1980 - 90 minute premiere and 49 x 30 minute episodes - produced in-house by Network Ten
Arcade holds the dubious distinction of being the most notorious Australian soap opera disaster of all time. For years after its brief run jokes about its purported shoddy production values, terrible acting and laughably short life were repeated with glee.
Produced by the key creative people behind Number 96, Arcade was devised as a fun romp that examined the personal lives and interactions of the various shopkeepers in a Sydney shopping mall. However the series was abruptly cancelled once the ratings came out to reveal that pitifully few viewers were tuning in. Thereafter name Arcade quickly emerged as a byword for over-hyped but inept entertainments that laughably failed to deliver on their promises.
The biggest joke was that the show was taken off the air after just two weeks by the network, horrified as they were by the dismal ratings, scathing reviews, and the embarrassing production values on display. In truth there was a little more to the story.
Despite the show's reputation, by using various barometers of
measurement one quickly finds other Australian soap opera failures that
seem more disastrous. The
Unisexers, a 1975 daily strip serial also produced by the Number
96 company, was a critical disaster on Channel Nine whose low
ratings prompted its swift cancellation and removal from the schedules
after just three weeks and 16 episodes. Lane
End (1972) on the ABC, ran
for just seven thirty-minute episodes.
Punishment (1981), apparently dismissed from the outset as merely a cash-in copy of the proven Prisoner format, went to air on Channel Ten buried on Saturday evenings and was taken off well before all its 26 episodes had screened. (Although in this case the Punishment continued and the male prison drama would later return to play out its stockpiled episodes, albeit over the summer non-ratings period.) Nevertheless, the question remains, why was it that Arcade became the big joke?
Arcade had its genesis when the Ten Network, seeking to increase their quota of Australian drama content, devised a new one-hour series to be titled Centaur with a horse racing and big business theme. The pilot fell through at the last minute when ATV0 Melbourne, part of the Ten Network, withdrew support for the project.
At this juncture the director of programming at Sydney's Ten10, Pal Cleary, suddenly remembered an old outline for a serial set in a shopping mall. Mentioning the idea to Ten10 General Manager Ian Kennon while they were on their way to lunch, Kennon suddenly got very excited by the resurrected idea, and promptly called a meeting with various executives that very afternoon to discuss this brilliant concept.
Kennon and Cleary's initial brainstorming session over lunch involved various love affairs amongst the shopkeepers, and a brothel with a peephole through which the adjacent photographer shot pornographic films. However as Cleary told TV Week these bold ideas were soon tempered.
"When the excitement wore off we realised, of course, that none of this shock stuff would work - as Number 96 found in its dying months. Society is too permissive now for that sort of material. Besides, it was totally impractical for an early evening timeslot." [i]
However key station executives were sold on the general shopping mall idea. Cleary contacted Bill Harmon, one-time producer of Number 96, hiring him as special consultant on the new series for three months. Harmon quickly enlisted Number 96 creator and writer David Sale, and that show's story editor Johnny Whyte who jumped on board once he had freed himself from a commitment to US soap opera production company Procter and Gamble.
Sale and Whyte devised the characters, making them larger than life with a comedy spin. There was the fat girl and the skinny guy who ran the gym, a man-hungry Zsa-Zsa Gabor type, and the Chinese family running a café serving only English-style cuisine. Like Number 96 the show would mix comedy elements with drama and end each installment on a cliffhanger. [ii] However the makers of the show were keen to highlight that the programs would also have their differences. Said a spokesman for the production:
"Whereas Number 96 relied, at least initially, on shock tactics - sex in various forms, nudity and drugs - Arcade will have more comedy and warmth." [iii]
In fact the new show would have an unusually large proportion of comedy. Bill Harmon revealed that Arcade would be half drama and half comedy. Citing the highly successful comedy segments in Number 96 featuring characters like Les and Norma, and Dorrie, Herb and Flo, Harmon noted that "though they were not the main parts of Number 96, they were among the most popular." [iv]
Unlike Number 96, however, there would be no overt sexual activity or nudity. [v] David Sale said,
"Obviously people will fall in love but there won't be any overt sex. What starts on camera we can presume continues off-camera, we just don't dwell on it. The public is sick of sex on TV." [vi]
As had been demonstrated with Class of '74 on Seven and The Young Doctors on Nine, catching viewers early was shown to help bolster the viewing figures for the programs that followed, and Arcade tried to tap into this crucial early evening timeslot. The mixed demographic of adults and children viewing at that time called for a lightweight serial set in a public locale where a mixed and varied bunch of characters could congregate.
The network had high hopes for its lightweight new Number 96 for the 1980s, and TEN10 spokesman Tom Greer hopefully declared that "Arcade will be to 1980 what Number 96 was to its day." [vii]
Various other members of the Number 96 alumni were put to work on the series. For the ongoing series David Sale and Johnny Whyte headed the writing team. [viii] Nancy Cash, widow of Number 96 producer Don Cash, was one of the Arcade scriptwriters. [ix]
Former Number 96 production supervisor Kevin Powell, son of British film director Michael Powell, set to work interviewing 1500 actors in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide to fill the roles of the show's twenty-one regular characters. In an unusual step, the show's makers, in their race against the clock to get production underway in time for the show's scheduled premiere, had enlisted TV Week magazine in casting the regular roles. [x]
An article in the magazine printed the show's casting notes and listed the regular characters sought for the series. Producer Bill Harmon noted that a mix of experienced actors, and actors with limited experience such as those in suburban and country dramatic and musical societies would be welcomed. Prospective cast members were asked to urgently contact their local Network Ten affiliate. [xi]
At the time production began on the series Whyte described it as "a lovely, flexible idea, with a great cast." [xii]
The cast included several experienced professionals, many with regular television roles under their belt. Popular singer and entertainer Lorrae Desmond joined versatile musical star Peggy Toppano playing mismatched sisters. Mike Dorsey who played popular comedy character Daddy McDonald in Number 96 for three-and-a-half years would play a gruff former navy man. Comedian Syd Heylen, who had appeared as a fast talking sports presenter in The Box, was teamed with Aileen Britton whose previous roles included that of Norma's imperious mother in Number 96.
