Tuesday, January 12, 2021

David Sale, Brian Phillis, Peter Benardos (and others) | Number 96 (TV series) || Peter Benardos | Number 96: The Movie

guilty pleasures in braver times

by Douglas Messerli

David Sale (creator), David Sale, Brian Phillis, Peter Benardos, and others (see below) directors Number 96 (TV series) / 1972-1977

David Sale (writer), Peter Benardos (director) Number 96: The Movie / 1974

If by some incredible accident a US citizen should happen upon and attempt to watch the movie titled Number 96: The Movie, directed by the Australian Peter Benardos, I should imagine he would have utterly no idea of what it is he has stumbled upon. If he might even recognize it as a strange soap opera-like work, its mulligan stew of a rape scene, two attempted murder cases, a comic Ruby Anniversary party complicated by the fact that forty years ago the groom’s friend mistakenly signed the marriage certificate in the space where the husband was to have written his own name, along with a failed attempt of a handsome young man to consummate sex with the female fellow worker he believes he loves, coupled with the fact the same woman soon after marries the Prime Minister of Australia and the same man who failed to have sex with her joyfully jumps naked into bed with a gay lawyer (in Australia, of course, he’s called a solicitor, which I fear, to the American ear, might suggest he has solicited the sex) whom he has just met—all occurring in the same apartment building among individuals who appear to know one another intimately—might utterly confound even those who have overcharged imaginations. And I’ve not even mentioned the hard-working Jewish Hungarian wine-bar / deli owner and his wife who lose 2,000 dollars he’s hidden in his mattress when a fire burns their bed, their nerdy clerk, a few wacko males who attempt to construct a pre-fab sauna in their building’s basement, a bi-sexual, film-loving caterer planning a lavish party for the married couple for 20 cents a head who just happens to be the former boyfriend of the lawyer (although the film seems to have forgotten that fact), and numerous other women and men who have apparently fought over the bodies of several of those mentioned above. After just a few moments of this, I would guess, this stymied Yank would click the Vimeo connection, for which he had just paid $2.99, off.

     I watched it with great glee despite is obvious flaws of coherence, color quality, and inconsistent sound. But then I had just spent several hours before this watching a number of episodes in black-and-white and color (most of the black-and-white ones, shot in the early 1970s have been destroyed) of the long-running (March 1972-August 1977) Australian TV series, Number 96, the success of which had occasioned this 35mm film. Like the Aussie audiences who made this mess of a movie an overwhelming hit, I too now knew most of the characters’ names and some of their history. The original audience, so I’ve read, applauded as each character appeared upon the screen, having, by series end, joined them in their living rooms five nights a week for 1,218 episodes. For their audience they were family and friends.

      Facing an increasingly small viewer base, the youngest of Australia’s three commercial networks, Channel Ten, decided in 1972 to commission a soap opera from writer David Sale, then executive producer of The Mavis Bramston Show a weekly satirical comedy review in the manner of the British series That Was the Week That Was. Producers Bill Harmon and Don Cash gave Sale almost carte blanche for the soap opera series which, instead of being aired during daytime hours, would be aired at the 8:30 p.m. slot to fit the Australian government’s quota that all commercial network’s must produce 40 hours a month of dramatic programming.

      Working without even a general series plot, Sale created a semi-coherent story by setting his series in an inner-city apartment block, 96 Lindsay Street, in Paddington, the inner city region of Sydney—the site of the former home of two of his characters, the nosey, gossipy, interruptive and conservative Dorrie Evans (Pat McDonald, who appeared in 321 episodes) and her browbeaten husband Herb (Ron Shand). Despite its heavy mix of vaudeville humor and melodrama, along with a number of somewhat saccharine love scenes, Sale created a sexy, often hip, culturally knowledgeable series centered on issues of homosexuality and homophobia, drug use, racism, adultery, rape, and even in its later incarnations episodes featuring a serial bra and panty-snipping intruder and  a bomber. Characters often appeared in their underwear or even less, talked quite openly about sex, and grappled with issues relating to xenophobia, transvestism, exhibitionism, incest, hierarchical class privilege, juvenile delinquency, and numerous other issues that had never before reached the television screen. Along with Dorrie, its primary figure—together they were the only two characters who survived until the end of the work’s run—was an attractive gay law clerk who eventually became a solicitor, Don Finlayson (Joe Hasham, appearing in 297 episodes), whom everyone in the building and the surrounding neighborhood respected and loved, and from whom they often sought legal and other advice. As The Daily Mirror critic Matt White wrote the day after that 1972 premiere, it was the night Australian television “lost its virginity.”

