Forty years ago today, the bomb went off at Number 96 — presenting one of the defining and most oft-remembered moments of Australian television drama.
By 1975, after three years captivating audiences and astounding critics, Number 96‘s ratings were on the slide. Viewers had tuned away from the dramatic and comedic adventures of the residents of the famous apartment block, even though only months earlier the series had fended off strong competition from the Seven Network quiz show Great Temptation.
Producer Bill Harmon, anxious to bring 96 back to its ratings peak, was looking at options to refresh the series. The series had employed successful “whodunit” storylines before — such as the ‘knicker snipper’, the mystery prowler who would pinch and cut holes into the underwear of the apartment block’s female residents, and the ‘pantyhose murderer‘, who strangled their victims.
Scriptwriter David Sale had jokingly suggested blowing up the fictional apartment block as a means of exiting a string of characters that had been deemed to have had their run or were losing favour with the public. This was to make way for new characters to be brought in and trigger some fresh storylines.
Although Sale’s suggestion was made in jest, Harmon went with it and ordered an immediate re-write of the advance scripts to incorporate the lead up and the aftermath of the bomb storyline. But the identity of those that would be written out was to stay a tight secret.
Episode 839 first went to air on Friday, 5 September 1975. It began innocently enough, with Liz Chalmers (Margaret Laurence) peeling potatoes and having stern words with Jaja Gibson (Anya Saleky) over her choice of male companion, deputy town clerk Nigel Morgan (John Allen).
Meanwhile, the sound of the radio in Vera Collins’ (Elaine Lee) apartment tells us it’s just turned 12 midday. An anonymous note is slipped under the front door of Vera’s: “DEAR MRS CAMERON. BOMB IN NUMBER 96 WILL BLOW AT 6PM.” Suddenly we’re taken to a close-up of an unopened carton of olives delivered to Aldo and Roma Godolfus’ (Johnny Lockwood and Philippa Baker) delicatessen.
As the episode progresses we get the latest on the residents of the apartment block. Norma and Les Whittaker (Sheila Kennelly and Gordon McDougall) are set to renew their wedding vows. Alf Sutcliffe (James Elliott) and pregnant wife Lucy (Elisabeth Kirkby) had arranged to swap flats with Don Finlayson (Joe Hasham), so as to avoid Lucy climbing four flights of stairs to their top-floor apartment. Dudley Butterfield (Chard Hayward) had taken over from Lucy in running the nearby laundrette. And the Godolfuses were planning to foster a young delinquent, Kerry Bradden (Ashley Grenville).
Number 96’s “conserge” Dorrie Evans (Pat McDonald) confides to husband Herb (Ron Shand) that she is convinced that their boarder Flo Patterson (Bunney Brooke) has become a chronic shoplifter. The recently widowed Arnold Feather (Jeff Kevin), whose wife Patti (Pamela Garrick) was one of those killed by the ‘pantyhose murderer‘ some months earlier, was being matched up by the Godolfuses with the seemingly innocent Liz Chalmers.
Flatmates Miles Cooper (Scott Lambert), ‘Prim’ Primrose (Pamela Gibbons) and David Palmer (Vince Martin) are planning to celebrate the end of Miles’ exam and actor David securing a film project. Meanwhile, Don shares news from the police that the man who confessed to a recent neighbourhood bombing was actually innocent — meaning that the real culprit was still on the loose.
As the scenes ticked over, so did the clock wired up in the innocuous looking carton in the deli, ticking closer and closer to the threat of 6 o’clock — and the entire building continued to remain oblivious to the note slipped under Vera’s front door as she had yet to return home. She had been unexpectedly summonsed to the office of business partner Warwick Thompson (Kit Taylor). Despite her pleas to return home to work on designs for her new fashion boutique, Vera was unable to get away from Warwick’s office while they coped with the fallout from a PR stunt gone wrong by Maggie Cameron (Bettina Welch). Maggie had flown to Melbourne to escape the furore and to give Vera some space to work on her designs.
