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SILENT NUMBER


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SILENT NUMBER

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"What's working right now - cop shows and doctor shows. Let's do a police doctor."1  This was the reasoning used by Roger Mirams and Ron McLean to develop a new television drama series. The year was 1973, and the idea was applied with the expectation that it should guarantee some level of success. Silent Number was the result.

Roger Mirams, through his company Pacific Films, was an accomplished producer of children's television series, his credits including The Terrible Ten, The Magic Boomerang and Adventures Of The Seaspray.  Ron McLean was a prolific scriptwriter, having worked on many local series including Skippy, The Rovers, Homicide, Division 4 and Good Morning, Mr. Doubleday. Mirams and McLean worked together on Woobinda (Animal Doctor) and later created and produced the war-time espionage series Spyforce. The two always stayed in contact, and once again joined forces to come up with Silent Number.

McLean had formed a company called South Pacific Films (no connection to Mirams' similarly named but now defunct company Pacific Films), and produced a pilot for a proposed series called Odyssey, which went nowhere. In July 1973 South Pacific Films embarked on their next project - a 90-minute pilot episode for Silent Number.

Most of the finance for the pilot was contributed by Australian Television Facilities (ATF), a loose affiliation of country television stations which was established as a programme-buying co-operative. ATF also provided studio and video recording facilities. The pilot episode was impressive and generated sufficient interest, but obviously the country stations could not support the cost of producing a drama series on their own. Seven Network executives viewed the pilot, and there was some media speculation that Seven would buy the series, with ATN-7 Sydney reacting favourably but HSV-7 Melbourne remaining unconvinced. As it turned out, it was purchased by the Nine Network in August 1973.

Nine commissioned 26 one-hour episodes of Silent Number, and was confident that more would follow. Following necessary pre-production, actual filming of the series commenced in November 1973. The series was a joint South Pacific Films / ATF Production, and, in common with many other locally-produced series, was made in colour using the video and film integration technique. Film was used for exterior scenes which were shot around Sydney, and video was used for interior scenes which were recorded using the facilities of country stations in New South Wales, initially WIN-4 Wollongong and later NBN-3 Newcastle. The Sydney studios of Supreme Films were also utilised.

The lead role in Silent Number was played by Grigor Taylor, who had only recently left his role of Detective Allan Curtis in the top-rating Crawfords-produced series Matlock Police. Taylor played Steve Hamilton, an idealistic doctor working for the New South Wales Health Department who has been seconded to the police force. His duties are involved with the health, both mental and physical, of the police, the criminals and their victims, and he finds himself as much mixed up with the human involvement as with the actual crimes. Hamilton joined the Health Department for two reasons: first, he thought it would be more fascinating and rewarding on a personal level than being a general practitioner, and second he couldn't afford to start his own practice.

The title of the series refers to Hamilton's private telephone number. In his role as a medical investigator he is often on call at all hours to assist the NSW police, as he could throw new light on what might otherwise appear to be a straightforward case. Although why someone who needs to be contacted at all hours has a silent phone number is not very clear...

Hamilton is married to Jean, who can be both a support and a source of conflict. Jean often gets involved with Hamilton's cases, sometimes doing some routine practical work for him, at other times providing insight into particular situations. The conflict comes from Steve's long hours and dedication to duty, and from Jean's wealthy background. Jean would much prefer Steve to be working less hours and making more money in private practice, and would like her wealthy family to be able to help them out.

Jean Hamilton was played by Elizabeth Alexander, who previously appeared in the critically-acclaimed ABC mini-series Seven Little Australians, for which she won a Logie award for Best New Talent.

Steve Hamilton's direct contact with police work is through Detective Sergeant Gil Gilberts, played by Deryck Barnes. It is not clear which particular squad Gilberts is assigned to, but he seems to be an 'all-purpose' cop who becomes involved in all manner of cases. Deryck Barnes had appeared in guest roles in numerous television series, and had just featured in a lead role in Gemini Productions' sit-com The People Next Door.

