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The Unisexers

1975 - 1 x 60 minute premiere and 15 x 30 minute episodes - Produced by Cash Harmon for the Nine Network

Contents

Cash Harmon

Background and Development

Premise

The Cast

Production Organisation

The Launch

The Premiere

The Critics Rave

The Failure

The Aftermath

In early 1974 the Nine Network, seeing the success Ten was having with Number 96 and The Box, the ABC with Bellbird, and Seven with Class of '74, decided they needed a soap opera of their own.

The Network requirement was for a week day serial in the 6.00 p.m. slot, and they approached Number 96 producer Bill Harmon to devise a new serial for them. [1] The result was The Unisexers, but it turned out to be a resounding failure and one of the shortest lived Australian soaps ever.

Cash Harmon

The English-born Don Cash and American Bill Harmon who had previously worked as television producers in the US began Cash Harmon Productions in 1971. [2] They had already worked together in Australia as part of NLT Productions, a company that imported them from the US because of their extensive television experience. [3] From there they decided to team up and branch out on their own.

They initially created a comedy series titled The Group, about a group of mixed-sex youngsters sharing a flat, for Channel Seven in 1971. The scriptwriter was David Sale, who would later create and write for Number 96, and the cast included Ken James, Jenee Welsh and Gregory Ross. [4]

Thirteen episodes of the thirty-minute sitcom were produced, and the show was well-received. However when the question of renewing the show for another season came up Cash Harmon were busy creating Number 96 for Ten and Channel Seven's Bruce Gyngell, who had originally commissioned the series, had left to work for Lew Grade in Britain so the show quietly died. [5]

After its launch in 1972, Number 96 became a huge hit on Australian television ranking as Australia's highest rating program in 1973 and 1974. Don Cash died in 1973 but the company carried-on successfully with Bill Harmon in charge. [6]

Yet despite the success of Number 96 the company was in the precarious position of having just one successful show in production, the fortunes of which decided whether the production company lived or died. The Unisexers presented the Cash Harmon company with an opportunity to add another production to their stable.

Background and Development

The Nine Network had requested a serial for the 6.00 p.m. time slot, which immediately presented Bill Harmon with a big problem. The Broadcasting Control Board had strictly decreed that care must be taken at that hour when children are watching, so The Unisexers would lean heavily to comedy and "drama situations". [7]

Harmon admitted there were phenomenal problems in fitting in with the restrictions that came with the 6.00 p.m. slot.

"There must be no sex, no violence, nothing that could inspire fear. This meant we could end up with a plain and syrupy series or we could play it for comedy and as everyone knows, the most difficult thing to present on television is comedy. Australian television is littered with comedy series which haven't worked." [8]

The show's premise was devised by Anne Hall who had worked on comedy series The Group and was the synopsis writer on Number 96. Harmon saw possibilities in the idea so had Number 96 script editor and script writer Johnny Whyte produce a treatment based on the concept. This was submitted to Nine Network chairman Kerry Packer and Network General Manager Len Mauger, who gave the go ahead for production on the pilot to commence. [9] Production on the pilot episode was completed at the end of October 1974. [10]

Premise

The Unisexers focused on a group of young hippies living in a commune arrangement in the Paddington, New South Wales mansion of an elderly couple. The couple are a retired university professor and his sweet natured wife whose children have left home. The youngsters establish a jean making business in the house. The garments in question are designed to be worn by both boys and girls and are named Unisexers, hence the show's title.

Producer Bill Harmon elaborated on the program's title for TV Week.

"People immediately assume that because it's called Unisexers it will be a bawdy sex and sin saga. Actually the title refers to the fad of boys and girls wearing the same clothes - namely jeans. The report that it's a sort of sex and sin at the factory is ridiculous. In fact, we were asked by Channel Nine to make the pilot with the intention of taking over the 6.00 p.m. slot - which makes it children's hour viewing." [11]

(With Harmon so keen to refute the sex angle, it makes one wonder why they chose that title for the show.)