     The vast majority of the episodes, 1,215 to be exact, were directed by the series creator Sale; other episodes were directed by Brian Phillis (51 episodes), Peter Benardos (45 episodes), Howard Scrivenor, Ted Gregory, Peter Pascoe, Derek Strachan, Ross Napier, Tim Purcell, Kate Harvey, Eleanor Witcombe, Jonny Whyte, Lynne Foster, Tom MacLennan, Ken Shadie, Michael Boddy, Robert Caswell, Pat Flower, and Alan Kitson, Lance Peters, Anne Hall, Michael Laurence, Susan Swinford, and Bob Ellis.

     Although there appears to be a DVD sampler of episodes that can be played only in Australia and surrounding regions, I have only seen two full episodes (designated without any other confirmation by their YouTube posters as nos. 1 and 3), a collation of early gay scenes posted by Roy Gardnerra on YouTube along with fascinating commentary on what it meant to Aussie audiences to see a gay man regularly portrayed on their tellies, and clips provided by anonymous contributors and the Australian Screen archive. As I mention above, when the series switched to color, most of the original black-and-white tapes were reused or destroyed, being seen to have little value. Yet, it might be illuminating to relate aspects of the two early episodes I watched just to provide a sense of what this series offered during the six years of its existence.

      In the first episode Mark (Martin Harris) and Helen Eastwood (Briony Behets) are moving into the building, watched like a hawk by the always intrusive Dorrie, who as soon as all the Eastwood’s furniture has been delivered, walks into their flat uninvited to observe the newly married couple kissing on the couch. Dorrie explains that she serves as the “unofficial” concierge (which in a later episode she, thinking it’s a German word, calls a “conserge”) since the apartment building has been built on the site of her and Herb’s former house. Mark, rather sarcastically, understands, accordingly, why she might “still regard this whole block as [her] own.”

      When the couple finally get Dorrie to leave their apartment, Mark expresses his frustration that, since her pregnancy, his wife no longer allows any intimacy between them. He is obviously a “horny” man, almost angry for the constant barriers his wife puts between them, he suggesting that perhaps they should have waited longer after their marriage to have a child. 

       Meanwhile, in another unit, shared by Jane Chester (Suzanne Church) and the buxom blonde of the early episodes, Bev Houghton (Abigail), Janie describes the difficulty she has in finding a job, while Bev, who works as a sea cruise hostess, shows off her new outfit—a tight sweater accentuated by an open leather-fringed jacket and short dress—tells her roommate that she’s about to pose for Bruce Taylor (Paul Weingott), a photographer who lives next door who’s doing a little  “moonlighting” from his regular job (in order, we later discover, to earn a little extra money to support the parties he and his gay companion Don regularly throw). Janie wonders whether the seemingly sexually promiscuous, but actually quite innocent Bev might be posing for a “girlie magazine,” but Bev assures her that its for Mode Photography

       Shift to Dorrie—now in the downstairs Deli run by Aldo Godulfus (Johnny Lockwood) and assisted by his daughter Rose (Vivienne Garrett) (we do not meet Aldo’s later wife Roma [Philippa Baker] in these early episodes)—complains to Aldo and another neighbor, Vera Collins (Elaine Lee) about how the new tenants, having just moved in, were already “canoodling.” Vera and Aldo both stand up for the couple’s lovemaking, after all they are newly married. But, having heard their voices from the hall, Dorrie is distressed that they may be noisy, arguing that “we have enough noise already” (a complaint we later perceive about Don and Bruce’s “bachelor” parties). Vera, whom we quickly realize has little tolerance for Dorrie’s behavior, suggests that they might have less noise if only Dorrie would keep her mouth shut. In response to which Dorrie describes Vera’s part-time occupation of fortune-telling as “garbage.”

      When Helen drops down to the Deli for a bottle of milk, she briefly meets Vera, on her way out. Dorrie immediately whispers to Helen that, in the future, she should keep away from Vera: “She’s bad news. Very bad news.”

