The Great Mint Swindle

Perth in the 1980s was the wild west, rich in gold, ripe for a bunch of likely lads and perfect for a true crime yarn.

Nine sure loves its crimes.

Whether its Underbelly, Blood Brothers, Cops LAC, true crime docos, CSI franchise, Without a Trace, The Mentalist, Harry’s Law -more than any other network it’s a trued and true staple.

The latest is the Cordell Jigsaw telemovie The Great Mint Swindle, based on actual events in 1982 when over $650,000 in gold bars was stolen from the Perth Mint (today the equivalent theft would be over $2m).

Three brothers, Ray, Peter and Brian Mickelberg, were convicted and sent to prison but after serving time were all exonerated of the crime in one of the state’s biggest miscarriages of justice.

The case about who managed to rob the Mint of so much bullion has never been solved but it took two decades and a Royal Commission to clear their name.

Detective Sergeant Don Hancock who led the case, later found to have forged evidence, was killed in a car bomb in 2001 (the scene opens the telemovie).

It isn’t hard to see that the ingredients make for a perfect yarn, ripe for a true crime telemovie.

The three brothers left themselves open to suspicion by earlier breaking the law with a prank, by faking a gold nugget they claim to have discovered known as ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ and selling it to Alan Bond for $350,000. At the time WA was “a big state run by big men with big bellies.”

The Mickelbergs nearly got away with the fraud, but little did they realise it made them prime suspects for a much bigger crime that was going down.

The Great Mint Swindle opens like a stock-standard Underbelly tale. There’s the narration by Peter Mickelberg (Todd Lasance), the cavalier approach to crime by a bunch of bad boys, 1980s chargers, moustaches and gaudy shirts, montages, and a raw Aussie soundtrack. This could be Underbelly: The Wild West.

But after the conviction and protests of innocence, this shifts to becoming a prison drama and a fight for justice.

Brian Mickelberg (Josh Quong Tart) doesn’t cope with the brutality of Fremantle Prison. Older brother Ray (Grant Bowler) looks after him, while Peter (Lasance) displays inner strength.

They are contrasted by the WA cops with Hancock (Shane Bourne) and Tony Lewandowski (John Batchelor) waging a personal war against them. Hancock also has his eye on a promotion to the State CIB.

The case began to come undone after many years when gold began being left with the Perth media (it was given to a TVW7 reporter -conveniently, the network isn’t identified here).

There’s even an archival 60 Minutes interview between Richard Carleton and Hancock, cleverly edited with Bourne answering Carleton.

Several WA actresses, including Caroline McKenzie, Maya Stange and Abby Earl play roles in the Mickelberg family.

One of the more interesting aspects of the telemovie is the way the viewer is hoodwinked into presuming the guilt of the three brothers. With the robbery narrated by Lasance’s character -but never with the brothers in the scene- it’s easy to presume they are complicit. A broad audience unfamiliar with the facts of the case, wouldn’t know the three were eventually cleared of the crime. It should serve as a nice revelation.

Performances are all very solid, especially Bowler, Lasance and Batchelor. With the corruption underplayed it’s impossible to discern between Shane Bourne’s Detective Stanley Wolfe in City Homicide and his performance as Hancock. Josh Quong Tart’s bad wig is deserving of a Logie nomination in itself.

The script by Reg Cribb and Paul Bennett moves along, ably handled by director Geoff Bennett.

Most compelling is a closing credit sequence with two of the surviving Mickelberg’s giving their views on the saga. They don’t hold back.

Even if you think they are still guilty of the crime, it’s hard to deny that The Great Mint Swindle is a pretty good yarn.

The Great Mint Swindle airs 8:30pm Sunday on Nine.

8 Responses

  1. They should have called it Underbelly: The Great Mint Swindle. It has the same ethos and style of the Underbelly series, right down to the annoying voiceover. It’s like Nine doesn’t know how to do anything else.

  2. Hope they repeat this as it’s up against some seasoned favourites (Bones/Castle & Homeland) and a returning must watch (Waking the Dead)
    We’re away so only two stations will be recorded – probably the seasoned favs.

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