The Cast

Much of the advance publicity for The Unisexers highlighted the presence of recent Number 96 sex symbol Josephine Knur in the cast.

In Number 96 Knur played the regular role of naïve but vivacious wine bar waitress Lorelei Wilkinson. Lorelei was a comedy dumb-blonde character who bounced through the show in a series of sexy, revealing costumes in between providing nude glimpses. She had a conspicuous exit from the series by becoming the first on screen victim of the Pantyhose Murderer in November 1974.

Few of the other actors cast as the commune members were well known to television viewers. Producer Bill Harmon expressed enthusiasm for the cast he assembled.

"We will be presenting a lot of fresh faces and this will be good because there is a greater believability about a series when actors have not been seen in other shows before. I am pleased with everyone we used in the pilot. I went after the best cast and I got them. And I was lucky. There were so many pilots being made around the time of The Unisexers that we were fortunate to get the cast together." [12]

One of the regular cast members of The Unisexers was John Paramor who at the time the series commenced screening had just completed a brief stint in Number 96 as a wine bar cook who became obsessed with Lorelei Wilkinson. Paramor's Number 96 character had been the first of many red herring suspects in the murder mystery Pantyhose Murderer storyline.

Other regular cast members in The Unisexers were Tina Bursill, Michele Fawdon, Anne Grigg, Sonia Hoffmann, Scott Lambert, Hugh Logan, Tony Sheldon, Steven Tandy, and Patrick Ward (who had earlier appeared in the feature film version of Number 96).

Experienced actors Walter Pym and Jessica Noad portrayed Angus and Dora Melody who owned the home that accommodated the incoming hippies. Delore Whiteman played their horrified housekeeper, Mrs Tripp, who initially disapproved of the hippies' arrival.

Production Organisation

With The Unisexers Bill Harmon followed the same production organisation that was used on Number 96 to prevent a star system from developing and to avoid jealousies amongst the cast. All cast members received equal salary and billing, and no one actor could appear in more than three of any week's batch of five episodes. [13]

Despite these measures, TV Week potentially put the cat amongst the pigeons in reporting that the Nine Network had imagined cast members Tony Sheldon, Patrick Ward, Steven Tandy, Michele Fawdon, Anne Grigg and Sonia Hoffmann as the program's future stars. [14] Harmon himself refused to be drawn into predictions of fame and success for the series.

"I've been in this business too long to be shooting off my mouth about the success of a show before it's on the air. Let's just say that we've got a product which I believe will be a goer." [15]

The director assigned to The Unisexers was Peter Maxwell who had steered Class of '74 and directed many other Australian television productions of the day. Number 96 production supervisor Kevin Powell was credited as producer here. The prolific and experienced writing team included Robert Caswell, David Sale, Johnny Whyte, Derek Strachan and series creator Anne Hall who had all acted as scriptwriters on Number 96.

Bill Harmon admitted that producing The Unisexers and Number 96 simultaneously presented "lots of worries" and he had doubled his production staff to a total of 12 personnel working on each series.

"It's a phenomenal strain turning out this much television each week, but we can do it because we have the right people doing the right jobs." [16]

The Unisexers was at least partly produced in colour. Though Australian television was not due to switch to full time colour broadcasting until March 1975, many programs (including Number 96) were being produced in colour and occasionally transmitted in colour in test broadcasts in the lead-up to that switch. Several episodes of The Unisexers would indeed be broadcast in colour.

The Launch

TV Week magazine speculated that The Unisexers was "aimed at beating the Reg Grundy Produced soap opera on the Seven Network, Class of '74." [17] Like that show, The Unisexers was launched with hints of sex and titillation.

Television critics and journalists received invitations to the program's launch in Sydney printed on a square of navy blue denim. The notice advised "dress optional, black-tie or jeans and a tee-shirt". [18]

The Unisexers began on air in Melbourne with an hour long Sunday evening premiere at 7.30 pm on 9 February 1975. In this timeslot the debut was up against The Six Million Dollar Man on the 0/10 Network while filling the one hour slot on Seven were two UK comedies: The Dick Emery Show followed by And Mother Makes Three.

