Underbelly to tell story of Mr Asia drug heyday in NZ

By Bevan Hurley

Holly Shanahan will play police officer Carol Derwent. Photo / Supplied
Holly Shanahan will play police officer Carol Derwent. Photo / Supplied

The first New Zealand-made Underbelly television series begins filming today under the concrete and stone shadows of some of the grittier, older corners of Auckland's CBD.

Underbelly: Land of the Long Green Cloud is about the rise and fall of the infamous Mr Asia drug syndicate.

It was run by Marty Johnstone, who imported millions of dollars of heroin and marijuana into New Zealand in the late 1970s.

Producers Screentime NZ describe the subject matter as a "coming of age" drama for the drug smugglers and the police, who used electronic bugging for the first time to combat the criminals.

The production coincides with the filming of the fourth instalment of the top-rating Underbelly Australia - a series set in the brothels of 1920s Sydney and featuring Kiwi actresses Danielle Cormack and Chelsie Preston Crayford.

Philly de Lacey, executive producer of the New Zealand series, said it would hold true to the fast-paced style of the previous Underbelly series.

"It's about crims who found themselves with an extraordinary opportunity - and they were extraordinary entrepreneurs. But it's also a real coming of age of the cops. It's about how ballsy they were.

"Ultimately we see the price that gets paid for living that life."

De Lacey got to know several high-ranking former members of the drug gang and key police officers while researching the story. She felt a big responsibility to get the story right, she said.

"There is a huge amount of information out there about Mr Asia, with documentaries, press reports and two Royal Commissions. We are telling a six-year story in six hours.

"People know about the Terry Clark story, but Marty Johnstone was Mr Asia. He took the world by storm. He started out with an idea and did some crazy, crazy things."

Johnstone was labelled Mr Asia by an Auckland Star investigative team after he sailed the 18m yacht The Brigadoon, packed with 450,000 cannabis buddha sticks, from Thailand in 1975. The sticks, which were bought for 10c each in Asia, earned Johnstone and Clark about $3m.

Playing the charismatic Johnstone will be little-known Kiwi actor Dan Musgrove. His sidekick Andy Marr will be played by Thijs Morris, best known for playing Sean Mitchell in Shortland Street.

Police detectives Ben Charlton and Carol Derwent are played by Jamie Irvine and Holly Shanahan, who previously featured as homeless teen Jools in Outrageous Fortune.

Land of the Long Green Cloud is a six-part series written by Kiwi John Banas. It has received almost $4 million of taxpayer money and will show on TV3 this year.

It is a prequel to the Underbelly that told the story of Clark, who had Johnstone murdered. That series featured Auckland's Anna Hutchison.

- Herald on Sunday

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