Others such as Patrick Ward, Danny Adcock, comedian Garth Meade, and Olga Tamara, had done television guest roles. The cast was filled out by hopeful newcomers. [xiii]
Before the show's debut Mike Dorsey said that he was "very excited about Arcade. Three years after the demise of Number 96 I still get 'Hello Daddy' wherever I go. This should give me a chance to break that up." Another of the better-known names in the cast, Lorrae Desmond, said she was happy with being cast against Peggy Toppano. "Peg is my best friend; we're like soul sisters." Cast would reportedly earn an average of $420 a week, for as long as the show runs. The program's budget was reported as $80,000 to $90,000 a week. [xiv]
Unfortunately, in their haste to get to get the program on air for a planned 20 January 1980 premiere, the show's makers took the unusual course of not bothering to make a pilot. Production began - one week behind schedule - in the last week of November 1979. There were three different camera units, under the direction of former The Young Doctors director Mike Murphy, and Tony Nielsen and Howard Scrivener who had both worked on the Grundy Produced, Network Ten serial The Restless Years. [xv]
Indeed the new production was based in a studio adjacent to that used by The Restless Years, and photographs of actors from the two programs mingling in the common green room were frequently used in TV Week publicity.
It was a crucial time for Ten with Rupert Murdoch at the time gaining control of the Melbourne and Sydney stations of the Network. [xvi] Initial publicity for Arcade highlighted the program's lavish budget and extensive sets - basically an entire mall recreated in the studio. The new serial was given a generous $3 Million budget. [xvii] The show was boldly described as Ten's first "big gun" in the 1980 ratings battle, and as "Australian television's most ambitious production yet." [xviii]
Arcade debuted with a feature length premiere episode at 7.30 pm on Sunday 20 January 1980 - several weeks before the official ratings surveys were due to commence. [xix]
This opening installment is enjoyable and the storylines, while lightweight, move at a brisk pace. The opener deftly introduced the range of characters and the arcade locale, and sets up a few ongoing story situations. The interplay amongst the regular characters is fun; the jokes and several of the light comedy skits are moderately funny.
However, it must be said that some of the opening scenes are awkwardly scripted and acted. Some performances seem stiff and mannered, with exchanges between characters at times reminiscent of a television infomercial. Likewise the script's attempts to hurriedly explain the characters' back stories during the early scenes seem stilted and unnatural.
Arriving for work at The Bookworm news agency is the brassy and straight-talking Molly Sparks (Lorrae Desmond), accompanied by her gossipy and unbearably prissy co-worker sister Miriam Buxton (Peggy Toppano). Miriam has "temporarily" moved in with Molly in her apartment above the arcade, leaving Molly's exuberant but irresponsible son Joey Fellows (Greg Bepper) on the couch. The thrice-married Molly must contend with Miriam's fussiness and disapproving manner, while Joey wants her to romance the arcade manager Mr. Henderson (Allan Penney) and convince the businessman to appoint him as the new assistant manager.
Toby's café is run by Si Wan Soo (Lucy Taylor) and her adult son Phillip Soo (Raymond Nock). They are originally from Hong Kong but have long lived in Australia. Phillip speaks with an Australian accent and they absolutely regard themselves as "Australian" through and through.
As the story opens they have just been joined by Si Wan's long-lost daughter, the beautiful Mee Ling (Sinan Leong). Mee Ling appeared after her father's financial ruin and suicide in their native Hong Kong. Mee Ling considers herself much too refined to help out in the family café business and is indulged by Si Wan, so Phillip, a competitive swimmer, is stuck with all the work leaving little time for training.
Fortunately Phillip still manages to attend the odd session, and Nock, a dancer with Bruce Lee-type good looks (and athletic physique), was regularly shown in his Speedos for the training scenes. However his trainer Frank Shaw (Dennis Grosvenor) is adamant that Phillip must spend much more time training or jeopardise his chances of competing in the Olympics.
The Aristocrat dry cleaning depot was run by the haughty and imperious Joyce Blair (Aileen Britton) always recounting bits of sage advice that her late "Mumsy" gave. Joyce was contrasted by her knockabout husband Walter (Syd Heylen). Walter was a secret drinker whose sly nips were perhaps his way of coping with his affected and boasting wife endlessly reminiscing about her glory days of being raised in Toorak society.
For her portrayal of Joyce, Aileen Britton enacted a repeat of her Number 96 character of Norma's imperious mother. Heylen was his rascally self as Walter.
Meanwhile blond and busty Magda Yokochek (Anne Semler), the outrageous Hungarian proprietor of the arcade's gift shop, bounces in well after most of the other stores have opened. Magda wears a revealing low-cut beige dress and pink feather boa: hardly "working clothes", according to Joyce. Magda explains she is fresh from an all-night party at the Hungarian club where she was belle of the ball - until all the men went home with their wives.