      Upstairs, in yet another unit, we meet Alf (James Elliott) and Lucy Sutcliffe (Elisabeth Kirkby), a couple who have moved to Australia from Great Britain. Alf is a truck driver totally unhappy with his new life down under, while Lucy seems to have assimilated quite nicely. She has just purchased a new dress for her young granddaughter which Alf insists must be of inferior quality if made in Australia. It turns out the dress he mocked was made in England. He’s saving up to move back to Britain, but Lucy insists that if he moves back it will be without her. (Later in the series she does join him on their return to England). She threatens to find a new job to bring in money for her own purchases.

      Back in the Deli Mark meets Rose, talking briefly with her in a light conversation in which he reveals he’s a schoolteacher and she hints of her unhappiness of working, temporarily, as her father’s assistant. When Rose goes to lift up a crate of bottles to put them in the refrigerator, Mark intervenes in a rather macho gesture, carting them to the fridge himself.

     Mark’s wife Helen, meanwhile, has decided to take up Vera’s offer to read her fortune. After she chooses five cards, Vera briefly looks at them before dismissing what she sees as “meaning nothing,” although we see a slight look of consternation upon her face. The two women talk, Vera admitting that she had been married but that one day her husband just walked out on her. Again Helen draws five cards, and once more Vera shuffles them, obviously disliking what she sees.

      Downstairs we observe Bruce’s photo session with Bev in which he snaps her in several suggestive positions, selecting a final pose of her against the wall featuring her sweater-bound breasts. The shoot keeps getting interrupted, first by Don, who at this point is an article clerk in his last year of law studies, who enters and seeing Bev cries out “Oh, no,” she responding. “The kind of greeting a girl dreams of.” He has to study he tells his lover, who asks him to make himself scare, as if he were simply as a petulant child. “Where?” Don wonders. “Well there’s always the bedroom,” answers Bruce. “Oh, are you talking to me?” quips Bev.

     Bruce tries to reposition Bev, but the moment he is about to snap the shutter, Janie enters to tell her roommate that her mother has called to say it’s urgent, something about her brother Rod. “Oh go on then Bev, your brother may have dropped dead or something.” Bev turns and angrily speaks out: “Don’t you dare say that. You can say anything want about my mother, but not about Rod!”

       (I’ve gleaned from a very brief later clip that something eventually happened to Rod that has taken away his ability to work. Visiting his sister Bev, he recalls the days when as children they used to huddle together late at night in bed, and asks her to do so now, just to reassure him. Somewhat hesitatingly she does so only to have the man with whom she is currently living enter, discovering to two hugging in bed, he wrongly perceiving it as a case of incestuous love.)

      As we return to the fortunetelling session, Vera asks Helen to pick just one card, and seeing it, admits “this just isn’t my day,” stuffing it back into the deck as Helen is called back to her apartment. Obviously something in the cards has upset Vera. Lucy enters Vera’s apartment to ask if she knows anything about a possible job. “I’m sick about Alf and his mean ways.” Vera says she might know of job in a launderette.

      Downstairs again, Rose has an argument with her father. She wants to “go her own way,” while he wants to look after her a while longer; besides, he hopes to open up a restaurant next door where he will need her help. When Bev enters the shop, Rose points to her as a young woman, like herself, who has moved successfully away from parental control. Bev mentions how much she disliked her mother but is meeting up with her because her brother Rod is passing through on his way to the Texas King Ranch to study beef cattle.

      Rose’s former boyfriend, a tough leather-jacketed kid, enters the shop just as Aldo heads off to inspect the new location where he hopes to open the restaurant. The boyfriend forces her into the back room and is about to rape her as she screams, with Mark, having just entered the establishment, coming to her rescue. After slugging Mark in the stomach, the former boyfriend threatens Rose that he will return.

     Even in this very first episode, moreover, we get glimmers of the series’ wide range of future topics: the budding sexuality of Bev; the possibly of an adulterous liaison between Rose and Mark; the questioning of Bruce’s personality and intentions; a separation of father from his daughter; and a flash into a disturbing future for Helen—not to even mention the thwarted rape of Aldo’s beloved Rose.

    The so-called Episode 3 begins with the Eastwoods, just as Dorrie feared, loudly screaming at one another, Helen rushing from the apartment down the stairs past Dorrie—always serving as a sentry for all the tenants’ actions—and falling forward down the next flight of steps. Mark quickly follows, demanding someone call an ambulance, which soon appears, Mark making the trip to the hospital with his wife. Vera appears on the staircase in distress, claiming that the tarot cards she had read for Helen had told her that this was about to happen.

