On this day March 13: Andrew Mercado on Number 96

number 96 andrew mercado march 13

50 years ago today on March 13, 1972, the Australian drama series Number 96 became the first TV show in the world to ever feature a regular gay character. TV historian Andrew Mercado says that despite homosexuality remaining illegal throughout Australia, television audiences embraced the character and Don Finlayson quickly became one of the most popular characters.

Like so many, I remember Number 96 fondly from my youth and wanted to know more about it. TV historian Andrew Mercado knows all about it. Andrew has researched the show for years, and spoken with many of the stars. Andrew Mercado took time out from working on the documentary OUTRAGEOUS: The LBGTQI History of Australian TV to tell me all about Number 96 on this fiftieth anniversary.

(More about OUTRAGEOUS below.)

Over to Andrew Mercado:

Number 96 premiered with a full-page Sydney newspaper advertisement.

‘Tonight at 8.30 pm, Television Loses Its Virginity’.

However, Brisbane’s Courier-Mail remained more circumspect, teasing the characters with one-line descriptions.

Gossipy Dorrie Evans (Pat MacDonald) was a ‘Big Mouth!’ and wild child Rose Godolfus (Vivienne Garrett) a ‘Hot Pants!’.  But there was no description on the picture of shy law student Don Finlayson (Joe Hasham). Only a question mark.

Don’s homosexuality was only revealed when sexy next-door neighbour Bev Houghton (Abigail) fell in love with him. When she tried to seduce him, an uncomfortable Don told her the truth. The shocked Bev called him a ‘filthy, dirty little queer’. But two nights later she said something revolutionary.

“I want to apologize for the way I acted last night, it was unforgivable. I’ve been a stupid fool.

“Everyone’s got their own way of life, I realise that now.”

“Don’t apologize, said Don, “It’s just one of those terrible situations that guys like me find themselves in sometimes.”

And that was that. For the next five and a half years, Australian audiences embraced Don along with everyone else at Number 96. Deeply embedded within the fabric of the show, only he and two other original characters stayed with the show till the very end.

The making of Number 96

Before Number 96, the 0-10 Network was on the verge of bankruptcy. The network’s gamble paid off big. Number 96 made Ten the highest-rated network for the next three years. One would assume that its cashed-up executives were thrilled, but one aspect of the show rankled them.

In his autobiography, Number 96, Mavis Bramston and Me, creator David Sale explained that:

“Having surrounded themselves with expensive trappings, they settled back in their leather upholstered chairs, puffed on their cigarillos and proceeded to stretch their limited intellects by attempting (a little late in the piece) to tell us what to do next with our hit show.

“Apparently quite at ease with our saga of infidelity, incest, gang rape and racism, they wanted to tinker with the one ingredient that really offended them.”

The executives wanted to turn Don (Joe Hasham) straight but producer Bill Harmon gave them a flat out no.

“Needless to say, they capitulated,” remembers David Sale, “Bill Harmon became a queer ally and had the guts to challenge the naysayers.”

Don and Dudley

TV Week loved exploiting the popularity of Joe Hasham by putting him on the cover. But tellingly, he was only ever photographed alone, or with women (like co-star Abigail or his real-life wife Sue). The magazine reported that Joe Hasham ‘is probably Australia’s biggest star’.

He “inspires hundreds of women – and some men – to write him love letters every week.”

Every article about Joe Hasham centred around his heterosexual love life. The romantic life of Don never got a mention. Publicist Tom Greer explained why in Nigel Gile’s book Number 96: Australian TV’s Most Notorious Address.

“The gay stuff didn’t get too much copy, because it showed that homosexuals could be ordinary, very straight acting members of the community. And the press didn’t like to talk about that sort of thing.”

TV Week only ever published one photo of Don with another gay man from the show. Even then, they referred to it as ‘a scene featuring the problem of homosexuality’.

Don (Joe Hasham) and boyfriend Dudley Butterfield (Chard Hayward) were live-in lovers for nearly three years. Yet they were the only iconic Number 96 twosome not to appear together on the cover of TV Week.

The end of an era

When Number 96 finally finished in 1977, the press proclaimed the era of TV sex and nudity over. The Sullivans was now the nation’s top-rating show. Apparently, there was no appetite for sexy situations or gay characters anymore.

Curiously, despite the extraordinary popularity of gay characters in Number 96 and then The Box, no rival network ever tried to copy the idea. Odd. Particularly odd, given television NEVER shies away from copying anything that works.

Over on Nine, Graham Kennedy may have been ‘The King’. But homophobic network owner Sir Frank Packer hated that his most profitable star was really a queen. Seven were equally straight-laced. Their only contribution to gay representation was cop show Homicide which featured several episodes about ‘poofter-bashings’.

Former High Court judge Michael Kirby says today: “I have always thought that Number 96 made a bigger contribution to queer equality in Australia than all of the learned lectures and arguments advanced by people like me. In the history of gay liberation in this country, Number 96 should always be remembered and celebrated. Young people today need to know how TV contributed to equality and human rights.”

First TV lesbians and Carlotta

Being the first TV drama to feature a regular gay character was not the only world-first Number 96 can lay claim to. It also featured the first TV lesbians in the world (as played by Toni Lamond and Hazel Phillips) and the first transgender character as played by a transgender actress (Carlotta).

Throughout the 1970s, thanks to other Ten dramas like The Box and Prisoner, there were more queer characters on Australian TV than the rest of the world combined. The ABC was also pushing the envelope, with current affairs shows like Chequerboard showing gay couples living together and even kissing each other!

There are two queer histories in Australia. The one that queer people lived through and fought for. But also history as revealed through TV, where straight people, who didn’t know any gay people in real life, learnt about them and their issues via the TV that beamed into their suburban and regional loungerooms.

This groundbreaking gay history has been largely forgotten. Outside of Australia, overseas audiences are unaware of Number 96 because it was too raunchy to be broadcast anywhere else in the world. It is now time for them to learn that Australia did it all first.

Andrew Mercado and OUTRAGEOUS: The LBGTQI History of Australian TV

Andrew Mercado spent the last two years researching the history of queer representation on Australian television and he is now ready to turn it into a documentary. He is looking to raise $50,000 to make a TV pilot for a 6-part series that will explore queer representation, with focuses on gay men, lesbians, AIDS, Indigenous, transgender, multicultural, and what the future might be with today’s young and emerging queer and non-binary actor creators.

All crowdfunding donations are tax-deductible through the Documentary Australian Foundation.

OUTRAGEOUS: The LBGTQI History of Australian TV

Read more: March 12 <— On this day —> March 14

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1 Comment

  1. Peter Turner
    14 March 2022

    We should also not forget what happened to Hasham’s career after Number 96. Playing gay, even for a straight actor, sounded the death nell for his future acting prospects.

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