So many of the actors in Number 96, the series were English – and the co-producer Don Cash and the principal writer Johnny Whyte also English – that its many-faceted resemblance to Cleese, Cooney, Ayckborne, Hitchcock, Hancock, the Carry On films and Are You Being Served is partly explained.
In the cut-down movie version this is even more so. Extinct piss-elegant Anglo-Oz accents afflict Lyn Rainbow, Bettina Welch and James Condon (the imminent Whitlamesque Australian Prime Minister), Rebecca Gilling’s breasts, pubic bush and smiling ease in the love scenes are very Swinging London… but the rest of it, the Australian stuff, the trademen’s entrance, is, well, what Wayne Swan might call ‘patchwork’.
Ron Shand’s Herb, playing vaudleville straight-man to Pat McDonald’s shrill malapropistic blithering Dorrie, is very good and meek and calm indeed. But Pat is beyond ghastly, beyond Christian tolerance, not to be borne, vocally worse than even Julia Gillard. She throws the whole thing off kilter.
Every other character has tones and mannerisms – and sometimes even dialogue – that approaches the human. Condon and Elaine Lee, Gordon MacDougall and Sheila Keneally, Joe Hasham and John Orczik, Liz Kirkby and James Elliot stand up as plausible couples, and Bunney Brooke is very, very good as vulgar, matey, ash-stained Flo. Philippa Baker and Johnny Lockwood as Roma and Aldo tiptoe round caricature, but it’s probable that the dialogue does it to them rather than they to the dialogue, which is cloying, ill-marmaladed wog.
And the whole shebang, the whole catastrophe, well…
There are gay men, Don and Simon (Hasham and Orczik) who come out. There’s a film buff, Dudley Butterfield (Chard Hayward) and a prissy assistant, Arnold Feather (Jeff Kevin) who seem gay but are merely sissies. There’s a rape in the first minute of a woman, Vera Collins (Lee), who is later in love with the rapist’s father (Condon). There’s a Hitchcockian plot of a former lunatic (Rainbow) encouraged to suicide by drugs, choreographed sadomasochistic seeming nightmares (an African mask, a naked whipping). There’s a comical ramshackle sauna bath, falling down and frequently invaded, with sagging male buttocks running in and out. And there’s a plot that may have tempted Geoffrey Chaucer for a minute or two in which Dorrie proves not to have married Herb but a drooling, leering, ugly wino (played, as always, by Harry Lawrence) who turns up forty years late quite keen, unlike all other humans, to strip and swive poor Dorrie. Herb is very good in these scenes, acutely and humbly aware the law must prevail, and thankful his cuckolding will rid him of that dread shrieky voice forever.
Declaring my interest, I wrote some episodes and my wife did too and my perpetual collaborator Denny Lawrence provided the first nude bum of the series. I befriended some of the actors, and found them genial, professional, articulate, reliable and underpaid. I detected none of my lines in the movie, which astoundingly omits Abigail, its voluptuous virgin superstar, whose famous, glorious breasts were never seen.
Moral questions do arise however, over nudity (Gilling, a potential world superstar, was diminished, demeaned and cheapened by it and may thus have lost her chance), intellectual vacuity (a black man’s mocking in a bar is utterly unbelievable) and, well, parsimony. Two and a half hours were shot each week in only two small sets with ever-changing furniture and actors paid pittances for enthralling the nation with their buttocks, nipples and bad English, and the producers engorged with sheaves of money. Where Charlie Sheen gets five million dollars an episode, they got, probably, a hundred and ten, and Cash and Harmon, Cash and Carry, as they were known, a good bit more.
On the other hand, though, it unshackled homosexuality and dignified, with shrewd casting, acts that in some Australian states in those days got you twenty years in the slammer. Justice Michael Kirby has praised 96 for taking the heat off his generation, and this is no small thing. I would have been happier, though, if Dudley Butterfield were less of a trizzy, blithering queen.
The direction got better throughout the run, as the cameras drew closer than a proscenium-arch five-shot and the actors relaxed more with each other in the shower scenes and over morning tea. Hasham, Orczik, Gilling, Kirkby, Brooke, MacDougall, Elliot and Elaine Lee are always very convincing and Ron Shand a small ridiculous one-off miracle of chirpy stoic obedient subversiveness and wily cock-sparrow good manners.
The lighting is excellent when it needs to be (in the Hitchcocky sequences), the sets lifelike, the writing intermittently atrocious (though not always), the jokes nearly always clunky (as in vaudeville, or McCacky Mansions, or Ada and Elsie), the theme tune a straighforward theft of The Odd Couple’s, and the editing so jumpy and fractious it came close to indictable war crime.
But it had a good, big, generous heart, and, though it was simultaneously primitive and revolutionary, conservative and radical, old-fashioned and morally daring, truehearted and smutty, it spoke to some huge part of the Australian soul, which is gossipy, snoopy, unjudgmental and warm, somehow, in the end.
And, of course, it changed the world.