Number 96 50th anniversary
Creator David Sale reflects on 10's landmark soap that shocked Australia, broke taboos, became a TV sensation -and even saved lives.
Sunday March 13 marks 50 years since Number 96 was first broadcast on Australian television.
The soap set in a fictional apartment block ran for 5 years on Network 10, breaking taboos, causing outrage, massive TV ratings and creating world firsts in the process.
No other show on television dared to tackle the subjects of its racy scripts in 1972: the world’s first sympathetic gay character, an interracial romance, transgender, rape, illegal abortion, satanic black mass, nudity, a knickers snipper, pantyhose murderer, -and viewers couldn’t get enough of it.
The show launched daringly as “Tonight at 8:30 television loses its virginity” (some newspapers would only print ads with the word “innocence”). Brazenly screening five nights a week, it rocketed to number #1 and turned 10’s fortunes around.
Creator David Sale, who had previously executive produced The Mavis Bramston Show, recalls producers Don Cash & Bill Harmon taking him to lunch to ask him to write a treatment for 10. Sale, who was about to jet off to London for his book publication, was barely interested.
“Oh like a perpendicular Coronation Street?”
“They told me that they’d been asked by Channel 10 to do a nightly series and the only thing that they could offer was it was set in a block of flats.
“I said, ‘Oh like a perpendicular Coronation Street?’ They took me out to Moncur Street Woollahra and showed me this rather unprepossessing, smallish block of flats which turned out to become the most famous address in Australia,” he reflects.
“I said, ‘We’re gonna need a lot of diverse characters …two shops on the ground floor. One of those could be a delicatessen.’ And they said, ‘Oh, you’ve already started, have you?’ I thought, ‘Oh, God’ and went back and started to do a treatment.”
Sale got to work that night fleshing out the concept, stressing that as his interest lay in a pending London visit, he had nothing to lose.
“I said ‘Sydney is full of homosexuals. Do you mind if I put two homosexuals in one flat?’ And Bill said ‘No. Give me homosexuality without any deviations.’ I don’t know what he meant, but I took that as a ‘yes.’
“So I just put everybody in it. I settled down with some Scotch in the corner of a living room and started to scribble down a street in Paddington.
“I just put in people that I knew”
“I just put in people that I knew. I mean, ‘Alf & Lucy Sutcliffe’ were my parents. I didn’t even change my mother’s name. In my apartment, where I lived in Neutral Bay there was this sticky beak of a man who was into everybody’s business. And I thought, ‘every building has a sticky beak. but let’s make it a woman instead.’ So that was Dorrie,” he continues.
“I knew a young executive, who was very, shall we say, discreet about what he was. I turned him into Don, who became the law student. I was actually taking people from real life, because there wasn’t time to think up extraordinary, fictitious characters.”
“I can’t think of a clever title. I’ll just put a number on it.”
The title was deliberately broad, although many have come to presume it was a pun on the number 69.
“I thought, ‘What am I going to call it? I can’t think of a clever title. I’ll just put a number on it.’ Number 9, Number 19…. Number 96 had a rhythm to it and I could change it to a clever title if they want it. It was that much of a throwaway.”
10 loved the treatment and Sale was asked to write the pilot script which he created on his return trip from London… in Switzerland, Bangkok and a hotel typewriter in Singapore. Sale wrote the first 13 episodes solo, but recalls Bill Harmon offered some sage advice.
“Bill said, ‘There’s something wrong with it. I think you’ve tried to pack too much into it. It’s too evolved for an opening show.’ And then he gave me some wonderful advice. He said, ‘Write Episode Three, and work backwards.’ and that worked beautifully.”
The cast would go on to make household names of its characters if not its stars, in Abigail, Pat McDonald, Ron Shand, Elaine Lee, Joe Hasham, Bunney Brooke, Johnny Lockwood, Jeff Kevin, Tom Oliver, Bettina Welch, Chard Hayward, Mike Dorsey, Wendy Blacklock, Philippa Baker and more.