Babbling Magda speaks in a strong accent at a rapid rate and calls everyone "Darlink!" Like many characters from Number 96 she has trouble with her English and frequently gets words and pronunciations confused. But for Magda it is "business before pleasure". She opens her shop and changes her outfit: into a slinky and revealing leopard-print gown.
Later, at the dry cleaning depot, Joyce is horrified when a customer reports the loss of $500 from the suit he left for cleaning, demanding recompense. To raise the $500 and keep the police out of it, Joyce reluctantly sells her brooch to Magda, who swiftly sells it on at a large mark-up.
Also in the arcade is Pendleton's Heath Studio, a gym owned by the bitchy, grasping Iris Pendleton (Maggie Stewart). Iris's body builder husband Mike recently died leaving his share in the business to his weedy brother Norman Pendleton (Garth Meade), so the resentful Iris is left sharing the gym with an unwanted co-owner.
After being groped by the macho clients one time too many, the gym's receptionist Wilma (Vera Lommerse) suddenly quits. Norman is left running the shop while the extremely dim gym instructor Len Crosby (Bill Charlton) is no help, and when a furious Iris arrives the place is in turmoil. The replacement receptionist sent by the agency, Consuela McPhee (Coral Kelly before becoming Prisoner story editor Coral Drouyn), is sure they won't hire her as she is rather overweight, but desperate for work she reports for duty nonetheless.
Norman, a sympathetic comedy character with a Charles Hawtrey manner and physique and a vocal manner somewhat similar to Number 96 's Aldo, does hire her and the two strike up a friendship. Puny Norman rebuffs Consuela's constant self-deprecating remarks about her weight ("Inside this fat lady is an even fatter lady trying to get out!") and winces in pain at the jolly handshakes of the big girl who doesn't know her own strength.
Meanwhile Iris is furious on meeting the rotund new receptionist, and demands that Norman fire her immediately. Later it is revealed that Iris is conducting an affair with the muscular but dumb Len and she reveals to him her plot to oust Norman from the business.
Tina Marshall (Christine Harris, in her first television role) was the wheelchair-bound daughter of Vic Marshall (Mike Dorsey) and they ran the Flashback video game parlour together. She was frustrated by his constant fussing and overprotective nature, insisting that she could easily deal with the sometimes rough crowd their business attracts.
Meanwhile the bright and breezy Kitty Adams (Joy Miller), a former nightclub singer who runs Kitty's Record Bar, is receiving visits from a mysterious stranger. Each meeting with this man seems to end in an argument, as meddling Miriam takes delight in reporting.
Finally Di Smith (Olga Tamara) works with her conceited but somewhat dim boyfriend, male model Craig Carmichael - real name Stan Stuart (Patrick Ward) - in his sports store Surf 'n Ski. Di soon suspected Craig's newly arrived brother Robbie Stuart (Jeremy Kewley) of being the hitchhiker murderer when she finds a woman's scarf in the pocket of his jacket, which is stained with what is identified by Joyce as blood.
Di realises that all the (off screen) murders occurred in locations along Robbie's route. Trying to find some evidence one night Di sneaks down to the building's darkened parking garage and searches Robbie's car. For the show's first cliffhanger, a terrified Di is confronted by Robbie in the car park.
It had been hoped that the program's early-season premiere would allow the series to slowly gain a following before critical and ratings scrutiny began. Unfortunately, the series nevertheless received scathing reviews from critics. [xx]
John-Michael Howson in his TV Week column said of Arcade that:
"It is, in case you do not know, the first series in the world to be written in shorthand, speed read by the actors and directed by an electric typewriter." [xxi]
The review by The Sydney Morning Herald columnist Clement Semmler observed that "absurdity is heaped on bathos" and that the "acting is as dreadful as the script"... with one exception. Clement Semmler praises Anne Semler in her comedy role of Magda who sells "knicker knockeries" from her gift shop. For this reviewer hers is a "bravura performance in the best brassy comedienne tradition. Her interludes with Mr Sponge, the tax man, are hilarious." [xxii]
In her review in The Sun newspaper in Melbourne a few days after the premiere, Michele Moloney focused on the Network's failure to provide a preview tape of Arcade for the press. This was a situation, she said, that prompted reviewers to "fear the worse, get very cross, or start looking up the venom dictionary". A Ten spokesman had explained that the decision to not present a preview of Arcade was due to the Network's desire to preserve one element of mystery in Ten's much vaunted new lineup, and because of the technical problems in running the three initial installments together for the feature length premiere. [xxiii]
Of the opening episode itself, Moloney described the overall sense of déjà vu in the proceedings and a script that was characterised by the repetition of banal trivia. The characters, she felt, "hover between being one dimensional and four dimensional [...] a few need toning down, a few need toning up, but there are still some pleasantly played parts around in it." [xxiv]
Moloney singles-out cast members Lorrae Desmond and Anne Semler for praise, and hopes that in time the remaining cast members might develop into identifiable characters. Among her viewing recommendations for the evening the review appeared is the US soap opera parody series Soap; Arcade does not get a look in. [xxv]
The ninety minute Arcade premiere ran past 8.30 pm when films traditionally commenced, meaning the opening of Arcade clashed with the start of the feature films presented by Seven and Nine. Michele Moloney commented that watching Arcade meant missing the start of Get Carter on Seven. Age of Consent, a 1969 Australian-produced feature film directed by Michael Powell on which Kevin Powell also worked, commenced at 8.30 pm on Channel Nine in Melbourne that night, its first half hour also clashing with the final third of the Arcade premiere. And having its premiere episode broadcast in Melbourne up against the debut of Kingswood Country, a new situation comedy series from the makers of the highly popular Naked Vicar Show, probably did not help much either.
