1974-1977 - 90 minute premiere, 474 x 30 minute and 128
x 60 minute episodes and a 100 minute 1975 feature film - Produced by
Crawford Productions for Network Ten
"Once upon a time, in a place called Australia, there was a TV station, and it was called Channel 12. This is the story of what happens there... a sort of bedtime story."
And with this voice over The Box began. The Box was Crawford Productions' answer to Number 96 and was the prolific production company's first soap opera. With its taboo breaking stories and nude glimpses The Box quickly emerged a worthy rival to its predecessor in the sex, sin and shock stakes.
Set in the "fictional" Melbourne television station UCV-12, The Box examined the lives of the studio executives, on air personalities, and the office staff. Within the cast of characters many were said to be based on well-known industry figures of the day, and the series featured many self-referential elements.
From the perspective of Crawford Productions the clearest allusion to real life was in the depiction of Channel 12 action adventure cop show Manhunt, with its troubled production and misbehaving and inept lead actor.
Fans would try to guess which major stars and industry figures were being parodied and writers on the series helped encourage endless speculation by refusing to name any names. The usually low key disclaimer tucked at the end of the credits of most programs was here prominently displayed at the start of the episode as part of the gag ("The characters and events depicted in this serial are fictitious !") with a throbbing exclamation point to highlight the text.
Ian Jones and Tom Hegarty of Crawford Productions, then known for its highly popular police dramas, devised the series and wrote the feature length premiere episode.
The Box had its genesis in a proposed behind the scenes exposé of the television industry to be titled The Dream Makers, which had been created at Channel 0's request for a soap opera. However Hector Crawford feared that Channel 0 owner Sir Reg Ansett would reject the show with its adult nature and risqué elements, so it was instead offered to Channel Seven. Seven eventually passed on the show, and the idea was put on hold. [i]
However, after the 0-10 Network's success with Number 96, The Dream Makers proposal was revived, retitled, and again pitched to Channel 0. Sir Reg Ansett approved, and bought the show [ii] in a deal announced 14 July 1973. [iii]
It had been reported in July 1973 that the serial, now named The Box, was originally expected to be used to counter the popularity of Number 96. However with the series bought by Channel 0 Melbourne, part of the 0-10 Network which also screened Number 96, the two shows would not go head to head. Reportedly, The Box had previously been rejected by all three commercial channels prior to the deal with Ansett. Casting had begun, claimed the report, and it was noted that former Number 96 actor Abigail would not be included in the cast. [iv]
Rumour has it Ansett approved of the series at least partly because he believed that the bombastic Sir Henry Usher was based on rival media tycoon Sir Frank Packer. It might be more accurate to say that the character was based on both Packer and Ansett, and Hector Crawford! [v]
During 1973 various reports about the planned serial began to filter through to the press. Many of these articles emphasised the show's sex and nudity angle.
One of the first TV Week references to The Box came in July 1973 with suggestions former Number 96 sex symbol Abigail might appear. Abigail was then in the midst of the controversy over her recent firing from that serial, and she vehemently denied she had accepted, or had even been offered, a role in the show.
"I don't know where people are getting these extraordinary stories from - that I am doing the series - because I'm not. I don't know whether Crawfords are trying to get publicity for the series by connecting my name with it, but it's never been mentioned to me. The only details I know about the show are what I've read in the papers. Crawfords aren't going out of their way to refute claims that I am in it." [vi]
Even at this early stage the program was described as "a five-day-a-week serial similar to Number 96 but set in a television studio." [vii]
Meanwhile a letter was sent out to managers and agents asking for young actresses willing to appear nude in the serial.
"For our new television series, The Box, we are searching for a girl to play Felicity in the series. Applicants will be required to supply recent photographs of themselves, one of which will give us a reasonable idea of their figure. The type we are looking for is a 'Lolita-type nymphet' who is believable as a 15-year-old (but ideally 17-18) who has a very attractive face and figure, is willing to strip for television appearances and, ideally, has some acting experience. If necessary, we are prepared to supply free drama coaching if we find a suitable girl with no previous acting experience." [viii]
Crawford Productions casting director Loretta Healey explained that the letter was part of their strategy of starting a "nude file" of actresses prepared to strip for the cameras.
"With our new series, The Box, going into production in October there will be a greater demand for actresses to appear nude on a TV screen. So far a few actresses we have approached to appear nude have indicated their willingness, but we feel it's going to be difficult to find girls with the right body and also able to act. If a part calls for an actress to take her clothes off in a series and she feels embarrassed by the presence of cast members and crew, then the end result invariably looks poor." [ix]
This same report went on to confirm that George Mallaby would play the lead role of a television executive in the series. [x]
It was then revealed that Briony Behets would play the wife of Mallaby's character. It was reported that Behets had previously caused a "minor stir" by refusing to sign the usual contract with a nude clause when she was cast in Number 96 at its inception. This time, Behets explained to TV Week, she would appear nude.
"Yes, I will take my gear off. In Number 96 I would not agree to the clause which required me to do it but now I think I am older and more mature. In a way it's very flattering to be asked to appear nude. I have never felt confident enough to do it before." [xi]
The report suggested that this confidence was due to the producers of the series convincing Behets of their sincerity and professionalism. Briony Behets went on to compare the planned new serial to Number 96, in which she played Helen Eastwood for several weeks from that show's inception in 1972.
"I think the scripts are better, and I think it has got a lot of life. I think people are fascinated by what goes on behind a TV station and this gives an insight which might interest people." [xii]
Then it was announced that Lois Ramsey had been cast as the gossipy tea lady in the show. Again the planned sex and nudity angle of the new serial was alluded to in Ramsey's comments to TV Week.
"I don't think there's anything in my contract which says I have to strip. I feel I'm too mature for that sort of thing. Besides, I've already done it on The Mavis Bramston Show." [xiii]
Overall Ramsey said that the role would mean plenty of "lovely, hard work, with lots of lines to learn". [xiv]
The show's original concept presented a tense network of dramatic situations. At its foundation was a wicked satire of the television industry.
Opening stories examined the machinations of the fictional television station UCV-12, focusing on the lives and loves of assorted television personnel: producers, directors and actors. Importantly the garrulous tea lady and stern head of security gave the show grounding in the non-showbiz world that the ordinary viewer could relate to. [xv]
Storylines would explore the love affair between workaholic program manager Paul Donovan (George Mallaby) and secretary Kay Webster (Belinda Giblin), and comic moments would be found in the antics of accident prone action star Tony Wild (Ken James) and his bickering with his bosses: the strict and severe station manager Max Knight (Barrie Barkla) and bombastic station owner Sir Henry Usher (Fred Betts).
Egotistical womanising TV host Gary Burke (Peter Regan) had no qualms about orchestrating underhanded manoeuvres to knock off any competitors and retain his position as king of night time television. Ultimately they would all be put in their place by the sharp tongue of crusty tea lady Mrs Hopkins (Lois Ramsey).
Mrs H, as she was fondly known, was a maternal figure who wavered between crotchety and kind. She loved to gossip and to deal out home spun advice, and was close friends with the head of station security and former policeman Jack O'Brien (Ken Snodgrass). She also frequently acted as if she owned Channel 12 and happily interfered in station activities, readily bossing even Sir Henry around.
Mrs H owned shares in Channel 12, something she would remind people of whenever her criticisms of station activities were rebuked. Mrs Hopkins rented her spare room to a succession of younger work colleagues, accentuating her maternal role in the proceedings, and she ultimately emerged as one of the show's most popular and enduring figures.
Meanwhile high camp producer Lee Whiteman (Paul Karo) was an openly (and obviously) gay character, yet was presented in the story as a respected professional and a loyal friend.
The same could not be said for scheming bisexual reporter Vicki Stafford (Judy Nunn), who would do anything to get a story for TeleView, the magazine she worked for. The witty Vicki was a wonderfully wicked bitch figure for the show, emerging as one of the most popular characters.
Meanwhile a string a sexy starlets such as Helen Hemingway, Briony Behets and Belinda Giblin were on hand to provide nude glimpses in the steamier moments liberally interspersed throughout the series. At this TV station even the makeup girl Bobbie, played by Leonie Bradley in a recurring bit part role, was stunningly beautiful.
The primary after hours meeting place for the crew from Channel 12 was the Beverly Crest Hotel where they were attended to by barman Ted, played by Charles Gilroy in a recurring bit part role across the run of the series. Later they switched to the Commodore Chateau, with Ted making the switch with the regulars.
Though the series premise had been revived as a potential rival for Number 96 on one of Ten's competing networks, when The Box too ended up on Ten the show was programmed to run right after Number 96 in most regions.
The Box proved to be a ratings hit, especially in its first year. While the opening episodes definitely focused on the showbiz angle, Hegarty and Jones would soon be moved to other projects. With Jock Blair, and later Don Battye, struggling to devise storylines to fill two hours of drama a week the behind the scenes showbiz exposé focus was overtaken by more standard soap opera style romance, drama, and character study. [xvi]
As was usual for an Australian soap opera of the era, most of the cast were experienced theatre performers. With the small Australian film and television industry, Australian actors must largely work in theatre if they are to work regularly. The only real TV actors in the cast were George Mallaby, formerly a regular police detective in Crawford's Homicide, and Ken James who had been a regular in Skippy. [xvii]
The Box was unusual for a soap opera in that each episode had a director in charge of the camera angles and switching between shots, and a drama director who worked with the actors focusing on interpretation and relationships. The video director was usually someone promoted from the ranks of cameraman or floor manager while the drama director was usually someone with a theatre background. [xviii]
Most episodes credited two directors. Occasionally the credits specified the roles by listing the "Drama Director" and the "Video Director", while the majority of episodes did not specify the roles and just credited two directors.
The series went in on sex and shock. The opening feature length episode, first screened in Melbourne on 11 February 1974, dives straight into the storyline with nudity, drama and intrigue. There is a high quota of nude scenes, rampant sexual activity, and some sexual transgressions. In terms of potential censorship Tom Hegarty reported that "we got away with practically everything we thought we would." [xix] Perhaps this is because those risqué elements were well integrated into the overall story.
Opening scenes showed the staging of live evening variety show Big Night Out hosted by Gary Burke and introduced some of the station personnel via a voice over narration (provided by an uncredited Michael Pate). Gary discovers a young female fan, the sly and seductive Felicity Baker (Helen Hemingway), showering in his dressing room. A lascivious Gary asks Felicity to wait a few minutes until the next commercial break at which point he promises to return to get to know her. The assignation goes ahead and they make love in the dressing room, however Gary loses track of time and is not back on set as the show resumes.
Outraged program manager Paul Donovan, watching the show from home, witnesses the missed entrance and angrily rushes to the studio to confront Gary. When he does they both discover Felicity in Gary's dressing room and she is dressed for the first time: in a school uniform! Felicity reveals herself as a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl and while the station clamours to hush up the scandalous story, Vicki is on the scent. Head of security Jack O'Brien helps keep Felicity out of the station when she shows up as part of Big Night Out's live audience the following night, but is unable to prevent Vicki from whisking her away in her car.
Vicki soon has Felicity safely tucked up in her apartment before turning her attentions to actor Tony Wild, the insecure star of Channel 12's action adventure series Manhunt. After sleeping with Tony she cunningly arranges for him to pose for a nude centrefold with a young model - who turns out to be Felicity. After the pictures are taken Tony scuttles off to get dressed and Vicki lustfully kisses Felicity.
There was plenty of business intrigue as well. The new program manager Paul Donovan, brought in especially to turn the fortunes of the troubled station, faces much opposition from Gary when he brings in new producer Lee Whiteman to take the reins of the show. And despite having devoted wife Judy (Briony Behets) at home, Paul notices a mutual attraction for Max Knight's secretary Kay, who is mysteriously involved in an unhappy and illicit affair with an unseen lover that she seems unable to extract herself from. There are several hints that Paul would perhaps like to have Kay as His Girl Friday.
Lee is criticised for his outwardly camp mannerisms and for his attempts to return "recovered" alcoholic Eddie Holliday (Cul Cullen) to the limelight: a move prompted by Gary Burke's misdemeanours and lacklustre on air performance. Eddie was once a great comic whose alcoholism eventually ruined his career, leaving him in the lowly role of Gary's joke writer and warm up man. Gary is unable to fight the changes to his show, so resorts to devious means to ensure Eddie will not be a success.
Gary's reluctant ally, Big Night Out floor manager Don Cook (played by Alvin Purple star Graeme Blundell in his first on going television role), is convinced by Gary to romance Paul Donovan's secretary, lonely spinster Jean Ford (Monica Maughan), in order to keep abreast of Paul's secret plans. As Jean dresses for their date she contends with a constant stream of confidence destroying "advice" from her unseen mother.
The day of Eddie's appearance on the show is reached, and while pre-show nerves threaten to weaken his resolve to never drink again, his daughter Cathy (Kay McFeeter) who is also an employee of Channel 12, manages to keep him on the wagon. However Gary decides to congratulate Eddie with a complimentary bottle of scotch cunningly left in the dressing room the evening of the show, and arranges for daughter Cathy to be indisposed lest she spoil the devious plan to get Eddie back on the bottle.
The story builds tension through a series of chance meetings and crossed paths. Repeated phone calls and use of the office intercom emphatically construct a network of relationships amongst the show's various characters. A strong element of the narrative is - appropriately enough for a story about television - characters observing and scrutinising other characters. Paul Donovan watches Big Night Out at home, and witnesses Gary missing his entrance. He storms out to the studio to the disappointment of his wife Judy, who had been shown to be relishing the rare occasion of having Paul home for the evening. Underlining her desire for a cosy and harmonious domestic situation, Judy had been shown hanging curtains in their new home as an oblivious Paul intently watched Big Night Out.
Pace and tension are heightened by narrative jolts to the audience. When Gary returns to his dressing room to check if Felicity is still around, the narrative cuts to a tight shot of an angry Paul waiting where Gary - and the audience - had expected to find Felicity.
Later, with Eddie Holliday's big comeback show looming, pressure builds as various characters - from Paul, Sir Henry Usher and Max Knight assembled in front of the television in Max's office, to tea lady Mrs H in an old frock borrowed from the wardrobe department and once worn by Googie Withers in Manhunt - make a point of wishing him luck and of being in the audience.
Further layers of tension are added with Paul's wife Judy forlornly watching the opening acts of the program at home from her vantage point alone at the dining table set for two. And Paul's potential extra marital love interest, Kay Webster, sits alone in the studio audience. Kay had initially planned to attend the show with Jean Ford, chosen as a safe decoy for the night to ward off Paul. Jean had arrived to meet Kay at the bar only to be confronted by the sight of Don happily chatting with the true object of his romantic attention, Cathy Holliday, so had retreated home in embarrassment.
