Neill-Fraser family’s nightmare. And as her daughter Sarah Bowles points out, if it can happen to them, an everyday, middle class family, it could happen to anyone. In that respect, the series is a valuable lesson for anyone caught up in an investigation; everything you say can and probably will be used against you.
This is especially so with anything that can be labelled a lie. Sue Neill-Fraser was charged and convicted through her innocent mistakes labelled as lies, and McLaren dissects these with his experienced professionalism. It’s fascinating to watch him at work.
As he closes in on key witnesses and persons of interest, the expectation and anticipation rises to fever pitch.
Amidst all the ups and downs, the facts and factoids, is the overriding pull of the mystery. From the time Eve Ash sets up a situation room and hires Colin McLaren, the series becomes a real life crime investigation. We see exactly how McLaren works; he’s thorough and relentless. So is Eve Ash as the filmmaker, telling this amazing, disturbing story with pictures, with the tools of cinema. And this is what sets this series apart: the filmmaker inserts herself as a partner in the investigation, a seeker of truth, and not just an observer. Her personal commitment and emotional involvement adds considerably to our connection to the story and the people.
It would not surprise if the series added fuel to the fire of outrage that sets off a Royal Commission. It should.