     Alf returns home drunk, and he and the always patient Lucy fight. She determining more than ever to get a job just he case he might decide to move back to his beloved homeland.

     Meanwhile, Janie, an aspiring actress we now discover, insists she has failed her audition. The American producer evidently, like so many others, was simply seeking a “playmate,” a role she rejects. Bev attempts to convince her that it might be worth going to bed with him for the few lines she might be able finally to perform on a stage. (I should note that this series is quite absurdly misogynistic, women throughout treated like the sexual toys against which an executive in the American musical How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying of a decade earlier warned his male associates in their treatment of the opposite sex. Very few of Number 96’s occupants have seemingly ever heard of feminism.) Bev all but admits that she has gotten her job as a cruise hostess by having sex with her employer. “But you’re just the right type for a cruise hostess,” argues Janie. “So were the other 49 birds who applied for that job,” she answers. “Do you mean you...,” interrupts Janie. “I do, and I did.”

      Dorrie, as one might expect, having heard the Eastwoods battle royal, tells residents gathered in the Deli that she wants Mark to suffer, suggesting that the Deli man’s daughter has been having an affair with Mark, and that Helen had caught them in flagrante delicto. “Didn’t you hear how they were carrying on before it happened,” inquires Dorrie. “No,” responds Vera, “because I’m not blessed with super-sensitive hearing, X-ray vision, and a talent for ‘sticky-beck’,” as she pulls away the nasty gossip from the deli counter so that Aldo will not overhear her accusations.

      Yet Aldo is suspicious that Rose may have been doing “something wrong,” which his daughter denies. She suggests she simply not feeling well, accusing him being suspicious, shouting at her, and making her feel like a child.

     Lucy visits Vera’s apartment for a fitting of her new launderette outfit, describing her husband the working man’s poor Dean Martin. (Martin is almost a running joke in this series.) Despite accusing Vera of tampering with the occult, Lucy also asks for a Tarot reading.

     Bev appears in her underwear, her ample breasts almost overflowing her skimpy bra. Again she and Janey discuss the producer’s lecherous intentions. He’s asked her out tonight; he has to finish casting by the next day. Bev argues, “Better a professional actress than a professional virgin.”

     Back in the Deli it is now confirmed that Rose and Mark have been having an affair, or at least sex. He’s waiting a call from the hospital about his wife’s condition. Mark tells Rose that Helen is the only one he really wanted, and tries to make the young woman understand that, despite his attentions to her, he is no longer interested in having a relationship.

     Rose later confesses to Vera that she was in Mark’s apartment when Helen came back. Vera: “I’ve been around. You name it, I’ve probably done it. Twice,” attempting to convince Rose that Mark has simply wanted her because of his sexual needs given they were not being relieved by  his pregnant wife. But the young Rose is certain that the relationship was serious.

     Don and Bruce reappear in the Deli to purchase supplies for their next party. (From the gay compilation, I should imagine that Episode two held the scene I saw with them rising the next morning after their party dressed in bikini-style underwear, to clear up the mess left over from the previous night. Dorrie appears in the hallway as they attempt to carry the trash boxes to the basement, bitterly complaining of the noise). Suddenly Dorrie enters, Bruce commenting, “Oh my God, it’s the Bride of Frankenstein. Maybe we should order four kinds of cheese...to go with the flagons.” Dorrie angrily accuses them again of having noisy parties, to which Bruce responds, “they are simply ‘exuberant.’” She threatens to call the agent. Don says they will try to keep the noise down. “Which shouldn’t be difficult,” adds Bruce, “since we’re only having 100 kids in for an orgy.” Dorrie’s last words: “Well...you can joke all you like. But let me tell you, if there are any disturbances tonight, you’re in for trouble [pausing] big trouble.” (Evidently, from what I’ve seen in the gay compilation Don disconnected a cord in their photograph and demanded the party’s participants to quiet down so often, that their “orgy” was a bust, everyone apparently leaving early, for which Bruce complains, demonstrating Don’s sense of responsibility as opposed to Bruce’s disregard of acting any way that doesn’t prove pleasurable.)

      Mark finally gets the telephone call from the hospital. Helen has had a miscarriage, the baby is fine. But Helen is evidently not so. He tells Vera the news and rushes off.

      The American producer passes on the stairway, asking Vera for directions to Janie’s apartment. Finding Janie at home without anyone else in the apartment, he insists they work “on the script” at home, pulling her onto the couch, putting his arms around her and addressing her, “Now, I want to find out...all about you.”