Various elements of the plot accentuate the pressure on Eddie. Extra touches like the unearthing of the costume once worn by respected star and serious Australian actor Googie Withers represent the history and tradition of the entertainment industry that will somehow be tainted or disavowed if Eddie is indeed the "flop" that he fears he will be. Like the fictional members of his audience presented to us in the story, we, the real audience of the entire drama, hope that he will be a success while fearing he will be a failure.
Paradoxically the wicked Vicki Stafford - who also watches and evaluates the various activities of other characters - had been thwarted in her attempts to print a scandalous story ("TV Sex Shock: Top Compere and Schoolgirl") that would have had the effect of destroying the career of Gary, the real villain of the piece. By way of appeasement, Paul gives Vicki the exclusive on Eddie's return. As Paul had pointed out to her, if Eddie flops it will make an even better story for her.
As the live television program is beamed out to the viewers variously hoping for success or failure, Eddie's entrance is announced. He stumbles out of the curtains apparently drunk, and collapses in a quivering heap on the studio floor.
The opening episode with its compelling drama and liberal serving of sex and nudity proved to be a huge ratings success. The Sydney premiere on 12 February rated an incredible 46 - the highest rating for a series since the 1960s sketch comedy series The Mavis Bramston Show. In Melbourne the previous night the episode rated a strong 32. [xx]
Like Number 96 the show initially attracted curious viewers and heated publicity via its shocking elements, nude glimpses, and a saucy title whose implications were not lost on the viewing public. Indeed a full page newspaper advertisement a few days before the show's debut posed the question "After No. 96 what else could we show but The Box?" Other newspaper advertisements teased potential viewers by printing (paraphrased) lines of dialogue from the initial episode: "Don't tell me you're a virgin!" (Gary) or "We can make it exciting Felicity-in all sorts of ways" (Vicki).
Hector Crawford himself was pictured in print advertisements that explained his position regarding the new series.
"The Box - our latest programme - portrays real life behind the cameras of a television station, unposed, unrehearsed and strictly uninhibited. [...] Some people say that they dislike certain things, when really they don't - and we know many people will look at The Box and be afraid to tell their friends that they like it. [...] Our programmes 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 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 organised minority groups which try to dictate what people should be allowed to see on their screens. [xxi]
Further comments by Hector Crawford, following similar contours, were quoted by reviewer Andrew McKay.
"We have simply taken the opportunity to produce a serial based on a wide range of human relationships and to treat those relationships honestly and frankly. [...] Nudity has always been acceptable as visual art. As Sir Kenneth Clarke (the British art historian) said: 'The human body is the most perfect of all forms.' Inevitably, some people will call this policy 'irresponsible.' I cannot agree. [...] If the viewers of Australia condemn The Box, my company's policy has been wrong and I will be the first to admit it." [xxii]
Indeed just two days after the 11 February 1974 premiere of The Box, The Sun newspaper in Melbourne reported that the Australian Festival of Light led by Reverend Fred Nile had lobbied the Media Minister, Senator McClelland, for a change of personnel on the Broadcasting Control Board. The Festival of Light demanded new Control Board members "who would take their appointed task seriously" and enforce a stronger degree of censorship. [xxiii]
In addition the Festival of Light released a statement stating they would ask Australian companies to withhold their advertising support from the 0-10 Network. They even demanded that the network's licence be suspended for those times scheduled for The Box and Number 96. These demands came after a meeting Monday daytime (before The Box had premiered) with Network Ten executives where a request to voluntarily censor permissive sequences from the two shows was rejected by the network. [xxiv]
Prior to the debut of The Box a public relations officer for the Festival of Light explained their stance to TV Week.
"We can't criticise objectively until we've seen it, but from all the feedback we have heard it seems to be pretty sordid stuff. Our main objection to programs like Number 96 and The Box is the way that they telescope every imaginable social problem and squeeze it into a half hour of television. It's bad enough with Number 96, being subjected to lesbianism, homosexuality and adultery, but soon we'll be seeing even lower and more degrading things on television." [xxv]
In a report dated 25 February 1974, the Anglican Dean of Sydney, the Very Reverend Lance Shilton, was quoted as saying that Australian society's acceptance of such programmes as The Box and Number 96, and the film The Exorcist, was a pointer to its moral decline.
"If the trivial content of this programme (The Box) is an example of so-called growing maturity, then God help us. [...] Instead of having a healthy relationship based on love these programmes advocate a physical and temporary relationship based on lust." [xxvi]
Less contentious was the entertainment value of the show.
TV Week 's Frank Crook gave an overwhelmingly positive review. He described the premiere episode as a "dazzling feat" that,
"Must rank high on the list of Crawford Productions' finest achievements [...] bosoms, bottoms and deviations apart, the series shows a maturity rarely seen in an Australian production". [xxvii]
Television columnist Andrew McKay in The Herald newspaper compared the new show to its obvious stable mate Number 96. McKay admitted that The Box was more polished in its presentation. "Compared to the glued-together antics of Number 96it's a masterpiece." Nevertheless, he concluded, its "characters are largely stereotyped and the plot predictable." [xxviii]
Ralph Broom in The Sun on 8 February 1974 said that,
"Despite the unnecessary nudity it is probably the best produced, directed, scripted and acted contemporary drama to come out of an Australian production company - certainly on a serial level." [xxix]
Like McKay he made the obvious comparison with Number 96, concluding that The Box was,
"By far the classier show, with better sets and good performances from all characters, who have far greater depth than their counterparts in 96." [xxx]
The Age newspaper's television reviewer John Pinkney said that The Box was "a more polished product than Number 96," in which,
"Ian Jones and Tom Hegarty are managing to delineate character, while (overall) avoiding caricature. So far the show's most successfully scripted - and acted - sequences have concerned the dependant relationship between Lee Whiteman and alcoholic comic Eddie Holliday." [xxxi]
Pinkley praised the show's "preponderantly excellent performers. Among them: Belinda Giblin (Kay), George Mallaby (Paul), Peter Regan(Gary), and a splendid Fred Betts as Sir Henry Usher." [xxxii]
Each episode of the series opened with a quick titles sequence of Ken James in character as Manhunt's Detective Blake in a night time street scene. As wailing sirens are heard the police car rounds a corner, screeches to a halt, and Detective Blake bounds out of the car and fires a gun straight into the audience. The action is revealed as occurring on a television set that then explodes as the program's title flashes onto the screen. This is followed by a rerun of the final scene from the previous episode.
The episode's end titles roll over a night time shot of the Channel 12 building as the lights are turned off one by one. Seen atop the building, which really was Crawford Productions' Abbotsford studio, was a large transmission tower. The transmission tower was fake, a small model suspended in front of the camera as the shot of the building was taken. [xxxiii]
The theme music was "Testing Time" by David Lindup, released on a library music record by KPM Music in 1973. "Testing Time" was a moody piece mixing panpipes with some big band flourishes and had some similarities to the theme from Shaft. The original track runs to some four minutes and a truncated version runs over the end credits of The Box. Short grabs of music from this recording were also used over the opening titles and the commercial break title cards, with its ominous intonations emphasising the intrigue and drama of the serial and its cliff-hangers. Lindup compositions were used, similarly without credit, on other television series including Rising Damp and The Persuaders!
The opening episode of The Box had not featured the police car in the exploding television sequence. In that instalment the opening titles, the title cards for the commercial breaks, and the end credits, had all run over a shot of the building. In the thirty minute episodes the title cards for the commercial breaks feature a still shot of the explosion from the opening sequence.
The opening episode's end titles featured an arbitrary cast order where main players George Mallaby, Peter Regan, Cul Cullen and Belinda Giblin were top billed. All subsequent episodes listed the regular cast members in alphabetical order.
After the knockout premiere the series continued in 30 minute installments each weeknight.
As the series storylines continued Eddie's drunken collapse on stage is rescued when Lee orders two actors, standing by to enact a hospital stretcher sketch on the show, onto the set to cart Eddie off in a comic manner. Without missing a beat Gary Burke strides on to the set to announce to the audience that "Eddie was completely carried away!"
Watching from the office Sir Henry and Max - along with the rest of the audience - have bought Eddie's rescue: they think it was part of the act. The wise Mrs Hopkins knows better and quickly appears back stage to bolster Eddie with a bunch of sober up remedies and a hearty pep talk.
Later in the show Eddie is sent back on, where he enacts his old slapstick drunk act. Mrs H, who it is revealed knew Eddie from the old days when she was a front row chorus girl at the Tivoli Theatre, had reminded him of this old act which could allow him to make the promised appearance and get the laughs, while covering up his actual drunkenness. (The next day, even real life stars Vic Gordon and Johnny Lockwood are said to have sent Eddie congratulatory telegrams commending his performance.)
The first week's episodes dwelled on the ensuing question of whether Eddie would be allowed to continue to appear on the show, something demanded by Sir Henry who remained unaware of the star's actual drunkenness. Meanwhile Paul and Kay spend much time vacillating over whether they should conduct an affair. After Jean sees them kissing Kay breaks it off even before they have slept together.
In other developments it is hinted that Felicity, who spends most of her time lounging about in her underwear before doffing her bra to bounce around in just a pair of black panties, is in fact not fifteen years old, and is far too old to be a school girl. Vicki is keeping Felicity locked up in her apartment. It seems clear all the scandal is being cooked up by Vicki in order to launch Felicity as a TV star.
Meanwhile after helping save Eddie, Mrs H's own problems are revealed. Her son Wayne is serving a prison sentence in Pentridge after killing a family while driving drunk. In further developments it seems Judy Donovan, bored at home all day, will soon be tempted into an extra marital affair. Meanwhile, despite not liking him, Jean parties with Gary in order to make Don jealous. When Gary refuses to take advantage of her after a few too many whiskeys Jean is initially offended, but later decides he isn't such a bad person after all.
During the first week of episodes viewers were introduced to yet more regular characters: complaining Channel 12 gate guard Chiller, played by pop singer Ross D. Wylie, and studio dancer Barbie Gray (Lynda Keane) who carried a torch for Don Cook. Don and Barbie would much later marry.
Week two quickly resolved the Felicity Baker controversy. The police have been called and Felicity Baker tracked down and, along with her father, the girl is brought in to Channel 12 to identify Gary. However the timid young school girl brought into Max's office is not the same Felicity who seduced Gary. The real Felicity is played by Joanne Samuel, soon to play another school girl in Class of '74. The girl tearfully admits the truth: her older sister, the 18 year old Sandra Baker, had borrowed her school uniform for a night out where she planned to meet some television celebrities.
Following this the station's new weather girl Fanny Adams (Vanessa Leigh) quickly joins. As Channel 12's new sex symbol, ebullient blonde Fanny would be frequently nude in the series.
Though Vanessa Leigh had no acting experience prior to being cast in The Box, her performance made such an impression that her original 13 week contract was soon extended for another eight. [xxxiv] She would ultimately continue undressing in the series well into 1975. In the story Fanny harboured ambitions of becoming an actress, and she ended up in the role of nurse Jane Healey in UCV-12's medical drama Mercy Flight.
In further cast additions Matlock Police semi regular Luigi Villani moved over to The Box. He would play Channel 12's exuberant and eager to please maintenance man Mick Moloney.
After several weeks on air the identity of Kay's mystery lover was finally revealed to be her boss, Max Knight. Through the weeks the affair had continued Kay had only ever made love to the camera. Max was playing with fire by conducting an affair with his own secretary, especially since his wife was Sir Henry's neurotic, high maintenance daughter Marion, played by Margaret Cruickshank in a recurring role.
The character of Sir Henry would soon be developed, with his more caring, sympathetic side emerging. His portrayer Fred Betts later described the character for TV Week.
"The Box is gruelling, continuous work. There are a lot of lines to say and there's always the danger of becoming stale when you work with the same character for a long time. [...] He's the father figure I suppose. The character of Sir Henry was originally based on the late newspaper mogul Sir Frank Packer; it later included airline chief Sir Reg Ansett and, finally, Hector Crawford." [xxxv]
Key original characters Eddie and Cathy Holliday left the series in mid-1974. Eddie, sensitively portrayed by versatile entertainer Cul Cullen, was a sympathetic figure in the opening episode with his travails one of the more compelling story threads. It therefore comes as somewhat a surprise to learn that he hated the role, the script and the show.
He judged The Box as an altogether dishonest show and its scripts contrived, telling TV Week that despite rival series Number 96's purportedly substandard sets and acting that "Number 96 is by far the better show. You know why? Because it's honest." [xxxvi]
Cullen told TV Week that he didn't always follow the script, admitting "I used to make it up as I went along, and it worked fine." The scenes came out so well, according to Cullen, because of the skill and intuition of his main co-star Kay McFeeter who played Eddie's devoted daughter Cathy.
"She could take a change of line in her stride. She never missed a reaction. With anyone else any script change would have to be talked about, rehearsed and rehearsed again. Any spontaneous feeling would be lost. With Kay I didn't have to worry. She reacted naturally which is why the whole thing came across as it did." [xxxvii]
Eddie was written out of the series by suffering a stroke and retiring to the country. Cathy, by now appearing in an on screen role in Channel 12 program Holiday Farm, abruptly left the station to go and act as his carer full time.
Several new cast members joined the series for short stints during 1974. They included future A Country Practice regular Shane Porteous as new Channel 12 staffer David Warner. David accepted a bet from Gary Burke over which of them could seduce Kay Webster first, before growing genuinely attracted to her. Kay and David slept together, but their romance hit the rocks when Kay inevitably learned of the initial bet.
Singer Patricia Stephenson, briefly popular at the time after winning a televised talent quest, came in playing shy young production assistant Suki King. Tony Wild's genuine concern for Suki's welfare met with Sir Henry's strongly voiced disapproval.
Delvene Delaney, in her first ever acting job, joined as wardrobe assistant Penny O'Brien. Delaney described her work on the series to TV Week,
"They are breaking me in gently to the show. I'm not too busy at the moment, although it takes me ages to read through the script. It's like reading through a novel every week and then having to learn passages from it." [xxxviii]
Delaney was signed to a two month contract. In the story her character Penny developed a star complex and started chasing men. However Delaney would not appear nude in the series.
