Characters and storylines
Storylines of the series explored the relationships of the residents of a small, inner-city four story apartment block (two flats on each floor) named "Number 96", after its fictional street address, 96 Lindsay Street, Paddington (actually 81-83 Moncur Street, Woollahra). Stories focused on topics such as racism, drug use, rape, marriage problems, adultery and homosexuality, along with more prosaic romantic and domestic storylines. The building's two ground floor businesses - a delicatessen and a chemist, that was later to become a wine bar, and then a disco venue - along with a nearby launderette, provided venues for the various characters to meet. The show featured a multiracial cast, had frequent nude scenes, and featured a long-running gay male relationship that drew no particular interest from any of the show's other characters. It is believed that the series was the world's first to include a portrayal of a gay couple fully accepted by and integrated into their community.
Playing the role of malapropping gossip Dorrie Evans, actor Pat McDonald won the Best Actress Logie Award in 1973, 1974, 1976, and won the Gold Logie in 1974. Playing the part of Bev Houghton, Abigail quickly emerged as the show's most famous sex symbol. She left the series suddenly in June 1973 in a burst of publicity, to be replaced in the role by another actress. Grasping magazine editor Maggie Cameron (Bettina Welch) became part owner of the building and sustained acrimonious enmities with several of the residents and the other owners. Her friend and sometimes rival was Flat 7 resident Vera Collins (Elaine Lee) who would be perpetually unlucky in love. Lawyer Don Finlayson (Joe Hasham) was revealed as gay in an early episode and had several boyfriends over the course of the series; his most enduring relationship was with film buff Dudley Butterfield (Chard Hayward).
As the series progressed it increasingly focused on comedy characters such as brassy winebar proprietor Norma Whittaker (Sheila Kennelly), and her inventor husband Les (Gordon McDougall), no-nonsense Flo Patterson (Bunney Brooke), and the bookish Arnold Feather (Jeff Kevin), who proved irresistible to the ladies. Reg and Edie MacDonald (Mike Dorsey and Wendy Blacklock) and their bubbly daughter Marilyn (Frances Hargreaves) arrived at the start of 1974 as three more comedy characters.
The series made good use of end-of-episode and end-of-year cliffhangers, and whodunit type storylines proved particularly popular. These included a panty snatcher dubbed "the Knicker Snipper", and a serial killer called the "Pantyhose Murderer." One memorable cliffhanger was the explosion in the Goldolphus deli on the ground floor of Number 96. Tom Greer and Ed Byron used to have drinks with the journalists from the Daily Telegraph at the Evening Star Hotel in Elizabeth Street opposite Central station, Sydney. Tom said to the journalists "Want a great story for tomorrow's paper?"
Next morning every newsagent had a billboard out front of the shop with the headline "FOUR PEOPLE KILLED IN 96 BOMB". The Daily Telegraph sold out three editions and had to urgently run a fourth edition.
During 96's lifetime the show attracted many complaints. The Australian Broadcasting Control Board repeatedly sanctioned Channel 10. In an effort not to have the show taken off air Executives agreed to come in each morning at 7 AM and view that night's episode prior to it going to air, to ensure that it complied with the Control Board's guidelines. Often, offending scenes would be cut from the episode after its Sydney airing meaning other city and country viewers missed out. Paperwork of all this "offensive" material survives with the National Film and Sound Archive but the actual reel of footage has never been found. Consequently, the first episodes (since released on DVD) feature cuts and screen blackouts. Eventually, due to the show's phenomenal popularity, the Broadcasting Control Board relaxed its restrictions and stopped viewing the episodes in advance.
Cast members were amazed to learn the show was screening in some overseas countries (Bettina Welch reported back at seeing it dubbed in Italy) but despite a short late night run in Toronto, Canada on City TV, the content was far too explicit for the US and UK networks of the day. An attempt to sell the show at Cannes, France in 1975 with a topless model backfired when British tabloid newspapers reported it got a "swift 'No Entry' sign" from the BBC and ATV.
The only actors to remain thought the entire series run were Pat McDonald (who would later appear for the entire series production run of the 1980s soap opera Sons and Daughters), Ron Shand and Joe Hasham.
A feature film version of the serial was shot in eleven days in December 1973 in colour on 16mm film and then blown up to 35mm. The film features nearly all the show's regular cast as well as more revealing nudity than was allowed on TV at the time. A gay kiss between Don and Simon was mysteriously cut from the movie after its Sydney season. Critics were not kind but even Mike Harris from The Australian had to admit he had never been in a cinema before where every character's first appearance got a roar of approval from the crowd.
