In the 1970s, while the rest of the world was struggling to show LGBTQ+ characters as anything other than jokes or morality tales, one country led the way with fully-fledged gay characters front and centre. Australia’s Number 96 was a sexy soap opera about the lives of people sharing an apartment building, putting sympathetic gay characters into the living rooms of the nation.
The new mini-documentary, Outrageous: The Queer History of Australian TV, by television historian Andrew Mercado, unearths this little discussed chapter of LGBTQ+ screen representation that paved the way for much that followed.
Premiering in 1972, Number 96 was born on the struggling 10 Network, Australia’s smallest commercial television network at the time. The direction was to create a racier version of UK soap Coronation St. Set in an apartment complex—not unlike Melrose Place decades later—the array of characters included handsome single man Don Finlayson. Just one month after the show premiered, Don would utter the words, “I’m a homosexual. I thought you knew.”
An instant hit, Number 96 would save the 10 Network and make straight actor Joe Hasham a pin-up star; his face on the cover of magazines around the country. While Don was not the first openly gay character on television—that honour goes to All In The Family’s Steve in 1971—he was the first major character to be seen on a regular basis, and the first to be presented as a dependable leading man. The show would also include multiple bisexual characters (Don had a habit of dating bisexual men) and the world’s first openly trans character played by a trans actress (Les Girls superstar Carlotta). All this despite the fact homosexuality was still criminalized in Australia.
During the documentary, key moments from the series are shown to a contemporary audience: drag star Courtney Act and writer and activist Ben Law in studio, and The Flash actor Keiynan Lonsdale, who zooms his observations in. They discuss how groundbreaking the representation was and how it wouldn’t be matched on Australian TV for quite some time.
Former Australian High Court Justice Michael Kirby even postulates that by demonstrating that LGBTQ+ people were just like everyone else back in the 70s, it softened some of the hysteria of the AIDS crisis in Australia in the decades that followed. Perhaps the most surprising revelation is that this next generation of queer people—born after the show had aired—were entirely unaware that Number 96, and its strides for equality, even existed.
The film touches on the fact that subsequent shows, like spin-off The Box and prison drama Prisoner, would continue to feature queer characters, but not always in such a nuanced way.
Outrageous is a reminder that our stories have been part of Australian, and the world’s, television culture for a long time. I’d love to see this excellent doc expanded to feature length film in order to tell the story of Number 96 and all the shows that followed in more depth.
Outrageous receives its world premiere at Queer Screen’s 30th Mardi Gras Film Festival on Febraury 16th, 2023, screening with a restored episode of Number 96 and in-depth discussion between actor Joe Hasham, scriptwriter Sarah Walker, and TV historian Andrew Mercado. Click here for tickets and more information.