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THE GROUP


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THE GROUP
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Cash-Harmon Productions are best remembered for the unmeritorious Number 96, the ‘sex-and-sin’ soap opera that caused a stir in the 1970’s. However, before they inflicted Number 96 upon us, Cash-Harmon produced a 13 episode situation comedy series - The Group. The principals of Cash-Harmon Productions were Don Cash and Bill Harmon, who previously worked as producers on the NLT adventure series The Rovers. Following the demise of NLT, Cash and Harmon formed their own company.

The genesis of The Group lay in a change of direction adopted by the Seven Network. In spite of having the highest rating drama series (Homicide), the Seven Network’s overall position in the ratings was usually second place. To rectify this situation, former Nine Network executive Bruce Gyngell was appointed Programme Manager, and he introduced a number of innovations that collectively were dubbed the ‘Seven Revolution’.

Part of this process called for an increase in local drama content, and in 1970 submissions were invited from outside packagers - a significant move considering that ATN-7 stood alone among all commercial stations as a prolific in-house drama producer. Five pilots were produced: Catwalk, a spin-off from the ABC series Dynasty concerning a fashion magazine; Kill And Cure, a suspense anthology; View From Beyond, a comedy about a ‘liaison officer’ for people about to go to heaven; The Undertakers, a comedy set in a funeral parlour; and The Group. Both View From Beyond and The Group were produced by Cash-Harmon.

The five pilot episodes went to air in January 1971 amidst a promotional push in which the viewers were invited to respond directly to the Network to decide which would go into production. The viewers voted for Catwalk and The Group. In fact, so positive was the response to The Group that the network decided to commence production as soon as possible, and filming began in March 1971.

The Group is about three blokes and two girls, all aged twenty-something, who, for reasons of economy, share a basement flat. They can see nothing wrong with the arrangement, but the landlord is outraged when he finds one of his flats inhabited by assorted sexes, and he is not convinced that the association of the tenants is financial rather than physical. The theme throughout the series is the attempts by the landlord to evict the group, and the group’s success in outwitting him.

The ‘group’ came together when the three blokes sharing the flat reasoned that not only would it reduce the share of rent with two more people, but also if they were girls they would probably do most of the cooking and cleaning. The financial arrangement worked as planned, but their hopes for the domestic chores came unstuck, and the blokes ended up with just as much work as before.

The relationship between the flatmates is strictly platonic.  “The three boys and two girls in our group have one golden rule that’s never broken,” said Don Cash. “There’s never to be any hanky-panky. If anyone starts anything, they have to leave the flat at once. It was a rule they made at the start and it is the basis of them living in the one place together.”1

The five tenants are of diverse character and background. Jeremy Windham, played by Gregory de Polnay, works in an undefined area in television. He is flamboyant, has a big ego and considers his job as elite, and he is the self-appointed problem solver for the group.

Mark Sebel is played by Ken James (formerly of Skippy and Barrier Reef). A medical student, Mark is often in conflict with Jeremy, and tends to ‘send up’ the two girls or try to cure their psychological problems.

Bob Jones is an accountant, a down-to-earth character who looks after the household money matters. He is portrayed by Gregory Ross, who commented on the blandness of the character: "I must admit that for a while I found it hard coming to grips with the character because of his ordinariness and conventionality. Gregory de Polnay plays an outlandish character and Ken James plays a man who is sarcastic and witty. But Bob Jones is the only member of the group who never does anything abnormal - he's so straight down the line."2

Jennifer Martin, played by Jenee Welsh, is a university student, intelligent and (mostly) sensible but prone to astrological star-gazing and flights of fancy.

The landlord is Tinto, played by Terry O’Neill. Tinto is a conservative, narrow-minded, middle-aged mother’s boy, who is forever looking for an excuse to evict the group. His mother appears in the pilot episode, but for the rest of the series she is not seen, although he talks to her on the phone on a regular basis.

