Australian television has been remarkably queer for a long time. In fact, LGBTQ+ characters and storylines filled Aussie screens decades before they did in the US and UK. Now, one of the first openly gay men on Australian TV is researching that history for a new documentary series, Outrageous: The Queer History of Australian TV.
In the 1990s and 2000s, broadcaster, journalist, and pop-culture commentator Andrew Mercado was one of the most visible gay men on Australian television. As one of the hosts on youth music channel Channel [V] he was in Australian homes weekly, and unashamedly queer in a time when entertainment was only starting to come out of the closet.
Here, Mercado reflects back to the 1970s and gives The Queer Review a peak into a near-forgotten chapter of Australia’s queer television history.
Fifty years ago, when homosexuality was illegal, it was made to look respectable on Australian TV. The year was 1972 and Aussies were still watching TV in black and white, but the content was groundbreaking, revolutionary, and gay-friendly. Most importantly, it was not a one-off or a niche program, but every weeknight on the number one show on TV.
By comparison, American TV was barely dipping its toe into the gay subculture. While its early episodes were struggling in the ratings, All In The Family featured a gay character (played by Phil Carey) in one episode. On the equally low-rating sitcom, The Corner Bar, an occasional gay character (Vincent Schiavelli) didn’t make it to the show’s second season.
Whilst any representation is good, neither of those shows made much of an impact. The same couldn’t be said, however, of Number 96, an Australian drama that exploded onto screens in 1972 with the provocative tagline: “Tonight at 8.30pm: Television Loses Its Virginity”.
Number 96 delivered on that promise, and for the next three years it would be the top-rating show in the country. Thanks to its lashings of sex, nudity, and interracial romance, it was also never going to be allowed to screen on free-to-air TV in the US (and still couldn’t today).
In the early episodes of Number 96, several straight men were behaving very badly. A horny husband slept with a young neighbour because his heavily pregnant wife couldn’t have sex with him. A separated husband stalked and terrorized his wife, and a motorcycle gang member was skulking around, only to encounter a cougar businesswoman who enjoyed a bit of rough trade.
In contrast to all this toxic masculinity, a shy law student, Don Finlayson (Joe Hasham), shared a flat with a party boy photographer, Bruce Taylor (Paul Weingott). Six weeks into the show, Don revealed he was gay and that bisexual Bruce was his lover. The news didn’t go down well with Bev Houghton (Abigail), because she was in love with Don.
What’s remarkable about this storyline is that Bev apologised for her homophobia, blaming it on “not being sophisticated enough”. Don shrugged it off and they remained friends. For the next five years, with over 1,200 episodes, the gay man sat at the moral centre of the raunchiest show ever seen on Australian TV.
Despite outrageous storylines involving a knicker snipper and a pantyhose strangler, the “straight-acting” gay lawyer was positively “normal”, helping out everyone and anyone who needed him. Based on the fan mail, Don was also the show’s most popular character, with teenage girls and their mothers writing love letters to him, and ripping at his clothes if they saw Hasham out in public.
Another group was writing in too, and actor Joe Hasham personally replied to every single one of them. Closeted gay men, living in suburbs and regional towns all across Australia, were thanking the actor for giving them hope and showing they weren’t alone; Don was a gay man who was respected by his community and adored by his friends.
The key to this gay revolution was that Number 96’s creator, David Sale, was gay himself. He based Don on a man he met from a blokey oil firm, whom nobody could pick was gay. Normalising a gay man had never been done on television before. Previously, they were stereotypically effeminate, or tragic victims of blackmail and/or “poofter bashing”.
Number 96 changed all that, and within a few months, little old ladies could be overheard hoping Don would find himself a boyfriend. When he did settle down, it was with Dudley Butterfield (Chard Hayward), a chef with a touch of camp who quoted from old Hollywood movies, and had a trademark catchphrase: “Don’t be cheeky or I’ll slap your wrist”.
Don and Dudley lived together for three years, but they were the only iconic couple in Number 96 not to feature on the cover of TV Week magazine. Instead, the magazine went to great lengths to never mention their relationship or homosexuality, promoting each actor individually, while always mentioning their real-life heterosexuality.