"She gets into some steamy scenes, but there will definitely be no nude scenes. That is part of the deal, and there was no bother about it. It's not that I object to nude scenes, but I just don't think I'm built for it. To put your body on display I reckon you must be pretty near perfect. My six-and-a-half stone looks okay when its dressed or in a bikini for pictures, but not quite right for television. You need to have a little more flesh on your bones for that." [xxxix]
At the end of her two month stint Penny was written out with the explanation she was leaving to attend acting school. This was also what her portrayer did on leaving The Box.
Also during the first year of The Box Mrs H's son Wayne (Bruce Kilpatrick) was released from prison. Wayne promptly fell in love with Lee Whiteman, forcing his distraught mother to admit her son was gay. A few months after his release from prison Wayne was drowned off the Victorian coast while saving someone else, and was posthumously awarded a medal for bravery.
While the character of Mrs H was written as a seasoned figure who had spent her life in the theatre, her portrayer Lois Ramsey felt that her difficulties with Wayne's sexuality were realistically handled.
"Accepting something in other people is not the same. I am sure that if any woman, theatrical or not, discovered her own son was homosexual she would be extremely upset." [xl]
Overall Ramsey described the scenes as "brilliantly written, I reckon the reactions were just perfect." Lois Ramsey's acting in the storyline was judged as brilliant too: when she taped the scene of Mrs H breaking down in tears at Wayne's revelation, the rest of the cast, watching rapt in the viewing room, reportedly broke down in tears as well. [xli]
The Box had finished up its first year ranked as Australia's second highest rated program, beaten only by Number 96. In fact, despite its strong opening and, according to TV Week's Jerry Fetherston, its better acting, after its premiere episode The Box was never again to overtake Number 96 in the ratings. [xlii]
The later episodes of The Box were less biting and de-emphasised the shock elements of the opening scenes. The series settled into stories focusing on office politics and the interpersonal problems of the various Channel 12 staffers, and began to place greater emphasis on light hearted comedy situations.
Overall the series seemed to avoid the big headline grabbing stories such as those that Number 96 was famous for. Much of the drama seemed to be character driven: the events and stories were largely rather prosaic but the characters living them were interesting, complex people, or were at least funny. Tony and Sir Henry were mainly given comedy stuff to do, Gary was a schemer, while Kay, Jean and Judy continued their hand wringing over their fraught love lives and the various tensions in their interpersonal relationships.
The problems that seemed to dog Kay, Jean and Judy might strictly speaking have been pure daytime soap opera fare. However the appealing screen presence and exceptionally good acting by their portrayers Belinda Giblin, Monica Maughan and Briony Behets lifted the scenes out of the rut.
A year into the storyline Gary was still making shifty manoeuvres to maintain his Big Night Out role. Judy Donovan, by now separated from Paul and working for Channel 12 as a production assistant, was thrilled to finally fall pregnant. Sir Henry was still making constant complaints about Tony Wild who he thought was a long haired layabout, apparently forgetting that he wasn't a real policeman, just an actor playing one. Cathy Holliday returned and took a role playing the nurse in new Channel 12 medical drama series Mercy Flight, at this point moving in with Mrs Hopkins.
Mrs H herself was being fleeced by fake medium Delma Brown (Janne Coglan) who claimed to be able to contact Wayne's ghost. Felicity, who had entered the storyline impersonating a sexy schoolgirl named Felicity Baker as part of a convoluted scheme to achieve fame, has achieved her goal and, now known as Felicity Greenfield, is working for Channel 12 as a presenter on Big Night Out.
Vicki Stafford now works for Channel 12 as on air host of daytime talk show Girltalk. Vicki has by now softened in character, frequently showing sympathy for the underdog while saving her cutting barbs for those who really deserved them. However her essentially sardonic manner prevailed.
In other developments an interfering Jean steps in to defend Kay when Judy names her as correspondent in the divorce from Paul, thus incurring Judy's wrath. Meanwhile young actor Brad Miller (David Downer) had begun a romance with Jean while enduring a fraught relationship with Fanny Adams, his co-star in medical drama series Mercy Flight.
Fanny, a late replacement in the role when Cathy pulled out of the show, was a Channel 12 weather girl with no formal acting training who was famous for her good looks and attractive figure, qualities that played a large part in her Mercy Flight casting. Just like several starlets in The Box itself, Fanny was plucked from presenting to take on a dramatic role presumably because of her beauty and despite her lack of acting experience. In the storyline of The Box at least, it was hinted that this caused some resentment amongst the other actors and various other members of staff.
A jealous Jean soon arranged for Fanny, who ironically enough was tired of being a sex symbol and wanted to be taken seriously as a thespian ("Instead of playing a body I could be a proper dramatic actress!"), to be fired from the role just as Brad had made peace with her. The decision to fire Fanny was quickly reversed, but when Mercy Flight itself was cancelled Fanny Adams opted to go into nursing for real. She promptly left Channel 12 and her planned acting career to start her training.
Fanny's portrayer Vanessa Leigh switched careers too, working as the personal assistant to a very wealthy jet setting Arab sheik in Europe. By 1981 she was back in Melbourne, engaged, and briefly returned to acting with a role in feature film Duet for Four (1982). [xliii]
The episodes from this period of The Box display many attempts at broad comedy, much of it given to Tony Wild and well played by his always energetic portrayer Ken James, although his punning dialogue in a discussion about Fanny Adams ("She'd give you the clothes off her back!", "I've never had any trouble handling Fanny!") was strictly of the Are You Being Served? calibre.
Ken James described his role in the serial TV Week.
"I've got the feeling I'm walking the razor's edge with the character all the time. If you overplay it either on the serious side or for laughs you lose it." [xliv]
"When I was first offered the role in The Box I wasn't sure what to expect. I didn't want to appear in a series which was just a copy of Number 96, but after looking at the scripts I became tremendously excited by the series." [xlv]
James told TV Week that he auditioned for Crawford Productions via a videotape audition.
"Crawfords were considering dropping the part of Tony Wild because they were unable to come up with someone suitable. In the audition I played Tony Wild all wrong. I played him as a straight and almost heavy kind of character. Crawfords wanted him to be comedy relief to help break up the dramatic situations which make up the bulk of the series. I now see Tony Wild as an insecure bloke who is desperate to impress everyone, but putting his foot in it every time he makes a move. He is conned by various people at Channel 12 because of his insecurity in his position in Manhunt, the series he stars in. When others are in trouble Tony is a bloke who is always willing to lend a helping hand. This character role is the most challenging part I've had since I started out acting when I was 16. Tony Wild is a totally believable character and I believe the public are beginning to get to know him and like him." [xlvi]
Despite the comedy subplots, the colourful characters, and the amusing wordplay dialogue, it must be said that the show did at times seem rather thin. There seemed to be endless scenes of two characters talking over a cup of tea in the tiny Channel 12 canteen. This was mixed with much time spent on various secretaries and assorted office workers conducting heated arguments about their personal relationships amongst the typewriters and filing cabinets.
While the show poked ironic fun at the production of Manhunt we didn't often see it being filmed. The Box was a high output serial where outdoors filming was rare, the number of sets and locations limited. If there was drama over Manhunt, it would often be a laboured boardroom discussion about ratings points and budget overruns.
Overall the series proper settled into a breezy soap opera style where storylines were often rather light and where drama was built through the characterisation. Unusually for an Australian serial, after the storyline reached a minor cliff-hanger before the commercial break, the program would resume after the break with a continuation of that same scene.
In the story Don Cook was promoted to director of Big Night Out and married dancer Barbie Gray, and she soon fell pregnant. Unfortunately there were complications during the birth causing their baby son to suffer brain damage, and the stresses caused Don's work to suffer. After failing to adequately cover an on air Big Night Out disaster, Paul Donovan demoted Don to daytime, where he would direct Girltalk. Don angrily quit the station on the promise of employment at a Sydney station.
Unfortunately that job fell through, and Don had burnt his bridges with Paul. However things reached a happy conclusion and soon afterwards Don announced he had got the job of director of a variety show on the fictional Channel 11. So Don and Barbie left the series in early 1975.
This began a large exodus of original characters. Key original characters Jean Ford, Kay Webster, Judy Donovan and Paul Donovan all left in the first few months of 1975.
George Mallaby who played Paul left to act in the film End Play. [xlvii] Briony Behets who played his wife Judy switched to a role in Bellbird [xlviii] before appearing in Class of '75 as a sexy gym teacher. Of her departure, Briony Behets told TV Week that,
"I was getting thoroughly sick of working on The Box - I don't mind admitting it, but when I finished I started to miss the people I worked with and wish I was back there." [xlix]
The Box was taped far in advance of the episodes going to air and so for a brief period in early 1975 Behets could be seen in The Box, Bellbird, and Class of '75 simultaneously. [l] Many months later Behets reflected on her time in the series.
"The Box was an invaluable training ground and did a lot for me. It made me more outgoing, gave me a lot more self-confidence and taught me how to concentrate." [li]
Sadly by the end of 1975 Briony Behets' main gig was as weather girl on the Channel 0 (10) news in Melbourne. [lii] Her acting career soon bounced back, however, and by the end of the 1970s she had played lead roles in several Australian produced feature films.
Meanwhile the departure of main character Kay Webster after a little over a year fitted the earlier predictions of her portrayer Belinda Giblin.
"I honestly feel that a year is long enough to work in something as intensive as The Box. After making so many episodes and running through so many different story lines the character must eventually get stale." [liii]
Monica Maughan at the time opted to sign on with the Melbourne Theatre Company. [liv] This spelt the end for her rather sad character Jean Ford, who had endured four love affairs that ended in heartbreak in her year with the show. Lonely Jean's situation had slowly improved as the series progressed, however, and she had at least moved away from her demanding mother.
Her portrayer told TV Week "I have tried to make Jean's character develop through the series," [lv] and when Maughan left the show the writers ultimately pulled out a happy ending for the heretofore perpetually unlucky in love spinster secretary. She accepted the marriage proposal of Brad Miller, the star of Channel 12's Mercy Flight series, and they announced their engagement on Big Night Out in the 1974 end of year cliff-hanger episode of The Box.
Fearful after enduring one broken engagement, Jean had developed grave doubts over the future of the relationship with Brad when a Mercy Flight romance between the fictional doctor and nurse saw Cathy Holliday, who portrayed the nurse character, fall in love with Brad for real. After initially calling it off Jean quickly came to her senses and The Box got its first big wedding. The entire cast were in attendance all dressed in their finery, with Kay Webster as bridesmaid and Paul Donovan as best man, while Sir Henry Usher gave the bride away. [lvi]
Though she had opted to leave after just a year in the role, Monica Maughan enjoyed her stint in the series.
"I've had a super, super year working with some wonderful, talented people. I have never been in a serial or a long series before and I have learnt a lot - and enjoyed every minute of it. You have to take the series for what it is and we all felt from the start that we were working on a good series and put a lot into it." [lvii]
Later Maughan would again accept an ongoing role in a serial, when she played the downtrodden inmate Pat O'Connell in Prisoner for six months starting in 1979. In this series she would tangle with acerbic officer Vera Bennett, a sad and lonely woman with a sickly mother represented initially by a highly critical voice in the other room - a situation that recalled the home life of Jean Ford.
In early 1975 George Mallaby won the Logie Award for Best Actor just as he finished up work on the series. Mallaby had spent 13 months playing the lead role of Paul Donovan, and described the workload and reasons for his departure to TV Week magazine,
"The pressure of doing two-and-a-half hours of television a week was beginning to take its toll and if I hadn't quit the series it would have seriously affected my health. I virtually lived and breathed The Box 24 hours a day and as a result my private life was virtually non existent. When I took on the role in October 1973 I knew it was going to be a tough and demanding job, but I never imagined the strain it would place me under. In the early stages it was a new experience for all of us and we managed to cope with the heavy work load, but as the series progressed my on camera involvement was increased at a fast rate. During the first few months I just collapsed in bed and slept each weekend to enable me to get through the following week. When my participation in the series increased it became a seven-days-a-week commitment, leaving no time for any kind of private life. With two-and-a-half hours being taped weekly, working on The Box was equivalent to making one full length film each week. A situation like this wouldn't be tolerated anywhere else in the world except Australia - and while it's allowed to continue the quality of the finished product is bound to suffer. I'm not knocking the production companies, because in most cases they've done a great job and given employment to countless people associated in the industry. The blame must clearly be levelled at the television networks, who are continually holding the production companies and actors to ransom." [lviii]
Mallaby cited the Nine Network's surprise cancellation of their number three rated program Division 4 as an example of the networks holding the production companies to ransom. [lix]
While The Box was enormously popular in its first year (ranking as Australia's second most popular television program, beaten only by Number 96), it ultimately emerged as just a mid-range success, and had a run of less than four years.
In Sydney The Box screened three times a week through the ratings period in 1974. Once the ratings period ended for the year, The Box was cut back to Tuesdays and Thursdays only. [lx]
In Melbourne it screened in half hour instalments for its first year. From February 1974 until Friday 29 November that year the series was screened in Melbourne as five, half hour episodes stripped across each weeknight. This was the same format as Number 96 and in Melbourne (and many other markets) episodes of The Box were programmed to run at 9.00 p.m. right after Number 96.
In Melbourne when the series resumed for 1975, The Box was screened in one hour installments. [lxi] Melbourne broadcasts started 14 January, and the one hour episodes went out Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Starting 25 February 1975, three one hour episodes of The Box went out each week, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Then, commencing 9 September, the series went out as two, ninety minute episodes a week in Melbourne, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Fatigued viewers finally got a reprieve starting 4 November when the series reverted to running as two one hour installments each week. The final episode for 1975 went to air in Melbourne on 3 December.
Through these permutations the advantageous starting time of 9.00 p.m. right after Number 96 remained consistent.
Starting from episode 221 taped in October 1974 The Box switched to colour production. The opening titles and end credit sequences continued with the exact same footage that had always been seen, and now it would appear in full colour: clearly Crawford's had had the foresight to film these sequences in colour in the first place. Towards the end of 1975 the end credits sequence would be updated. Now the closing credits would run over a wide shot of a deserted television studio interior as the lights were switched off one by one.
Through the 1975 season the actual episodes continued to be compiled in half hour instalments with the standard recap sequence, opening titles and end credits on each half hour segment. This allowed for other regions of Australia to continue broadcasting episodes in the original half hour configuration. Regions airing the episodes in the one hour format simply ran two half hour episodes together, cutting the end credits off the first episode and omitting the titles sequence from the second.
To ensure guest artists appearing in only a few episodes still received a screen credit, short term cast members would be credited for all episodes across the week of their appearance. That way if the actual episode of their spot ran first with its credits removed, the actor's name would eventually appear on screen in the credits of the subsequent episode.