Continuing the day after the premiere, Arcade screened as five, half-hour episodes each week. Episodes were programmed each week night at 7.00 pm in Adelaide and Sydney, and at 6.30 pm in Brisbane and Melbourne.
Each episode opened with an aerial shot of a large motel and shopping centre complex in the Sydney north-shore suburb of Cremorne with traffic bustling by, while the rousing disco-infused theme sung by Doug Parkinson could be heard. The song was written by Mike Perjanik and featured metaphorical lyrics contemplating a faded love affair, likening the apparently complacent lovers to people "walking through an arcade". With its upbeat, funky sound the song is certainly fun, if not quite MacArthur Park.
The closing credits sequence, like that of Number 96, helped visually to place each group of characters in their main habitat. In the Arcade closer, video panels running over a shot of the building exterior flashed up shots of each shop front, and as this occurred the actors who played the characters who worked there were credited.
The show's ongoing storylines focused on the daily activities of the shopkeepers, who were constantly in and out of each other's shops for friendly chats or to gossip. Many scenes opened with a smiling bit-part customer being ushered out with a "... and if your fiancé doesn't like the colour bring it back and we'll exchange it" before the shopkeeper in question launches into their latest bit of drama. Often this would be a complaint about the long absence of the retail assistant supposed to be on duty: with the convoluted plots and characters rushing out at odd times there were many absences and frequent "can you just mind my shop" requests of other shopkeepers. Most of the shopkeepers lived in apartments above the retail complex, making the similarities to Number 96 all the greater.
As the storyline unfolded Robbie was quickly cleared when another murder occurs and he finally has an alibi. Magda creates a bureaucratic nightmare for her tax advisor Mr Sponge (Brian Moll) when he arrives to inspect her books (and her "assets"). Later she was revealed as a man-hungry illegal immigrant hoping to land a (wealthy) husband to secure permanent residency.
Meanwhile Iris runs the gym as if it were Ewing Oil, and has Len act as her spy there when she isn't around. Norman decides to retain the services of Consuela and their friendship develops. Nevertheless Consuela worries she'll lose her job as Iris harbours a strong dislike of her.
Molly Sparks is now attempting to thwart Henderson's plans to invite her on a "dirty" weekend away at a beach house. Her sister Miriam gasps and swoons with disapproval at the very idea.
The mysterious stranger who had been visiting record bar proprietor Kitty Adams is revealed as her estranged husband Duncan (Danny Adcock), attempting to rekindle their failed marriage. It is learned that Kitty has a brain damaged child in an institution. The child is introduced via a disturbing scene shot from the unseen child's point of view using a distorted camera lens - apparently to denote the mental condition - as he throws a tantrum during a visit.
Later Kitty allows Duncan to move in to her apartment. Then, in a psychedelic dream sequence with a flashback fight and surreal close-ups of coldly chanting doctors, Duncan is revealed to have beaten her up while she was pregnant, causing the child's brain damaged condition.
Viewers also learn that Vic Marshall formerly served in the Merchant Navy, which perhaps explains his seaman's persona complete with greying beard and Irish accent. In the opening episodes he continues to fuss over Tina.
The device of having a character in a wheelchair was not a new one on Australian serials: after Bellbird regular Louise Phillips became a paraplegic after a road accident she returned to that show, with the story rewritten to explain why she was now in a wheelchair. Phillips later played a regular role in Cop Shop and her character got married and had a baby in that show's storyline.
In any event Arcade's Tina rang true as a character. Her wry observations of how she was treated, including the fact that the various shopkeepers frequently rely on her to mind their unattended stores - with the conspicuous exception of the gym - seemed natural rather than preachy.
Tina also tolerated Vic's overprotective and interfering ways, although with the dramas of the arcade he perhaps had good reason. In one dramatic cliffhanger Tina is tipped out of her wheelchair by three thugs robbing their business when she is doing the evening shift alone. The dramatic scene ends with an apparently unconscious Tina sprawled beside her upturned chair as the camera cuts in on close-ups of the wheelchair's spinning wheel, while a heartbeat and Space Invaders blips and explosions are heard on the sound track.
In a later episode one of the robbers Teddy Pullen (Martin Portus) returns, and takes her to an ocean side walking track where the cliffhanger suggests he may be planning to tip her over the cliff. In fact he is taking her to where the stolen cash is stashed; he apologises and turns over his share of the take.
Soon Phillip and Si Wan managed to get Mee Ling pulling her weight in the café so the swimming training was back on. Phillip and Mee Ling soon notice an intense and forbidden sexual attraction, which as brother and sister they struggle to resist.
Other dramas unfold as Di is revealed to be keeping secret the fact she is daughter of incredibly wealthy widower Charles Maddox (Max Osbiston) and has organised her father's company to hire Craig for major modelling contracts. When Craig becomes conceited over his success she is tempted to reveal that she is actually the one securing the big jobs for him.