It was not until 5:58 that Les Whittaker stumbles on the ominous note. Viewers then get that now-famous split screen countdown showing Les frantically warning the building’s residents to get out; the activity in the delicatessen and wine bar; and the clock as it ticks towards 6:00.
Just seconds before 6:00 Les burst into the wine bar and delicatessen to warm them about the bomb — but it’s too late. The clock strikes 6 and the stack of boxes in the delicatessen explodes — taking out both the delicatessen and the wine bar on the ground floor. The chirpy theme tune usually played out over the closing credits is replaced by a dramatic piano chord and then silence as viewers see the scene of devastation, complete with bodies strewn around the two destroyed shops.
In true cliffhanger fashion the identity of the bomb’s victims were not known until the following episode on Monday… and there were no clues as to who the bomber was. It was to be revealed that the bomb had taken out Aldo and Roma Godolfus, Les Whittaker and Miles Cooper. Norma Whittaker was taken to hospital and the heavily pregnant Lucy went into labour and was to give birth to a baby girl.
The bomber was soon found to be none other than 96‘s resident bitch Maggie Cameron (pictured). Maggie had planted the bomb and slipped the warning note under Vera’s door — and addressing the note to “Mrs Cameron” as a decoy — but expected that Vera would be home to discover the note well in advance and avert disaster. The bomb threat was only meant to serve as a scare tactic to force the tenants to move out so she could sell the building to developers.
Maggie was then written out of the series. The storyline had her deemed insane and sent off to a mental institution.
In an age before social media, shocked viewers took to jamming the switchboards of TV stations to voice their disapproval after finding out the list of victims. Sydney’s TEN10 received hundreds of calls, including from some who had organised protest petitions. One caller, who had been watching the show since the beginning, said, “taking the regulars out means I’ll lose interest in the program. I don’t think they should have killed the characters…”
The reaction of Melbourne viewers was less aggressive, with ATV0 receiving about 100 phone calls and half of them being complimentary. Some did complain about the display of the bodies at the close of the episode, while others dismissed the bomb as a “gimmicky attempt to boost ratings”.
Actor Johnny Lockwood, who had played Aldo Godolfus (pictured) from episode one, later told TV Times he was realistic about the show’s predicament and that a major shake-up was needed. “Once a show starts to slide, it slides,” he said. “A big surgical job was necessary. I only hope they have done the right thing, because I’d like to think it will go on for the next 10 years.” Real-life tragedy was soon to strike Lockwood, as ten days after the bomb episode went to air his real-life wife, Anne, died after falling from their 11th floor apartment in Sydney.
Production of the bomb blast itself was a massive exercise… although it was undertaken within the confines of the TEN studio in Sydney. No CGI back in 1975. No opportunity to mock up the apartment building facade outdoors for filming of the explosion. The scene, said to have added $70,000 to the show’s production, used 70 detonators to depict the explosion and required robotic-controlled cameras with shatter-proof shields to film the devastation as the studio had to be evacuated. It had to be done in one take and meticulous planning was also needed to ensure that all the action was caught on camera despite the huge fluctuations in lighting levels.
The aftermath of the bomb saw a number of new characters and scenarios written in, but none of which managed to bring the show back to its peak ratings of its earlier years. The ratings spike created by the bomb storyline only prolonged the show’s decline instead of preventing it all together. Producer Harmon tried to create some spin-off projects featuring various Number 96 characters but none were picked up for production.
The show was eventually axed in April 1977 with the 1218th and final episode screened later that year. Maggie Cameron, who’d set off the bomb two years earlier, was back and in an ironic twist had this time saved Number 96 from a subsequent threat of demolition.
The episodes of the bomb-blast and the immediate aftermath were shown again a decade later as part of David Lyle‘s The Golden Years Of Television, and the episodes surrounding the bomb-blast were released on DVD in March 2012, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the show’s debut.