      So we have now added adultery, wild gay parties, and a possible couch casting scene—all mixed with a significant amount of semi-nudity which evidently increased as the series moved forward (several of Lucy’s launderette customers determining to get naked as they wash their clothes, etc.)—all in the very first week of this series’ introduction to its soon to be addicted audiences.

      The introduction of openly gay figures to the television world, obviously, became something of great interest to Number 96 viewers. When church and other conservative representatives demanded that Don be converted into a straight man, Sale and his producers refused, telling network executives that if they demanded that, he would take his series elsewhere. Gardnerra, accompanying his gay postings of the series, observes that “Don became one of the most popular cast members and was regarded as a sex symbol by many fans.  He appeared multiple times on the cover of the National TV Week and other publications.” Gardnerra also recounts that when he erratically saw episodes—his was father was highly religious and for a long while would not permit the family to watch, which they nonetheless did when he was out of the house teaching—he was only 11. Yet the TV series nonetheless was crucial for him growing up to see a homosexual who appeared as a seemingly normal being, “always caring, compassionate, helpful, honest, hard-working,” hinting at how important it was to his own life. 

     Since in the movie version of series episodes Don meets up with another gay man Simon, the two of them becoming heroes as they save Vera’s life, it might be useful to share the little bit of what I’ve been able to glimpse of the further series adventures of Don and his various lovers.

     As I’ve suggested, Bruce does not at all seem a right match for Don. And when we begin to perceive in later episodes that he pretends to his employer Maggie Cameron (Bettina Welch, who plays her character with all the wicked lustfulness of Joan Crawford) that he is willing to fulfill her desire of bedding him, despite the fact that she is married, he begin to perceive him as a kind of a scheming gigolo, particularly since, we soon discover, Maggie owns the apartment and has helped purchase most of the art that lines the walls. He accepts her demands to visit what she describes as “their” apartment for dinner when her husband is away on business, Bruce manipulating Don into cooking ahead of time, and then forcing him to spend long hours at the movies with Bev, putting him in a situation much like the Jack Lemmon character, Calvin Baxter in the film The Apartment (1960), a man locked out of his own house.

     The results are disastrous as first Maggie’s husband, suspecting her of seeing another man, has her tailed and throws her out of their house, forcing her to move in with Don (I don’t know the details, but by this time Bruce has gone missing), toasting their new minted “friendship” (“With you as you are and I as I am, what else could it be?”):  “Here’s to crime.” “What crime?” asks Don. “The crime of you staying on here with me. You know you have a very nice body. Oh well, such is taste.” She allows that he has every right to bring men back home, but “When it comes to young men, I’ve got claws like an eagle.” Don responds: “So this flat has become your aiery, has it.?” Is it any wonder when, much later on in the series, we discover that Maggie Cameron is the bomber?

     The second victim of Bruce’s behavior is Bev, who in another episode we see grabbing Don and attempting to kiss him, while he desperately pants and tries to pull away, finally pushing her back just enough to say: “I thought you knew. I’m a homosexual.” If faces can fall, hers cracks. “This thing between us was just...a deep friendship. I thought you knew about Bruce and me. I’m sorry.”

     Her response is perhaps one of the most clearly expressed examples of homophobia ever on either the TV or motion picture screen. Coming up for air, she suddenly explodes: “Sorry? You filthy, filthy, dancing little queer,” before retreating for days into a shell of incomprehension.

     Trying to comfort her later, her roommate Janie, when Bev admits that she still loves Don, argues that she should try to see him and talk. “I couldn’t, it’s so revolting. Janie.”

     Janie: “It’s not impossible for a homosexual to love a woman. Well it’s an accepted part of society whether it’s against the law or not.” That terribly hypocritical statement by one of the most level-headed citizens of Number 96 is one of the most startlingly statements of all. Clearly, if its still a criminal act the society has not truly “accepted” it.

      When Don attempts to contact her again, Bev calls him “Miss Finlayson.”

      “Try to understand,” he implores her.

      “Oh I understand you mistook me for another nancy boy.”

      Soon after, she runs out into the hall screaming “Finlayson is a queer. Don is a fag,” etc.

      Don receives a note from Bruce, who admits he is taking the cowardly way out. (Evidently Bruce has fled Sydney for Adelaide after the death of Bev, of which I know absolutely nothing.)

