Number 96 and me: the novelisations - by Anne Harrex

Essay by Anne Harrex, February 2014

Between 1972 and 1974, eight novelisations based on storylines from the TV show, “Number 96” were published by Angus & Robertson under the Arkon paperback imprint. In the end, I wrote seven of these and edited another of them (“The Wayward Husband”) for publication.

Number 96 novelisations

It all began with an advertisement in the weekend newspaper, “The Review”, formerly “Sunday Review”, “The Sunday Review” and, in its last incarnation, “Nation Review”. The ad may have appeared somewhere else, but this was where I saw it. Writers were wanted for crime and romance novels (I think it was romance) – “to apply send examples of your work to…” (The address gave no other clues.) I’d always been writing and had a drawerful of rejection slips to prove it. As I had two young children, who were now both at school, it looked like the ideal thing for me.

In those days there were still postal deliveries on a Saturday morning. It was a Saturday some weeks later when a parcel arrived. As soon as I touched it, I realised it contained more than the material from the reject pile that I had sent. Inside with it was a sheaf of duplicated storyline material from the popular - and, indeed, notorious - Channel 10 television show, “Number 96”. The publishing firm of Angus & Robertson had obtained the rights to use these materials and planned a series of novelisations based on storylines from the show. I was being asked to write the first, to be called “Janie Stagestruck” [featuring Robyn Gurney’s character]. As I remember, the material about the show was general, containing summaries of each episode as a whole, and I can’t say now whether the Janie storyline was also presented separately or whether I had to follow it through for myself. There were definitely no scripts provided, let alone any vision apart from what I’d seen when the show aired. (I don’t know what A&R’s arrangements with the “96” production company, Cash Harmon, involved, or how and why one novel, “Bev & Bruce & Maggie & Don”, used a publicity still from the show on the cover, but none of the others.) [Cover photo credits included Wes Stacey, Nick Van Der Lay and Warren Penny.]

On Saturday mornings, we used to go to the local pub and meet friends, with or without kids. I remember taking the paperwork with me and thinking, “Oh my God, I can’t do this.” They wanted the novelisation to be done in two weeks! After a beer or two, I decided I’d better give it a go. I’d watched “96”, of course, but not always consistently. That was fortunate, because I had some idea of the characters, the actors portraying them, the tone of the show and so on, including the physical location. For the Janie Somers’ story, my experience working with a university drama company on revues and plays, mostly backstage, came in handy. It was actually a fairly thin storyline and needed a lot of padding out. Because “96” had a reputation as being “naughty”, I put in a scene in which Janie and Bev are taken to see some blue movies, as they were called then, but this was edited out, leaving only a now-cryptic reference at the beginning of a later chapter. (Another invention of mine in a later book, the lesbian scene for Sonia Vansard and Vera Collins, also padding, was passed by the editor of that one.) As for the business of the so-called “nude play”, which was in episodes I’d missed, if I’d had more time to think I would have realised this referred to a minute or two only of nudity, but I had no time. [Judy Lynne - later a popular star of “The Young Doctors” - had portrayed lead actor Gloria Gould in the screened episodes, with Janie as the understudy who has to replace her.] I must have got straight into it the following Monday, two days later, when the kids had gone to school. Like all the books, it was written in a single draft, straight onto the typewriter. I think I achieved ten pages a day, and did manage to produce them in two to three weeks, closer to three probably.

A note now about author attributions. The original idea was that a number of writers would be responsible for the novelisations, which were to be published with no author name. After four of them had appeared, three my own work, and it was established that I was going to be doing all the novelising, I raised the question of having a name on the rest. As a still hopeful writer of original fiction, I needed to use a pseudonym for the “96” titles. “Marina Campbell” combined my daughter’s name and a family name. (Later on I discovered there is a woman of that name in Sydney, whether she knew of her “namesake” or not I did not hear.) My real identity was no secret among friends and family but, as my then-husband was a member of the English department at Flinders University, I didn’t leave copies of my books lying around at home, or make a point of my new career in academic circles. In the end, the real identity of “Marina Campbell” was never a secret. It’s in a reference book [“The Bibliography of Australian Literature, Volume 3“ by John Arnold & John Hay, University of Queensland Press], and I see it’s also on the Internet. I haven’t looked at the books for many years, and couldn’t bear to read the first couple again or find the time to do more than glance at the later ones, but from what I can see they are quite literate and readable and nothing to be ashamed of. (More on the tone of the books later.)

