By the turn of the ’80s it was the unofficial benchmark for each commercial network to have two successful soapie dramas in the schedule. Seven had Cop Shop and Skyways, and Nine had The Sullivans and The Young Doctors. The then 0-10 Network had the popular Prisoner and teen drama The Restless Years. For some reason, the third ranked network pumped up to $3 million into risking another drama.
In the middle of 1979, the network had been considering a project titled Centaur, with a big business and horse racing theme. The project fell through when the network’s Melbourne channel, ATV0, backed out prior to the pilot going into production.
Pal Cleary, director of programming at TEN10 in Sydney, then recalled another concept for a series set in a shopping centre. He raised the idea with TEN10 general manager Ian Kennon and ATV0 executives Wilf Barker and Mike Lattin, all of which enthusiastically embraced the idea. Early storyline plans were sketched on pieces of paper napkin but had rather salacious themes, before the eager executives realised that shock tactics were not going to work. Audiences had moved on from the titillating days of Number 96 and The Box.
Despite wanting to move away from the Number 96 template, the executives secured the services of former Number 96 producer Bill Harmon, creator and story editor David Sale and scriptwriter Johnny Whyte to develop their new idea as lighter drama and comic fare for an early evening timeslot.
More than 1500 actors were auditioned across the country for the cast of 20, as TEN10’s Studio A was turned into a replica shopping mall, including shopfronts, shiny floors and real-life merchandise as props. A snappy disco-styled theme tune was composed by Rick Perjanik and sung by Doug Parkinson.
With the network pushing for a mid-January launch, production commenced in the last week of November, bypassing the making of a pilot.
When production finally commenced, the Arcade shopfronts included a newsagent, delicatessen, sports shop, record bar, gymnasium, gift shop and a pinball parlour. The cast included some familiar faces: Lorrae Desmond, Peggy Toppano, Mike Dorsey, Syd Heylen, Aileen Britton, Alan Finney and Danny Adcock.
Filling out the rest of the cast were Sinan Leong, Raymond Nock, Lucy Taylor, Patrick Ward, Olga Tamara, Anne Semler, Jeremy Kewley, Garth Meade, Maggie Stuart, Bill Charlton, Coral Kelly, Greg Bepper and Christine Harris.
With the soon-to-be-renamed Network Ten enthusiastically talking up the new show as being the huge hit for the 1980s, but declining to offer anything in the form of preview episodes, a willing media was still relaying every development ahead of the show’s launch. It was also well reported that it was set to take on early evening stalwarts Willesee At Seven and The Sullivans.
Arcade made its grand opening across the network on Sunday 20 January 1980 with a 90-minute episode before settling into a regular half-hour weeknight timeslot. Viewers were introduced to the mix of characters that populated the shopping centre, many of which the usual soapie stereotypes, both comically over-the-top and otherwise, but there were some commendable nods to diverse representation. The characters included a Chinese-Australian family running the delicatessen, and one that used a wheelchair (though played by an able-bodied actor).
Despite its massive pre-launch publicity and reporting and elaborate 90-minute debut, viewers did not seem that interested in the promise of tales from a suburban shopping mall. Audience surveys did not bode well for Ten’s new show, and rival network Nine stirred the pot by issuing a press release to trumpet its summer cricket coverage but included some of the less flattering results for Arcade.
While some of the show’s stars were bravely quoted in press articles promising that the show needed time to settle in, the network was about to pounce as its expensive gamble had gone from hero to zero.
Arcade was axed at the end of February, after only six weeks, though its axing was too late to undo some prominent magazine coverage that was already in print, centred around previewing an upcoming wedding in the show that was now never to see the light of day.
The expensive set that filled Studio A was dismantled and dumped outside Ten’s studios as an invitation to passers by for free fire wood.
Network management, while conceding that attempting to make Arcade in-house was a mistake, tried to throw the scriptwriters under the bus for Arcade‘s failure. But Sale in his autobiography Number 96, Mavis Bramston And Me, decried that the show’s biggest flaw was that it was a constantly moving target in development, with episode structure, storylines and even menial details relating to the use of certain props all up for interference and debate by network executives.
If a positive legacy could be derived from Arcade, it was that two of its cast — Lorrae Desmond and Syd Heylen — were spotted by future A Country Practice producer James Davern, who cast them both for ongoing roles in his new rural drama that launched in 1981.
Source: TV Week, 10 November 1979, 19 January 1980. TV Guide, 8 December 1979, 5 January 1980. TV Times, 1 March 1980. The Australian Women’s Weekly TV World, 4 April 1981. Super Aussie Soaps, Andrew Mercado. Number 96, Mavis Bramston And Me.