Tina meanwhile develops a romantic interest in Robbie, even though Joey insists he is actually a "poof". And in the latest set of Machiavellian schemes being orchestrated at the Health Studio, Iris finds she has fallen pregnant to Len and plots to pass the baby off as her late husband's to get her hands on his estate. Iris later starts an affair with Craig when he organises the "Miss Healthy Bod" competition through the gym. Meanwhile Mee Ling accepts that the illicit union with Phillip can never be, and so agrees to an arranged marriage to the much older Chang Li (Adrian Bernotti).
Of the cast, actor Anne Semler who played the boisterous socialite Magda with piled-up blond hair and a series of cleavage-revealing costumes, seemed to attract most of the publicity. Semler was featured in the show's only TV Week cover, which pictured her in a form-fitting bustier while fellow cast member Syd Heylen casts an approving eye over her generously-proportioned chest.
Of her role in the series Semler admitted that it was hard work.
"Magda is a hard character to play because of the accent and I have to learn every word of every line thoroughly. It is a totally exhausting and draining role." [xxvi]
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Semler threw production schedules into chaos with a mystery illness that was ultimately cured by rest and fasting. [xxvii] No sooner was this illness in hand when she suffered a bloody gash to her foot during a scene where she was to trip on Tina's wheelchair. Unwilling to upset the taping schedule again, Semler was forced to hobble through taping with a bandaged foot. Unfortunately the cut became infected, and when the next day's taping called for a scene where she is tossed into Sydney Harbour, a doctor was on hand to redress the wound after the dunking. "My horoscope predicted January and February wouldn't be good for my health," said Semler. "I can't wait to see what March holds for me!" [xxviii]
Fortunately March would not bring news of further failing health for Anne Semler, however the prognosis for her show was not so good. Arcade's ratings came in and they were disastrous: the program was rating as low as 7, not only lower than all of its commercial rivals but also trailing the ABC evening news bulletin. [xxix]
Reports of new characters soon to make their debuts had apparently done little to provoke interest in the serial. Coming in were Susie Blair, played by popular actor Tracy Mann, who returned to her parents Joyce and Walter after fleeing a religious cult.
Actor Robina Beard was to come in as Grace Horridge, a ladylike English woman employed by the health studio. Beard was best known as Madge the "you're soaking in it!" manicurist in the television advertisements for Palmolive Dishwashing Liquid, and for an eight week stint as Flo's daughter Raylene in Number 96.
Lillian Gasinskayay, famous as the woman who defected by swimming from a Russian ship in Sydney Harbour wearing only a red bikini, made an appearance as a friend of Magda, providing tips on how to stay in Australia. Gasinskayay had just posed nude for the men's magazine Australian Penthouse, participated in Network Ten special So You Want to be a Centrefold, and had recently made a non-speaking appearance in The Young Doctors. In her Arcade role Gasinskayay not only got to speak, but got to deliver her dialogue in Russian. [xxx]
An increase in the sexual situations in the later episodes proved to be a case of too little too late. By the end there were more affairs, and more nudity. Joey horrified Miriam in one comedy scene in their flat where he was shown fully naked from behind. The "Miss Healthy Bod" competition featured several young women parading around in their swimsuits. Then, in one of the final episodes that went to air, Phillip's apparent suicide bid by stripping off and resignedly swimming off into the surf featured Raymond Nock in a full back nude scene in mid shot on the sunny beach.
Unfortunately viewers never got to see how these cast additions or the increasingly turgid storylines panned out. Network executives decided to cancel the series on Thursday 28 February after the Melbourne ratings confirmed what the Sydney figures showed: the vast majority of people were not watching. Cast and crew were summoned to Channel Ten on the Saturday and told individually by the director of production John Davies that the series had been cancelled. The cast had been on run-of-show contracts which meant that once the show ended, so did their pay. [xxxi]
So Arcade closed its doors for good. The series was also quickly taken off the air starting Monday 3 March and replaced by repeats of M*A*S*H in Sydney, while Hogan's Heroes took its place in Melbourne. Of the program's demise co-creator David Sale stated,
"That's show business. I don't believe in inquests, I think they should be confined to dead bodies, not dead shows. It's over, and that's it." [xxxii]
Although famously remembered as the show taken off after just two weeks (an error repeated in reference book Moran's Guide to Australian TV Series, by Albert Moran), the series had actually lasted on-air for considerably longer. After the ninety minute premiere, in Sydney episodes of the series were screened each weeknight for six weeks. According to television schedules in Melbourne newspaper The Sun, after the feature length opener Arcade also had a run of six weeks in Melbourne, with the final episode screening there on Friday, 29 February 1980. On the show's demise cast member Raymond Nock observed that "only 29 of the 55 episodes we made went to air" [xxxiii] while the National Film and Sound Archive has episodes numbered up to 49 in their vault.
While many shows that fail to achieve high ratings on Australian television return to play out the stockpiled episodes over the summer non-ratings period, Arcade never made any such return. However many actual episodes were fully completed by the producers, after the series first left the air it never returned and the unscreened installments would never be broadcast.
It seems difficult to pin point what was precisely wrong with the serial. Of the show's failure, a contemporary report said that TV critics believed the "unattractive setting of a shopping centre, overdrawn characters, banal scripts and inadequate direction might have had something to do with it." The same report claimed that after the first batch of episodes of the serial had been completed executives realised the standard was below par and ordered immediate improvements. However, the changes came too late to save the series. [xxxiv]
Various reports in the years following have continued to ridicule the cast, the acting, and the program's technical standard. (Moran's Guide to Australian TV Series says that "Most of the cast in the ill-fated venture are best forgotten." [xxxv]) However an actual review of episodes reveals that these are not substantially below par given prevailing standards for the genre.
