By 1973, Melbourne-based Crawford Productions was at its peak, with long-running police dramas Homicide, Division 4 and Matlock Police and a new series, Ryan, all in production. But television drama was going through a generational change in the 1970s — police and crime shows were falling towards the outer while Number 96, launched in 1972, was top of the ratings. Its success proved that serialised drama was a cheaper and viable format for prime time.

With this in mind, Crawfords had developed a concept based around the workings of a fictional television station and, like 96, would feature ample amounts of adult themes and nudity. With the 0-10 Network having success already with 96, The Dream Makers was offered to the Nine and Seven networks. Both knocked it back.

By July 1973 it was reported that 0-10 was investing over $1 million in new Australian production — including a pilot for a new drama series which happened to be The Box, a re-work of The Dream Makers concept.

Early speculation of cast members for the project included George Mallaby (Homicide), Terence Donovan (Division 4), Jack Thompson (Spyforce) and English actress Sandra Gough (in Australia for a ‘working holiday’).

Although Gough was reported to be interested, she was reluctant to commit to any role that required nudity. “I am against that on the screen. It’s not at all necessary,” she told TV Times.

Even Bert Newton, best known for hosting variety programs such as In Melbourne Tonight and the TV Week Logie Awards, was reported to be on the short list of candidates for playing the role of a TV presenter. “I know more about it than I can tell you but that’s it at the moment,” he told TV Times. “I have not done any TV acting but I do regard sketch work which I have done on many occasions as a type of acting, though some people might argue about that.”

After much speculation the initial cast list was confirmed: Graeme Blundell (later to become famous as Alvin Purple), Barrie Barkla, Fred ‘Cul’ Cullen, Judy Nunn (pictured, right), Monica Maughan, Fred Betts, Briony Behets and Kay McFeeter were the first to be announced.

George Mallaby, Barrie Barkla

Following weeks of negotiation, Mallaby was eventually signed up for the leading role of TV executive Paul Donovan. Ken James, best known from children’s series Skippy The Bush Kangaroo, was signed on for the part of bumbling actor Tony Wild. And although executive producer Tom Hegarty said that Newton performed well in auditions, ultimately the part of TV compere Gary Burke went to English actor Peter Regan.

Fred ‘Cul’ Cullen, Peter Regan and (back to camera) Kay McFeeter

Also joining the cast were Paul Karo, Helen Hemingway, Lois Ramsey, Ken Snodgrass, Belinda Giblin and Vanessa Leigh.

Kay McFeeter

Production for The Box began in Melbourne in October 1973. Although 0-10 Network executives, after previewing early episodes, were pushing for a late-1973 debut, Crawford Productions resisted, citing the need to build up a backlog of episodes to ensure continuity for airing five episodes a week.

Crawfords won the battle and The Box debuted with a 90-minute episode, broadcast on ATV0, Melbourne, on 11 February 1974. Sydney’s TEN10 followed the next night. The series was not surprisingly run back-to-back with Number 96. On the day of its debut, in a rare move Hector Crawford (pictured) placed prominent ads in the daily newspapers justifying his move into sex-and-sin drama and responding to the critics:

“Our programs have always enjoyed a remarkable degree of success in Australia because we have produced the type of drama which Australians want to see. Our approach to The Box has followed the very same policy, recognising that our society’s tastes and standards are changing and, to a great extent, maturing. To us, television must reflect this change, this growing maturity.

“I believe our responsibility is to the television audience at large, not to vocal, and sometimes, highly managed minority groups which try to dictate what people should be allowed to see on their screens.”

Executive producer Hegarty also confirmed to Woman’s Day just how explicit the series was to be:

The Box is not billed as a family show. We plan it for fairly late evening viewing, after the kids have gone to bed, and any sex there is in the show will be fairly adult. It is an adult show. We are not playing for kids.”

Viewers looking for nudity, or outrage, were sure to find plenty in the opening episodes. When variety show host Gary Burke (Peter Regan) fails to appear on cue after a commercial break it is revealed that he had been ‘distracted’ by a young female, Felicity (Helen Hemingway), in his dressing room. Not only was Felicity young but also under-age (though Hemingway was not).