It had also been announced that The Box would have a feature film spin off just as Number 96 had had, which would be shot in colour during the show's hiatus in January 1975. Though there was a major exodus of characters from the series, departing characters Mick Moloney (Luigi Villani), Kay Webster (Belinda Giblin) and Paul Donovan (George Mallaby) would have leading roles in the feature film. However by this stage the show's ratings were already beginning to wane, and a rather lukewarm viewer interest would also greet the film when it was finally released.
The Box feature film was written by co-creator Tom Hegarty as a parallel story. Though it and the series featured mostly the same characters the storylines of each needed to be self-contained and to run independently of one another. The film featured all new sets and was shot at Crawford Productions' Abbotsford studios, unlike the series which was videotaped in Studio B at Channel Ten's Nunawading studios.
Actor Peter Regan, who played compere Gary Burke in the series, was unwilling to appear in a feature film while merely receiving the usual television series pay packet the cast would receive. To make up for this loss guest star Graham Kennedy, originally to make just a brief cameo as himself making a Manhunt appearance, found his role upgraded. Rather than ten day's work, he now would spend four weeks filming on The Box. This suited everyone concerned; Kennedy was a big fan of the show, and was an ideal choice to play the super star host of a television variety program. Moreover he did the part for the same pay as the other leading players, and with no star billing. [lxii]
In this new arrangement Kennedy would still play himself, and in the story would now be filling in as host of Big Night Out for the absent Gary Burke. Then, during his stint with Channel 12, he requests a part in the new Manhunt film, winning the role of its devious villain.
Tom Hegarty explained the situation to Graeme Blundell for his biography on Graham Kennedy, King: The Life and Comedy of Graham Kennedy.
"Peter didn't want to do it for some reason - it had something to do with the deal. The film almost didn't happen. Then up popped Graham." [lxiii]
As Graham Kennedy would be playing himself, many script meetings were required to ensure that the character we see on screen accurately reflects the real person.
"'Oh, I probably wouldn't say that'," Kennedy would say of his character's dialogue in draft versions of the script. "'Oh, what would you say?' And off he would go. The hardest part was trying to stop him doing old jokes. He knew thousands. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of them. I wanted him to do the quick witted Kennedy thing, not gags as such." [lxiv]
The makers of the film were aiming for a rating of 'Mature' rather than 'Restricted', and among the sex scenes and nudity there would be just one expletive. Kennedy was given the honour of speaking it, and was reportedly pleased by this. Kennedy himself said of his acting role that.
"I suppose I actually have to play myself, but how do you do that? It is easy enough to be yourself but I have no idea how to act it." [lxv]
In the completed film the Graham Kennedy on screen is an appealing and genial presence, and his scenes - which stay within the confines of light comedy - are well acted. A special song and dance number for his character - performed in the story as a Big Night Out routine - was also included at Kennedy's request.
Breezy office secretary Lindy Jones, portrayed by future star of musicals and live theatre Geraldine Turner, was a new series character who also appeared in the feature film. Unfortunately, even with the greater emphasis on comedy in the feature film, there wasn't quite the latitude to have the office secretaries launching into song and dance numbers.
The film's main story has the station in financial trouble, with a heated meeting of the board of Usher Consolidated Victoria leading to the appointment of officious efficiency expert Dr S M Winter. Much to Max's surprise this expert is revealed as a woman named Sheila, portrayed by Cornelia Frances in the film's stand out performance. The various Channel 12 staff members attempt initially to impress her, a tactic that sees Lee Whiteman briefly reinvented as a polite and mild mannered conservative, before banding together to sabotage her efforts.
Meanwhile Sir Henry Usher reaffirms his belief that Manhunt star Tony Wild is a dangerous fool and a liability to the station, yet Paul Donovan has his own solution to the station's troubles, and decides to launch a do or die feature film version of Manhunt starring Wild. Lee Whiteman is asked to direct this fictional film spin off, but the irresponsible on set exploits of star Tony soon turns the feature into a compendium of Wild gaffes.
Tony is in further strife after an unapproved product endorsement for Meadow Grass Deodorant, and finds his budding romance with UCV-12 wardrobe assistant Tina Harrison (Tracy Mann) thwarted when he is aggressively pursued by sex mad starlet Ingrid O'Toole (Marilyn Vernon). Later, and to her great pleasure, Ingrid finds that Dr Winter's apparently camp personal assistant Bruce Madigan (Robin Ramsay) is anything but.
The crisp and assertive Sheila is promptly revealed to be an old friend of Vicki's, and she goes on to form an unexpected alliance with Sir Henry Usher. After their friendship blossoms Henry refuses Sheila's offer to ignore her actual observations and instead turn in a favourable report. In her final summations at the end of the investigation she concludes that while the station personnel are all adept at their jobs, it is Sir Henry's constant interference that stymies their success.
Yet with the expected failure of the Manhunt film - the station's last chance of survival - Channel 12 personnel still face an uncertain future. However an overseas buyer recognises a work of brilliant comedy hi jinx in the film and makes a lucrative offer. Channel 12 is saved and the entire cast of station staffers adjourn for a gay party aboard Sir Henry's houseboat at the Manhunt shooting location: Victoria's picturesque Lake Eildon.
In the film's final comedy flourish - an action sequence drenched in symbolism - Tony's speedboat careens uncontrolled towards the houseboat on which the wrap party is being held, sending panicked party goers diving into the drink one by one. The boats collide but as the houseboat sinks Sir Henry remains in place, going down with his sinking ship.
Unlike the earlier film spin off Number 96 (1974), which was basically an extended episode of the TV serial where signs of the low budget and tight filming schedule were often apparent on screen, the makers of The Box attempted to create a technically polished product that fully utilised the capabilities of the new medium. The film boasted a generous $315,000 budget [lxvi] and was filmed on 35 mm with a substantial amount of location filming and stunt work. With its technical standard the completed film has aged well, though whether it is as enjoyable as the technically inferior Number 96 is arguable.
Probably best used by the film are series regulars Ken James and Fred Betts. James is dependable as ever playing the inept and accident prone actor causing chaos on the set, and this time we see plenty of the troubled Manhunt location shoot. Sir Henry is given a pivotal role in proceedings and is embroiled in many of the film's action and comedy set pieces, and Betts turns in a fine comedy performance as the usually bombastic, frequently confused, but sometimes sympathetic station owner.
Paul Karo and Barrie Barkla also give enjoyable performances in the film - joyously camping up their roles for comic effect. Meanwhile the wonderful Judy Nunn is in fine form as Vicki, who is by this stage no longer a magazine reporter and now hosting her own show for Channel 12. Unfortunately she is sadly underutilized in the film and does little more than hang around the station, cigarette in hand, trading bitchy one liners with her pal Lee Whiteman.
Meanwhile many of the most entertaining moments belong to guest star Cornelia Frances who steals the show. She is brilliant as the stern professional, and then particularly funny when she gets hopelessly drunk for the first time while having dinner with Sir Henry, leading to her more girlish - and sexual - sides erupting.
Less successful is the romantic tension developed to occupy Kay Webster-Brooks - out of the series by this point - in her brief return to Channel 12. The now married Kay returns from overseas ahead of her husband, and when she begins working for Paul he pursues her in a manner that would most likely be regarded as sexual harassment today. In the film's most underdeveloped and unsatisfying story thread each of Paul's persistent attempts to rekindle their romance is greeted by a cold rebuff from Kay. Finally and without warning she suddenly seduces him, yet the next morning abruptly announces she's leaving both Paul and her unseen husband to go to Brisbane to sort herself out.
In any event the movie version of The Box had thrilling action sequences, bedroom farce, comic fantasy sequences, lots of in jokes, and of course the expected nudity. Like the makers of the Number 96 film, Crawford Productions took advantage of the more liberal censorship rules governing feature films, and included scenes of explicit full frontal nudity that would not be allowed on television at that time.
Ironically it is the film's nudity, which mainly consists of Marilyn Vernon going the Full Monty in an extended vignette of mistaken identity set in a hotel bedroom, which seems to be the one thing handled in an unimaginative manner. Meanwhile Belinda Giblin's "artistic" topless love scene with George Mallaby draws giggles from modern audiences.
TV Week columnist Frank Crook gave a generally positive review, judging the film as "at best an uneven comedy; an Australian Carry On film if ever there was one." Crook felt that the film's "greatest virtue lies in the fact that, unlike the small screen version, The Box does not take itself seriously. After a slow start, featuring one of those endless car chases that ran at least 1½ minutes too long, The Box settled down into broad farce". [lxvii]
Crook detected plot holes, script inanities and some fruity, melodramatic overacting in the feature, but overall commended it for being generally entertaining. His favourite performers in the film were Ken James and Fred Betts and he praised the polish of Graham Kennedy, "who provides much of the film's sparkle." [lxviii]
Film critic David Stratton observed that while the film differed from the Number 96 film in that it at least looked professional, in other areas it scarcely displayed any more intelligence than that film and its "juvenile plotline and amateurish direction". Stratton reports that The Box feature was likewise a success, if a more modest one. [lxix]
The film was not released until after the introduction of colour on Australian TV. Much of the novelty value of earlier film spin offs is that they allowed fans to finally see the action of their favourite show in full colour; it was more difficult to convince patrons to part with their hard earned cash when the series which could always be seen for free, could now be seen for free in colour too.
Perhaps too the public were tiring of the sex and shock soap operas in general. Number 96 and The Box had been running together on Ten for more than eighteen months and by this stage 96 was attempting to combat declining ratings with several high profile cast changes and the much publicised bomb blast storyline.
Though The Box feature might not have returned the expected box office receipts, one pleasing consequence of the film was that its new specially built office sets, after being used for the airport office interiors in Homicide feature film Stopover, would replace the more basic original The Box studio sets in the ongoing series. In the story the new sets were explained as the remodelled interior after UCV-12 suffered an office fire. [lxx]
The feature film had placed increased emphasis on comedy, and in 1975 the series itself began to focus more on comic situations. To keep the show fresh there was a high turnover of characters in the series, with several new regulars introduced in 1975.
A very young Tracy Mann began a long and successful acting career with a lengthy stint playing the naïve Tina Harrison. Tina, who was member number 69 of the Tony Wild fan club, joined Channel 12 as a cleaner who fawned over Tony. Her main career ambition was to become a typist, but she ended up working as the wardrobe assistant for a lengthy period.
Lindy Jones (Geraldine Turner) was the program manager's voluptuous new secretary while Jacqueline Kott was effective as Eddie's former wife and Cathy's mother, the aristocratic Beth Granger. Beth starts work as Channel 12's new wardrobe mistress and soon there are rumours she is having an affair with Sir Henry.
Fast talking sports caster Vern Walters (Syd Heylen) manoeuvred his way into Channel 12 before being manoeuvred out by Sir Henry. Harry Vendor (Rob Steele) was an obnoxious new Channel 12 security guard who introduced an intimidated Felicity to kinky sexual fetishes.
Meanwhile Lee Whiteman helped polished Channel 12 newsreader John Barnett (Donald McDonald) come out of the closet and they enjoyed a brief live in relationship. Most surprising was the love affair started by the sardonic Vicki and the scheming Gary, who apparently left their promiscuous ways behind and moved in together.
In the show's middle years among the most recognised and enduring characters was super-efficient unmarried secretary Enid Parker (Jill Forster) who followed Kay Webster to work for Max Knight. Jolly but frumpy, Enid was well organised and health conscious and always very eager to impart her wisdom to others.
The first year of the series had featured prim spinster secretary Jean Ford. Sympathetic Jean's storyline emphasised poignancy and pathos, but in the show's more comic second year Enid was more a humorous caricature. Enid ruffled Max's feathers by attempting to reorganise his entire life, and was close friends with his wife Marion. As an accomplished worker with some actual authority in the workplace, Enid clashed with Mrs Hopkins who thought she should be the one to interfere in everyone else's activities. Enid and Mrs H were soon embroiled in an ongoing feud.
Jill Forster was cast in the role of Enid on the say so of The Box Executive Producer Jock Blair. Forster had previously played a similar role for him in an episode of Ryan and clearly he liked what she had done with it. [lxxi]
Forster's beauty was hidden behind unflattering spectacles and a pinned up hairstyle to play Enid. Then, for a brief period, the former Number 96 actor dropped the dowdy disguise to double as Enid's wicked younger sister Emma. For the portrayal of Emma, a glamorous jet setting model, Forster let out her hair and traded Enid's plain smocks and monogrammed jackets for a fur coat. For the duration of Forster's time playing the dual role a production error left the character of Emma uncredited. TV Week magazine soon reported that puzzled viewers were flooding Channel Ten with letters asking the name of the attractive new actress portraying Emma. [lxxii]
Forster's real life husband John Stanton also joined the series as a regular. He came in as the inscrutable new program manager Nick Manning, who replaced Paul Donovan.
After six months Lindy, played by Geraldine Turner, was written out of the series and in the story former production assistant Sharon Lewis (Noni Hazlehurst) replaced her as Nick's secretary. Of the switch the show's producer George Foreman told TV Week that "We feel the character of Lindy has run its full course now. Besides this, we like to change our girls around occasionally." [lxxiii]
Indeed original characters Felicity Greenfield and Cathy Holliday also made their final exits in mid-1975. To replenish the ranks further new characters were the dry American director Brian Colson (Roger Newcombe), and Lee Whiteman's cousin Douglas Jackson (Tony Barry) who joined Channel 12 selling station sponsorship.
Meanwhile the ebullient and relentlessly unflappable aspiring actress Deirdre Matthews (Isabel Kirk) installed herself at Channel 12 in a bid for stardom. Attempts to oust her were stymied by the discovery she was the daughter of Channel 12 Sydney's managing director. Deirdre soon became a demanding diva, insisting on a lead guest starring role in an episode of Manhunt. She was soon put in her place when the show's furious director Lee Whiteman instead assigned her the role of the corpse.
Future The Young Doctors favourite Judy McBurney came in as the temperamental and selfish plain Jane office typist Jane Fowler. Jane moved in with Mrs H and promptly began to take advantage of her kindness while bemoaning her troubled existence and unplanned pregnancy. Viewers were also introduced to Nick's rather earnest wife Carol (Barbara Ramsay).
Meanwhile in the grand tradition of Vanessa Leigh, The Box's latest sex symbol was the shapely blond Cheryl Rixon. As the beautiful but naïve television starlet Angela O'Malley, Rixon would steam up proceedings in two substantial stints during the show's middle period.
