Critics may regard it as an example of ‘Ozploitation’ at its trashiest, but Network Ten’s long-running ’70s soapie Number 96 – focused as it was on the bed-hopping inhabitants of a cosmopolitan Sydney apartment block – was a lifesaver for some.
Creator David Sale has just released a memoir, Number 96, Mavis Bramston and Me, about his career as a key player in the Australian entertainment industry. Former High Court justice Michael Kirby, who Sale has dubbed Number 96’s “most distinguished fan”, was on hand for the book launch to explain the profound effect the program had on a generation of gay men.
“He’d made special mention in his own memoirs of how Number 96 helped him and other gay guys see that there were others like them out there,” Sale told the Star Observer, referring to the show’s dependable gay lawyer Don Finlayson (played by Joe Hasham).
“People ask me what the best achievement of Number 96 was, and I always say, ‘It saved lives’. I was at a signing session for the DVD a few years back when four different guys told me exactly that. All had grown up in country towns, and thought they were freaks. Suddenly, a TV show comes on and the world opens up: you’re not the only one.”
When the show debuted in March 1972, it caused a sensation; topics like drugs, sex, adultery, homosexuality and abortion were all grist for the mill at Number 96, and titillated a nation used to television networks that rarely programmed anything more blue than Skippy the Bush Kangaroo.
It wasn’t Sale’s first brush with controversy though. In the 1960s, he was the executive producer of the ABC’s risqué-for-its-day sketch comedy series The Mavis
“We were making jokes about sex, the pill, things like that. At that time, you weren’t even allowed to say the word pregnant on the ABC. That really started me off on my controversial career path. The show was even condemned from the pulpit by a bishop – which was, of course, wonderful publicity,” he laughed.
With high-gloss reboots of proven TV hits widespread nowadays, we wondered if Sale would ever consider resurrecting the shag-happy shenanigans of Number 96. He said he’d already tried – only to find 21st century TV execs couldn’t handle the racy plotlines 1970s audiences had wholeheartedly embraced.
“I wrote up a script last year that dealt with things like same-sex marriage, being gay and Muslim, arranged marriages… all that sort of stuff. I spoke to a television executive who shall remain nameless, who told me even before he read the script that the original series was made in ‘much braver days’. I posted him the script and it felt like I was mailing porn to Disneyland! That was the last I ever heard of it,’ he sighed.
“Australian television is so bland nowadays… Winners and Losers, A Place Called Home – they’re good entertainment, but the television channels are much more scared of offending anyone nowadays.”
INFO: Number 96, Mavis Bramston and Me by David Sale available now at The Bookshop Darlinghurst (Sydney) and other bookstores.