The first six episodes featured Robyn Tolhurst in a support role as a policewoman who acted as Dr. Hamilton's secretary. Shortly afterwards it was decided to upgrade the secretary's role, and Robyn was replaced by Rosalind Speirs as Constable Pat Casey, a policewoman also assigned to the police medical department for secretarial duties. The level of her involvement varied greatly from episode to episode, from figuring in a major part of the action to appearing in only a brief scene or two. Const. Casey wore the standard policewoman's uniform while performing her secretarial duties, but towards the end of the series she would dress in civilian clothes.

Rosalind Speirs made a guest performance in the second episode, 'Deep Dark Well' (screened as the fifth episode in Melbourne). Even though it was only a small part in which she ended up dead within a few minutes, the producers were impressed by her performance, and she was subsequently cast in the role of Const. Casey. Rosalind described the character of Pat Casey: "We're rather alike, Pat and I. She has a good sense of humour. She's not a bit like Policewoman Margaret Stewart in Division 4 - all prim and proper and unsmiling. Constable Casey's a woman first and a police officer second. She has a down-to-earth approach and manner of speaking, and she's susceptible to romance."2

Tony Wager played Dr. Gordon Johnston, who also works for the police medical department, and is Hamilton's immediate superior. During filming of the fifth episode, Wager developed serious health problems and collapsed on set, necessitating a major re-write. Wager recovered and returned to the series, but his availability was now limited and Don Reid would replace him as required playing Dr. Wills. Most episodes featured a credit for both actors, regardless of whether or not they actually appeared. Wager, also a writer, wrote the script for one episode, No. 27 'Bang, Bang, You're Dead'.

Grigor Taylor threw everything he had into his role of Steve Hamilton. "I suppose at the moment Silent Number has taken over my life completely," said Taylor. "I spend at least 70 hours a week on the show, not including the time I spend eating, sleeping and living the job. I have difficulty concentrating on anything else."3  Not surprising considering the principal reason he gave for leaving Matlock Police was that he wanted more of the dramatic action: "What I asked for was 13 episodes in the year to be written around Det. Curtis," Taylor said at the time. "Not to get me a star billing, but merely to increase my workload. I felt I wasn't getting enough to do. It is as simple as that."4

Taylor concerned himself with all aspects of the show's production, and Mirams and McLean accepted it as part of a common goal for quality. "I often try to suggest what should be in the script," said Taylor. "They listen to me, and 75 per cent of the time they do what I suggest. Of course, when I'm wrong they certainly tell me. But they care about the show and if what I've got to say has merit they take note. Sometimes I alter the script to what a doctor would say instead of using scriptwriters' medical jargon. I don't change the script without checking with a doctor I know, and I discuss the movements he would make in a given situation. When I started suggesting changes, the producers had a choice: stop me right at the start as other producers do, or let me have my say. I'm sure they wondered what they had let themselves in for!"5

To add as much authenticity as possible, Taylor consulted with his doctor friend to research correct medical procedures. "I go and see my doctor friend before every episode and check out the procedure required for the particular illness that week," he said. "He shows me how and where to feel the patient and what to do. It's quite invaluable."6

Taylor had little trouble slotting into his Silent Number role after two years in Matlock Police. "My main problem with the role was trying to justify why a young doctor would work on a comparatively low salary for the Department of Health when he could be making a fortune in private practice," Taylor said. "I figured that Steve Hamilton had a fascination with the criminal mind and would rather work in the police force than deal with the regular problems a GP faces. He has problems with his wife, of course, who would prefer he had a regular job with regular hours."7

The pilot was 90 minutes in length, and was screened as the first episode in the series. Silent Number first went to air in Melbourne on February 21, 1974, in a 7:30 Thursday timeslot. Initial viewer response was encouraging, and most of the critics held high hopes for the series. In Sydney and Brisbane Silent Number commenced in a Wednesday 7:30 timeslot on March 13, and in Adelaide two days later on Friday March 15.

An incongruity of the first episode, evidence of it's 'pilot' status, was the Hamilton's residence - a luxury apartment with views of Sydney Harbour, which was inconsistent with Steve Hamilton's relatively low income. By the second episode the Hamilton's had moved to a more modest abode in a less exclusive suburb.