While the audience of Number 96 happily accepted them as a couple, others in showbiz struggled with it. Network executives, now rolling in advertising revenue thanks to Number 96’s phenomenal popularity, never objected to any storyline. They were fine with incest, gang rape and devil worship, but when they finally intervened with a request to turn Don straight, they didn’t get the response they were looking for.
American producer Bill Harmon, a straight man now aware of the impact their positive gay role model was having, told them that Don would never be turned straight. Furthermore, he threatened to take the show to another network if they ever asked again. Today, we call Bill Harmon a queer ally.
Number 96 was the first TV series in the world to feature a regular gay character (Don) and a bisexual one (Bruce). Lesbian characters followed, and so did a showgirl called Robin Ross. Played by real life showgirl Carlotta, she became the first trans actress to play a trans character on TV, way back in 1973.
The following year, another Aussie drama began on the same network. The Box was set in a TV station and it featured a flamboyant gay director, Lee Whiteman (Paul Karo). Some winced at Lee’s wrist-flapping ways, but he would win them over, thanks to him being a three-dimensional character, who had several boyfriends.
The Box was full of beautiful young actresses, including Judy Nunn and Helen Hemingway who participated in TV’s first lesbian kiss. But just like Number 96, the actor who got the most fan mail was the one playing the gay man. Family magazine TV Times was so fascinated with this “showbiz phenomenon”, they devoted three pages to a report about it, with a front cover headline that said: “The Gay Guys Are Great”.
So, to recap, even though homosexuality was illegal, Australian audiences were learning all about it by following the lives of multiple gay characters for several years, as Number 96 and The Box sat together at the top of the ratings chart.
Throughout the 1970s, queer characters popped up on multiple Aussie dramas. As the decade came to a close, Prisoner debuted and once again, the most unlikely character became the show’s breakout star. Franky Doyle, the butch dyke bikie killer, was only in the series for 20 episodes, but once audiences understood her traumatic background, they sobbed with sadness when her character died in a police shoot-out.
The arrival of AIDS, coupled with a growing reluctance of straight network executives, eventually led to gay characters disappearing from Australian TV. But former High Court judge Michael Kirby believes that, along with the great work done by certain politicians and health professionals, the societal memory of Number 96, and how it normalised gay people, helped Australians deal with the AIDS crisis.
I was lucky enough to be one of those queer kids watching those positive gay role models on TV. It meant there was no need to beat myself up about my secret sexuality, because in my mind, one day I could leave my Catholic boys school and homophobic town, and find my gay family somewhere else.
Therefore, I was shocked to read Caught In The Act, the autobiography of international drag superstar Courtney Act, and learn that Shane Jenek grew up never knowing what homosexuality was. That’s because there was such limited queer representation on TV for him throughout the 80s and 90s, and things did not improve until reality TV arrived in 2001.
Around this time, I was asked to become an entertainment reporter for youth music network Channel [V]. I had been doing a frequent spot about gay issues, and after becoming a regular, I continued to fly the rainbow flag at every opportunity.
I believe I was the first openly gay man on Australian TV, because I declared my queerness loud and proud right from the start. Given the positive gay role models I had seen on TV while I was growing up, I took this opportunity to do the same very seriously.
That was nearly twenty years ago now, but when someone today tells me how thrilling it was to see me, a gay man on TV when they were growing up, my heart almost bursts with joy. Representation is important, and although it’s taken a while, Australia finally has a full range of LGBTQIA+ people on TV, including multicultural and First Nations people.
Largely forgotten, however, is how Australian TV was the first in the world to give a platform to queer issues and characters. Outside of Australia, where these groundbreaking shows didn’t air, there is no knowledge about what we did, and that should change.
That’s why I have spent the past two years researching The Queer History of Australian TV. No network is in a hurry to fund this project, so we are crowdfunding it ourselves through the Documentary Australia Foundation. My dream is that we can make it ourselves with an all-queer crew, so if you or your business is interested in supporting an irreverent and sexy look at diversity, I thank you.
Find out more and help to crowdfund Outrageous: The Queer History of Australian TV.