After the premiere the serial screened in 30 minute installments each weekday evening at 6.00 pm, starting Monday, 10 February 1975. (In Sydney, the premiere had screened at 7.30 pm on Friday, 7 February 1975. [19] )

The Premiere

In some clunky scenes the opening episode quickly introduced the premise and the regular characters. The polite and well-dressed Cornelius 'Corny' Hastings (Patrick Ward) and Julian 'Tinsel' Tinsley (Steven Tandy) attend high tea with retired empty-nester couple Angus and Dora Melody (Walter Pym and Jessica Noad) in their big old Paddington mansion. Corny and Tinsel quickly arrange to rent a room in their home, and a thrilled Dora wonders if they know of anyone else who might want to move in?

The titles sequence also helped introduce the concept. This was a quick sequence showing a large van, with the name Unisexers emblazoned on the side, pulling up outside the mansion. The bunch of smiling youngsters pile out of the back of the van and happily parade into the house as the sprightly theme music plays. (After the first episode the new theme tune was psychedelic rock tune 'The Unisexers' by Ogamm Magann. The new track featured lyrics describing the serial's premise: a commune that ignores concepts of gender while making jeans to break into the big fashion scene).

It is quickly established that the youngsters will live there together in a commune arrangement where they will produce and market a new range of jeans. Dora is overjoyed with the youngsters, frequently referring to them as "the children".

Benjy (Tony Sheldon) is the commune's Jewish salesman ("Before you can say mazel tov we'll be producing more pairs of unisexers than there are relatives at a Bar Mitzvah!"). The exuberant Benjy, described by Flick (Tina Bursill) as a "walking sales directory", remains oblivious to the romantic interest from bright young Sally Pickles (Josephine Knur). Brian Parry (Scott Lambert) is a lazy, selfish scrounger who secretly withholds his money from the commune's pooled kitty, much to the chagrin of his conscientious sister Monica (Michele Fawdon). Beautiful Deirdre Gunter-Hill (Anne Grigg) is a wealthy socialite and clothing store heiress who regards slumming it in the commune as a fun lark. Despite their noble intentions of being self-sufficient, the commune is nevertheless happy to accept her donation of three sewing machines.

The knockabout Eustace (John Paramor) bemoans the segregation of the commune as "Square, man. Square!" Eustace clearly planned to bed down with his open minded Swedish accented pal Brigitte (Sonia Hoffman), who herself says that "I thought this was to be a 'swinging' commune." However any such plans are forbidden by the prissy and officious Tinsel who designates the sleeping arrangements of the commune: girls on one level, boys on the other. Verbose and polite, and obsessed with rules and rosters to maximise efficiency, Tinsel seems a clone of Number 96's popular Arnold Feather character. Despite the enforced segregation the assertive Flick must ward off the unwanted attentions of the bolshy Humphrey (Hugh Logan).

The household's comically disapproving housekeeper was Mrs Tripp (Delore Whiteman), a screeching hypochondriac. Mrs Tripp was an apparent clone of the Dorrie Evans character from Number 96, making Dorrie-like declarations like "You can say what you like: but no good will come of it!" Her apparent catch phrases were "We shall see what we shall see" and "I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy!"

Also introduced were the slim line unisexer jeans, said to have been designed by Sally, with design motifs that suggest a big top circus tent. However several scenes featuring these garments were focused on the wearer's lack of other clothing. One of Flick's tasks is to sit in a bathtub wearing nothing but unisexer jeans, in order to shrink them. Humphrey can't keep away, and soon tumbles into the tub as witnessed by a shocked Mrs Tripp.

After a scene where Sally pops out of shot to strip off and change into a pair of unisexers to meet some new clients, Flick, Brigitte, and the busty Deirdre appear in unisexers and bikini tops for a photo shoot. However after they argue about who should be the designated model (Flick to Deirdre: "You're not exactly standard model proportions!") the camp photographer gets rid of the girls and casts Angus and Dora and Mrs Tripp for the shoot.

