7 year saga: SBS abandons Carlton documentary

EXCLUSIVE: SBS has finally dumped plans to screen Once Upon a Time in Carlton, a documentary series it commissioned in 2012 and completed in 2013.

The 3 part series from Northern Pictures looked at the Italian migrant history of the inner Melbourne suburb, with local identity Mick Gatto as a key figure, and was commissioned after the success of Nine’s Underbelly.

It was also funded $670,000 by Screen Australia in 2012 and due as the third in a Once Upon a Time documentary strand. Earlier seasons looked at the Vietnamese community of Cabramatta and the Lebanese community of Punchbowl.

In late 2013 Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl was swept up in a blaze of headlines before broadcast after one of its participants has exaggerated his story to producers about incarceration a at Long Bay, Silverwater and Goulburn jails. Eventually all footage of the man was cut and it screened in 2014. But such controversy was rare for SBS, years before it encountered Struggle Street headlines.

SBS then delayed the Carlton series across successive years, initially claiming it did not have a timeslot for the show and repeatedly promising it would air “soon.”

Last week an SBS spokesperson told TV Tonight, “SBS commissioned Once Upon a Time in Carlton in 2013 as part of the since-concluded Once Upon a Time documentary strand.

“SBS is focused on making documentaries which explore unique Australian stories and investing its limited commissioning budgets in new content in line with its current strategy and approach.

“Ultimately, the program required significant additional investment to be suitable and current for broadcast, and as a result SBS came to the decision to not continue with it.”

The ramifications of a project receiving investment through Screen Australia and not being screened by a broadcaster are believed to be without precedent.

Controversially, Screen Australia is now expected to write off its $670,000 investment in the show.

A Screen Australia spokesperson last week said, “Screen Australia provided production funding for the documentary Once Upon a Time in Carlton in 2012/13.

“This week Screen Australia was advised by the licence holder (SBS) that the documentary would not be broadcast.

“It is exceedingly rare for a production to receive Screen Australia production funding and not be released. Although this outcome is disappointing for all involved, Screen Australia is satisfied the producer and licence holder explored all possible avenues to avoid this situation.”

With SBS as licence-holders of the series, it also cannot be released by Northern Pictures via DVD or online.

In a statement Northern Pictures’ Managing Director, Peter Anderson, said, “While Northern Pictures is of course disappointed that Carlton will not be broadcast, we understand the reasons for SBS’s decision.”

TV Tonight understands at the heart of the decision not to broadcast were concerns over storylines and key cast. In order to overcome those concerns the production would have had to undergo major reshooting.

7 years on those costs have outweighed any desire to screen…

This is the initial synopsis provided to media in 2012:

The third instalment in the Once Upon a Time series, three-part series Once Upon a Time in Carlton explores the Italian migrant history in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton. It begins in the 1940s when Carlton was a Jewish suburb rapidly being transformed by post WWII Italian migration and follows its story from WWII internment, to proxy brides, the Spaghetti Wars of the 1950s, the Market Murders of the 1960s and the more recent Carlton Crew, made famous in Underbelly. The series charts the struggles of migrant families who transform a working class suburb into a fashionable inner city eatery. Once Upon a Time is produced by Northern Pictures for SBS.


  1. Disappointing. A documentary focussed on the migration of Italians (and Greeks, for that matter) into Melbourne is worthy viewing and certainly something that fits perfectly into the remit of SBS.

  2. What a shame an interesting story, a colourful street. A focus on Southern European migration rarely gets a look in. Yet elsewhere there are plenty of series where Asian, Middle Eastern and to a lesser extent African migration is represented.

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