Australian Screen

Australia’s audiovisual heritage online

Number 96 (1972 - 1977)

Serial
1218 episodes x 30 minutes

Series synopsis:

Number 96 is a soap opera set in a block of flats in the inner-city Sydney suburb of Paddington. Its residents include a Jewish shopkeeper, his tearaway daughter, two senior citizens, an English migrant couple, a South African dress designer, a struggling actress, a beautiful virgin and a homosexual in love with a bisexual. Initial storylines were deliberately sexy and controversial to attract the largest audience possible but once the show hit its stride with a massive viewing audience, it became somewhat gentler with more emphasis on comic situations.

Curator’s Notes:

Number 96 was arguably the most groundbreaking TV series in the world when it exploded onto screens in 1972 with the tagline ‘The night Australian TV loses its virginity’. There was rampant sex, frequent nudity and sympathetic portrayals of homosexuality but it would be years, and sometimes even decades, before American and British TV would dare to tackle such subject matter.

Number 96 quickly climbed to the top of the Australian TV ratings and remained the most popular show in the land for three-and-a-half years. It spawned such shows as the equally controversial adult series The Box (1974–77) and the somewhat tamer Class of ’74 and Class of ’75 (but only after censors refused to allow sexual situations in a schoolyard show aimed directly at teenagers).

Number 96 arrived in the era of the sexual revolution, where racy movies were screening thanks to a new ‘R’, adults-only rating and clothes were being removed everywhere, whether by ‘streaking’ or at legalised nude beaches. Eventually, however, it all became a bit ho-hum and Number 96 and The Box were both axed in 1977 due to falling ratings. The serials that replaced them, such as The Young Doctors (1976–83) and The Sullivans (1976–83, see The Sullivans – On the Brink of War, 1976), saw a return to more conventional family values which continues to this day with Neighbours (1985–current) and Home and Away (1988–current).

Number 96 did a lot more than pioneer new levels of nudity in a television drama. In fact, the shock value was only ever thrown in when ratings needed a boost and most of the time the show coasted along on a happy blend of 50 per cent drama and 50 per cent vaudeville-type comedy. Its characters were unusually multicultural and not all aged under 25. It was portrayed as being a typical block of flats in an inner-city suburb of Sydney, but for most viewers it was a peep through the keyhole at lifestyles they were not familiar with but coming to accept. This is particularly so with the show’s landmark gay characters, who won the affection of viewers of all ages.

The show’s fans mobbed the actors whenever they appeared in public. For several years the cast travelled from Sydney to Melbourne for the Logie Awards in a special train called ‘Spirit of 96’. All through the night, at whatever country town the train stopped, the station platform was bursting with pyjama-clad families trying to get a glimpse of the stars. When the train arrived at Melbourne, a police escort was required to tame a crowd that was reputedly bigger than the one gathered for the Beatles’ Australian tour in 1964.

The critics of the day may have universally sneered at the show, but the public didn’t care as they snapped up spin-off merchandising like LP records, paperback novelisations, cookbooks and tickets to a 1974 movie that broke box-office records. It’s safe to say that at one point in its history, Australia was completely obsessed with Number 96 and, despite its adults-only classification, children all across the nation were begging their parents to let them watch. Abigail, the show’s first sex symbol, was mildly horrified to constantly receive fan letters from children who were clearly just learning how to write. Many schools were forced into discussing the show in classrooms at the start of the day so that students would move on with their studies. When the same kids began to switch to newer TV shows after the introduction of colour television in 1975, the producers tried wooing them back with upgraded production techniques but it didn’t work (see Number 96 – Episode 910, 1975).

Nevertheless, Number 96 can still claim credit for inventing the production model of two-and-a-half hours of prime-time television soap per week. Rival production house Grundys copied the formula and then sold it around the world, either for their own shows or as a format that could be re-made locally with their assistance (one German show turned out be a thinly-veiled rip-off of Number 96 but others were based on The Restless Years, 1977–81, and Sons and Daughters, 1982–87).

Number 96 never had many repeat screenings on TV and, tragically, most of the black-and-white episodes were thrown out. But lately it’s been having a revival on DVD, with the movie, retrospective documentaries and chronological episode compilations now available. The comedy still holds up particularly well though the dramatic moments feel more dated. But given it was made long before political correctness overtook TV, there is a raw honesty to the show that makes it a most remarkable piece of social history.

Many of its actors (like Pat McDonald, Sheila Kennelly and Elaine Lee) went on to long-running roles in further dramas while others became typecast and had to change professions. Jeff Kevin became a Qantas steward, causing many passengers to wonder what Arnold Feather was doing in the air. Liz Kirkby (who played long-suffering Lucy Sutcliffe) had a lengthy career in politics with the Australian Democrats but, like the rest of her co-stars, she never really escaped the phenomenal popularity and notoriety of Number 96.

Titles in this series

Number 96 – Episode 35 1972

The snobbish Claire (Thelma Scott) drops in on her daughter Bev (Abigail) at her flat in Number 96. Dorrie (Pat McDonald) is thrilled by the visit but Bev is not. Sonia (Lynn Rainbow) finds out why her lover (Joe James) ...

Number 96 – Episode 910 1975

In this episode Herb Evans (Ron Shand) is keeping a whopping secret from Dorrie (Pat McDonald), Gary Whittaker (Mike Ferguson) has been stitched up by Liz Feather (Margaret Laurence) and Dudley Butterfield’s (Chard Hayward) dead cousin might not be so ...

Number 96 – Episodes 1003 and 1004 1976

These episodes are from the show’s later period when it was trying to woo back viewers with another (politically incorrect) creepy visitor storyline: after the Knicker Snipper and the Pantyhose Strangler, along came the Hooded Rapist. These episodes also boast ...