     Eventually, Bev apologizes and forgives him. Yet even in Episode 35, when he encounter her much-hated patrician mother Claire Houghton (Thelma Scott), visiting her daughter because she perceives that something is quite wrong, Bev is still suffering over her love of Don, although by this time it has become quite comic in tone.

      “Well if you must know, I’ve fallen in love with a homosexual, and I’m trying to get over it.”

      Claire: “What, you mean one of those creatures who wear false eyelashes and douses themselves in Chanel No. 5?”

       Bev contradicts her mother’s conception, describing him as just an ordinary guy, an article clerk, while Claire grandly suggests that there are far more acceptable deviants such as the successful dress designer they know and “that interior decorator who stands to inherit a fortune when his mother dies.”

       Bev finally comes round to expressing the obvious in their shared homophobic conceptions: “You’re just as much a pervert as a drag queen.”  

       Her mother’s response is hilarious: “Let me be the judge of that!”

       While Bev’s final retort reveals both her general fear of any LGBTQ individual while mocking her mother’s inverted notions of reality: “I still think you wouldn’t mind me being with a lesbian, as long as she was a dame in the British Empire.”

       I don’t tend to watch many US soap operas, but I can’t imagine any repartee quite as cleverly campy as what we encounter in this scene. It reads a little like Charles Ludlam rewriting Joan Collins.

       Don evidently had four lovers in the series, Bruce Taylor, who I talk about above, Dudley Butterfield (Chard Hayward*), a rather campy figure who first disrobes as a hippie in Lucy’s laundromat, but later comes to work at Aldo’s wine bar, before evidently turning bisexual, opening a disco, a hair salon, and becoming an TV actor, all before he is shot.

       And then there is Simon Car (John Orcsik) who is in the closet for much of the time, but fianlly comes out with Don in Number 96: The Movie, which shows them in bed together and, before it was inexplicably cut, allowed them on a screen kiss.

       Don’s final lover was Derek Costa (Stephen O’Rouke), about which I have information and have seen no clips.

       And finally, before I turn to the movie version, I should mention that Aldo’s later assistant, the bookish Arnold Feather (Jeff Kevin) falls in love with Carlotta (Carole Lea), a transvestite who finally when Arnold is on the verge of asking for her hand in marriage, asks “You really don’t mind me not being a girl?” “What?” “I’m not really a girl. But you said you knew.” “I knew nothing of the sort, Miss Ross, Mr. Ross?”


For the movie, written by the creator of the series David Sale, I won’t focus on all the subplots, which involve several characters I have not mentioned above, the Whittakers, the comic figure Flo Patterson (Bunney Brooke), and Dorrie’s more tolerant friend, lodger, and bowling mate, and several others such as Lucy and Alf Sutcliffe to which I have introduced you. The central figure here is Vera Collins (Elaine Lee) who has come a long ways from being an unhappy ex-married tarot reader to become a noted fashion designer, who, after working previously with Bev’s pompous mother Claire. is now collaborating with Simon Carr (Orcsik) on a new line of clothes for Maggie Cameron, who has returned after her divorce to appear in several reincarnations, including the owner of the Number 96 building and now a business partner with Vera in fashion.  

      The film’s very first scenes show Vera, whose car has stalled, being surrounded by a gang of motorcyclists who instead of providing the help she had hoped for, gang rape her. As beautiful as she now is, Vera evidently cannot find her way out of the turmoil she has had to face in her past life.

      While recuperating poolside, she is taken to lunch by Claire, who promises Maggie not to steal any of Vera’s designs, taking her to an elegant restaurant along with her friend, Nicholas Brent (James Condon), who is running for Australian Prime Minister. Fortunately, Claire, self-centered as usual, so dominates the conversation that the two can exist almost in another world while sitting at her table, and the two quickly develop a rapport and over the next few days begin to fall in love.

       Yet at the very moment they are most happy Vera realizes that, with her past, she might possibly  destroy his career, and to save him and her later embarrassment pulls away, devoting her time to working with Simon (who as I’ve suggest in my opening paragraph to this long essay, falls in love with her again, attempting but failing to express that in sex).