Perhaps the biggest weakness in the serial was that the ongoing storylines were skewed towards light comedy and farce, with not enough engrossing drama. Perhaps the light comedy would have worked better if developed later as a minor element within the context of drama storylines, rather than as the main focus of the narrative.
The makers of the show followed the Number 96 formula by including several outwardly comic characters. However they made the mistake here of settling for too many characters who, while being appealing, were little more than silly caricatures.
The Number 96 comedy characters seemed somewhat real, were well-rounded personalities, and were well-played. Arcade's comedy characters such as the muscular but dumb Len, the prissy Miriam, the ebullient Magda, and the superior Joyce, all seemed to be basically one-joke characters. It seems difficult to imagine any one them carrying an engrossing ongoing storyline along on their own. At least Arcade's ridiculously wicked schemer Iris always seemed to have a convoluted new plan under way, which added intrigue. Still, she certainly was no Maggie Cameron, the bitch from Number 96.
Nevertheless the cast all give energetic performances and many leave a pleasing impression. Appealing cast members include Christine Harris as the chirpy Tina, Lorrae Desmond who bubbled along as Molly, Greg Bepper as the bright and exuberant Joey, Jeremy Kewley as young Robbie - probably the most normal person in the show, Tracy Mann as the dry and sardonic Susie, and Raymond Nock as the handsome and athletic Phillip who despite his Hong Kong heritage was Australian as they come. It was also nice to see Mike Dorsey playing straight after years of his regimented comedy character in Number 96, while the mismatched friendship between the characters of Consuela (Coral Drouyn) and Norman (Garth Meade) worked well.
Perhaps a crucial factor in the show's failure was that the show featured too few scenes in the characters' homes. While other soaps have succeeded by depicting the characters in a workplace, such as Cop Shop and The Young Doctors, those shows succeeded by presenting a team of characters not only all working for the same workplace, but also married to a tough and demanding job and in an environment where the team of colleagues became a de facto family with its members supporting and looking out for each other. Arcade's string of small, separate stores connected only by location presented a flimsy and fragmented situation, and one not strong enough to sustain an on-going serial.
The makers of the show made several obvious story borrowings from Number 96 - including the opening plotline featuring a Pantyhose Murderer-type serial killer, the comedy surrounding a planned saucy weekend in a beach house, Magda muddling the English language, and dim Len taking metaphors literally. It is understandable that tried and tested ideas would be reused, but it seems pretty pointless to launch a serial killer mystery where none of the victims are characters in the show, all the murders occur elsewhere and off screen, and where its placement at the opening of the storyline means viewers don't know the characters so barely care that the single suspect might actually be a killer.
The show's technical standard was fairly average for a soap opera (and an improvement over The Young Doctors). There was the odd stumble over dialogue but this was a common occurrence on many Australian soap operas up until that time.
The serial mostly stuck to the established visual grammar of the genre, and the general look of the show seemed acceptable. Occasionally some rather striking visual effects were used in Arcade, such as the flashbacks and point-of-view shots previously mentioned. One of the final episodes to be broadcast introduced new dramas for Susie one night when she received a mysterious telephone call from the leader of the cult she escaped. As she drifts into a trance we hear creepy music as the cult leader, played by Vincent Gil and shown in silhouette through a wicker chair and swathed in circles of cigarette smoke, chillingly issues her new command: to enlist Teddy Pullen into the cult.
These scenes do seem rather more camp than dramatic, but other serials around the same general period, such as Prisoner and Sons and Daughters, also occasionally featured similar outlandish flourishes.
Overall Arcade's strong competition in a crucial timeslot seems the critical factor in its swift failure. In Sydney it went up against current affairs program Willesee at Seven on Seven and the highly popular serial The Sullivans on Nine. The show's Melbourne timeslot had the series running against the news services on channels Seven and Nine.
Ten had explicitly said of the program's format and timeslot that "it is a strategy for alternate programming in that slot." [xxxvi] Unfortunately, jostling for position in a general timeslot where popular Channel Nine serials The Young Doctors (at 6.00 pm) and The Sullivans (7.00 pm) already provided an alternative to established news and current affairs programs, the silly lightweight comedy drama of Arcade never made in-roads.
In an era before the internet and multiple TVs in many homes, any household that watched The Young Doctors and The Sullivans (and many did) would likely choose to view at least one news service, and those available were up against Arcade.
In reporting the show's demise TV Week noted that the show had been panned by critics. [xxxvii] Young cast member Christine Harris told the magazine that,
"All the cast took it well when they were told production would end because of ratings but I felt it needed a little more time to develop. We were given a torrid time by critics right from the start so it wasn't easy. I was disappointed because exciting things were about to develop with my character and I was really looking forward to them." [xxxviii]
Anne Semler, the cast member who had generated perhaps the most publicity, expressed relief at the show's demise.
"Arcade was getting a bit too much for me. It was just taking over my life. I have never worked so hard. I'm not all that keen on TV work and I don't believe you should do anything you don't like. I prefer stage - you give out and receive back from the audience - but with TV you just give out and don't get anything back." [xxxix]
Syd Heylen admitted he was disappointed by the show's cancellation, telling TV Week that "I had a false start. I thought it was my big break but I was wrong. It was a big let down for me - I'm a club worker and the exposure of a national show was good." Heylen hoped to continue his Arcade "husband" persona in a new The Honeymooners-type situation comedy series he was trying to develop. [xl]
No such show eventuated, however Heylen quickly fell on his feet with a long-running comedy role in medical drama series A Country Practice. In that series his character Cookie was a boisterous bachelor in an on-going Odd Couple-type double act that endured for many years.