Former resident Sonia Freeman (Lynn Rainbow, who filmed all of her scenes in just one day) returns to Number 96 after her release from a mental asylum. Sonia is now married to newspaper journalist Duncan Hunter (Alister Smart). Her forgetful episodes and hallucinations become increasingly erratic and deranged. This worries Duncan, Sonia's good friend Jack Sellars (Tom Oliver) and Jack's new girlfriend, flight attendant Diana Moore (Rebecca Gilling), who has moved into flat 6.
Aldo has been withholding cash takings from the deli to avoid paying income tax on it, but loses the money in a fire. He takes a night job at the Connaught Rooms function hall to recoup the losses.
Many of the residents become embroiled in the major plans for Dorrie and husband Herb's (Ron Shand) Ruby Wedding celebrations. After looking at her marriage certificate, Dorrie discovers that the best man Horace Deerman signed where the groom should have. Believing this means Dorrie is married to Horace, Dorrie, Herb and Flo track him down. Horace is revealed as a derelict alcoholic and much to her dismay he takes a fancy to Dorrie.
Les enlists Herb and Alf to assist in his new business venture: a sauna in the building's basement, unbeknownst to wife Norma
Vera Collins is gang raped by a group of bikies and endures a troubled romance with politician Nick Brent (James Condon). She also starts a new business venture with Maggie and Simon Carr (John Orcsik), a character they had a previously had romantic rivalry over in the television version of Number 96 in 1972. Vera and Simon wind up in bed together but he is unable to perform. It turns out he is gay; and he has an affair with Don.
It is revealed that Diana and Duncan are secretly scheming to drive Sonia insane. Jack and the police arrive just in time before Diana and Duncan can persuade Sonia to kill herself.
Vera falls in love with Nick Brent but when she meets his son Tony (Patrick Ward), she discovers he led the bikie gang that raped her. Tony recognises Vera and tries to kill her by running her over at Dorrie and Herb's party (a fancy dress celebration). He hits Simon instead, and when he makes another run at Vera, he ploughs into a brick wall and the car explodes.
Simon recovers, and Vera marries Nick Brent, who becomes the Prime Minister of Australia.
The film was released in Sydney in May 1974 for the school holidays and became a major box office success. It screened in Melbourne during the August school holidays and was still on the drive-in circuit during January 1975. In Brisbane, Channel 0 broadcast the stars arrival live during that night's regular Friday night episode.
Number 96 was Australia's highest rating program for 1973 and 1974. The series was shot on videotape initially in black-and-white but switching to colour in late 1974. Many black and white episodes are now lost, falling victim to the wiping of videotapes for re-use, which was the official policy at Channel Ten at the time.
The series began taping in colour in late 1974. This period also saw the series shift its emphasis from sexual situations and drama to focus more on comedy, however by mid-1975 ratings had gone into decline so a bold new storyline was concocted in the hope of revitalising the series. The Mad Bomber storyline, in August–September 1975, came in the wake of news from periodical TV Week that the ratings for Number 96 had dropped to just half what they had been at the beginning of 1974. In an unprecedented move, 40 complete scripts were discarded and rewritten, while the Number 96 set was sealed off to non-essential personnel. The new storyline involved a mysterious figure planting a time bomb in Number 96, following a series of warnings and false alarms. The dramatic storyline was intended to draw back viewers and to provide a mechanism to quickly write out several existing characters in a bid to fresh up the cast of characters and revamp the storylines.
On 5 September 1975, a bomb exploded in the delicatessen, destroying it and the adjacent wine bar which was crowded with customers. The makers of the show made a bold move, killing several long running cast favourites, including Les, and Aldo and Roma Godolfus (Johnny Lockwood and Philippa Baker), and then revealing schemer Maggie Cameron as the bomber and sending her off to prison (she never planned for the bomb to kill anyone and merely wanted to scare residents into moving to facilitate a sale of the building). However, despite the publicity and major changes it brought, the bomb-blast storyline resulted in only a temporary boost to the program's ratings figures.
By October two more central figures - Alf and Lucy Sutcliffe (played by original cast members James Elliott and Elisabeth Kirkby) - were written out of the series. New, younger characters were added to the show, most of whom didn't last out the series. Two that did were orphaned teenage sisters Debbie and Jane Chester Dina Mann and Suzanne Church. Other enduring characters amongst the high cast turnover of the later period were the new blond sex-symbol Jaja Gibson (Anya Saleky), and Giovanni Lenzi (Harry Michaels), an exuberant Italian who worked in the deli.