Concerning remuneration, I was paid $350 for “Janie Stagestruck” and two or three of the subsequent books, with one exception (below) and then $450 for later titles. Because I had produced “Janie” in good time, and in acceptable form, I was contacted and asked if I would edit a second manuscript that was considered not to be publishable in its present form. This was “The Wayward Husband”, #2 of the series. I was to receive $250 for that, I think, and $100 went to the original writer, whoever he was. I can’t remember now who was my first editor with A&R, only that he was also connected to “The Review”. So were my second, David Courtney, and my third, Patrick Cook. I think Barrie Watts may have done one or two at the end. In any case, there was always a strong connection between A&R and “The Review”. Richard Walsh had gone from being its second editor to a position at A&R as “The Publisher”, his chosen title.

When the manuscript of “The Wayward Husband” arrived, it really needed no more than some tightening, possibly a little cutting, and I felt rather uncomfortable about the deal. It may also have been as early as this that A&R discovered that no other suitable candidates for 96 novelisers had come forward. Unfortunately, I seem not to have any correspondence from this period among my papers, so I can’t be specific about details and possibly there are inaccuracies. I also had frequent long conversations over the phone discussing aspects of the work with my editors in which we dealt with most of the business; Patrick Cook was the only one I met, in Sydney, in 1973.

Then came the third of the series, "Bev & Bruce & Maggie & Don”, the title a straight steal from the movie, “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice”. Like “Number 96”, this movie rated in its time as daring. (The sexual revolution of the 60s took its time getting into the mainstream, and the buttoned up 50s needed another decade to loosen up.) The rest of the books followed. There was talk at one stage of additional titles involving the TV characters but using original storylines, and I did devise some ideas, but nothing came of that. It was a natural disaster that put an end to the novelisations. The books were popular and sold well – I like to think of them as subsidising more serious Australian fiction for A&R – but the printing was done in Brisbane where the 1974 floods disrupted production and momentum was lost.

The technical business of turning these sketchy storylines into actual novels was interesting and quite instructive from the writing point of view. It also explains the nature of the relationship of the books to the show itself. I’ve already mentioned the covers. Apart from the single example, I didn’t find those successful. Janie on the book cover was far more voluptuous than the original actor, which was fine, but the rest of the posed scenes were very unconvincing, as were the substitute models/actors. The naked lady on the cover of “The Grip of Evil”, whose pubic bush required considerable air-brushing, so I heard, was the closest they could get to Abigail as Bev Houghton.

As for the books, I had only storylines to work from. That meant all dialogue had to be my own invention. Of course there were catchphrases, such as Dorrie Evans’ “Why wasn’t I told?” that were obligatory, along with her mangling of the English language. The description of Herbert Evans as looking “like a koala in a fright” was my personal impression of Ron Shand in the part. I seemed to be trusted to make it authentic, even if it bore no resemblance to what had been in the screen original. For this reason, my version of events in “The Grip of Evil”, for example, can’t be taken as kosher. If the original vision of the Black Mass episode(s) is lost, there must be scripts somewhere still. Re this storyline, there’s a mistake in Andrew Mercado’s “Super Aussie Soaps”. On pp 48-9, he confuses de Como (Peter Reynolds) with Vernon Saville, Bev’s wicked hypnotherapist who was played by Alistair Duncan. (Personal note: This actor was in nearly all of the radio plays my mother and I used to listen to together on Sunday afternoons at 4. He had a beautiful voice and took the lead male role always, often as a romantic or heroic figure. On TV, he was clearly neither. I suspect I let my disappointment show when I wrote Vernon Saville.)