Angela became engaged to Doug, but after being tempted to stray by new Manhunt actor and Tony's despised rival Peter Kendall (Tristan Rogers) she foolishly broke the engagement. Angela soon learned, to her dismay, that Peter saw their union as nothing more than a one night stand.
Cheryl Rixon discussed the requirement she perform frequent nude scenes in the series with TV Week.
"It doesn't worry me at all. One thing Australian people aren't used to are girls saying a straight out 'yes' to a nude scene. They usually expect to have to trick them into it. Whenever I have said 'yes' straight away I'm sure they've thought 'She can't be serious'. The only thing that does annoy me is if the person behind the camera doesn't do a good shot. A bad nude shot can look awful and distasteful. After all it's only you that can be projected." [lxxiv]
Through 1975, location shot comedy vignettes were used to lighten the drama. There was Enid's fitness class in the park with Tony Wild, Tina Harrison, Mrs H and Lee Whiteman. Mrs H hurt her back and collapsed in pain while Lee was distracted by a "gorgeous hunk of athlete" running in the opposite direction. As Lee later explains, "It's a wonder I didn't pull something!"
Angela O'Malley bounced her way through an advertisement for pool company Apex Pools. While Angela worried about her dialogue the crew remained preoccupied by her appearance in a wet tee shirt. When Vicki, in her role as publicist, decided to showcase Tina Harrison in a photo spread publicising the station, Tony Wild's constant "helpful" advice through the process is nothing but a hindrance.
In other sequences Tony decides he will be the next Harry Houdini and has Tina lock him in the boot of Sir Henry's Jaguar to rehearse an escapology stunt for magic special Wild About Magic - to be taped later that afternoon. Unfortunately the car speeds off with Tony inside and, its location unknown, production of the show is jeopardised. Later there's more car trouble when Tony miraculously manages to lose the wheel nuts while "helping" an anxious Vicki change a flat tyre.
Towards the end of the 1975 episodes came the dramatic office fire storyline. Nick Manning is working late on a crucial tender application and sends his secretary Sharon Lewis off home. Max and Sir Henry leave for dinner, however Henry's carelessly discarded match sets a pile of scripts on Sharon's desk alight as Nick slaves away in the adjacent office.
Security guard Jack is also leaving for the night as Carol arrives to visit Nick. After heading upstairs she discovers the fire and rescues Nick who is overcome by smoke, but leaving Carol in the corridor he returns to retrieve his paperwork from the office. Luckily Jack notices the fire in time and goes in to rescue the trapped Nick and Carol.
The episode's fire sequences were directed by Rod Hardy and George Miller (the regular Crawford Productions director, not the Mad Max director of the same name). Both would go on to direct Australian feature films and later work as directors in various Hollywood productions.
The fire story features videotaped studio shots of the blazing offices in The Towering Inferno type scenes depicting daring rescues amongst flaming interiors and collapsing ceilings. Intercut with this are striking and sharply edited filmed sequences apparently shot on location as Nick, Carol and Jack make their attempted escape through the smoky corridors and fire escapes.
Suspense builds as the threesome are trapped by a locked door as the flames approach. Doug, Max and Sir Henry arrive on the scene to find a large contingent of police and ambulances as a team of fire fighters battle the blaze. Hoping to rescue any staff members trapped inside, Doug, Max and Sir Henry disobey orders and enter the burning building. Luckily the fire is quickly extinguished and they are promptly reunited with the relatively unscathed Jack, Nick and Carol.
The highly effective fire episode which went to air in Melbourne on 28 October 1975 also features amusing vignettes of Gary Burke at home with houseguest Angela O'Malley.
Angela, in the sexiest outfit imaginable, sits watching Channel 12 to see her advertisement for Apex Pools go to air but is perturbed by the intermittent station transmission. When the commercial finally screens, we watch Gary and Angela watch TV as she innocently comments "you can just about see everything!", while Gary, his main squeeze Vicki currently on a publicity trip to Sydney, begins to overheat. "I was freezing that day" remarks Angela. "So I notice!" replies a sorely tempted Gary.
The pyrotechnics of the office blaze were orchestrated by the same special effects technician who had conducted the previous month's Number 96 delicatessen bomb blast. Some of The Box fire sequences were shot on location at Crawford Productions' Abbotsford headquarters, including the external shots of the car park filled with ambulances and fire fighting equipment, and a glimpse of the building exterior as flames appear in a third floor window. The blazing interior office shots were taped in the usual ATV0 studio regularly used for The Box interiors. [lxxv]
Crawford Productions reported that the main reason for the fire was to explain in the story the upgrade of the office sets, not to clearout expendable cast members as had occurred in the Number 96 bomb. [lxxvi] Indeed, unlike that show's fiery disaster that killed off several key characters, the only thing to perish in The Box was Nick's tender application. In the story the loss of this important document proved to be large strategic blow to station business, and soon budget cuts and job losses were feared.
After the fire the 1975 season came to a quiet close.
The previously prim, plain and selfish Jane Fowler saw the error of her ways and had a makeover. However she was then abruptly retrenched in the ensuing Channel 12 cost cutting drive: a retread of one the storylines from The Box feature film. Sex symbol Cheryl Rixon also departed after a successful season in the show.
By this time Deirdre Matthews had been installed as the station's publicist, although with the spate of retrenchments she fears she may be the next to go. During a stint as Nick's secretary Sharon Lewis developed romantic feelings for her boss, prompting her request to swap positions with Enid. This left Sharon working for Max and Enid working for Nick.
Enid and Nick's portrayers Jill Forster and John Stanton were married in real life and now the characters would be closely teamed in the program's storylines as well. The show's 1975 end of year cliff-hanger had Enid apparently terrorised by the ghost of Channel 12 while working late one night.
At the end of 1975 the highly popular Paul Karo who played Lee Whiteman had decided to leave the series, with his final episodes going to air in the first few months of 1976. At the 1975 Logie Awards held in early 1976, Karo was awarded the Best Australian Actor national award for his portrayal of Lee. [lxxvii] At the time Paul Karo elaborated on the reasons for his departure to TV Week.
"Two years is a long time for a character actor to stay with one role. Besides initially I gave myself a year with the role it's just that I liked it so much I stayed longer." [lxxviii]
At the start of 1976 TV Week reviewer Frank Crook re-evaluated The Box. Describing it as the "program which started so promisingly, faltered, then regained its poise," Crook reported that "the show has now completed the full circle and has returned to its original format; a tight, terse little drama about a TV station now thankfully minus the meanderings of its writers, which very nearly turned the show into a farce." [lxxix]
Crook designates Ken James' character Tony Wild, and Paul Karo's soon to depart Lee Whiteman, as the show's standout characters. In Crook's evaluation the pace of the show takes a definite lift whenever Tony stumbles onto screen.
"For too long now too many people have taken Ken James for granted. And that is often the case with an actor of real skill. One tends to forget that he is an actor playing a part. For in the case of Ken James it is a question of identity. His Tony Wild is so real in so many ways, that Ken James the actor rarely gets the credit he deserves. For our money, anyway, Ken James is not just an actor in The Box. He IS The Box." [lxxx]
In December 1975 original series producer Jock Blair summed up plans for The Box in 1976 for the Observer TV guide. "The show will be a lot more down to earth than in the past twelve months. It will be more like it was in the first year." The magazine surmised the show's trajectory as having started off as a showcase of flesh and controversy before becoming a lot more tame in its second season. [lxxxi]
Observer TV reported that there would be an increase in sex and nudity for the new year. As Jock Blair explained.
"1976 looks like being a hot year. We're going to give viewers something to sit up and watch. There'll be controversy and more humour." [lxxxii]
For the 1976 episodes Jock Blair had been reinstated to his former producer role. He told TV Week that to revitalise the series they would,
"Add a few of the old ingredients. We want to be more controversial, more entertaining. We hope to include many more fresh faces this year, particularly in the pretty, young girl category. Auditions and screen tests are currently underway. It should prove to be a good year." [lxxxiii]
In the pretty young girl category actor Arna Maria Winchester signed on for six months. She would play Max Knight's new secretary, the cool and mysterious Anne Chambers who replaced the departing Sharon Lewis. Anne was an ex-heroin addict and former jailbird who feared her past would become known among her co-workers.
Despite Blair's pronouncement concerning "pretty, young girls", Winchester had ruled out any potential nudity in her role. She insisted she would not be disrobing for The Box.
"I won't be taking my clothes off. I have my own ideas about sex appeal and I don't call all that stuff sexy. Sex appeal comes from the inside, not from loads of bare flesh." [lxxxiv]
Luckily for viewers hoping to catch a few nude glimpses in the show, the program's most famous sex symbol Cheryl Rixon would soon make her return. After a four month absence she was back as Angela for another 13 week stint, beginning early February 1976. [lxxxv]
Brian Colson, who had left Channel 12 in late 1975, made his return and soon moved in to Lee's old house with Doug Jackson. There, bachelor pad comedy sketches and domestic disasters in the gaudily decorated blue and green kitchen would counter balance the show's dramatic storylines.
Also brightening things up was the continued presence of vivacious Deirdre Matthews who remained unperturbed when station cost cutting, possible program cancellations, and potential retrenchments would yet again dominate the storyline. Even Deirdre's pregnancy scare after a one night stand with Doug was unable to dampen her bubbly demeanour. Tina Harrison transferred to the typing pool. Now she could join Enid in the office to shuffle papers and slam filing cabinet drawers while delivering plot exposition.
By this stage, in real life, the Crawford's staple, its police drama series, were being cancelled by the commercial networks. And so in the storyline of The Box the fictional police drama Manhunt faced the axe when its ratings dipped and various interstate affiliates pulled out of the show. This left the increasingly weary Sydney station as the only contributing affiliate, now required to come up with a larger proportion of the Manhunt budget than ever before. Various creative forces at Channel 12 are assigned the task of devising a cheap new replacement show, although no one comes up with the idea of making a talky soap opera with the odd topless girl to sustain viewer interest in the proceedings.
Gary and Vicki, still enjoying domestic bliss, revealed what an unorthodox union they had by staging a contest as to which of them could seduce Anne first. Anne, who had befriended Tony Wild, showed little interest in either of them. Meanwhile when Vicki starts planning a segment for her UCV-12 talk show Newsmakers investigating the issue of prostitution, she begins to suspect that Anne knows more about the topic than she lets on.
As part of this storyline Lois Ramsey's real life daughter Penny Ramsey - wife of actor Rod Mullinar - turned up in a guest role as Rosalie, the prostitute ultimately interviewed by Vicki. The guest role even included a fiery exchange with her mother's character Mrs Hopkins. [lxxxvi]
Meanwhile a protective Tony Wild becomes highly suspicious of new UCV-12 mail boy turned props assistant Billy Chapel (Gary Morrison), especially after he befriends naïve Tina. Despite his best efforts Tony is unable to halt their burgeoning romance.
Tony continued to be a key character in the series, still providing the comedy relief. Many people believed there was a lot of Ken James in Tony Wild. On this James told Scene that,
"That question gets asked a lot." [...] "I see him as clumsy, kind and gentle. Tony hasn't got a real temper, but I have because I'm a Scorpio. I don't know what Tony's sign is - but one minute he's up and the next he's down. I think the main thing is that people can identify with him. They come home after a hard day, sit down and say 'My God, look at the silly bastard' and laugh. You can give him crazy situations as long as he's honest and the audience can believe in him. You should see the scripts when I get them - I grab a red pen and go crazy." [lxxxvii]
James said that at one point Crawford Productions approached him about doing a spin-off series, based on Tony Wild.
"I said that's a wonderful compliment. Then they said they couldn't afford to take me out of The Box - which is an even better compliment." [lxxxviii]
In cast departures Tracy Mann, who had been on board as Tina Harrison since early 1975, finally exited the show after an 18 month run. Isobel Kirk departed and in the story her character Deirdre Matthews abruptly left Channel 12 to return to Sydney and get married to the equally madcap Greg (Brian Hannan). Noni Hazlehurst, who played warm and friendly production assistant turned secretary Sharon Lewis, also left the series.
To accommodate Paul Karo's decision to leave the series it was explained that Lee Whiteman left the station and travelled to Europe. Original cast member Fred Betts, who played Sir Henry Usher, took an extended leave of absence from the series and acted in a stage role in New Zealand. English born Betts had lived there for fifteen years prior to coming to Australia, and with The Box now screening In New Zealand he had received offers of work there. [lxxxix] During his three month break Betts had played in Hadrian VII in Christchurch. [xc]
Meanwhile the program's most revealing storyline ever took place as a Channel 12 staff picnic organised by Enid somehow ends up at a nudist retreat.
TV Week publicity for the storyline claimed the precise details were being kept a "deadly secret" to avoid spoiling things for The Box watchers. What was revealed was that it would feature series regulars Ken James and Cheryl Rixon baring their all. Meanwhile seventeen specially hired extras participate in some "rather spectacular" nude games, and even the older, more staid characters of Sir Henry, Max Knight, and Mrs H are somehow embroiled in the events. [xci]
Shot in "complete secrecy" in the undergrowth of Yarra Brae in the Dandenong Ranges, the nudist retreat scenes were purportedly shot in close up, and featured lots of full frontal nudity rather than the usual nude glimpse during a dash from the shower or a bedroom. Jock Blair said that "we have taken some of the most unusual sequences done anywhere in the world for TV." Network publicity described the scenes as being "the most daring nude scenes ever shot for television." [xcii]
For once the hype was only a slight exaggeration. In the episode, which went to air in Melbourne on 11 May 1976, the Channel 12 picnickers arrive at the site chosen by Enid while viewers see that a fallen sign designates the land as a nudist retreat. Enid advises everyone to "look out for the snakes", and directs Sir Henry, Jack, Mrs Hopkins, Tony and Angela, and Doug and Helen (Joy Thompson) to the clubhouse.
Enid waits to greet Max and Marion, who eventually arrive having just collected their visiting niece Babs MacArthur, a bubbly former tomboy played by one time Class of '74 regular Barbara Llewellyn. Max suspects he has been in the sun too long when he thinks he spots a nude woman walking through the undergrowth. Meanwhile Sir Henry has stumbled upon a naked couple in the clubhouse, but when the others investigate and find the building empty they suspect he is seeing things.
The assembled throng of picnickers is later amused to see Tony forced to strip off and hide naked in the bushes after sitting in an ant nest, and then are shocked by the sight of seven completely nude strollers emerging from the scrub. Enid soon gets to the bottom of the situation, and advises that the land is now designated as a nudist retreat. They may stay, she explains, on the condition that they strip off.
