40th anniversary for Number 96

It was 40 years ago today that “Australian television lost its virginity” when Number 96 hit the screen.

The outrageous soap catapulted the 0-TEN Network’s revenue exploded from just A$1 million in 1971 to more than A$10 million in 1972.

As Michael Idato writes in the Sydney Morning Herald, it introduced viewers to “buxom but virginal Bev Houghton (Abigail), dashing gay lawyer Don Finlayson (Joe Hasham), his bisexual lover Bruce (Paul Weingott) and Bruce’s bitchy girlfriend Maggie Cameron (Bettina Welch).”

The Finlayson character is often noted as the first sympathetic gay TV character anywhere in the world -until then most had been portrayed as tragic characters.

Other characters included Dorrie Evans (Pat McDonald), fashion designer Vera Collins (Elaine Lee), the Sutcliffes (James Elliott and Elisabeth Kirkby), grocer Aldo Godolfus (Johnny Lockwood), businessman Jack Sellars (Tom Oliver), Chard Hayward (Dudley), Sheila Kennelly (Norma), Gordon McDougall (Les), Bunney Brooke (Flo), Carol Raye (Amanda) and Jeff Kevin (Arnold).

But the show became a hit for its racy themes, nudity and soap plots.

It also made Abigail a household name.

Set at 96 Lindsay Street, Paddington, Number 96 ( the exterior was an apartment building in Moncur Street, Woollahr) was created by David Sale. The series began in black and white, but transformed into colour.

Sale told SX, “”This is the prime-time soap that rewrote the rule book on what could or could not be shown on television screens. Its depiction of then-taboo subjects such as homosexuality, rape, incest, frigidity and drugs, plus liberal helpings of nudity, had it labeled ‘the Sex and Sin Show’ at a time when the Yanks were still churning out The Brady Bunch. A healthy dose of comedy was also included in its stories about the people living in a block of flats in Sydney’s Paddington. In fact, sixty percent of it was comedy, based on a range of lovable characters. This kept the more turgid drama afloat, and contributed to the show’s success.

“In Number 96, we had the deli run by a Hungarian Jew, Aldo (Johnny Lockwood). An African American, Chad Farrell (Ronne Arnold), jauntily dealt with racist behaviour. Noted Indigenous actress Justine Saunders (pictured) got her first job with us – not as an Indigenous, but playing a hairdresser who just happened to be Indigenous. And we had an Indian, Mr Bannerjee, in the Pharmacy. Amongst many others. Oh, and of course, we had a leading gay character, Don (Joe Hasham) who – for the first time in international TV history – was written and played with dignity.”

A nation held its breath as “the bomb” exploded in the block, killing off key characters years before Melrose Place was even conceived.

No show has come close to matching 96 for its overt content and broad success. The Box may rank second and Chances third, but they are trail a long way behind (especially the latter, which only had fun after being deemed a flop). ABC TV’s Alvin Purple in 1976 was a sexy small-screen version of its feature films, but 96 remains the trail-blazer.

A feature film was also released in 1974 and a tame, unsuccessful US version was made for NBC in 1980 at 96 Pacific Way, an apartment building in Los Angeles.

Meet David Sale and cast members Elaine Lee (Vera), Vivienne Garrett (Rose Godolfus) and others on the 40th anniversary of its first broadcast, tonight in Sydney.

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