Number 96 was a revolutionary Australian soap opera set in a Sydney apartment block. Don Cash and Bill Harmon produced the series for Network Ten, which requested a Coronation Street-type serial, and specifically one that explored adult subjects. The premise, original story outlines, and the original characters were devised by David Sale who also wrote the scripts for the first episodes and continued as script editor for much of the show's run. The series proved to be a huge success, running from 1972 until 1977, and became famous for its sex scenes and nudity, and for its comedy characters.
Number 96 was launched on 13 March 1972 with a simple promotional campaign - each night for several weeks before its debut, the message "Number 96 Is Coming" would appear on screen during Network 10's advertisements. No explanation was given, and it stimulated curiosity. When the series premiered viewers were presented with a level of titillation and taboo subjects that had never been seen on Australian television before, and the event came to be known as "the night Australian television lost its virginity".
Storylines of the series explored the relationships of the residents of a small, inner-city apartment block named Number 96, after its fictional street address, 96 Lindsay Street, Paddington (actually Moncur Street, Woollahra). Scripts tackling such topics 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 winebar - 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 as normal people 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. Bitchy businesswoman 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), 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.
The film features nearly all the show's regular cast from that time and the story of the film features various interwoven story threads that occupy the characters to varying degrees. These include the return to Number 96 of former resident Sonia (Lynn Rainbow) after her release from a mental asylum. Sonia is now married to newspaper journalist Duncan Hunter (Alister Smart). Many of the residents become embroiled in the major plans for Dorrie and husband Herb's (Ron Shand) Ruby Wedding Celebrations; those that aren't are roped in by Les to assist in his new business venture: a sauna in the building's basement. Vera endures a troubled romance with politician Nick Brent (James Condon), not helped when she meets his son Tony (Patrick Ward). Meanwhile Maggie and Vera start a new business venture with Simon Carr (John Orcsik), a character they had a previously had romantic rivalry over in the television version of Number 96 in 1972. Sonia's old friend Jack Sellars (Tom Oliver) and his new girlfriend, flight attendant Diana Moore (Rebecca Gilling) who has moved in to flat 6, worry about Sonia's increasingly erratic and apparently deranged behavior.
The film was released in May 1974 and became a major box office success.
Number 96 was Australia's highest rating program for 1973 and 1974, and was the first English-language soap opera to be broadcast each weeknight. The series was shot on videotape initially in black-and-white but switching to color in late 1974. Unfortunately, many black and white episodes are now lost, falling victim to the wiping of videotapes for re-use, which was the official Channel Ten policy at the time. The series began taping in color 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 September 5, 1975, a bomb exploded in the delicatessen, destroying it and the adjacent wine bar which was crowded with customers. Despite the bold move of 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), the bomb-blast storyline resulted in only a temporary boost to ratings figures.
By October two more central characters - Alf and Lucy Sutcliffe (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) 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, and in 1977 a range of shock storylines included 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. Although an earlier scene showing brief and distant full-frontal nudity appeared in the debut episode of Matlock Police in February 1971 while in Number 96 in late 1976 a bit-part nurse fleeing Dudley's bedroom had revealed a full frontal nude flash, this was the first time the nudity was shown front and centre in protracted scenes. 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. Long-running characters Dorrie and Herb Evans, Flo Patterson, Don, Arnold, and Reg and Edie MacDonald, all continued 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 installments.
The production supervisor on the series was Kevin Powell, son of British film director Michael Powell. The show's studio directors were Peter Bernados and Brian Phillis. Audio directors included Terry Green, Ross Boyer, Larry Price, Robert Judson and Steve Wakely. Director's Assistants included Gillian B. Brown and Maggie Powell. Bernados 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. 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.
Short term cast members included: Briony Behets, Vivienne Garrett, Norman Yemm, John Orcsik, Carmen Duncan, Jill Forster, Candy Raymond, Anne Louise Lambert, Carlotta, Penne Hackforth-Jones, Diana McLean, Wendy Hughes, Josephine Knur, Peter Adams, Pamela Garrick, Chantal Contouri, Judi Farr, Chris King, Aileen Britton, Paula Duncan, Margaret Laurence, Vince Martin, Anne Charleston, Rowena Wallace, Justine Saunders, Joseph Furst, Mary Ann Severne, Henri Szeps, Pat Bishop, Julieanne Newbould, Arianthe Galani, Judy McBurney, June Salter, John McTernan, Deborah Gray, Malcolm Thompson, Ray Meagher, Joanna Lockwood, Shane Porteous.
Joyce Jacobs had a long-running uncredited role as a one-line extra, usually as a customer in the delicatessen.
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 for the show's first few years the cast would take the train together to Melbourne for the annual TV Week Logie Awards in specially-organized whistle stop train tour style journeys. 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 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 utilized 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 canceled due to low ratings; the US show was finally aired in parts of Australia in 1986.
In the early 1980s in Sydney, Network Ten ran a partial rerun of the color episodes in a late-night slot. The old special, And They Said It Wouldn't Last, was repeated by Ten in a prime time slot in 1994, with a new wraparound introduction featuring Abigail (and dropping the "And" from the title). This edition of the special 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.
A two-disc DVD of the Number 96 feature film, plus 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, and series creator, David Sale.
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.
A DVD set of the complete 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 and a new commentary with actor Chantal Contouri.