The more experienced members of the cast faced the cancellation with equanimity. Peggy Toppano said that "I was more or less expecting it, but that is an old pro's point of view. I think some of the younger ones were a bit shocked and stunned. I'm sad because it did employ a lot of people." [xli]
Mike Dorsey commented that "Once the ratings were out we knew the writing was on the wall. The mood after we were told was a mixture of regret that we couldn't get the show off the ground, and relief. It was a heavy slog in terms of hours and volume of work." Lorrae Desmond said "It's a show business rule. If a show isn't doing business, whether it be stage or TV, you don't play. My lifestyle won't change much. I'll just have more time to do the things I used to do." [xlii] The following year she was an original regular cast member of A Country Practice, and would stay with that series more than a decade.
Cast member Raymond Nock, who was from a family of dancers and had danced in stage musical A Chorus Line and on television variety shows, went straight back to his old regular job teaching jazz ballet, tap and disco dancing classes. [xliii]
Several months after Arcade closed, cast members Olga Tamara and Joy Miller were cast in the 1980 stage musical production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Miller had three or four minor roles in the musical, one as a whore. Her main task, however, was acting as understudy to the show's star, Lorraine Bayly. Meanwhile it was Olga Tamara's first acting job since Arcade, and she had worked as a waitress until the role of Angel the whore came up. [xliv]
Olga Tamara subsequently played a two week guest role in The Young Doctors during the day while performing on the stage at night.
"Young Doctors role is only for two weeks. It's a lot of fun and the people are beaut. I'm hoping to get more TV work during the day here and, when Best Little Whorehouse goes to Melbourne in the new year, I'd like to get some TV work there, too." [xlv]
Young Jeremy Kewley spent a spell out of work after Arcade, until starting a five week stint on The Young Doctors in May 1980. In the medical serial Kewley portrayed a soccer player who enters hospital as a patient after suffering an injury. He is later revealed to be dyslexic and goes on to enjoy a romance with the nurse character played by Karen Pini in the show. [xlvi]
After Arcade Tracy Mann told TV Week that "It was a pretty dreadful show. I'm glad for the sake of Australian television, that it folded. Everyone worked so hard on it but the scripts weren't very good and the finished product left a lot to be desired." Mann reports she got a "nice big payoff cheque and went off for a holiday to Bali." By the end of 1980 she had completed a guest role in Skyways as a dancer, and in 1981 took a role in Holiday Island. [xlvii] Also in 1981 came the well-remembered role of scrappy biker's moll Georgie Baxter in Prisoner.
Holiday Island turned out to be another show that ended early and became the focus of repeated jokes about its purported low quality. Arcade cast member Olga Tamara also took a role in Holiday Island late in its run and had been working on the show when it was cancelled at the end of 1981. She survived participation in these infamous failures to enjoy a regular role in Cop Shop in 1982. At the time she looked back at Arcade, telling TV Week that "It was pretty axable... the scripts were really bad." According to Tamara about the only good thing to come out of Arcade was meeting her future husband, Network Ten director Tony Nielsen, on the set of the show. [xlviii]
Indeed Holiday Island, and Arcade, continued to be popularly remembered as the shows axed due to their laughably low quality for many years after they ended. A clip from Arcade showing actor Sinan Leong apparently reading her lines from the script lying on the table in front of her was shown in a 1996 Network Ten retrospective where segment host Barry Crocker poked fun at the Network's own production.
The show was indeed the Network's own production. It was fully produced in-house by Channel Ten Sydney for Network Ten at a time when major productions were usually outsourced, with Arcade being the first such major production made by the station. [xlix] However trying to produce a high output television serial while running a television station was perhaps too much to take on. As Network general manager Brian Morris admitted "We were just not equipped for it." [l]
Bill Harmon died of cancer in 1981 (Don Cash had died in 1973), making Arcade his final project and the last in a long line of failures for the veteran producer.
During the successful run of Number 96, realising that the show's popularity would inevitably wane, Bill Harmon began creating new, similarly-styled shows as early as 1975, when The Unisexers was launched. That show lasted just sixteen episodes. By 1976, with the ratings for Number 96 indeed declining, several spin-offs featuring established characters from the soap, or new characters introduced just to be spun-off, where planned.
These spin-offs were mainly half-hour sitcoms and footage from the filmed pilot episodes of these shows was incorporated into episodes of Number 96. None of these spin-offs eventuated, and Number 96 remained Cash-Harmon Productions' single long-running success.
Arcade's notoriety has, however, proved be to enduring. In July 2007 the Nine Network began its second season of retrospective television series What a Year - now rejigged with more a comedy tone and new hosts Bert Newton and Julia Zemiro - by looking at 1980. Arcade figured prominently in the episode with many clips from the series shown.
Various celebrity commentators on What a Year made comments alluding to the pointless, mundane nature of the storylines of a shopping mall based drama serial and the show's short run. One commentator, entertainment reporter Peter Ford, made the observation that while Arcade lasted just six weeks with thirty episodes broadcast, by today's standards that is not a bad run. What a Year was cancelled and taken off air one week later.
Page originally uploaded May 2000
Last updated 15 February 2013
[i] "Arcade Mapped Out." TV Week. 19 January 1980, page 11-12.
[ii] "Arcade Mapped Out." TV Week. 19 January 1980, page 11-12.