Silent Number did not feature a stock opening sequence. The series title, episode title, and credits for Grigor Taylor plus the Scriptwriter, Producer and Director were superimposed over the scenes during the first few minutes. The end credits were usually shown over the final scene with an accompanying theme tune. Similarly, the commercial integration also consisted of a title superimposed over a still of the previous scene.

Episode 6, 'The Gift', called for a small explosion as part of a safe break-in at a factory. The explosion broke 15 to 20 windows at Supreme Studios where the scene was being filmed. "The blast was a bit more spectacular than we really wanted", explained Roger Mirams. "A funny end came after we had assessed the cost of replacing the windows. The person who had set the charges for the explosion came up and mentioned that his family owns a glazing factory!"8

Episode 16, 'The Sniper', in an unusual move, featured location filming in Adelaide. (Sometimes a Sydney-based show would feature an episode shot in Melbourne, and vice versa, as a gimmick to attract ratings, as these were the two largest television markets. Hunter and Boney had previously filmed episodes in regional areas of South Australia, but this was the first time a drama series had shot an episode in Adelaide. At this time Adelaide was becoming a more prominent location for feature film making following the establishment in 1973 of the South Australian Film Corporation.)

Roger Mirams said the episode was being made in Adelaide mainly due to "the warm and enthusiastic reception to the idea and also because of the offer of so much co-operation from people like the SA Film Corporation. The Film Corporation people will supply a director and a cameraman for the project."
9 Mirams and Ron McLean visited Adelaide to inspect possible locations for filming before the script for the episode was written.

While filming a scene in Adelaide, the cast and crew suddenly found themselves surrounded by police who thought they were about to rob a bank. The scene called for a criminal to pull up in the street followed by another carload of people, all of whom were carrying guns. As it was late in the afternoon, fading sunlight forced the crew to move the filming to another location. "We don't know Adelaide all that well," explained Ron McLean, "and the area we chose happened to be outside the Reserve Bank. Before we knew what was happening, the security guard in the bank hit the panic button and the next minute there was a news team from ADS-7 and several carloads of police there."10 McLean managed to talk the police out of ordering a halt to the filming, but they stayed around for the rest of the day and kept an eye on the proceedings.

When Silent Number commenced screening there were some complaints alleging excessive violence, which resulted in the Australian Broadcasting Control Board instructing that the show be toned down in content or moved to a later timeslot. The producers agreed to tone down the programme, however the Control Board later saw fit to require all episodes to be submitted to it for assessment before they were screened. NWS-9 in Adelaide dealt with the Board's complaints of 'gratuitous violence' and 'undesirable themes'  by permanently rescheduling the show to 8:30 PM.11

The Control Board ordered the deletion of a scene from one episode, No. 23 'Interrogation', which depicted the construction of an altitude bomb, on the grounds that it could influence someone to build and use such a bomb. (An altitude bomb is designed to explode when an aircraft reaches a predetermined height). The producers felt the scene was vital to the dramatic narrative, and there was no possibility of potential bombers learning anything from watching it. They considered that the Board was heavy-handed and the censorship was unnecessary, and also indicated that their show was being singled-out for special attention.12

In May 1974 the Nine Network commissioned another 26 episodes of Silent Number. Grigor Taylor had considered leaving the show, as he thought the series had lost some of its depth and that his character was becoming stale. However, after talks with the producers he signed for another 26 episodes. "I still feel there is miles of room for improvement in Silent Number," Taylor explained, "but I believe that from now on we're going to be on top. We are going to bring back involvement and good, interesting, in-depth stories. And that's really all you can hope for, in any series."13

Elizabeth Alexander didn't share Taylor's optimism, and signed for only 13 more episodes, indicating that she might leave the series then. Elizabeth had been dissatisfied with her role for some time, her main complaint being that the part lacked depth and gave her very little to do. The Nine Network asked the producers to give Elizabeth more involvement, and Roger Mirams agreed that her complaints were justified and they were considering changes to the series. "We are going to do everything possible to get her to change her mind," said Mirams. "She hasn't actually said that she will leave - she's only taken out the option to leave after the 13th episode. We want to get Elizabeth away from the nagging wife tea lady bit and all those other mundane situations."14

Strangely enough, given that the series had just been renewed, GTV-9 in Melbourne dropped Silent Number in July 1974 after the 20th episode. A GTV spokesman said the series "wasn't as successful as expected".15  Hardly surprising as it was in direct competition with Taylor's old show, the top-rating Matlock Police.

