Remember when Number 96 was the biggest show on Australian television and every night we would tune in to Channel 10 for the adventures of Abigail, Dorrie Evans and Herb, Arnold Feather and Flo?
It was a great time for Australian television, although legend has it that the show was not so much born out of great creativity but was a last ditch effort to save the Channel 10 network from bankruptcy.
Number 96 was launched amid much controversy in March 1972. Channel 10 had suffered dismal ratings and was failing as a business. There was a feeling with executives that they had nothing to lose by producing a programme that would test the bounds of accepted standards of the day and it was decided that the show would either make or break the channel.
Each night for several weeks before its debut, the message Number 96 Is Coming would appear on screen during Channel 10’s advertisements. No explanation was given, and it stimulated curiosity. This was backed up with full-page newspaper advertising with a countdown saying “In 7 days Australian Television Loses Its Virginity.” then “In 6 Days” etc. etc.
When the series finally premiered viewers were presented with a level of titillation and taboo subjects that had never been seen on Australian TV, and the event came to be known as “The night Australian television lost its virginity”.
From the outset it was controversial in the extreme. On the day it was due to go to air, staff at the Channel 10 studios in Sydney were alarmed to see hordes of protestors assembling and parading on the front lawn of the studios with signs reading “Ban this Filth”, “Protect our Children”, “Where has Decency Gone?” By the time publicity director Tom Greer arrived at work the staff were in a panic and asked him “How do we get rid of these people?” Tom replied, “Get rid of them? … You must be joking … Send them tea and biscuits … Send down the news cameras and do live crosses every hour.” This massive free publicity ensured all TV sets that night were tuned to Channel 10.
The series proved to be a huge success, running from 1972 until 1977. Number 96 was so popular it spawned a feature film version, in 1973, which became one of the most profitable Australian movies ever made. Number 96 became known for its ground breaking sex scenes and nudity and for its comedy characters as well. The series was the first in the world to feature an openly gay regular character, Don Finlayson played by Joe Hasham.
The series made good use of cliff-hanger story lines in the last episode at the end of the season.
There was a panty snatcher dubbed the Knicker Snipper, and a serial killer called the Pantyhose Murderer. One of the most memorable though was the bomb in the Goldolphus deli on the ground floor of Number 96.
When the news broke in the paper that four of the cast would die in the explosion, all editions of the paper were sold out that day, prompting the editor to run a further edition.
Number 96 ran until July 1977 when it was finally 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 final episode.