Later Humphrey, out of concern for his "brother workers", organises a shop floor revolt. His "comrades" from the factory floor vote to take over the management office of Deirdre, Benjy, Tinsel and Corny, sending them down to run the sewing machines.

The scenes are competent enough with decent characterisation and acting. However the hints at sex and nudity, the attempts at comedy and the mild drama is less than riveting. Overall the storyline is repetitive, and on three different occasions some crisis (money stolen from Mrs Tripp, Eustace and Brigitte's hankypanky, a local ordinance banning a factory in the area) provokes Mr Melody to announce to the shocked commune that "You'll all have to leave!" Unfortunately each crisis is quickly resolved once the commercial break is over, and the commune can continue.

In the case of the stolen money, various members of the household "confess" to the crime and pay the money back. In a twist worthy of The Brady Bunch, the lost money multiplies as various people "return" it. Eventually it is learned that Sally's nasty father George (Colin Taylor, who had recently played the mercenary cad who jilted Flo in Number 96) had actually stolen the money.

Meanwhile Eustace and Brigitte, again caught fraternising, are soon off the hook with the shock revelation that they are actually married. This provokes Tinsel to again reiterate that it is against commune rules, however Mr Melody approves, so they can stay.

Many of the cast members are bright and appealing while the closest thing to a celebrity in the cast - Josephine Knur - gives probably the weakest performance. The standout performance comes from Tina Bursill, who exhibits the screen presence and acting talent that would be better displayed in several later television productions.

The Critics Rave

The Sydney Morning Herald reviewer Allen Glover opined that the show's "storyline is not strong, the climaxes are weak, and the actors for the most part fail to impress." He reported that several younger viewers - the target audience of the serial - had written in to express their disappointment with the series. Glover noted that the show's timeslot as lead-in the evening news was a crucial one and that such a weak program in the line-up could jeopardise TCN9's evening ratings. Glover said he had earlier criticised the previous incumbent in the timeslot, US comedy series Happy Days, but noted that "from the reactions I have had it made a bigger splash that the Unisexers will ever make." [20]

Ralph Broom's review in Melbourne newspaper The Sun focused on the television ploy of incorporating risqué and titillating elements in the premiere installment in what Broom interpreted as a deliberate attempt to attract attention and publicity - something slightly questionable given that the series was ostensibly intended for younger audiences and destined for a 6.00 pm weekday slot. [21]

Broom likened the premiere of The Unisexers to that of fellow teen-oriented serial Class of '74 which opened with hints of sex and sensationalism that shocked the censor resulting in the cutting of scenes in that show's debut episode, and the shift to a later timeslot for a subsequent installment. Broom reported that likewise cuts were ordered for the debut episode of The Unisexers, and suggested that the tone of the remaining content pushed the program into the "adult's viewing spot at 7.30 pm". Broom also noted that the Broadcasting Control Board received some complaints about the series, something he suggested "suits the production company just fine". [22]

In the Sunday evening premiere Broom observed "acres of bare flesh, five references to the Pill and sex, four bloodies, and one bastard." In one scene a man walked in on a girl wearing only jeans and clutching a garment to her bare chest, and they then fell into a bath together. Broom concluded that the female cast members seemed to have been included in the series purely for their sexual attractions and made note that Knur - who previously "displayed her charms" in Number 96 - here enacted a modelling stint to the strains of The Stripper. The premiere even threw in a mincing effeminate photographer for good measure. [23]

Monday's "children's time" episode at 6.00 pm, reported Broom, featured a busty female in a tee-shirt emblazoned with the words "Think Big". The script quickly clarified that this was merely the name of the previous year's winner of the Melbourne Cup. Aside from disapproving of these risqué elements Broom ridiculed the program's overall premise. It seemed unbelievable that a university professor and his kindly wife would allow a bunch of youngsters to set up a commune and a jean making business in their rambling home. And never before has there been a more clean cut and well-scrubbed bunch of hippies, with The Unisexers' commune characterised by freshly pressed slacks and starched collars. [24]