Some of the plotlines were quite simple and straightforward, the Janie one being an example. I was lucky to start with an easy one, despite its needing a lot of padding somehow to fill even a short book. The crime storylines of “Who Killed Sylvia Vansard?” and “The Perfect Victim” required a lot of thought. These story arcs were carried over six weeks or so of episodes, in which they had only a scene or so while a number of parallel stories were being developed. This meant that it didn’t matter if details seemed not to fit, or to be consistent, or even credible – who would notice? [For example, Chad Farrell and Mark Eastwood don't find Sylvia's body - as they had in the TV episode. In “Who Killed Sylvia Vansard?“, Chad and Mark aren't even in the novelisation.] Or that the explanations in the end were not very coherent either. Out of the scattered bits and pieces of a very faulty whole, I had to construct a properly convincing plot that worked as a piece of fiction. Luckily I was, and am, an avid reader of crime novels.

I suppose I did make a really silly plot like “Marriage of Convenience” work. The wicked uncle! The closeted gay man! The naive, young woman under the influence of said uncle! At least I had fun devising the sex scene with the cat. She couldn’t be totally passive, needed a touch of the passive-aggressive, and the actor who was Sally Fielding (Christina Danielle) was rather appealing and deserved better than all this nonsense. (Another sex scene that was fun – Sonia and Gordon, entirely in dialogue – in “The Perfect Victim”, I think.) It always helped to have the actors in mind, and I think it shows that I liked some more than others, or that I didn’t take to some characters.

“The Sins of Harry Collins” [about Norman Yemm’s character] was one of the easier ones. The storyline was all of a piece and meaty, too. I didn’t have to invent minor characters as I recall, and it flowed from the opening section about Diana Ford through a bit of a recap about Harry Collins’ return to “96” and his association with the evangelist Adam Lord through to the end. Harry had disappeared from the show some time earlier; I don’t know whether or not it had been planned to bring him back. Adam Lord was a type better known in the 50s and 60s when fundamentalist Christians from the US - the likes of Billy Graham -were holding mass “revivals” or “crusades”. The churches they represented have become mainstream in Australia now and housed in huge buildings where before they used tents or stadiums. I must have had a bit of time to prepare for this one, because I skimmed through the Old Testament noting down useful quotations, ones that could convey a double meaning in context. (Generally speaking, if something looks as if it might have a double meaning, it has.)

The business of converting these fragmented storylines into novelisations required adding settings, descriptions, bridging scenes. Since I’d been a fiction-writer, not a script-writer with actors to do the work of bringing the story to life, and as economically as possible in short bursts, I aimed to turn the material into something that appeared to have been a novel all along. If that makes sense. That meant inventing minor characters, walk-ons and extras so to speak. The child, Darren Burns [who has an earache in "The Perfect Victim"], was one example. Every second little boy of my son’s age was a Darren, and I imagined a fretful little six year old. The names of these people were spur of the moment inventions but, at this distance in time, I’m not sure about all of them, for instance Stella Kittredge in “The Grip of Evil”. One minor character, the model Annouschka, was definitely another steal, and based on the swinging London personality known as Verushka. I did put little jokes in for friends on request, but not their or anyone else’s real names. With two exceptions: a friend wanted me to express his exasperation with a person called Colin Miller (in “Marriage of Convenience”). I did tone down his wording because the word “fuck” was not as freely and publicly used back then, and out of character in the scene. And we did have a real friend, Al, who suggested the one about fly-buttons at the Pink Pussycat. That one awarded to Jack Sellars - who else?