The casting of Terry O’Neill was pure serendipity. Don Cash explains: “We had no pre-conceived ideas for Tinto, except that he would probably be from another country. We had an actor in mind but we couldn’t track him down. We rang a number where we thought we would get him but Terry O’Neill answered the phone and explained he wasn’t there. Both Bill and I knew Terry as a vaudevillian as he had worked with NLT when we were there. I had a thought. I put my hand over the mouthpiece and looked at Bill and said ‘Terry O’Neill?’, and we both screwed up our faces. But then we thought again: ‘Terry O’Neill, he mightn’t be too bad at all.’ So Terry became Tinto – and we couldn’t have made a better choice.” 3

As for the casting of the other actors, Don Cash explained simply, “they just seemed right for the parts.” 4

Then there is Laura Bent, who figures prominently in every episode. Laura is a likable, naive, mixed-up airhead – attractive, yet unaware of her sex appeal. An aspiring model who also works as a receptionist, she is bothered by nothing and frightened of nothing, as she does not have enough brains to be either bothered or frightened. And no, Laura is not blonde.

Bernadette Hughson was considered for the role of Laura in the pilot, but the part went to Wendy Hughes, with Bernadette instead taking a role in the other Cash-Harmon pilot View From Beyond.

The producers were impressed by the good performance Wendy Hughes gave in the pilot. When shooting for the series was about to begin, she received an offer to appear in the lead role of the stage play Butterflies Are Free. Not wanting to deny Wendy such an opportunity, Cash and Harmon agreed to let her go. Then the search began for a replacement.

“We thought we had the cast finalised, but back to the auditions we went and out came a replacement for Wendy,” said Don Cash. “We were happy with her and everything was set. Then we got a phone call from Roslyn Wilson who said she had heard we were after someone and, although she worked in an advertising agency and had never acted before, she would like to try out. Bill and I had decided that we would use the original girl we had chosen. But Roslyn was so good we baulked. She read lines and surprised us so much with her ability. We were both stopped in our tracks and asked her to come back the next day wearing a mini-skirt and a bikini. Although Laura was not quite a sexpot, she needed to be beautiful and to have a good figure. And we wanted to see what Roslyn looked like. As soon as we saw her in a bikini our minds were made up. ‘Let’s take a chance’ we said.” 5

Roslyn Wilson explained how she got the part: “I didn’t even know what the show was all about, but I plucked up enough courage and went in blind and read a few things and did my own thing. They took a look at me and went ‘Mmmm!’ I thought it was a case of ‘don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you’. But the next day they asked me if I could come back wearing a dress and a bikini. It just so happens, I told them, that I have a dress and a bikini with me. And at 5:30 that night the part was mine.” 6

Laura is described as the most undressed virgin in the world. “She’s sexy but she’s so dumb she doesn’t realise it,” said Roslyn Wilson. “The other day Gregory De Polnay became so frustrated with Laura that he said that if he had been living with her in actual fact it wouldn’t have lasted a week.” 7 There is no nudity in the series, apart from an occasional bareback shot. Laura is often seen in skimpy clothing, and this is all that is required to suggest her sexiness – actual nudity was unnecessary, and would have had a detrimental effect on the format. In any case, the early evening timeslot would not allow anything more daring.

Laura was the major character around whom most of the plots revolved. Sometimes this was due to situations that she was directly involved in, at other times it was by her response to whatever events arose. The episode titles reflect this, each one starting with ‘This Week She...’ - for example ‘This Week She Travels’ or ‘This Week She Has A Visitor'.

The Group was devised by Anne Hall. Don Cash was Producer, and Hugh Taylor directed all the episodes. Theme music was composed and performed by Rory O’Donoghue (who was also responsible for the Aunty Jack theme with Graeme Bond). The theme tune of the series was played over the closing credits, which were superimposed over the final scene. The series was produced on videotape and in black and white.

There was no opening title sequence as such. The series title and some crew credits were superimposed over the opening scene. Upon the first appearance of each cast member, the action would freeze with a caption stating the character’s name with a brief description. For example, when Ken James first appears the action freezes and the caption reads ‘MARK the medical student’; for Gregory Ross the caption reads ‘BOB the accountant’; and so on. The order of appearance is random according to the storyline, as is the timing - sometimes a character did not make their first appearance until well after the first commercial break. The caption for Roslyn Wilson includes the episode title, for example ‘LAURA this week she’s in arrears’.