A later whodunit storyline was the Hooded Rapist in May 1976. Numerous episodes around the time of the 1000th episode (June 1976) saw an increase in location shooting, including Moncur Street, Woollahra (outside the building used in the credits), local parks, Chinatown, and even Luna Park.
The final year of Number 96 featured an increased emphasis on younger characters and the reintroduction of sexual situations and nudity. Don and Dudley had split, and Don's new boyfriend was Rob Forsyth (John McTernan). The show's final months in 1977 included a range of shock storylines including the exploits of a group of Nazi bikers and a psychopathic blackmailer.
Another bold move in the show's final months saw Number 96 feature what was publicised as Australian television's first full frontal nude scene when new character Miss Hemingway (Deborah Gray) made the first of several unveilings in April 1977. Number 96 in 1976 had shown a bit-part nurse fleeing Dudley's bedroom which revealed a full frontal nude flash but this was the first time such nudity was shown front and centre in protracted scenes. In one outrageous moment, Miss Hemingway wore a bra but no panties and yet despite screening at 8.30pm on free-to-air TV, there were barely any complaints (but when the same scene was shown on the ABC during Four Corners, the bottom of the screen was blacked out). Other bedroom farce comedy sequences of the period featured increasing levels of male and female semi-nudity, and some other instances of full frontal female nudity. Meanwhile, a scene where Jane Chester becomes a prostitute and is asked to whip her male client, new Number 96 resident Toby Buxton (Malcolm Thompson) gave viewers a brief glimpse of full frontal male nudity.
These changes to the series were made to combat falling viewing figures. However, they were not a success, and in July 1977 the series was cancelled due to declining ratings at which point, with 1218 episodes, it held the record as Australia's longest running drama serial. Long-running characters Dorrie and Herb Evans, and Don Finlayson, were the only original characters that appeared in the series to the end.
Each episode began with a shot of the building while audio from the previous episode's final scene could be heard. The shot would zoom in on the apartment in which that scene occurred, as the show's title was displayed. The vision would then switch to the scene in question as a recap of the previous episode's cliffhanger.
The feature film has a pre-credits sequence involving Vera being raped, followed by the film's opening titles. After this the opening shot is a zoom-in on the exterior of Flat 3 after which the action starts with the interior activities of Flat 3.
The series was broadcast as five half-hour episodes each week for its first four years. From the beginning of 1976 episodes were broadcast as two one-hour episodes each week in most areas, however from an internal perspective episodes continued to be written and compiled in half-hour instalments.
The production supervisor on the series was Kevin Powell, son of British film director Michael Powell. The show's studio directors were Peter Benardos and Brian Phillis. Audio directors included Terry Green, Ross Boyer, Larry Price, Robert Judson, John Keane and Steve Wakely. Director's Assistants included Gillian B. Brown and Maggie Powell. Benardos was director of the 1974 feature film version of the serial. Executive Producer of the series and the feature film was Bob Huber. Series producers included David Hannay and Ted Jobbins. Network producers were Nancy Sales Cash of Cash Harmon Television. Lighting directors included George Poole, Adrian O'Bearn, Phil Cullen, Paul Gilfeather, Richard Curtis and Peter Richardson. Floor managers included Keith Walker and Murray Graham. Credits director and opener and closer director was Monica Pendegast. Audio boom operators included Laurie Hutchins, Vladimir Lozinski, John Dodds, Paul McCloskey, Jack O'Brien, Steve Wakely (later a series audio director). Some Cameramen who worked on the shows over the years, Max Cleary, Allan Catt, Bob Henderson, Keith Watson, Dennis Livingston, Ian O'Brien, Chris Fraser, John Bott, Roy Chivers, Murray Kelso, Phil Lomas.
Aside from the four Logies won by cast member Pat McDonald during her run with the show, Number 96 won the "Best Drama" Logie in 1974, 1975 and 1976. Actor Bunney Brooke won the "Best Actress" Logie Award for her work as Flo in 1975.
The series cast became stars in Australia and had their own Number 96 Passenger train, specially designed for cast and crew travel which for the show's first few years they would take the train from Sydney to Melbourne for the annual TV Week Logie Awards in a multi-carriaged train with the Commissioner's carriage hooked up at the rear for VIPS. This train was specially-organised by Publicity Director Tom Greer. Whistle stops at country sidings saw thousands of people turn out to see their favourite stars. These whistle stops were all beamed back by country television stations and went live to air.