All those books and I only had one review that I know of! (I won’t say who wrote it, as I normally admire her.) “The Adelaide Advertiser” devoted a tiny paragraph to “Bev & Bruce & Maggie & Don”. It was condemned as trite and gauche and, to illustrate this, there was the description of Bev wearing “a little blue thing that clung”. That was intended as humorous – I was sending up the character of Bev Houghton. She was the cliché. I could never take Bev seriously. Maybe it doesn’t show? But, before writing this, I glanced briefly at some of the books – life’s too short to get sucked into actual reading - and noted a line from “The Grip of Evil” that makes the same point. When Jack Sellars rescues Bev from whatever fate intended, she speaks the immortal line, “Darling, I knew you’d come.” (Another cliché, but on second thoughts... This might also be the place to mention a thing that has always puzzled me. As I said, I saw the earliest episodes of “96”, and when Bev’s virginity became such a plot thing, I was certain I recalled her in bed with a man back then, and no “issues”, or surely I wouldn’t have let her watch porno films. I would love to know, if anyone remembers such a detail.)

All my editors got the joke about the books and liked the tone I took. I seem to recall they encouraged me. Given the storylines, what other attitude to the material was possible? I have heard that to write a romantic novel, say of the Mills and Boon kind, it’s essential to believe in the story. “Number 96” was basically a comedy of manners and the novelisations had to treat the material as high comedy. I really had a lot of fun with those novelisations. “The Sins of Harry Collins” was probably my favourite. [Had it not been for the Brisbane flood,] I might have gone on to write up the the Knicker Snipper and Pantyhose Strangler storylines, but I think that after eight titles the joke was over and my last entry was a good one to go out on.

A newspaper cutting, undated, probably eighties: The Coodabeen Champions were a group of radio comedians. On this occasion they were being interviewed. One of them had found a copy of a “Number 96“ novelisation for a dollar in an op shop and was so proud of his bargain he insisted on reading aloud from it. The others did not appreciate this devotion to ‘kitsch literature’.

Finally, an anecdote:

Just after New Year 1974, we went to Tasmania to see our families. On this trip we were to hire a car that I would pay for from my “Number 96” earnings. As the sole family driver, I was the one who fronted the counter to fill in the hire-car form and complete the transaction. Naturally, where it said “occupation”, I put “writer” in the space. The man took a long look at me, a bit travel-frazzled and with my two young kids in tow. Then quite deliberately, and with a flourish, he drew a line through “writer” and printed “housewife”.

- Anne Harrex (aka Marina Campbell).

Ian McLean says: Thank you so much, Anne, for answering my many questions and incorporating the information and memories into such a cohesive essay. I was so thrilled to get to the bottom of many niggling mysteries in my research as to the origins of these novelisations. I found seven of them in a bargain bin - remaindered for 10 cents each! - in the book department of Grace Bros., Broadway, in Sydney in early 1979. Radio ads for this sale were common over the January, but my search was ever-frustrating and the books weren’t brought out from storage until several weeks later. Luckily, my teachers' college was only around the corner so I would check the bargain tables every lunch hour! Even then, only one copy of “The Sins of Harry Collins” was ever on that table. Phone calls to Angus & Robertson’s Sydney office, to ascertain that there were only seven different titles, revealed that the then-current A&R staff had very little information at hand - and, of course, there was an eighth title I didn’t have: “Marriage of Convenience” - confusingly with actor Julian Rockett (Adam Shaw) playing Don Finlayson on the photo cover - turned up in my local second hand book store about a year later! Now that was cause for an embarrassing happy dance in the shop. (According to Julian Rockett, the cover photo was taken in photographer Warren Penny's garage!) Coincidentally, that particular book was Nigel Giles’ first exposure to the “96” novelisations.

Readers may note that there is an original novel pictured, from Stag Publishing (1976). It features post-bomb storylines that were never actually seen on the TV series. Grace “Prim” Primrose (Pamela Gibbons), Jaja Gibson (Anya Seleky) and Weppo Smith (Roger Ward), and a few brand new characters, appear in these scenes. Again, this paperback suddenly popped up on my radar in 1993 - it was owned by a researcher at “Tonight Live With Steve Vizard” - and I finally tracked down a copy after several anxious weeks combing the second hand bookshops. Uncredited, this novel was supposedly written by Carl Ruhen, who did the “Neighbours“ paperbacks a decade or so later.

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