[iii] "22 go shopping for TV stardom." The Sun Herald, 21 October 1979, page 5.
[iv] "TV Week Joins Hunt for New Show Stars." TV Week. 25 August 1979, page 23.
[v] "TV Week Joins Hunt for New Show Stars." TV Week. 25 August 1979, page 23.
[vi] Groves, Don and Jacqueline Lee Lewes. "Overflow of TV soapies." The Sun Herald, Sunday 20 January 1980, page 42.
[vii] "No. 96 Team Launches New Secret Soapie." TV Week. 4 August 1979, page 11.
[viii] Groves, Don and Jacqueline Lee Lewes. "Overflow of TV soapies." The Sun Herald, Sunday 20 January 1980, page 42.
[ix] Moran, Albert. Moran's Guide to Australian TV Series. Allen & Unwin: St Leonards NSW, 1993, page 64.
[x] "TV Week Joins Hunt for New Show Stars." TV Week. 25 August 1979, page 23.
[xi] "TV Week Joins Hunt for New Show Stars." TV Week. 25 August 1979, page 23.
[xii] "Arcade Mapped Out." TV Week. 19 January 1980, page 11-12.
[xiii] "Arcade Mapped Out." TV Week. 19 January 1980, page 11-12.
[xiv] "22 go shopping for TV stardom." The Sun Herald, 21 October 1979, page 5.
[xv] "Arcade Mapped Out." TV Week. 19 January 1980, page 11-12.
[xvi] Moran, Albert. Moran's Guide to Australian TV Series. Allen & Unwin: St Leonards NSW, 1993, page 64.
[xvii] "Arcade Mapped Out." TV Week. 19 January 1980, page 11-12.
[xviii] "Arcade." TV Week. 19 January 1980, page 2-3.
[xix] Moran, Albert. Moran's Guide to Australian TV Series. Allen & Unwin: St Leonards NSW, 1993, page 65.
[xx] Moran, Albert. Moran's Guide to Australian TV Series. Allen & Unwin: St Leonards NSW, 1993, page 65.
[xxi] Howson, John-Michael. "I've gone right off my trolly [sic]." TV Week. 8 March 1980, page 25.
[xxii] Semmler, Clement. "The return of the déjà viewed." The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 January 1980, page 8.
[xxiii] Moloney, Michele. "Unleashing those Deadly Soap Stereotypes." The Sun. 23 January 1980, page 6.
[xxiv] Moloney, Michele. "Unleashing those Deadly Soap Stereotypes." The Sun. 23 January 1980, page 6.
[xxv] Moloney, Michele. "Unleashing those Deadly Soap Stereotypes." The Sun. 23 January 1980, page 6.
[xxvi] "The Secret Life of a Sex Symbol." TV Week. 23 February 1980, page 9.
[xxvii] "Star Out Ill - Chaos Hits Arcade." TV Week. 2 February 1980, page 5.
[xxviii] "Anne in Agony after Accident." TV Week. 1 March 1980, page 29.
[xxix] Clarke, David and Steve Samuelson. 50 Years: Celebrating a Half-Century of Australian Television. Random House: Milsons Point NSW, 2006, page 180-1.
[xxx] "Russian Red Bikini Girl Joins Arcade." TV Week. 23 February 1980, page 31.
[xxxi] Groves, Don. "A wake for a deserted Arcade." The Sun Herald, Sunday 2 March 1980, page 9.
[xxxii] Groves, Don. "A wake for a deserted Arcade." The Sun Herald, Sunday 2 March 1980, page 9.
[xxxiii] "Mixed Blessings." TV Week. 22 March 1980, page 44.
[xxxiv] Groves, Don. "A wake for a deserted Arcade." The Sun Herald, Sunday 2 March 1980, page 9.
[xxxv] Moran, Albert. Moran's Guide to Australian TV Series. Allen & Unwin: St Leonards NSW, 1993, page 65.
[xxxvi] Moloney, Michele. "Unleashing those Deadly Soap Stereotypes." The Sun. 23 January 1980, page 6.
[xxxvii] "Mixed Blessings." TV Week. 22 March 1980, page 44.
[xxxviii] "Arcade Flop Give Chris a New Start." TV Week. 22 March 1980, page 44.
[xxxix] "Mixed Blessings." TV Week. 22 March 1980, page 44.
[xl] "Mixed Blessings." TV Week. 22 March 1980, page 44.
[xli] Groves, Don. "A wake for a deserted Arcade." The Sun Herald, Sunday 2 March 1980, page 9.
[xlii] "Mixed Blessings." TV Week. 22 March 1980, page 44.
[xliii] "Dancing Gives them a Kick." TV Week. 15 March 1980, page 81.
[xliv] "Arcade 2 Win Roles in Bawdy Musical." TV Week. 16 August 1980, page 49.
[xlv] "Arcade Star Joins TYD." TV Week. 1 November 1980, page 39.
[xlvi] Richter, Christine. "And Jeremy to set Hearts Beating." TV Week. 3 May 1980, page 64.
[xlvii] "Tracy Dances On." TV Week. 1 November 1980, page 11.
[xlviii] Johnson, Jackie. "New Cop Shop Star Plans Wedding." TV Week. 24 April 1982, page 21.
[xlix] "Arcade Mapped Out." TV Week. 19 January 1980, page 11-12.
[l] Beilby, Peter. Australian TV: The First 25 Years. Cinema Papers: Melbourne, 1981.