A humorous story, as told by Tom Greer, was the engagement a piano player (the outrageous John McDonald) to entertain the cast on the train on the way to Melbourne. John could only play upright pianos. The railways rang and said they could not get the upright around the passageway corners of the train so it would be impossible to get it on board. Tom Greer demanded it be put on the train somehow even if it meant dismantling the piano and putting it back together - "key by key". In desperation, engineers arrived and took off the side of the carriage, loaded the piano on with a forklift, before replacing the carriage wall. The train was christened Spirit of 96.
In 1975 the Number 96 Cookbook was released in Australian by the publisher Family Circle; it featured recipes from eight members of the cast.
The series celebrated 1000 episodes in 1976 with a compilation special, Number 96: And They Said It Wouldn't Last, which reviewed the show's most famous story lines and recounted the exploits of its departed main characters. And They Said It Wouldn't Last was repeated at the start of the 1977 TV season, its final year of production, with a new ending presented by Dina Mann.
The final episode (#1218) was significant in that it gave over considerable air time to a cast reunion curtain call, of popular actors past and present. A week after the airing of the final episode in Sydney, a televised public auction of props and costumes from the series was held in the grounds of Channel TEN-10.
In 1980 a short-lived US remake of the same name on NBC retained the comedy, but it toned down the sexual elements of the series. The series was launched over three consecutive nights. US television and TV Guide promotions for the series utilised advertising hyperbole, suggesting that the series had been "banned in Australia." The nudity and racy content of the original series was not present in the remake; it would likely not have been allowed in the US due to censorship standards there, so the US version only hinted at the sexual content that had been on display in the original. The US version of Number 96 was quickly cancelled due to low ratings; the US show was finally aired in parts of Australia in 1986.
Channel 10 Sydney started a repeat run of the series on 4 February 1980, starting from the first episode fully produced in colour, episode number 585. Episodes were screened Monday through to Thursday, at midnight.
The 1976 special, And They Said It Wouldn't Last, was repeated by Ten in a prime time slot in 1994. This edition of the special dropped the "And" from the original title and included a new introduction by Abigail. It concluded with a replay of the final episode's curtain call of actors.
Number 96 was rated number 9 in the 2005 television special 50 Years 50 Shows which counted-down Australia's greatest television programs.
The series was featured in the cinema documentary, Not Quite Hollywood (2008). Interviewees included Number 96 alumni, actors Rebecca Gilling, Wendy Hughes, Lynette Curran, Briony Behets, Candy Raymond, Deborah Gray, Roger Ward, Norman Yemm, and an associate producer of Number 96 and The Unisexers, David Hannay.
The first 584 episodes of Number 96 were produced in black and white; when Australian television was switched to colour in 1975 Channel 10 didn't think people would want to watch black and white anymore, so the master tapes were wiped and made into a "foyer display". The first three weeks (episodes 1-15), episodes 31-35 and two episodes from the 1974 black and white episodes (episodes 450 and 534) survive. Up to December 2016, 648 episodes survive.
(1) A two-disc DVD of the Number 96 feature film (with commentary), plus documentary And They Said It Wouldn't Last, was released in July 2006. The DVD included archive footage of one of the Spirit of 96 train journeys, and a new documentary The Final Years, which featured clips from the series and new (2006) interviews with actors Elaine Lee, Sheila Kennelly, Wendy Blacklock, Deborah Gray, series creator, David Sale and TV historian, Andrew Mercado. Disc 1 also appears in a collection of Australian movies, Ozploitation: Volume 4.
(2) A DVD set of the complete The Pantyhose Strangler storyline was released in September 2008. Comprising 32 episodes on four discs, it started with Episode #649 (originally aired 1974-11-04) and culminated with #680 (original airdate 1975-01-27) and included a stills gallery (held over from the previous release) and a new commentary with actress Chantal Contouri, who portrayed Tracy Wilson.
(3) On 13 March 2010, another batch of episodes was released on DVD. Again comprising 32 episodes on four discs, Aftermath of Murder included episode #681 (original airdate 1975-01-28) through to #712 (original airdate 1975-03-12), archival Christmas cast messages from 1975, and new commentaries with actors Elisabeth Kirkby and Carol Raye.
(4) The fourth DVD was launched to celebrate the series' 40th anniversary. Entitled The Beginning and the Bomb (March 2012), the set includes a selection of sixteen surviving black and white episodes (#1-10, #13, #31, #33-35 and #450) plus the complete, sixteen-episode Mad Bomber storyline in colour, Episodes #832 (originally aired 1975-08-27) to #847 (original airdate 1975-09-16). The set includes archival audio interviews with actor James Elliott and director Peter Benardos, and a new audio commentary with The Hon Michael Kirby, AC CMG, and TV historian Andrew Mercado.