To Max and Sir Henry's horror, many of the station's staff, including Angela and Doug and Helen along with several assorted background staffers, happily strip off to join the naked Tony in the wilds. Health nut Enid is eager to join in the fun, and Mrs H seems keen on the idea too, but they, along with Babs and Marion, are ordered by Max and Henry to remain covered. Law abiding Jack O'Brien also disapproves.
The story is quickly resolved as the clothed bunch make their exits as the happily nude picnickers laugh and wave a happy goodbye. For the final flourish bouncy Angela jumps up to wave goodbye and thank Enid for finding such a great spot.
Of the regular cast only Cheryl Rixon as Angela provides any real nudity. Doug and Helen's strip was implied off camera, while Ken James wore flesh coloured underwear for the shot of Tony reclining with Angela and the nudist extras.
The history making storyline with several extras of both sexes and all shapes and sizes shown full frontally nude in several shots - albeit mostly in wide shot - is played for comedy and does not seem salacious at all. Ironically it is the episode's intervening scenes involving the regular characters not attending the picnic that focus more on sexual matters.
Brian's clumsy attempted seduction of Anne provokes her angry rejection. Vicki, her career now established in Australia, is perturbed by Gary's plans to take a job in England. She runs in to Brian who is drowning his sorrows at the pub. He convinces Vicki to adjourn to his place where she resists his aggressive attempts to resume their old love affair. Unfortunately Gary learns of this and gets the wrong idea. Later, Nick calls in to visit the returning Enid and, suspecting that she is hiding a pregnancy, demands to know if the child is his.
All in all the nudist retreat sequences are funny and they provide a pleasing antidote to the more serious and sombre intervening dramas. If nothing else the storyline provided a fitting swan song for the show's most uncovered sex symbol, Cheryl Rixon, as she finished her final stint with the series.
On leaving The Box Rixon was off to the United States where, with Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione as her personal manager, she did modelling and film work. [xciii] There, Rixon was Penthouse magazine's December 1977 Pet of the Month, before being crowned the magazine's 1979 Pet of the Year. [xciv]
In mid-1976 villainous TV host Gary Burke, an original character in the series, made his on screen departure. Gary was written out after the makers of the show decided they had exhausted his story potential. Gary's portrayer Peter Regan explained the turn of events to TV Week.
"We've come to the mutual decision that the character has run the full course. I'm more than pleased with the two-and-a-half year run I got with the series. There certainly are no complaints there." [xcv]
In a separate TV Week report, Regan described conditions working on the show.
"I do enjoy The Box. When asked if the role of Gary Burke is satisfying, I think first you have to approach it on its own level, considering the audience to which it appeals. I mean, we're not doing Shakespeare, so we're not after that type of audience. But it's hard for the local product with the limited time and budget to compete with the overseas shows [...] I suppose though the product suffers sometimes because of the system here of accountants, not creative people, in top positions at TV stations." [xcvi]
Gary Burke was written out of the storyline by drowning in Max's swimming pool. When Max holds a party for the Channel 12 staffers at his house everyone shows up early, at Mrs H's suggestion, for a swim in the pool to get things started. Vicki and Gary have a fiery, drunken argument alone by the pool ending with Vicki pushing the staggering Gary into the water and storming back into the house. Hitting the cold water fully clothed, Gary briefly struggles but soon passes out and drowns, and when Tony and Angela bounce out for another dip they are confronted by the horrific sight of Gary's bobbing corpse.
Actor Peter Regan would not be out of work for long. The Box was famous for dramatising real life elements of the television industry, but this time life imitated art and Regan soon became a TV variety host for real. Regan hosted talent quest series Quest '76, produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation."I'm fortunate - I've gone straight out of one show into another," Regan told Scene. In Quest '76 Regan would himself sing one song each week. At the time he was also promoting his second record album. According to Regan the album was "doing well - despite being sandwiched between ABBA and Perry Como." [xcvii]
Shortly afterwards key cast member Jill Forster also left the series. In the story her character Enid Parker fell pregnant after a one night stand with Nick Manning and she left UCV-12 to have the baby. In reality the portrayers of Enid and Nick were the expectant parents and Forster had finished work on the series in April 1976 to give birth to her and John Stanton's first child together, a daughter they named Polly. [xcviii] By mid-1976 the character of ad man Doug Jackson had also left the series.
In other storyline developments secretary Anne Chambers developed a romantic involvement with Nick Manning before departing at the end of her initially planned six month stint. Her portrayer Arna Maria Winchester described her run in the series for TV Week.
"As soon as I start to get settled into the series and start to enjoy it, I have to leave it. In the beginning, I detested working on the show because the character was living in the past, but towards the end, I started to enjoy it." [xcix]
Winchester herself had a brush with the law when on 10 August 1976 she was arrested for shoplifting a number of small items, total value $55.95, from the Myer department store in Doncaster. At her court appearance a week later the court was told she had possibly cracked under the strain of work pressure and personal problems. Winchester had been working from 5.00 a.m. to midnight on The Box and on stage, and been under considerable stress over her personal situation. She was five months pregnant and shared her small home with a couple and their young child. The child had German measles, and in her pregnant state Winchester had been worried about this. Crawfords casting director Loretta Healey testified that Winchester had worked for Crawford Productions for six years, had been "very hard working in a responsible job, and was a very intelligent girl." Healey said that "we have found her to be honest." Winchester was fined $100. [c]
During 1976 Crawford Productions had brought in American television writer Hal Kanter to help with storylines on the show. [ci]
The second half of the 1976 season saw the introduction of the fractious Freeman family, documentary makers who came to Channel 12.
Walter Freeman (Philip Ross) had conducted an affair with glamorous young collaborator Becky (Sonia Finn) during the production of an earlier film. Walter's wife Ruth learned of the affair but had reportedly died after falling down a ravine during the shoot. Becky and Walter married, setting up an awkward domestic situation with Walter's adult daughter Trish (played by former Number 96 and Class of '74 actor Anne Lambert).
Trish feared that the family was jinxed following her mother's mysterious demise. She endured a troubled relationship with Becky, a beautiful and stylish schemer with long, platinum blond baby doll hair and a coldly determined manner.
Anne Lambert explained her character's situation to TV Week as,
"Almost your wicked step mother type situation. Basically though, I guess Trish is promiscuous. She works on two levels. Sexy and promiscuous on one hand, disturbed and lonely on the other." [cii]
Of her role in The Box Lambert told TV Week,
"There are some bedroom and nude scenes involved, which I wasn't aware of when I signed the contract and I'm really not over pleased about them now." [ciii]
As the Freeman storyline unfolded Trish began to suspect that Becky had been responsible for her mother's death, and that she was planning to have her killed too. Meanwhile Becky discovers that her artificial sweeteners have been poisoned, and suspects that Walter is the culprit. When she serves Walter coffee explaining she is out of sugar and instead used her sweeteners, he furtively empties the cup back into the pot when he thinks she isn't looking.
Ultimately Walter's wife showed up alive. She had survived the fall and was now a paraplegic. It is revealed that she had slipped and reached out to Walter for help, but he pulled away allowing her to fall. Walter later starts a romance with Vicki, allowing them to compare notes on how they pushed their previous partners into peril.
Also joining the series was former children's show host Johnny Masters (Don Barker) who came to Channel 12 as the new host of Big Night Out. [civ] Meanwhile Max's new secretary was the artistic and emotionally fragile Louise Saunders (Roberta Grant). With Max's wife Marion overseas, they soon embarked on an affair.
In other story intrigue Vicki Stafford left Channel 12 and set herself up as an agent. However after signing stars Johnny Masters and Tony Wild, she set their price too high for Channel 12 in an apparent vendetta against the station. Unfortunately for Tony this move jeopardised his role in colonial drama Gully Rider, a new series that had been concocted after the cancellation of Manhunt.
Later in 1976 actor Maurie Fields, fresh from a nine year run as Bellbird villain John Quinney, briefly joined The Box prior to taking an ongoing role in Crawford Productions situation comedy Bobby Dazzler. In The Box Fields would portray Horrie Weatherburn, a ruthless executive who challenged Sir Henry's ownership of the station.
In September 1976 the highly popular Paul Karo had made his on screen return to the series as Lee Whiteman. The producers of The Box had been reluctant to lose one of their most popular actors and were delighted to sign him on for a three month return. [cv] Karo had found work scarce during his time away from the series, but reportedly agreed to the return on the promise of being included in overseas filming in the show, a promise that was never fulfilled. [cvi]
In talking to Scene, Karo reiterated he returned to the role because he needed the work. He also revealed that he was written back into the series "for the ratings period. Crawford Productions were quite honest on that point." [cvii]
At the time Karo said that the Lee Whiteman part is the only role he "could bear to do" in a serial format.
"Generally speaking, serials are never interesting and the roles are fairly ordinary. But Lee is very colourful and theatrical and provides the light relief. That makes it bearable. I enjoyed the part in The Box feature film because it was a send-up. Everything was over-drawn." [cviii]
In the story Lee returns from Europe talking of a dear new friend Ronnie - who everyone assumed was a young man. However when Ronnie Heatherton eventually shows up she is revealed as an attractive young woman, played by Penny Downie. Ronnie would soon find work as a Channel 12 secretary.
Between stints on the show, Karo had described his work on the series for TV Week.
"I've been in this business for nearly 20 years and during that time I've only ever played three effeminate types out of hundreds of roles. But people think that's all I can do. Since my role in The Box I have never been invited to do an even remotely serious part in a show [...] I enjoyed working on The Box. I will miss it in certain ways. I have a fairly high opinion of the show. The format and the standard has always been kept high." [cix]
Karo admitted that he wouldn't exactly miss Lee Whiteman himself. "The character was always so nice. We nicknamed him Pollyanna." [cx]
Throughout 1976 The Box in Melbourne screened as two one hour episodes each week, retaining its position running after Number 96. With Number 96 now being broadcast in one hour installments starting at 8.30 p.m., the starting time of The Box was now 9.30 p.m.
With the weekly output reduced to two hours for 1976, the series now had a smaller regular cast. Episodes had a more leisurely pace with longer scenes and fewer characters in each scene. The light comedy antics that crept in to storylines during the program's second year by this stage seem to have been de-emphasised in favour of slowly building tension, intrigue, and mystery.
Starting with the 1976 season, episodes were compiled outright in one hour installments. Previously all episodes were compiled in half hour blocks, each with opening titles and end credits. A new episode numbering system started for the one hour episodes, with each hour instalment given its own number (the first one hour episode for 1976 was numbered 01/76, followed by 02/76, etc.) The one hour format continued for the remainder of the series.
In late 1976 the opening titles sequence of The Box was updated. Now quick flashes of the show's main characters would appear in a vertical split screen arrangement. Finally a sexy bare breasted blonde would appear, and this image would now be the shot on the television that exploded as the series title flashed up. The program's usual theme music played under this new opening sequence.
In the 1977 episodes host Johnny Masters was joined by his long lost son Kevin Masters, an aspiring singer played by former Young Talent Time member Rod Kirkham in basically his first straight dramatic role. Kirkham was cast in The Box after auditioning for but missing out on a role in The Sullivans. Now playing an ambitious, womanising singer, Kirkham was allowed to sing his own songs in The Box. He was also able to smash his clean cut Young Talent Time image by appearing in a nude scene with Judy Nunn in the show. [cxi]
Indeed the sex angle had always been a big selling point of The Box and beautiful blond French actress Christine Broadway was the show's latest female sex symbol. She played dancer Yvette Montchamps for the show's final stretch.
The Paris born Christine Broadway had initially signed on for a seven week stint while juggling acting with presenting duties on The Gong Show and appearing as the weather girl on the Channel Ten news in Melbourne. Impressed with her performance after just one day on the set, The Box producer Don Battye immediately signed her for a further 13 weeks. Hector Crawford arranged for her to be relieved of her Gong Show duties to concentrate on the weather and The Box. [cxii]
Though she played a sexy role, Broadway did not appear nude in The Box. Scene quoted her as saying "I refuse to take my clothes off," and reported she had rejected an offer to act in the US film Lenny because the part required nudity. That role went to American actor Valerie Perrine. Broadway, formerly a dancer in Paris, said of her earlier career that "I was a DANCER - we showed our legs, nothing more." [cxiii]
In the storyline Yvette eventually married director Brian Colson and they lasted out the run of the series. Meanwhile Kevin hooked up with Max's niece Babs, who had begun work at Channel 12 as a production assistant.
By late 1976 the end of The Box seemed to be in sight. TV Week magazine reported in September 1976 that there was intense speculation within the Ten Network that the series would be cancelled when its 1977 renewal came up. The rumours stemmed from the program's falling ratings in most cities, particularly Sydney. [cxiv]
In late September 1976 Scene likewise reported that The Box (and Number 96) had done very poorly in the latest ratings. Scene speculated that "viewers have become bored by the present story lines" of the shows, and reported that the producers of both programs were told the serials could be axed unless they promise more interest and viewer appeal. Scene said that in response The Box had hastened the return of the popular Paul Karo in his role of Lee Whiteman. [cxv]
In early 1977 in Melbourne, both The Box and Number 96 were, due to declining ratings there, reduced to screening as just one hour long episode each week, on Monday evenings. Number 96 had the 9.30 to 10.30 p.m. slot that night, leaving the graveyard 10.30 to 11.30 p.m. slot for The Box.
It was reported that at the Logie Awards ceremony in early 1977, just two actors from The Box were in attendance. [cxvi] Things were not looking good for the show.
Original cast member Fred Betts elected to leave the series at the end of 1976 [cxvii] and his on screen departure occurred in February 1977. In an interview with Scene Betts angrily revealed he was partly quitting in disgust at the attempts by the Federation of Australian Commercial Television Stations to renegotiable a deal with actors that would result in lower pay rates for performers. However there were other reasons for his departure.
"Channel 0 treats The Box like dirt. We still live in an underground dressing room. We can't accept any incoming phone calls at all and there is no phone in the dressing room to ring out. When you do find a phone, you have to pay ten cents to use it. Crawfords have joined the act now. I have an admiration for dear old Hector, but they're trying to get us to do more without any more pay." [cxviii]
Betts finished work on the series on 17 December 1976. He promptly returned to New Zealand to appear in a couple of stage plays. "I do it at the end of every year - I have to, to retain my sanity." [cxix]
In the story his character Sir Henry Usher was stabbed to death in the offices of Channel 12 with his bloody corpse discovered by Louise Saunders and Mrs H the following morning. Vicki, fresh from yet another fiery clash with Sir Henry, was initially arrested for the crime. However it had actually been committed by Louise Saunders who had become mentally unbalanced after a troubled affair with her boss Max Knight.