Overall Broom pronounced that "the script is drivel and most of the acting performances match it" but predicted that despite what he thinks of it, "the show will definitely get a huge following." [25]

The Failure

It wasn't long before these predictions of success were proved wrong. In his report of the first week of television ratings for 1975 Broom designated the two big disasters of the survey to be Class of '75 and The Unisexers. The latter of these he described as "GTV [Nine]'s $1 Million children's serial". Broom observed that "with such low viewing figures for its first week on air, it will be a miracle if Unisexers survives". [26]

Low ratings for The Unisexers indeed ensured its swift cancellation and removal from schedules. On Friday 28 February 1975 Melbourne's The Sun newspaper announced that the series had been cancelled after just three weeks, and that that evening's episode would be the last to be shown. The report noted the serial's ratings had taken a "nose-dive" in Sydney and Melbourne; a Sydney spokesman for the Nine network explained that the second week's ratings proved that the slide had continued in that market, and that "we are anticipating the same thing in Melbourne." [27]

The report said that the series had employed about 25 actors and 25 production workers. Replacing the show in Melbourne would be black and white repeats - until colour prints could be obtained - of US comedy series My Three Sons. [28] In Sydney The Unisexers had replaced US comedy series Happy Days. After The Unisexers' brief run there the popular Happy Days returned to its former slot. [29]

Academic and television writer Albert Moran later surmised that the program's early evening timeslot had been its downfall. Though the makers of the show had been successful in crafting Number 96, a daring adult soap for Ten, the early timeslot of The Unisexers meant that many of the more racy elements that they had used so successfully in that show were off-limits. The writers were limited in what they could say or show this time around, and their new family-friendly product failed to excite viewers. [30]

The Aftermath

In an interview with Bryan Patterson of The Age, producer Bill Harmon admitted that the producers hadn't realised the problems connected with the show's 6.00 p.m. timeslot would be "that serious". After the show's cancellation Harmon observed that the "restrictive" slot didn't allow the discussion of topics which interested young viewers.

"The kids didn't like it because they thought the show was talking down to them. It was more of a serial than a series and that meant there had to be cliff-hangers in every episode. But we couldn't do anything on the drug scene, on unwed mothers, and drunk scenes were definitely out. The programme didn't communicate realistically with the kids." [31]

Running a serialised drama at that time was also seen as problematic.

"Shows like Hogan's Heroes could succeed because they were a series and did not rely on continuity between each episode. I believe we could compete successfully on a weekly spot but I doubt that it's possible to do a serial on that timeslot. I was the unhappiest man in the world when I found out that the series was ending. We have tried and we have failed." [32]

Some of the cast soon moved on to more successful projects. When the cast were informed by producer Bill Harmon that The Unisexers had folded, over the wounded ensemble's morose murmurings one actor, Scott Lambert, had piped-up to ask: "Have you got any jobs on Number 96?" Two hours later he had a part on the top-rated serial and would play the sponging womaniser Miles Cooper. "I don't know why Bill Harmon gave me the part, probably because I was cheeky enough to ask." [33]

Cast member Steven Tandy went into the leading role of Tom Sullivan in long running serial The Sullivans starting in 1976, while Tina Bursill later starred in Skyways. Patrick Ward went on to appear in the Number 96 series in 1976. Ward took a regular role in Cop Shop in 1977, followed by Bill Harmon's high-profile soap disaster Arcade. Delore Whiteman reached her largest audience when she appeared in episode one of 1981 Doctor Who serial Logopolis as Tegan Jovanka's ill-fated Aunt Vanessa. Anne Grigg was later an original cast member of Chances. Starting 2009 Tony Sheldon found major success playing Bernadette in Priscilla Queen of the Desert on the stage. After touring several cities across the world the show moved to Broadway in 2011.

The Unisexers was the first of many new pilots and spin-offs launched by Cash Harmon after Number 96. Sadly, even with only sixteen episodes over three weeks, it was still more successful than the host of Number 96 spin-offs attempted in 1976 and 1977, none of which got past the pilot stage. The Cash Harmon company effectively disbanded with the cancellation of Number 96 in 1977.