“I can’t really do Greek. Can I play him Jewish?”
Several roles were created with specific actors in mind, such as Johnny Lockwood as grocer Aldo Godolfus.
“Johnny rang me up one evening, he said, ‘David, I can’t really do Greek. Can I play him Jewish?’ I thought ok, and in the rush of thing, we didn’t even change his name!” he laughs.
Abigail, as the voluptuous Bev Houghton, became a TV sensation and ’70s sex symbol, even releasing a hypnotic Je T’aime hit single. Sale first encountered her at his homecoming party from London, but insists she was reserved.
“There was a diminutive, but very buxom, blonde there. She was very quiet. I didn’t say two words to her. She came with somebody and as it turned out that was Abigail. She was later cast in Number 96 but she was just a guest at my coming home party. It wasn’t like an audition or she stayed in my mind. I just thought she was an attractive girl.”
“She was a virgin, a nice girl”
Why does he think she became a ’70s megastar?
“I think Australian television was ready for a sexy blonde. We made her appealing because in the show, the character I wrote wasn’t overtly sexy. Bev wasn’t Marilyn Monroe. She was a virgin, a nice girl. She just looked sexy, you know?” Sale observes.
So unmissable was the show that it became a ratings sensation, a beacon for controversy and a disrupter to peoples’ weekly lives.
“It was absolutely incredible,” he recalls.
“It was censored in Melbourne but the network loved it! In those days no show had ever gotten a million viewers. Airline pilots were asking for rescheduling because they didn’t want flights that took them out of Australia! RSL clubs put in television screens because nobody was going when Number 96 was on. Thursday night shopping suffered because people were staying home.
“Things that had never been touched upon in television before”
“We dealt with pack rape, homosexuality, things that had never been touched upon in television before. We had Ronnie Arnold, a black man, kiss Lynn Rainbow and it was the first interracial kiss ever on television. America actually bought the rights and then they couldn’t do it.”
There was also the landmark inclusion of the first ongoing sympathetic gay character on TV anywhere in the world. In 1972, prior to the famed-Oxford Street uprising, the show took a huge leap of faith.
“It was an unpopular subject, it was against the law. All you knew about gays was Oxford Street. The general public weren’t comfortable with all that. But because of that particular stage in my life where everything was going marvellously, I couldn’t have cared less. I just threw everything in it,” he maintains.
In the feature film version in 1974 Don Finlayson (Joe Hasham) even engaged in a gay kiss with the closeted Simon Carr (John Orcsik), although the shot was later cut from the film.
Number 96: The Movie
By 1975 producer Bill Harmon wanted to write out several characters but was struggling with how to refresh his cast.
“Bill said, ‘We’ve have to keep these characters for 11 weeks!’ So I just said, ‘Why don’t we just blow ’em up?’ and he jumped on it.”
It would become one of the show’s most memorable split-screen episodes, by the show’s only other surviving writer Derek Strahan, and a great soapie whodunnit. The show lasted until 1977 when ratings finally waned.
“If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be alive.”
Queensland based Sale is now retired, but while he is proud of the show’s legacy, insists, “I’m not Norma Desmond living in the past.
“In a Twitter post I said, ‘The 50th anniversary is coming up. Hooray. It was a great show. I’m proud of it. But let’s look to the future and enjoy the all the shows that it preceded.’
He adds, “At the launch of the first DVD, I went along with Elaine Lee and it was a huge crowd. We were autographing copies and three gay guys came up to me and said ‘If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be alive.’
“They were all isolated in country towns… they had recognised their inclinations, and thought they were the only ones in the world.
“And then came Number 96. They saw how popular Don was because he became the go-to person for problems, the most popular person in that building. They saw how he was coping with it, and it gave them the reason to move on with their lives. Otherwise, they were at suicidal levels. Those were just three guys on one night, so God knows how many others there were.
“And that’s what I’m most proud of with Number 96.”