Few Australian shows are more legendary than the serial drama Number 96 (1972-77). This ratings sensation not only made household names of its stars (notably Abigail) and restored the Channel Ten network to financial health, it broke many taboos, particularly in its treatment of sexuality on Australia television.
March 13 was the 49th anniversary of the show’s initial broadcast, which is as good an excuse as any to run an interview with Nigel Giles, author of the definitive book on the show, Number 96: Australian TV’s Most Notorious Address.
He spoke with Filmink’s Stephen Vagg about the book and show.
What’s your personal connection to Number 96?
“Initially, I was an avid viewer of Number 96 just like thousands of others during the 1970s. As a kid, I got hooked on the characters, the actors who played them and the storylines. It was my favourite TV show. It really opened the gateway to me revelling in and celebrating Australian screen culture. As an adult, I’ve been involved in providing content for the DVD releases of Number 96 as well as recording oral histories with cast and crew for the National Film & Sound Archive (content of many of these are used in my book), and I’ve also subsequently developed lasting friendships with many of the cast and crew.
Why do you think the show was so successful? It couldn’t just be taboo-breaking or everyone would do it.
“When it came along in 1972, Number 96 provided TV audiences with something new and different. Yes, there was a lot of shock/horror, so people tuned in for that, but they stuck around. I believe this was largely due to the memorable and diverse characters. Along with all these wonderful characters, you had a blend of drama and comedy that has been likened to a variety show-type format with fast paced scene changes. Then, of course, the use of cliffhangers was a great device to get viewers coming back for more. One chapter in the book is called ‘What’s Going to Happen Next?’ and it really was a case of needing to find out. These cliffhangers resulted in the ‘water-cooler’ moments at work or school the next day. We know how a good cliffhanger is still a necessary element in keeping viewers watching and creating a buzz.”
Who would be your top five among the behind-the-scenes people who made the show successful?
“Producers Don Cash and Bill Harmon were a formidable team. Writer David Sale described them as buccaneers. Everyone I talked to, said they were as different as chalk and cheese, but their partnership worked. In the early days, they figured out the innovative production schedule needed to produce two and a half hours of TV per week. They also did nearly all of the casting.
“David Sale created Number 96 and was brash enough, having worked on The Mavis Bramston Show, to include characters and storylines that pushed the boundaries. One of his claims to fame is creating the first sympathetic gay character in an ongoing television role with Don Finlayson played by Joe Hasham; one of the most popular characters throughout the entire run of the series.
“Johnny Whyte was the script editor and from what I’ve been told, he was obsessed with the show and the characters – how they spoke, what happened to them, etc., and he was the person who kept it all together. In today’s parlance he’d be known as the showrunner.
“Tom Greer, the brilliant publicist, who never did anything in a small way. Big and bold was Tom’s motto and he was so successful in getting Number 96 and the cast in the headlines that it became almost detrimental to the other shows that he was trying to promote. At one stage, the press seemed to only want to talk about Number 96.”
Why didn’t the show last? Home and Away and Neighbours have gone for 30 years… why did Number 96 end? (Could it have lasted?)
“Bill Harmon was tired and wanted to do something different. Ratings had dropped, but were still respectable. All long-running shows wax and wane, and I believe Number 96 could still be valid today, just as the UK’s Coronation Street is after all these years. The writers became stale. It astounds me that writers can find it hard to come up with new and original ideas. If that’s the case, get rid of the writers and bring in fresh creatives. I’ve got no doubt that, had Number 96 continued, it would be tackling social issues such as marriage equality, refugees and asylum seekers and drug use.”
What lessons from the show could be learned today?
“If you can avoid it, don’t kill off too many characters that viewers love. Don’t underestimate what the public are willing or wanting to see, don’t be scared to be daring or to try something different, and don’t shy away from controversial or contentious issues – use the storylines as a way of exploring all facets of society, particularly those that aren’t being covered in other series. One thing that hasn’t been learnt is that not everybody’s home is neat and tidy. The Whittaker’s flat in Number 96 was akin to the local tip. When do you ever see that on television these days?”
How could you reboot the show? (If at all)
“The idea of a reboot is an interesting one. Would Number 96 work today? I believe it could, because it’s all about diverse characters in a tight-knit community. Keep some ‘heritage’ characters, but maybe with a twist, add some new ones and probably ditch the original storylines. Plenty of people live in apartments these days, so the setting of a block of flats is as valid as ever. Just make sure you have something for everyone. Screen one night a week, have shorter seasons and keep the sex and nudity – the “adult” content. The success of Wentworth proves it can be done. What I’d really love to see is a telemovie that delves into the behind-the-scenes of Number 96. We’ve had TV biopics of Cleo magazine (Paper Giants), Mardi Gras (Riot) and the cricket (Howzat!) etc, I think the story of the making of Number 96 is ripe for exploring.”
What surprised you most writing the book?
“Not a lot, but one thing was the fact that Kerry Packer tried to buy the show for Channel 9; to take it away from what was then the 0/10 Network. Packer’s interest in Number 96 became a great bargaining tool for the producers, who could threaten to take their show elsewhere if the 0/10 Network executives became too difficult to deal with (at one point they wanted the writers to turn a gay character straight).”
What’s your favourite Number 96 spin off?
“Number 96: The Movie. It was made for very little money over a two week period and it’s an absolute romp. It was a huge success at the time and now has a cult following. I’ve been to late night screenings, an NFSA screening and I own it on DVD. There was talk of making a second movie, but sadly, for me, it never came to be.”
What’s your favourite episode?
“It’s hard to pick one, but I’ll nominate an early episode – episode 35 written by David Sale. I never saw this when it originally aired, but it’s included in one of the DVD releases. I love it. It’s high camp and hilarious in parts and introduces one of my all-time favourite characters, Claire Houghton, played by the late, great Thelma Scott.”
Why do you think the creators of Number 96 have so much trouble repeating its success? eg Unisexers, Arcade…
“That’s a really good question. They had initial success prior to Number 96 with a sitcom called The Group, which won a Logie for Best Comedy. Then during the run of Number 96 and afterwards Cash Harmon tried various pilots for both dramas and comedies, but nothing ever took off. Sadly, Don Cash had died so he wasn’t around to offer his valuable insight. Unisexers was the victim of a change in timeslot and network interference. Arcade wasn’t a Cash Harmon production, but many of the creative team involved had worked on Number 96. Unfortunately, once again, there were a lot of executives offering their two cents’ worth and the show was taken off air before it was really given a chance to find its feet. Maybe it would’ve worked better in a later timeslot.”
Finally, what do you hope readers get out of your book?
“My aim with the book is to draw attention to how ahead of its time Number 96 was and to give people an understanding of what all the fuss was about. All those years ago, it dealt with such groundbreaking and controversial topics and became a huge success. I wanted to put the Number 96 story into context for people who remember the show, but also for others who may not be aware of its achievements. I want readers to share in the celebration of an iconic Australian made TV series that had a massive impact on popular culture and our screen industry.”
Number 96: Australian TV’s Most Notorious Address is available through most bookstores.