Screw the fish - I caught a gold nugget this... big...

“It’s like the Curiosity Show, only better.” The Mickelberg brothers were larrakins, in it for a laugh and not much more. Their creation of the “Yellow Rose of Texas” – fabricated as one of the largest gold nuggets found in Australia – and subsequent publicity and sale was all for a bit of fun. They never expected a buyer, let alone to make $100,000 profit from the sale in 1982. That prank, that joke… set in motion something they could never be prepared for. Something that would change their lives forever.

Based on a true story, The Great Mint Swindle is an amazing dramatisation of the events surrounding the Mickelberg brothers as they are accused and jailed for ripping off the West Australian Mint. The nugget prank was meant to be just that, though it seems it set them up to be framed for the swindle and at the mercy of the WA Police’s Gold Squad – out for justice (or covering their own tracks?).

The Mickelbergs – Ray (Grant Bowler), Brian (Josh Quong Tart) & Peter (Todd Lasance) – are thrown in jail on the flimsiest of evidence, seemingly manufactured by Detective Donald Hancock (Shane Bourne) – “The Silver Fox”. Some say he was a fearless champion of justice, others a sinister rogue cop. His loyal number two was Detective Tony “Lewi” Lewandowski (John Batchelor), an easily lead thug who, in the end, is left holding the scales of justice.

The performances by all 5 male leads are strong and nuanced. As the story develops Lasance’s Peter acts as narrator of what is essentially his coming of age inside prison, and offers a fine performance on-screen, along with Quong Tart & Bowler who both show an intensity and courage to bring their characters to life. Bourne puts in a star turn as Hancock, a copper so bent he couldn’t lie straight in bed. Batchelor again brings subtlety and life to Lewandowski beyond what the character likely deserved.

This is how you organise your appeal in jail.

The story of Western Australia’s most high-profile unsolved crime – where did the gold go? – is full of challenging imagery and powerful performances. As the years develop so do the soundtrack and fashions, though it offers some joy in both counts as the show starts in the early 1980’s. Nice lapels. Production house Cordell Jigsaw (now merged with Zapruder’s Other Films) present a mysterious tale of greed, rat cunning and the temptation of gold. It’s about the selling of souls, police corruption, the desperate need for redemption and the pursuit of justice.

As the show ends, the real Ray & Peter Mickelberg offer their candid thoughts on their story. You’d expect two men full of hate and pain at their treatment by the justice system. What you see instead is two brothers, eternally bonded, focused on righting the wrongs that so clearly affected their lives. During these grabs, Peter Mickelberg offers an insight into the strength of his character: “Never give in. No matter what.”

The Great Mint Swindle is another spectacular example of the kind of quality Australian drama that can be delivered when given to people with a great story and a decent budget with which to tell it. More of this, please.

The Great Mint Swindle – Sun 8:30pm, Ch9.