Number 96 Turns Forty

“The thing I’m most proud about Number 96 is that it saved lives”, David Sale told us at tonight’s fortieth-anniversary screening of the legendary Australian television show. As the creator of the show, and as a gay man, he was speaking about the impact of the program’s character, Don Finlayson, on the large number of young gay men who watched the show, like me, as teenagers. Don was reputed, the first “openly gay character” (as we called it then, and sadly, still now) on Australian television, possibly the world. For me, as a ten-year-old or whatever I was, I found the character of Don absolutely fascinating. I don’t think I’d put a word to the way I felt at the time, but I certainly felt an affinity with Don. David Sale told us lots of people have since told him, seeing Don Finlayson as a mainstream character on Australian television who was gay, and not a deviant, not a freak, provided them with a lot of affirmation.

Number 96

Tonight, as we celebrated the fortieth anniversary of “Number 96” being first shown on Australian television, I couldn’t help but notice Joe Hasham who played Don Finlayson was actually a bit of a hottie. At tonight’s screening, we saw the black and white Don, sans beard, and the colour television Don with a beard. “He looks like a Surry Hills hipster”, one of my friends commented. I don’t remember Don being all that cute. As a ten-year-old, I was more interested in the Chandler Boys, but hey, yeah, Don was pretty hot. Who would have thought?

I think I was eight or nine when I was first allowed to stay up and watch “Number 96”. Perhaps mum and dad knew something back then? This was in stark contrast to school friends who were forbidden from watching the show, as it had featured nudity, homosexuality, black magic and all manner of terrible things. Unlike many people who describe scenes of watching the program through partially open doors, mum and dad allowed me to watch the show without restriction. A friend tonight mentioned how her older siblings were also allowed to watch the show from an early age, as it allowed their parents to begin the open discussion about things like sex. Perhaps that’s what mum and dad also had in mind, or perhaps, due to their age, they were less hung-up about these things?

Norma’s Wine Bar

But to be honest, I don’t remember all that much sex on Number 96. Yes, I remember the full-frontal nudity scene with Deborah Grey (which our local station 11/8 blacked out the screen for), but mostly I remember Number 96 for its sensational plot-lines and for its comedy. As much as having Don Finlayson in the show was obviously important in my development as a gay man, my favourite characters were, in fact, the comedy characters of Dorrie, Herb and Flo.

Andrew Mercado introduces the Number 96 screening at Sky Bar.
Andrew Mercado introduces the Number 96 screening at Sky Bar.

So yeah, there was sex. But as tonight’s host, Andrew Mercado noted, there’s a fair bit of mythology about the program too. “Lots of people say they remember Abigail appearing nude on the program when in fact, she never did”, Andrew told us. The first “nude” was in fact, Vivienne Garrett who played the role of Rose Godolfus. Vivienne was at tonight’s screening, and she was great, as she shared some wonderful stories and memories of the program. There were some other actors from early episodes of the show who I really don’t remember, but of course, the big stars in attendance tonight were Elaine Lee and Elisabeth Kirkby.

Tonight we were shown an early black and white episode which I’d never seen before, and a late colour one, which I’d also never seen before. It was the episode where Maggie Cameron was revealed as the person responsible for the bombing of the building. What a great episode, and what a great actor Bettina Welch was.

Interviewed by Andrew Mercado are David Sale, Elaine Lee and Elisabeth Kirkby at tonight's fortieth anniversary screening of Number 96
Interviewed by Andrew Mercado are David Sale, Elaine Lee and Elisabeth Kirkby at tonight’s fortieth-anniversary screening of Number 96

It was great to see these actors, along with David Sale reminisce about what was a remarkable television show it was. The one question I wanted to ask, though time prevented, was how the actors lived with the show’s legacy. By appearing tonight, I’m assuming they were clearly happy and comfortable but was there a time when they were haunted by the memory? I guess we’ll have to wait for the show’s fiftieth anniversary. Judging by their presence tonight – Elisabeth is now in her 90s and apparently in good health – I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ll still be around. Or at least I hope so.

2 responses to “Number 96 Turns Forty”

  1. I watched it mostly through a crack in the door or while I was getting one of my innumerable glasses of water to slake my thirst that only happened on No 96 nights.

  2. I’m surprised it was only 40 years ago. That means I was 22 at the time but in my memory I was much younger when it first aired. That must explain why, like you James, I was allowed to view it unrestricted :-)

    How posh some of the accents sound nowadays.

    Elaine Lee plays at my bridge club and is as feisty as ever.

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