Helen Hemingway

Later, a photo shoot featuring cop show star Tony Wild (Ken James) in a naked pose with Felicity leads to a lesbian kiss between Felicity and magazine reporter Vicki Stafford (Judy Nunn). Not even the groundbreaking Number 96 had managed a same-sex smooch.

With such titillating material The Box was understandably a ratings hit. In particular in Sydney it managed a rating of 46 on its debut — meaning that 46 per cent of all TV sets in Sydney were tuned to The Box. Its early ratings in Melbourne, where the series was made, were not as high but still put the new show second to only Number 96 in the ratings.

George Mallaby (right) with TVQ0 presenter JJ White, promoting The Box launch in Brisbane.

As well as the emphasis on sex and nudity, the goings on at the fictional television station, UCV12, were almost regarded as a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the television industry at the time. “Of course we do draw a lot on what happens around here,” Hegarty told Woman’s Day.

The portrayal of bullish station owner Sir Henry Usher (Fred Betts) was the subject of much industry speculation. Was he modelled on Sir Frank Packer, chairman of the Nine Network, or even Reg Ansett, owner of ATV0. It was revealed many years later that the character was based, affectionately, on Hector Crawford himself.

The Box: 1975

While Crawford may not have considered The Box his best work it was the one series that kept the company afloat after the networks had canned his cop shows in quick succession. Some of the actors to have featured in the Crawford cop dramas would soon re-appear in The Box, including Don Barker, Gary Day, Tom Richards and John Stanton.

And while The Box didn’t get Bert Newton, it did manage to get Graham Kennedy to appear as himself in the 1975 feature film spin-off.

Graham Kennedy, Paul Karo

Some of the other cast to feature in The Box during its series run included Noni Hazlehurst, Tracy Mann (pictured, right), Tristan Rogers, Shane Porteous, Jill Forster, Tony Bonner, Geraldine Turner, Christine Broadway, Tony Barry, Delvene Delaney, Syd Heylen, Donald McDonald, Luigi Villani, Tristan Rogers, Roger Newcombe, Arna-Maria Winchester and Davina Whitehouse.

Ken James, Cheryl Rixon

The series continued to feature certain amounts of nudity. Perth-born model Cheryl Rixon was to become the show’s new sex symbol, replacing Vanessa Leigh, while one storyline had the staff of UCV12 finding themselves inadvertently at a nudist retreat. The episode, filmed at a secluded property on the outskirts of Melbourne, featured cast members and extras, male and female, of various ages and sizes and in various stages of nudity — but the public was no longer shocked. “We ran the scene some two or three years after The Box started, and there was not even a murmur,” writer Jock Blair told TV Week in 1981.

Briony Behets, Delvene Delaney

So with the public no longer being shocked by such titillation The Box, like 96, had nowhere else to go. Ratings fell and both series wound up production in 1977.

YouTube: Studio 10

Crawfords went on to other projects including The Sullivans for the Nine Network, Cop Shop for the Seven Network and the ill-fated Hotel Story for 0-10.

Source: TV Times, 28 July 1973, 11 August 1973, 18 August 1973. 1 September 1973, 8 September 1973, 15 September 1973, 22 September 1973, 3 November 1973, 9 February 1974, 9 March 1974, 30 March 1974, 27 April 1974, 24 August 1974, 28 September 1974, 14 December 1974, 1 February 1975, 8 March 1975, 14 June 1975, 12 July 1975, 9 August 1975, 13 September 1975, 17 January 1976, 15 May 1976, 5 February 1977. The Age, 11 February 1974. TV Week, 13 July 1974,  21 December 1974, 11 January 1975, 5 January 1980, 29 August 1981. Woman’s Day, 18 February 1974. Super Aussie Soaps, Andrew Mercado.

(This is a revision of the post “40 years since Class Of ’74, The Box“, published for The Box’s 40th anniversary in 2014)

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