       Meanwhile, there is Dorrie and Herb’s 40th anniversary to celebrate, which, with catering organized by Arnold Feather and cooking planned by Dudley Butterfield (who has now seemed to have totally forgotten his ex-lover Don) all seems to be going swimmingly. Dudley even suggests that the stodgy Dorrie turn the affair into a costume party, which gives Vera a lot more work to do that helps to keep her mind off of Nicholas. If only it weren’t for Dorrie and Herb’s absurd punctiliousness when it comes to the marriage license, convincing poor Dorrie that she is truly married to Herb’s old, now alcoholic friend Horace Deerman (Harry Lawrence) who takes a shine to her after all these years and makes her nights hell as she struggles to keep away from her own bed. Fortunately, Don assures them that there is no legal problem with the license, and that she and Herb are still officially married. So all is well, if only Aldo hadn’t mistakenly hired Horace as a server for the banquet!

      And then there’s the most preposterous plot Sale ever concocted right out of Midnight Lace (1960) with a dash of Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) thrown in as spice. Former Number 96 resident Sonia Freeman (Lynn Rainbow) returns after her nervous breakdown with a new seemingly doting husband, Duncan Hunter. He’s worried about the fact that Sonia is beginning to lose things, first her wedding ring and then the pendant he has asked the next door flight attendant   

Diana Moore to bring back from Hong Kong as a gift to his wife. Shades of Gaslight are soon beginning to glower over the plot. Sonia’s old friend, serial philanderer Jack Sellars (Tom Oliver)—who once courted the now deceased Bev Houghton and is now shtupping Diana as well—is equally puzzled, particularly when Sonia describes her dreams and he discovers the lost pendant in a box in Diana’s apartment. He realizes that he himself has been cuckolded, that Diana’s real lover is Duncan and they’ve long been drugging poor Sonia so that any moment now she’ll go the balcony, stand the railing, and jump.

      Fortunately, he’s let his old friend know what’s been going on, and the police arrive just in time to cart the duo of D’s off to jail.

    Nick, meanwhile, is determined to find out where he went wrong with Vera, returning to her whereupon she confesses to her rather checkered past, including her recent rape. He still loves her, and takes her off to his summer retreat to meet his beloved son, Tony (Patrick Ward). The only problem is that upon meeting Tony, Vera suddenly finds herself facing the ringleader of her multiple rape. What else can she do but flee from Jack’s side once again. She can’t tell him about the son he idolizes, can she? And even when threatens her, she won’t spill the beans. 

       To cheer her up Don tries to take her out on a dinner date, which she refuses; but when Simon arrives to offer her the same evening on the town, she has no choice but accompany both handsome men who somehow slipped her grasp. If she didn’t know why, all three encounter a drunken Maggie upon their return from the night on the town, who reminds Vera and the Number 96 neighbors that Vera’s dates are both “pooftas,” Don an open queer and Simon a closeted one. You’d think by now that Dorrie would  have a clue about her nice neighbor boy who keeps dragging in such undesirable men. But apparently she never figures it out.

     Finally, we get to the meat of this movie, as Don and Simon take the day off to go swimming and lolling on the beach. Back in Don’s apartment Don washes off the sand, returning to the bedroom to find a naked Simon applying a lotion to relieve his sunburn. But a moment later he has relieved his sexual problems as well, the two luxuriating in bed until late the next morning. Why  those stupid film execs stole their kiss can never be explained, but my guess is they wanted it for themselves. Certainly, the scene with Don and Simon is the best thing about this ridiculous little box-office hit. And it’s apparent that in Australia, at least, gay sex sells.

Don and Simon

      Now it is time for Dorrie and Herb’s grand party, where every burlesque pratfall happens, including a final cake in the face. 

      Receiving a message from Nick, Vera exits this melee only to find a car racing head on in her direction. At the last moment Simon pushes her away, being hit himself in the process, with Don, dressed as Pierrot, leaping to capture the perpetrator, who crashes the car into a nearby wall, sending it into flames with Tony obviously inside. Simon recovers and joins Don presumably in bed for as long as the series can sustain their love.

      And the writer and producers order up happy ending their endeavors well deserve; Nick has won the election and drives in an inaugural motorcade waving at the crowds with Vera at his side. Dorrie always knew she was up to no good.

      The US has still to see a series, even with Sex in the City, as absolutely free-wheeling as the down under Number 96. From our point of view those numbers might as well be reversed. And as Michael Idato quotes Sale in an interview: “One executive said to me, before he’d even read [an updated version of Number 96] ‘I feel I should point out your original series was launched in much braver times.’”

Los Angeles, January 11, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (January 2021).

 

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