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Last updated 24 November 2013

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[1] Fetherston, Jerry. "There's No Sex in The Unisexers!" TV Week. 25 January 1975, page 6-7.

[2] Moran, Albert. Moran's Guide to Australian TV Series. Allen & Unwin: St Leonards NSW, 1993, page 515.

[3] Moran, Albert. Moran's Guide to Australian TV Series. Allen & Unwin: St Leonards NSW, 1993, page 537.

[4] Moran, Albert. Moran's Guide to Australian TV Series. Allen & Unwin: St Leonards NSW, 1993, page 209.

[5] Moran, Albert. Moran's Guide to Australian TV Series. Allen & Unwin: St Leonards NSW, 1993, page 209.

[6] Moran, Albert. Moran's Guide to Australian TV Series. Allen & Unwin: St Leonards NSW, 1993, page 515.

[7] Fetherston, Jerry. "There's No Sex in The Unisexers!" TV Week. 25 January 1975, page 6-7.

[8] Fetherston, Jerry. "There's No Sex in The Unisexers!" TV Week. 25 January 1975, page 6-7.

[9] Fetherston, Jerry. "There's No Sex in The Unisexers!" TV Week. 25 January 1975, page 6-7.

[10] "No sex please we're on at 6 pm." TV Week. 9 November 1974, page 13.

[11] "No sex please we're on at 6 pm." TV Week. 9 November 1974, page 13.

[12] Fetherston, Jerry. "There's No Sex in The Unisexers!" TV Week. 25 January 1975, page 6-7.

[13] Fetherston, Jerry. "There's No Sex in The Unisexers!" TV Week. 25 January 1975, page 6-7.

[14] Fetherston, Jerry. "There's No Sex in The Unisexers!" TV Week. 25 January 1975, page 6-7.

[15] Fetherston, Jerry. "There's No Sex in The Unisexers!" TV Week. 25 January 1975, page 6-7.

[16] Fetherston, Jerry. "There's No Sex in The Unisexers!" TV Week. 25 January 1975, page 6-7.

[17] Fetherston, Jerry. "There's No Sex in The Unisexers!" TV Week. 25 January 1975, page 6-7.

[18] Broom, Ralph. "Top Secret...!" The Sun. 7 February 1975, page 38.

[19] Mercado, Andrew. Super Aussie Soaps, Pluto Press Australia, 2004, page 90.

[20] Glover, Allen. "Allen Glover on TV." The Sun Herald. 16 February 1975. page 90.

[21] Broom, Ralph. "So sweet - the scent of success" The Sun. 12 February 1975, page 48.

[22] Broom, Ralph. "So sweet - the scent of success" The Sun. 12 February 1975, page 48.

[23] Broom, Ralph. "So sweet - the scent of success" The Sun. 12 February 1975, page 48.

[24] Broom, Ralph. "So sweet - the scent of success" The Sun. 12 February 1975, page 48.

[25] Broom, Ralph. "So sweet - the scent of success" The Sun. 12 February 1975, page 48.

[26] Broom, Ralph. "Hey, there --- all you eggheads.." The Sun. 25 February 1975, page 42.

[27] Bowring, Pat. "'The Unisexers' get the axe." The Sun. 28 February 1975, page 4.

[28] Bowring, Pat. "'The Unisexers' get the axe." The Sun. 28 February 1975, page 4.

[29] Mercado, Andrew. Super Aussie Soaps, Pluto Press Australia, 2004, page 92.

[30] Moran, Albert. Moran's Guide to Australian TV Series. Allen & Unwin: St Leonards NSW, 1993, page 471.

[31] Patterson, Bryan. "Lack of zip shuts down TV jeans factory." The Age TV Guide. 7-13 March 1975, page 3.

[32] Patterson, Bryan. "Lack of zip shuts down TV jeans factory." The Age TV Guide. 7-13 March 1975, page 3.

[33] King, Martin. "No. 96's Young Tearaway!" TV Week. 2 August 1975, page 20-21; 37.