As would be expected, rumours soon surfaced predicting the show's early demise. The Nine Network denied the rumours, and a TCN-9 Sydney spokesman said the series had not been axed in Melbourne, but had only been postponed until a suitable timeslot became available.16  In Sydney and Brisbane Silent Number was rating quite well, and it continued to be screened in those two cities. In Adelaide, however, the ratings were disappointing and it was dropped from the schedule.

At this time both Elizabeth Alexander and Grigor Taylor spoke out against the show. Elizabeth confirmed that she would definitely be leaving the series, and said the series didn't come up to her expectations. "I'm bored," she said, "and sick to death of pouring teas and playing the patient, uninteresting little house frau. There's no challenge in the part of Jean."17

Taylor said he was disillusioned with the part and felt his character had gotten bogged down. "Steve is so predictable," he said. "You never wonder what he'll do or say next - you just know. He hates the big corrupt tycoon and will always help the poor little suffragette."18

Shortly afterwards, in late August 1974, Nine announced that it was cancelling the show, stating that the ratings performance outside of Sydney and Brisbane did not justify continuing with it. The recent renewal of the series was cut back to 13 episodes, and production ceased in September with a total of 39 episodes made. "Finishing the series doesn't make us particularly happy," said Ron McLean. "It was a good show of its sort. It's a pity it has ended but this business is based on numbers, and if the show doesn't rate it becomes uneconomic."19 Grigor Taylor said he didn't feel disappointed: "The show had a pretty fair sort of run, even in Melbourne and Adelaide."20

In Melbourne, after failing to make any great inroads against Matlock Police, Silent Number was held over until the summer non-ratings season. It reappeared in November 1974 and was taken off again the following February in time for the 1975 ratings season. The final five episodes were shown a year later, during January and February 1976. In Sydney the series continued to run its normal course and the final episode was screened in November 1974.

Episode 27, 'Bang Bang You're Dead', featured three firemen who unexpectedly got into the action. The script featured an explosion in a car, and the fire brigade were called to extinguish the subsequent blaze when filming was completed. Two cameras were filming the action when the firemen raced in with a hose and were caught on film. A crew member said: "They played their part so convincingly we decided to keep filming and keep them in the action. The script only called for a siren but now we've got the firemen on film as well."21

In June 1974 segments for episode 28 were filmed overseas on location in Fiji. Appropriately titled 'Fiji Story', it was a feature-length episode and ran for 90 minutes. In response to Elizabeth Alexander's concerns, the storyline was specially structured to feature her talents. Jack Thompson was offered a guest role in the episode, but he turned it down because of the Fiji trip - having just finished work on the feature film Sunday Too Far Away in South Australia, he wanted to stay in Sydney for a while. The part was then given to Peter Sumner, Thompson's former co-star in Spyforce.

In episode 32, 'His Own Private War', Jean Hamilton receives confirmation that she is pregnant, and in episode 36, 'One Life', another 90 minute episode, she gives birth to a baby boy - Michael. However, the child has a serious heart defect, and in the ensuing emotional trauma Jean becomes so uncertain of her feelings towards her husband that she leaves him, and Elizabeth Alexander did not appear in the last few episodes of the show.

Silent Number was quite a good series. If you allow a certain suspension of disbelief for the premise - real police doctors rarely, if ever, get involved with criminal detection the way Steve Hamilton does - the only valid criticism that could be levelled against it is the 'cheap' look that using videotape gives to the interior scenes. Other than that, Silent Number had everything going for it, and one wonders what it's future would have been if it hadn't been programmed against Matlock Police in Melbourne. Another timeslot where it was not competing against another popular locally-produced show could very well have given Silent Number ratings similar to that it enjoyed in Brisbane and Sydney.

