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Australian Television  
 
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Despite some important breakthroughs in the depiction of gay men and lesbians in the past, Australian television today lacks any regular and open discussion of issues and lives.

Australian television launched the careers of Nicole Kidman, Kylie Minogue, Guy Pearce, Paul Hogan, and Skippy the Kangaroo. One of its five networks led the world in producing a type of sexy, outrageous serial drama that spawned a cycle of soap opera that has beguiled audiences in Australia and in many other parts of the world for over thirty years. Certainly cult television would be the poorer without dramas like Sons and Daughters (with the infamous Pat the Rat), Prisoner/Prisoner--Cell Block H (featuring the dyke-you-love-to-hate), and Return to Eden (heroine escapes jaws of crocodile--just--and takes on new body, face, identity).

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The combination of geographical isolation, an unpredictable climate, and hatred of pretension and authoritarianism has found its way into Australia's television programming. This was the country that produced the world's first positive gay character (Number 96, 1972-77). And the world's first bisexuals, male and female (Number 96, The Box). And the world's first gay man to parent a young boy far more lovingly and effectively than the boy's own biological parents (Players to the Gallery, 1980).

Despite its small population (under 20 million), Australia has been able to maintain five television networks, three entirely commercial, one partly so, and the fifth--approximating to Britain's British Broadcasting Corporation--valiantly surviving on government subsidy alone. One of the quintet, SBS (Special Broadcasting Service), created in 1980, is the most successful and highly regarded multicultural service in the world.

The inclusion of "Australian content" in drama, documentaries, comedy and other types of programming is a cornerstone that, although significantly eroded since the glory days of the 1960s and 1970s, is still in place.

Early Days

Gays and lesbians, certainly on a superficial reading of the near half-century of Australian small screen entertainment, have played an integral part in the mix. During the very first hour of transmission, in September 1956, urbane queer artist Jeffery Smart, standing in front of a studio fireplace, expatiated on painting in the children's series, The Argonauts' Club.

Smart was very much outside the stereotype of the hard-drinking, sun-browned, fair dinkum Aussie bloke, known as an "ocker," prepared to do and die for his "mates." Although less durable as the 1960s opened up Australia to more diverse influences, the ocker, with his sometimes unstable and dangerous mix of good humor and misogyny, was the predominant image of the Aussie male.

With this strain of homo-emotionalism came a degree of sexual activity, none of which was ever fully reflected in Australian film or television. During the successive conservative governments of Robert Menzies, a lid was kept on the country's sexual tensions and injustices through a combination of legal sanctions, religious puritanism, and sometimes draconian censorship.

The 1970s

The mold was broken, or appeared to be, with the noisy arrival of a late night soap called Number 96 in 1972. Nudity, both male and female, sexual high jinks, and increasingly outrageous plotlines (including "The Knicker-Snipper") were de rigueur.

From the very first episode, Number 96 was labeled immoral trash, pornography, designed to corrupt the nation. Heedless of these admonitions, the Australian public could not get enough of the very full lives of this group of people living in a Sydney apartment block.

One of its most popular residents was quietly spoken, intelligent, handsome young lawyer, Don Finlayson (played by Joe Hasham), who, it soon became clear, was gay, living with a lover, and inescapably good, kind and decent: a pillar of the community. Not quite a fair dinkum Aussie bloke, but close.

Don was later joined by a more flouncing gay man, who, in a manner typical of a series vowed and determined to upset viewers' rigid expectations, began an affair with a woman.

Number 96 begat The Box, even sexier and set in a television station. It displayed a bisexual woman kissing an underage teenage girl. The same show also rang changes on the portrayal of the effeminate gay man: flapping wrists and camp patter but consistently presented as a competent professional and well respected. The actor playing this role, Paul Karo, won the most popular TV Actor award of 1975.

"Real" homosexuals began to appear occasionally on television after the advent of Number 96. On a segment of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's groundbreaking Chequerboard series (1972), one man actually kissed his lover on screen. The day after transmission, the man was dismissed from his administrative job with one of the Sydney churches.

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