Characters at the end of the world

The cast of the TV show <i>Number 96</i>.
The cast of the TV show Number 96.

As you are probably aware, many crucial things have been happening in the world recently. Soon they will continue to happen, with thousands of people flocking to Peru for the end of the world later this month. (I'm not sure why. If the whole world is ending, couldn't you experience it from anywhere? And if it's somehow only ending in Peru, wouldn't it be wiser to go somewhere else?)

With all that's going on, one obvious question keeps coming up: ''Who is the greatest character in the history of Australian television?''

Some years ago, I polled a select group of Canberra film buffs and experts - reviewers, filmmakers, National Film and Sound Archive boffins, festival organisers and Rod Quinn (the movie-geek ABC Radio announcer, not the Canberra Times editor) - about who is Australia's greatest movie character. I collated the results and presented them as a countdown in the Sunday Canberra Times, from 20 to one. The editor was a traditional newsman, who believed that you lead from the headliner, not from the guy who came 20th. He went to the trouble of completely rearranging the story, so that it started with No. 1 (Mad Max), and ended at No. 20 (and I can't remember who that was; they were only No. 20, for heaven's sake).

I was thinking of doing a similar list of television characters, but realised that I couldn't be bothered. Still, the idea returned to me recently, with such characters as Cleaver Greene, Nina Proudman and (most of all) Kerry Packer on our screens. What's more, I have my own column now, where I can safely mouth off my own opinions, so I don't need to poll anyone else. So, without further ado, (and aware that I had another top 10 list last week), here are Australia's 10 greatest TV characters (in reverse order).

10. Bev Houghton (Abigail, Number 96):

Our greatest sex symbol of the 1970s, or any other time. She turned Number 96 into a hit, and saved Channel Ten, but don't hold that against her.

9. Ted Bullpit (Ross Higgins, Kingswood Country):

Sure, it was dumb, but we all know someone just like him.

8. Charlene (Kylie Minogue, Neighbours):

She had something. I don't know what, but she had it. She was so popular that I have to include her.

Ditto Maggie Doyle, Kath and Kim, and anyone played by Melissa George.

7. Molly Jones (Anne Tenney, A Country Practice):

Probably the best-loved character in one of our best-loved drama series (which, the writers informed me, was not a soapie, no way). When she died, the nation entered a depression. (Actually, it might have just been a recession, but we talked about it a lot.)

6. Grace Sullivan (Lorraine Bayly, The Sullivans):

She and husband Dave (Paul Cronin) were the ideal parents, keeping us strong during World War II, even though they were created decades later. When Grace died, the nation wept, preparing us for the misery of Molly's death.

5. Cleaver Greene (Richard Roxburgh, Rake):

One of the most brilliant characters currently on television: a good-hearted jerk, a brilliant mind but a bloody fool, disgraceful but likeable. Greg Kinnear is scheduled to play him in the US, but there's no way he'll outclass Roxburgh.

4. Mr Squiggle (Norman Hetherington, Mr Squiggle & Friends et al):

One of the cleverest, most technically brilliant marionettes in the history of television (and everything else). But I wouldn't put him so high on the list just because of that.

He also had a wonderfully carefree personality (''Time for a space-walk, Miss Jane''), which must have inspired countless young artists, even more than his artistry.

3. Bea Smith (Val Lehman, Prisoner):

Wentworth Detention Centre had numerous unforgettable characters (Lizzie, Doreen, Meg, the Freak), but I'll give it to Bea. The most complex: tough but caring, criminal thug but maternal figure, well-acted but I've never heard of Lehman since then.

2. Norman Gunston (Garry McDonald, The Norman Gunston Show et al):

Before Ali G, the Kumars and Effie, Gunston was possibly the first fictitious comedy character with his own chat show.

No actor has ever played so courageous a role, staying stubbornly in character. When he interviewed celebrities who thought he was real, their confusion was hilarious. Even when celebrities worked out the joke, it was hilarious. He was the consummate dag, and the only fictitious character ever to win a Gold Logie (apart from Karl Stefanovic).

1. Don Finlayson (Joe Hasham, Number 96):

We start and finish with Number 96. Not that the series was well written, as the scripts were mostly awful. But here we had a hero, the regular guy, the pillar of the community (which, on this show, wasn't saying much).

And he was gay. Nowadays, such a character would probably be tokenism. When he was outed in 1973, it was brave and challenging. And you know what? The public still liked and respected him, and kept watching the show despite his sexuality (and despite the scripts).

He's our greatest TV character, not just because he was a credit to Australia but because Australia was a credit to him.

■ Talk to me on, or tweet me on @markjuddery.

This story Characters at the end of the world first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.