Sir Henry had overheard a conversation between Louise and his son-in-law Max, revealing their affair. When he called Louise into the office and angrily declared he would reveal the affair - and ruin Max's career, Louise went wild and stabbed him through the heart with a letter opener. Louise blacked-out the event and suspicion turned to Vicki. When Louise's memory returned she turned herself into the police while concealing the true reason for the crime to preserve Max's marriage and career.
Fred Betts died in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 1977. Episodes of The Box had at the time recently been screened in that country on TV-2, one of New Zealand's state run channels. Broadcasts in New Zealand had ceased in early March 1977 due to "poor audience reaction", provoking a flood of letters from fans asking for the show's return. [cxx]
Roberta Grant, who had portrayed UCV-12 secretary Louise Saunders for close to a year, also quit the series at this time, telling TV Week that she was frustrated with the show's punishing schedule and low standards of production. Grant emphasised that she was not criticising her co-stars or the crew.
"Everyone was marvellous but they're working under a system that is totally wrong. It's certainly not a case of there not being talent there - just the opposite. It's just the system that's at fault - the assembly line procedure involved in making a series like that. The whole problem is the lack of rehearsal time, a sloppy attitude, and the general feeling that anything is good enough. For instance, the character I played: there was no continuity in her at all and I couldn't develop the character as I felt she should be. I just didn't have the time to study the person I was playing and get the feeling of how she should be played. It was always 'let's get on with the next scene' even when I felt something wasn't right or that it could have been done better. It was frustrating and heart breaking." [cxxi]
The then producer of The Box, Don Battye, disagreed with the comments.
"If the system was inadequate then shows such as The Box, Number 96 and The Sullivans would only run for a few weeks. Everyone would like more time to produce shows, but you must have a ceiling on these things. I've found that some people who are fine actors are not cut out for TV work. This is not necessarily a reflection on Roberta, but it is true that some stage actors do find it hard to adapt to TV." [cxxii]
No sooner had Roberta Grant resigned when it was announced that production of the series would go into an indefinite recess in April 1977, however this news was widely interpreted as signalling the end of the series. [cxxiii]
Scene reported that The Box was "HIGHLY unlikely" to be returning for 1978, despite the channel's claim the series was only going into a production "recess". [cxxiv] Cast member Roberta Grant told TV Week "I really can't see it ever coming back," [cxxv] while Ken James was quoted as saying that "There's been speculation that The Box will return, that it is only going into recess for a time. But let's face it, April will mean the end of the series." [cxxvi]
After its highly successful first year The Box had never again made it into the top ten, and always seemed to follow in Number 96's successful wake. Across its run the program basically adhered to its formula of being a character based serial where the events were often prosaic but realistic, with interest sustained via audience engagement with the believable and well-drawn characters. This might have been a noble premise, but one probably not strong enough to sustain a high output serial drama beyond a few years.
Soon after the recess was announced, TV Week magazine was quick to confirm that Channel Ten had no intention of ever bringing the series back. Prior to this confirmation, the network consistently maintained the official line that the series, which was experiencing falling ratings even in Melbourne where it was produced, was merely going to be rested for an indefinite period after going into a production recess in April 1977. [cxxvii]
In confirming the show's permanent shut down TV Week surmised that "The Box has never been a real ratings success outside its home city [Melbourne] and in the past few months has been falling away in popularity". Overall the show's cancellation was connected to Channel Ten's unwillingness to persevere with a program that had been steadily losing its audience. [cxxviii]
In the event The Box was closed for good and Friday 1 April 1977 was the final day of production. [cxxix] Original cast members Judy Nunn, Ken James, Barrie Barkla, Ken Snodgrass and Lois Ramsey had managed to stick it out until the very end.
The closing episodes featured the reappearance of Enid Parker who returned with her new baby Nicole, played by Jill Forster and John Stanton's daughter Polly Stanton. [cxxx] In the story Nick asked Enid to marry him and she accepted, just as he accepted a promotion to station manager to replace Max Knight who had been offered a high powered job in Sydney.
The penultimate episode's cliff-hanger was Mrs H dying of a stroke at home in front of the television. Her new husband Donald Harker (Ted Ogden) initially thought she had simply dozed off. In the final episode of the series, which went to air in Melbourne as a one hour episode starting at 11.45 p.m. on Tuesday 11 October 1977, various staffers react to her death, observing that Channel 12 will never be the same without her.
Meanwhile Max's wife Marion, the daughter of the murdered Sir Henry, is finally persuaded to drop her enquiry into his mysterious death. To Max's relief his affair with Louise will remain a secret forever.
In more optimistic developments there are various new beginnings for the remaining staff members hanging around the place. Nick Manning is to replace Max and news room chief Greg Patterson (Tom Richards) finally agrees to take on Nick's old job. Production assistant Babs MacArthur auditions for an on screen presenting job on a children's show. Secretary Ronnie Heatherton finds true love with director Marcus Boyd (Gary Day).
Ronnie is offered the job of Max's secretary in Sydney. In the end she declines in order to stay in Melbourne with Marcus, who, with the resurrection Tony Wild's cancelled series Gully Rider, is certain to have regular work.
The rebirth of this program is also good news for Tony, and when a film version of Gully Rider and a big upfront fee for him is confirmed Tony can finally pay off his large debt and be free of the violent loan sharks that had been pursuing him. There are more windfalls when Mrs H's will leaves $10,000 to Jack, which will allow him to start up the security company he has been planning. Also in the will is the request that all Mrs H's friends band together for a party after her death, and so all the remaining series regulars gather at their regular hangout, the Commodore Chateau hotel bar.
The final scene features Max making a speech in Mrs H's honour, calling for a toast. As everyone makes the toast Donald looks across the room and amongst the guests sees a vision of his departed wife wearing a hot pink sequined gown, smiling and raising her glass. A second later, the vision that only Donald has seen, has vanished as suddenly as it appeared.
Vicki then rallies everyone to a rendition of Mrs H's legendary number from her theatre days, so Donald leads the guests in If You Were the Only Girl in the World. The camera slowly pans across the assembled throng as they belt out the number and the credits roll over the top. Finally the last word goes to Tony Wild as he rallies the guests in calling out three cheers for their departed friend.
The taping of this sequence - slated as scene four of episode 128 - caused consternation on the set when actor John Stanton refused to participate, clashing angrily with the episode's director, Phillip East, and the series producer Don Battye. Stanton's wife Jill Forster, whose character Enid was also present at the party for Mrs H, reportedly backed her husband. [cxxxi]
However other members of the cast reportedly sided with the producer and director in the heated argument that followed. Stanton argued about several aspects of the show's production, shouting angrily from the set to the director, who was in the upstairs control room. The argument continued several minutes until Don Battye walked on to the floor. It was reported that Stanton and Forster were coldly told they could do what they liked, but the scene was going to be shot, and that was it. Taping of the scene proceeded, with Stanton and Forster taking no part in the action. They did not join the wrap party to which all cast members, past and present, had been invited. [cxxxii]
Though Stanton and Forster were reported to have turned their backs for the taping of the scene [cxxxiii] they in fact face the camera for the sequence. They do, however, stand frozen holding blank expressions. Most apparent in the scene is the turned back of Barrie Barkla. Barkla stands in the centre of the crowd in a small circle with Stanton and Forster, and with Margaret Cruickshank who plays Max's wife Marion. As the scene plays out with Barkla's back turned Stanton is mostly obscured while Forster holds a blank expression with her head bowed low. Meanwhile Cruickshank battles on, singing along with the other actors.
A report at the time said Stanton had declined to comment on the incident, and that many cast members were visibly upset after taping concluded. [cxxxiv] Barrie Barkla, in a later interview, suggested that he too objected to the contents of this closing scene. [cxxxv]
After production on the series finished actor John Stanton described his disillusionment with the acting scene in Australia, and reflected on his experience working on The Box.
"For a long time I had to fix up some scenes - but no one ever said 'Thanks very much for caring about the show'. The Box at the end became the training ground for every rookie writer, which was why the scripts went down and down and down. [...] The final script was the piece de resistance. It was the worst of the lot." [cxxxvi]
Stanton also sought to correct the impression that he alone had objected to the closing scene while other cast members sided with the director and producer.
"I was surprised as anyone when the cast refused to join in the last scene when they were supposed to call out three cheers. Apparently they had got together beforehand and decided it was tasteless - which it was. They had a spokesman, and he spoke at length to the director, objecting to the scene. The only reply was 'You'll do it'. It was all getting a bit heavy for them and they caved in. That's when I got my blood up. We were being spoken to like naughty school children. I spoke to the cast - not the director. I appealed to them to stick together on this. We were the ones making The Box work. I know I speak too much when I see something I think is wrong. And I know that after that, I'll never work for Crawfords again. I've always been on good terms with Hector, but the thing he'll remember is what I had to say that day." [cxxxvii]
Despite his criticisms during the taping of the show's final scene Stanton said enjoyed his two years in The Box. He said he was on very good terms with all the cast members - except one! [cxxxviii]
However, no matter how much drama had happened behind the scenes, relatively few viewers would see those final episodes. By this stage the show's ratings had fallen to such a low level that, in a similar fate that had befallen Number 96 around the same time, Melbourne screenings had been reduced to just one hour a week in a late night timeslot.
The final episodes of The Box in September 1977 would go out in one hour installments starting 10.30 p.m. or even 11.30 p.m. after Number 96. On at least one evening the one hour episode did not even begin on air until 11.55 p.m.
The final episode of The Box screened in Melbourne after the Number 96 episode featuring Dudley Butterfield's wake and ended at the 12.45 a.m. station close in the days before all night television programming.
Number 96 was itself cancelled three months after production finished on The Box. As its Sydney broadcasts remained at the rate of two one hour episodes each week it meant that Number 96's final episode, which screened in Sydney in August 1977, went out before The Box's finale would be shown in Melbourne, however production on The Box had ended three months before Number 96. In Melbourne the final episode of Number 96 was not shown until late December as that show had also been reduced to just one hour a week in Melbourne.
After its quiet demise memories of the series lived on. One of its most enduring stars Barrie Barkla, despite his role as sometimes unsympathetic management figure Max Knight, found himself besieged by fans when he stepped out in public. Soon after the series ended Barkla moved to Perth - a city where The Box was transmitted some years after the other states of Australia and where it made less of a splash - spending twenty three years working as a busy all-rounder for a leading television station there. [cxxxix]
Barkla had actually worked behind the scenes in television before becoming an actor, and so was well suited for his new role in the station's publicity department. He was not completely out the limelight in his Perth role, and frequently did voice over work and at times presented movies for the station. According to Barkla, Max Knight, to his knowledge, was never written as a parody of any one real life personality. [cxl]
Barkla described his approach to the series to TV Week.
"I treat scripts for The Box as great drama. I approach it the same way I would approach a stage play. Generally I try to play Max Knight rather than just reading Max Knight's lines." [cxli]
Barkla says he based his portrayal on several television people, and that there was never one model. [cxlii] Nonetheless, according to Barkla, many television technicians over the years have suspected that they know exactly who the character was modelled on: he is clearly based on their own tough and humourless boss! [cxliii]
Perhaps Barkla hit the right note of authenticity by basing some aspects of the character on his own experience in early 1975 of managing a local cinema. An ardent cinema fan, Barkla readily took on the management role at The Elektra cinema in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, in an attempt to revitalise the place. Barkla explained to TV Week that he came in "like the new broom." [cxliv]
This, unfortunately, upset many of the cinema's existing staff. "They didn't like a lot of my ideas and the changes I wanted to make, so most of them left. With a bit of publicity and a lot of work we got the place going again. Now the little place is thriving and improvements are still going on." By the end of the year Barkla had scaled back his role at the cinema and was spending much of his spare time working with an amateur theatre group. [cxlv]
Barrie Barkla had originally auditioned for the part of Channel 12 security guard Jack O'Brien while another actor was being considered for Max. When that casting fell through Barkla was tested in the role of Max Knight and got the part. [cxlvi]
The role of security guard Jack ultimately went to Ken Snodgrass. Snodgrass was neither classically trained nor an experienced actor. He had signed up with an acting agency on a whim while accompanying a friend and while holding down a regular job as an electrical appliance salesman. Several months after this a film extra job came up: he was a warder in the 1970 feature film Ned Kelly and appeared on screen with Mick Jagger, who played the title role, in the scene where Ned is hanged. [cxlvii]
Snodgrass then auditioned for Crawford Productions and company casting director Henry Crawford liked what he saw, and Snodgrass wound up in several bit parts in their police dramas. Henry Crawford later recounted his impressions of Snodgrass. [cxlviii]
"There aren't many people who come through the auditions like that. The natural actor is very rare, but Ken certainly struck me as having that quality which comes over on screen, trained or not." [cxlix]
Especially at the start of The Box, Jack's activities in the story frequently focused on security guard type tasks. In this regard his portrayer had extra help ensuring these scenes rang true to life, as Snodgrass had taken the test to become a fully qualified security officer.
"As I play a security officer in the series, I thought I would find out what it was like to be a real one. So I studied, took the test, and eventually passed the exam to qualify. To keep this up I do a few security guard jobs around town." [cl]
Snodgrass admitted he enjoyed being recognised and said he certainly had caught the acting bug. "I don't get a swelled head, because I know I am nothing like the star of the show. But I do work hard and try to make the best of the character." [cli]
Jack had never been just the security guard and even in the earliest episodes his friendly chats with Mrs H would flesh out their characters and advance storylines in a small way. As the series progressed Jack's range of relationships were developed and he would be used in various storylines.
After the serial ended it was reported that Snodgrass planned to open an electrical appliance store named Jack in The Box. [clii] In late 1976, while the series was still in production, TV Week had reported that Snodgrass had become somewhat disillusioned with the acting scene and had planned to leave the series when his contract expired in early 1977.
"Instead of having to cope with the various hassles with producers and channels - I was the union representative for The Box cast for a time - I've decided to go back to the electrical appliance business [...] I've been giving the move a lot of thought and come to the conclusion that there's really not much more the scriptwriters can do with poor old Jack. And because I don't envision being rushed with offers after I leave - look what happened to Paul Karo, and he is one of the best actors in the country - I've made up my mind to go back into my own business. [...] As everyone knows me as Jack in The Box, I figure that's about the best name for the shop." [cliii]
In the event the series ended first and Jack would last out the entire run of the show. Ken Snodgrass would make sporadic appearances in Australian film and television productions through the 1980s and 1990s.