The Group relies, in classic sit-com tradition, on misunderstandings and misinterpretations of events to generate comedy, which are usually the result of the scatter-brained antics of Laura. There is no underlying social comment, other than the overall theme of not judging by appearances as Tinto does. The sole purpose of The Group is to entertain, and this it does.

By June 1971 filming of the thirteenth and final episode of the series was completed. A decision on whether to proceed with a second series was postponed until after public reaction to the show could be assessed. Meanwhile, Don Cash went overseas to try and sell the series to Canada, Britain and the United States, and if he was successful it would have resulted in the second series being filmed in colour.

It was not to be. The overseas sales did not eventuate, and the series did not go to air locally until August 1971. The Group was well-received by the viewing public and achieved quite decent ratings, and it won a TV Week Logie Award in 1971 for Best Comedy. However, by the time a second series was being considered in late 1971, Bruce Gyngell had left the Seven Network and Cash-Harmon were busy working on Number 96 for the 0-Ten Network. Ideas for a second series of The Group fell by the wayside.

Number 96 was also set in a block of flats. A soap opera, it was intended to shock and sensationalise, and in this, it succeeded. It not only pushed the moral boundaries, it also made popular the ‘dumbing-down’ of television, demonstrating that cheap productions could be a viable alternative to quality drama. The networks could get high ratings and fill local content quotas for less outlay, and this led to the dominance in the 1980’s of the soap opera genre.

Don Cash died in 1973, but Cash-Harmon Productions carried on, proposing many series and/or spin-offs during the tenure of Number 96. None made it beyond the pilot stage except The Unisexers, a soap that was cancelled after three weeks in 1976. Cash-Harmon Productions effectively ceased operation upon the demise of Number 96, and Bill Harmon passed away in 1980 after producing the ill-fated Arcade serial for the Ten Network.

 

The Group theme song

Ride around about in bright lights
Share a joke and laugh on warm nights
Life could be a fairytale or three

And in the morning
Pack your bags, cook up some tea
And then we’ll fly
Oh, how we’ll fly, just you and me
They’ll never miss us
Hope they don’t, soon we will see
Catch us in another scene

 

 THE GROUP EPISODE DETAILS

 

1. TV Week, May 1, 1971.
2. TV Times, Oct 9, 1971.
3.
TV Week, May 1, 1971.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. TV Week, Sept 4, 1971.
7. Ibid.

 



The Group group photo. Back: Gregory Ross, Gregory de Polnay and Ken James; Front: Jenee Welsh, Terry O'Neill and Roslyn Wilson.


Two scenes from the pilot episode: Wendy Hughes, Ken James and Gregory Ross.

 


Roslyn Wilson as Laura Bent, an airhead who is unaware of her sex appeal.


Above: The two sheilas in the flat - Jenee Welsh as Jennifer and Roslyn Wilson as Laura. Below: The three blokes: Gregory Ross as Bob, Ken James as Mark and Gregory de Polnay as Jeremy.

 


Terry O'Neill as Tinto the landlord, who is always happy when he can wave an eviction order around.


Roslyn Wilson as Laura with Gregory de Polnay as Jeremy.


A scene from ep. 12, 'This Week She Has A Visitor': Gregory Ross, Gregory de Polnay and Roslyn Wilson with guest actor Bobo Faulkner.


Laura (Roslyn Wilson) and Mark (Ken James) look on as
Jeremy (Gregory de Polnay) hatches one of his schemes.


The Group opening titles. This was not an opening sequence as such - the series title and crew credits were superimposed over the first scene, and the character titles were displayed in a freeze frame upon the first appearance of the cast member. The order of appearance would vary from episode to episode, as would the timing. The character captions read: MARK the medical student; JENNIFER the student; BOB the accountant; JEREMY he's something in television; TINTO the landlord; and LAURA this week she's on a diet. Laura's caption was the episode title which, of course, changed with each episode.


A scene from ep. 9, 'This Week She's Resting Again!': Jenee Welsh, Gregory Ross, Gregory de Polnay, guest actor Gordon McDougall, Ken James and Roslyn Wilson.


Tinto doing what he likes best - handing an eviction order to the group.


The group - Gregory de Polnay, Jenee Welsh, Roslyn Wilson, Ken James and Gregory Ross.