After Silent Number, Roger Mirams returned to the genre he knew best, and produced The Lost Islands and many other children's series over the next few decades. In 1976, Mirams looked back on the programme: "I was never really happy with Silent Number. I probably made a mistake producing that series. It was never really the kind of thing for me to be involved in. I'm a wartime or children's series man. Spyforce was a different matter. I loved that series and thought it really had something."22

Ron McLean later joined the Grundy Organisation and wrote and/or produced for many series including Glenview High, Case For the Defence and Bellamy. Grigor Taylor's next regular role was as schoolteacher Greg Walker in Glenview High, and Rosalind Speirs had a lead role in the ABC historical mini-series Power Without Glory. Elizabeth Alexander went on to appear in many films and television series, her extensive credits including Golden Soak and Time Trax, as well as dabbling in some directing work.

 

SILENT NUMBER EPISODE DETAILS

 


1. Ron McLean, Making a TV Series: The Bellamy Project, Albert Moran, Currency Press, Sydney, p. 44.
2. TV Times, June 22, 1974.
3. TV Week, Feb 16, 1974.
4. TV Week, Dec 16, 1972.
5. TV Times, May 11, 1974.
6. TV Week, Feb 16, 1974.
7. Ibid.
8. TV Week, Jan 19, 1974.
9. TV Week (SA edition), May 11, 1974.
10. TV Week, May 18, 1974.
11. South Australia TV Guide, May 25, 1974.
12. TV Week, July 27, 1974.
13. TV Week, June 1, 1974.
14. TV Week, July 6, 1974.
15. Melbourne Listener In-TV, July 20, 1974.
16. TV Week, August 17, 1974.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid.
19. TV Times, Aug 24, 1974.
20. Ibid.
21. South Australia TV Guide, July 13, 1974.
22.
TV Week, Jan 24, 1976.



The lead role in Silent Number was played by Grigor Taylor as Dr. Steve Hamilton.


Elizabeth Alexander played Steve's wife Jean Hamilton.


Tony Wager played a support role as Dr. Gordon Johnson, Hamilton's immediate superior.


Deryck Barnes as Det. Sgt. Gil Gilberts, Hamilton's direct contact with frontline police work.


Ros Speirs as Const. Pat Casey, a policewoman assigned to the medical department to act as a secretary.


Grigor Taylor as Steve Hamilton, a NSW Health Department doctor who has been seconded to the police force.


Grigor Taylor, Rosalind Spiers and Deryck Barnes in a scene from 'Deep Dark Well', in which Ros Speirs had a small part before she joined the regular cast as Constable Pat Casey.


Guest actor Roger Ward, with regulars Deryck Barnes, Ros Speirs and Don Reid
during filming of episode 8, 'Dark Corridors'.


Silent Number was Rosalind Speirs' first major role. She later appeared in the ABC mini-series Power Without Glory.


Guest actor Kerry Maguire as Policewoman Milson leaps out of the way of a carnivorous VW in a scene from ep. 3, 'The Loser'.


Silent Number did not have a stock opening. After the lead-in 'teaser', titles were superimposed over the scenes as these examples illustrate. The lettering style changed after the first 26 episodes.



Similarly, commercial integrations and end credits were also superimposed over the scenes.


Filming the scene in Adelaide which caused a mix-up with the local constabulary. At front left are Grigor Taylor and Stuart Finch, accompanied by a number of gun-toting extras.


Another scene from episode 16, 'The Sniper', filmed in Adelaide.


Deryck Barnes has his make-up attended to prior to filming, while guest actor Solveig Larsen touches up her own.


Grigor Taylor with guest actor Caz Lederman.


A scene from the final episode with Ronald Morse, Michael Beecham and Tom Oliver.


Alistair Smart and Katy Wild in a scene from ep. 19, 'Blind Man's Bluff'.


Peter Sumner, Elizabeth Alexander and Tom Farley on location in Fiji for the 90 minute episode 'Fiji Story'.


Advertisements for Silent Number that appeared in Sydney television programme guides.


Grigor Taylor and Elizabeth Alexander.