The Box pioneered the Australian work based serial where office politics and the relationships between work colleagues were explored and closely examined. Here the personality of the UCV-12 workplace was key to the show's storylines, and characteristics of the workplace culture were widely explored. The Young Doctors also examined a workplace to some degree, but largely presented the hospital like a large de facto family arrangement. Prisoner, in its storylines involving staff interactions, was perhaps closer to The Box in presenting a complex examination of a workplace with its complex networks, relationships and rivalries between colleagues, and politics.
Also out of The Box was the gossipy and maternal tea lady figure who took an interest in the activities of everyone else, was sometimes interfering, but ultimately loved. Later soap The Young Doctors featured a similar figure in kiosk lady Ada who fulfilled much the same role as Mrs Hopkins in The Box, down to renting out her spare room to a series of youngsters passing through the storyline.
Indeed, after The Box ended, Mrs Hopkins' portrayer Lois Ramsey showed up in The Young Doctors as another kiosk lady, Winnie Parsons, who was usually stationed in another, unseen, section of the hospital. Winnie made her on screen The Young Doctors debut in early 1981, with Ramsey contracted to do a seven week stint in the serial. It is explained that Winnie, bored on long service leave, returns to the hospital to help Ada behind the counter and in pushing a trolley of wares around the wards. [cliv]
Years after the series ended scriptwriter and storyliner Jock Blair discussed the program's use of sex and nudity with TV Week.
"Things now considered blasé were tremendously daring in those days. It was very risqué to have topless shots, to talk about homosexuality. Those of us working on those first few episodes were all terrified. I can't tell you what it was like sitting down to talk to actresses who had charming qualities, and then to ask them to take their clothes off. Briony Behets was one of our first actresses to go naked in a shower scene. Belinda Giblin, who played George Mallaby's secretary in the series, was one of our most sensational actresses. Cheryl Rixon was a professional at taking her clothes off. She knew exactly what her assets were, and they both stood up well. We were often in hot water with the Control Board, and the Festival of Light people were down on us all the time - all of which resulted in higher ratings for the show. Both No. 96 and The Box made significant contributions to changing the public's attitudes to homosexuality. I have to admit there was a constant battle with our own attitudes as to what we could or couldn't get away with. We lived in terror of having the writers come up with some pretty hot scenes and not being able to get them to air. The network management was sensitive and there was a lot of discussion and give and take between us. I think the furthest we went with The Box was having the staff go on a picnic and end up at a nudists' camp. We had 40 extras, all in various stages of undress - depending on how courageous they were. We ran the scene - full frontal nudity of both men and women - some two or three years after The Box started, and there wasn't even a murmur." [clv]
The series has also been credited with helping Crawford Productions weather financial woes at the time that the company might not have otherwise survived.
In the early 1970s Crawford Productions were riding high with a hugely popular police drama screening on each of Australia's commercial channels. The long running Homicide, which had been launched in 1964, was still gaining high ratings on Seven, Division 4 which began on Nine in 1969 was also still a success, as was rural police drama Matlock Police (launched in 1971) on Ten.
In 1975 Crawford Productions and several of the their contract players including Charles 'Bud' Tingwell and Gerard Kennedy became involved in the "TV - Make It Australian" campaign which lobbied for an increase in the required quota of local content programming of commercial networks, with the campaign directly targeting those networks. In what was seen by many as collusion by the commercial networks to break the influence and power of Crawford Productions, or even as an act of revenge for the campaign and the use of their star players in it, in quick succession in 1975-1976 all three cop shows were cancelled. This was despite the healthy ratings and favourable critical response the shows generated, particularly Division 4, and it left The Box as Crawford Productions' single series in production.
With the demise of Matlock Police in mid-1975, one daily newspaper got carried away and suggested that The Box had been cancelled too. Both Hector Crawford and David Hall, the general manager of Channel Ten Melbourne, quickly issued vehement denials, much to the relief of the worried cast. [clvi]
Graham Kennedy had also been involved in the "TV - Make It Australian" campaign, and some believe that his sacking after the infamous March 1975 "crow call" incident on his live TV show was in fact motivated by similar feelings of revenge; Kennedy had apparently used similar jokes on earlier occasions which had previously gone unnoticed. [clvii]
In any event, The Box survived this round of wholesale cancellations and while Crawford Productions had to retrench many workers and were placed into a grave financial situation the series was able to tide the company over this period of crisis.
Previously the most senior and respected directors and technicians had worked on the police dramas with the more junior newcomers assigned to The Box. When the time came for retrenchments the most recent arrivals - The Box crew - went first and were replaced by the former police series crews. The consequence of this was that during the later stages of The Box the longest serving employees on set could all be found amongst the cast, with the crew relative newcomers to the show. [clviii]
Though it wasn't Hector Crawford's personal favourite, The Box was fortunately successful enough to help save the production company from extinction. By the time The Box folded Crawford Productions' critically acclaimed and highly successful World War II soap opera The Sullivans was firmly in place and the production company's future looked secure.
Sadly, with the loss of risqué though humorous programs The Box and Number 96 in 1977, Australian drama turned away from humour and melodrama. Now things were dominated by the clean cut but earnest youthful romance of The Young Doctors and The Restless Years, and Glenview High - a non-soap Grundy drama.
In terms of Crawford Productions' future, the abrupt cancellation of their three police dramas seemed to temporarily kill off that genre for the Australian television industry. Cheaper soap operas with a higher weekly output increasingly dominated, but the genre was not Crawford's preferred one. After launching The Box they would return to classier productions they are known for, however the soap opera influence remained. Their highly successful The Sullivans series they had begun in 1976 absolutely followed the soap opera format - albeit with superior scripts and a generally high quality technical standard - and their later Cop Shop, launched late 1977, was a hybrid mix of soap opera and police series formats.
Originally uploaded May 2000
Last updated 23 February 2013
[i] Ian Jones and Tom Hegarty interview at screening of The Box episode 1 in "Soaps and series" session facilitated by Jon Stephens, part of "Melbourne On Screen: Lunchtime TV for Melbourne Workers" program. ACMI Cinemas, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne. 19 September 2003.
[ii] Ian Jones and Tom Hegarty interview at screening of The Box episode 1 in "Soaps and series" session facilitated by Jon Stephens, part of "Melbourne On Screen: Lunchtime TV for Melbourne Workers" program. ACMI Cinemas, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne. 19 September 2003.
[iii] "TV's new sex film placed." The Sun-Herald. 15 July 1973, page 9.
[iv] "TV's new sex film placed." The Sun-Herald. 15 July 1973, page 9.
[v] Ian Jones and Tom Hegarty interview at screening of The Box episode 1 in "Soaps and series" session facilitated by Jon Stephens, part of "Melbourne On Screen: Lunchtime TV for Melbourne Workers" program. ACMI Cinemas, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne. 19 September 2003.
[vi] "Abigail Hits Out At Crawfords!" TV Week. 28 July 1973, page 13.
[vii] "Abigail Hits Out At Crawfords!" TV Week. 28 July 1973, page 13.
[viii] "Crawfords Go Nude Hunting." TV Week. 11 August 1973, page 14.
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[xv] Ian Jones and Tom Hegarty interview at screening of The Box episode 1 in "Soaps and series" session facilitated by Jon Stephens, part of "Melbourne On Screen: Lunchtime TV for Melbourne Workers" program. ACMI Cinemas, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne. 19 September 2003.
[xvi] Ian Jones and Tom Hegarty interview at screening of The Box episode 1 in "Soaps and series" session facilitated by Jon Stephens, part of "Melbourne On Screen: Lunchtime TV for Melbourne Workers" program. ACMI Cinemas, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne. 19 September 2003.
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[lxxxviii] "Ken Went Wild." Scene. 26 June - 2 July 1976, page 5.
[lxxxix] TV Week . 29 November 1975, page 15.
[xc] "Sir Henry at the Hop." TV Week. 10 April 1976, page 15.
[xci] "Oh Sir Henry! ...What's Happening in the Forest?" TV Week. 1 May 1976, page 32.
[xcii] "Oh Sir Henry! ...What's Happening in the Forest?" TV Week. 1 May 1976, page 32.
[xciii] TV Week . 28 January 1978, page 12.
[xciv] Sullivan, Steve. Glamour Girls of the Century. Glamour Girls: Then and Now magazine: Washington DC, 1998, page 202-203.
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[xcix] "Love Baby for Box Beauty." TV Week. 7 August 1976, page 5.
[c] "TV actress fined over shoplifting charges." The Age. 17 August 1976, page 5.
[ci] "Nina's Hollywood Bound." TV Week. 1 May 1976, page 15.
[cii] "The Lonely Beauty from The Box." TV Week. 22 May 1976, page 20.
[ciii] "The Lonely Beauty from The Box." TV Week. 22 May 1976, page 20.
[civ] "Homicide's Don Joins The Box." TV Week. 10 April 1976, page 15.
[cv] "Lee Returns to Boost The Box." TV Week. 24 July 1976, page 14.
[cvi] "Hard Karo." TV Week. 9 July 1977, page 40.
[cvii] "Paul Packs Up Camp." Scene. 2 October-8 October 1976, page 6.
[cviii] "Paul Packs Up Camp." Scene. 2 October-8 October 1976, page 6.
[cix] Wallace, Sue. "Paul Doesn't Want to Play it for Laughs." TV Week. 21 February 1976, page 25.
[cx] Wallace, Sue. "Paul Doesn't Want to Play it for Laughs." TV Week. 21 February 1976, page 25.
[cxi] "Singer's Daring Nude Scene" TV Week. 4 December 1976, page 5.
[cxii] "From Paris with Love." TV Week. 25 December 1976, page 20.
[cxiii] "This Girl Said NO." Scene, 23 October-29 October 1976, page 2.
[cxiv] "The Box on the Skids." TV Week. 25 September 1976, page 5.
[cxv] "Abigail Bounces Back." Scene. 25 September-1 October 1976, page 3.
[cxvi] Broom, Ralph. The Sun. 1 April 1977, page 46.
[cxvii] "Ken's Jack of The Box." TV Week. 20 November 1976, page 15.
[cxviii] Livingstone, Ian. "Furious Fred Blasts Off." Scene. 23 October-29 October 1976, page 3.
[cxix] Livingstone, Ian. "Furious Fred Blasts Off." Scene. 23 October-29 October 1976, page 3.
[cxx] "'Box' Actor Dies." The Sun. 17 March 1977, page 27.
[cxxi] "Actress Slams The Box." TV Week. 29 January 1977, page 13.
[cxxii] "Actress Slams The Box." TV Week. 29 January 1977, page 13.
[cxxiii] "Stars Thrown Out of Jobs." TV Week. 12 February 1977, page 5.
[cxxiv] Patterson, Bryan. "When The Box Shuts." Scene. 26 February-4 March 1977, page 7.
[cxxv] "Actress Slams The Box." TV Week. 29 January 1977, page 13.
[cxxvi] "Stars Thrown Out of Jobs." TV Week. 12 February 1977, page 5.
[cxxvii] "Stars Thrown Out of Jobs." TV Week. 12 February 1977, page 5.
[cxxviii] "Stars Thrown Out of Jobs." TV Week. 12 February 1977, page 5.
[cxxix] Patterson, Bryan. "When The Box Shuts." Scene. 26 February-4 March 1977, page 7.
[cxxx] "Box Star Turns to Timber Game." TV Week. 5 February 1977, page 15.
[cxxxi] Livingstone, Ian. "The Box Explodes." Scene. 9 April-15 April 1977, page 7.
[cxxxii] Livingstone, Ian. "The Box Explodes." Scene. 9 April-15 April 1977, page 7.
[cxxxiii] Livingstone, Ian. "The Box Explodes." Scene. 9 April-15 April 1977, page 7.
[cxxxiv] Livingstone, Ian. "The Box Explodes." Scene. 9 April-15 April 1977, page 7.
[cxxxv] Barrie Barkla interviewed by Andrew Mercado at The Box feature film screening. ACMI Cinemas, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne. 7 December 2004.
[cxxxvi] Livingstone, Ian. "John Blasts Off." Scene. 21 May-27 May 1977, page 5.
[cxxxvii] Livingstone, Ian. "John Blasts Off." Scene. 21 May-27 May 1977, page 5.
[cxxxviii] Livingstone, Ian. "John Blasts Off." Scene. 21 May-27 May 1977, page 5.
[cxxxix] Barrie Barkla interviewed by Andrew Mercado at The Box feature film screening. ACMI Cinemas, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne. 7 December 2004.
[cxl] Barrie Barkla interviewed by Andrew Mercado at The Box feature film screening. ACMI Cinemas, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne. 7 December 2004.
[cxli] "Max Knight's Problems Make Barrie Happy!" TV Week. 11 January 1975, page 8.
[cxlii] "Max Knight's Problems Make Barrie Happy!" TV Week. 11 January 1975, page 8.
[cxliii] Barrie Barkla interviewed by Andrew Mercado at The Box feature film screening. ACMI Cinemas, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne. 7 December 2004.
[cxliv] "Max Takes to the Hills." TV Week. 11 October 1975, page 28.
[cxlv] "Max Takes to the Hills." TV Week. 11 October 1975, page 28.
[cxlvi] "Max Knight's Problems Make Barrie Happy!" TV Week. 11 January 1975, page 8.
[cxlvii] "Ken's a Natural!" TV Week. 8 June 1974, page 25.
[cxlviii] "Ken's a Natural!" TV Week. 8 June 1974, page 25.
[cxlix] "Ken's a Natural!" TV Week. 8 June 1974, page 25.
[cl] "Ken's a Natural!" TV Week. 8 June 1974, page 25.
[cli] "Ken's a Natural!" TV Week. 8 June 1974, page 25.
[clii] Patterson, Bryan. "When The Box Shuts." Scene. 26 February-4 March 1977, page 7.
[cliii] "Ken's Jack of The Box." TV Week. 20 November 1976, page 15.
[cliv] "Lois is back to being a tea lady." TV Week. 11 October 1980, page 57.
[clv] "Sex on TV... the way it was." TV Week. 29 August 1981, page 6-7.
[clvi] "The Box Rumor Denied." TV Week. 12 July 1975, page 5.
[clvii] Clarke, David and Steve Samuelson. 50 Years: Celebrating a Half-Century of Australian Television. Random House: Milsons Point NSW, 2006, page 155-6.
[clviii] Barrie Barkla interviewed by Andrew Mercado at The Box feature film screening. ACMI Cinemas, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne. 7 December 2004.