Before the Block

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Abigail Rogan in her role as 'Bev Houghton' in the Australian TV series, 'Number 96'.

There was a time when apartments on Australian TV were synonymous with sex and scandal rather than reality.  We look back to the glory days of one of the most notorious addresses in Australia, and some of its slightly less sensational successors.

Breakers bike
From Breakers, 1998 …

No one had ever suspected that apartment-living in Australia was such a den of sex, vice and pantyhose serial killing until the racy Number 96 TV soap exploded onto our TV screens nearly 45 years ago.

Set in an otherwise modest block of flats in Sydney’s Woollahra, the audience at first never quite knew what to make of it. And some were far more bewildered by its setting than others.

“The owners of the apartments agreed to let us use film of their building in the title sequence, but they never imagined what a fantastic success Number 96 would turn out to be,” says the show’s creator, David Sale. “I think they lived to regret it.

Wonderland bike
… and Wonderland, 2015

“The show became huge, and lots of the audience actually believed it was real. Every weekend, there’d be massive crowds outside the apartment building, waiting to see their favourite characters they thought lived there. And then there’d be more every time one of the characters signalled they’d be leaving the show. We’d be inundated with applications to move into the building, with people arguing their life was interesting enough to warrant a tenancy …”

We’ve become a lot more sophisticated in our understanding of apartment-living since, but it still provides a rich vein of drama to be regularly mined for Australian TV.

In 1998, we had the soap Breakers, set in a Bondi Beach block, The Secret Life of Us started in 2001 in a building in Melbourne’s St Kilda and, just last year, we were introduced to Wonderland, with its home a set of apartments at Sydney’s Coogee.

“Apartment-living is now a lot different to how it was in the ‘70s when Number 96 began, and it was still a pretty new way of life,” says David, who’s just released his own book, Number 96, Mavis Bramston and Me. “Back then people only lived in them because they had to, and in reality a lot of people in flats were lonely and didn’t know their neighbours.

Hiding - Photograph by David Dare Parker
James Stewart in Hiding – Photograph by David Dare Parker

“That’s one of the reasons that Number 96 was so appealing. We presented it as a vertical village, where everybody was cosy with each other and friendly and would chat on the stairs and come up for a cup of tea. People loved that!”

Our next major apartment drama came about after TV scriptwriter Jimmy Thomson (now the publisher and editor of Title magazine) was looking for an investment apartment to buy in Bondi. During the months of searching, he was inspired to write a drama woven around an apartment building on the beachfront’s Campbell Parade for light relief – which was then bought by producers Screentime who made more than 300 episodes for home and overseas.

“There’s a lot of drama in making people live cheek-by-jowl with each other and, when there’s conflict, being unable to walk away,” he says. “We also had a cafe, a newspaper and a modelling agency in our building which, in truth, were down the road from our real ‘hero’ block.

“Those also gave us extra places for the action, and other characters coming in and out. But while you always do use incidents in your own lives and those of your friends, it was a teen soap, and our audience was always more concerned with who’d just kissed who, rather than someone getting a notice to comply for parking in the wrong space!”

As with Number 96, the Breakers’ building was just used for the titles, the occasional distance shot and for filming entrances and exits. It was the same for The Secret Life of Us filmed at two blocks – one on Acland Street and the rooftop of another on the Esplanade – and Wonderland with their building on Baden Road. Many of the actors have gone on to even bigger roles, like Breakers’ James Stewart who’s just starred in Hiding, Ada Nicodemou who went to Home and Away, and Secret Life’s Claudia Karvan who’s been in just about everything.

“I grew up in Perth and I used to dream of living in my own apartment,” says Amanda Higgs, the co-creator of Secret Life. “It felt so sexy and grown up. So we wanted to celebrate that time of life in your 20s when you first start living in apartments.

“A lot of the stories came from our own experiences in apartments, like the person who comes to stay and won’t leave, or the crazy flatmate, and that time in the pilot episode where Claudia’s character goes out drinking and falls asleep on the doorstep when she gets back. It’s all about living closely with other people and creating a lifestyle.”

After Secret Life, Channel 10 wanted something lighter and more escapist and set in Sydney, and so Wonderland, starring Brooke Satchwell, Michael Dorman and Jessica Tovey, was born. Needing a way to keep the characters together – especially since these days young people ring and text each other rather than meet up – co-creator Sarah Walker placed them in an apartment block too.

“You need everyone in the same place at the same time, so apartments are perfect,” she says. “And lots of the stories are drawn from our own experience of living in apartments.

“I remember sitting in my apartment, hearing people having very noisy sex next door, and yelling to a friend living below instead of phoning. They both made their way into the show.”

For, essentially, apartments mirror life, albeit in microcosm. “They’re all about intimacy and conflict,” says Sarah. “They’re so often a place where people just can’t hide from each other, which always guarantees good drama …”

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