Australia’s most scandalous show
BACK in the early to mid 1990s, there was a quiet revolution going on in Australian television.
It all had to do with that three-letter word: sex.
For any teenager growing up in Australia at that time, catching a glimpse of the racy show Sex/Life was a guilty pleasure.
Whether secretly taping it on VHS or sneaking a peek over your parents' shoulders when they thought you weren't looking, the very adult show was both titillating and educational.
The show began it's life in 1992 known as Sex hosted by Sophie Lee on Channel 9. Her casting was perhaps confusing for teenage boys, who just a couple of years earlier were watching Lee present The Bugs Bunny Show, also for Nine.
With a mix of educational segments coupled with the odd racy image, semi or full-frontal nudity and dark lighting, the Sex show was polarising.
So, was it educational or soft porn?
Opening with the sounds of old-school-porno-style saxophone, the show's titles faded out to a dimly lit very simple set of Sophie Lee sitting on a chair.
Sex covered everything from gay conversion therapy, masturbation and how to get the perfect orgasm to issues around prostitution, sex toys, sexually transmitted diseases, sexuality and gender issues. In the very first episode, a segment on fantasies promised to reveal how to have "the best sex you will ever have".
The show was the first, and maybe the last, on mainstream television to show close-up images of female genitalia.
Lee only lasted a year as host, with comedian Pamela Stephenson taking over in 1993.
Sex moved to Channel 10 in 1994 and was renamed Sex/Life, with Tottie Goldsmith, then Alyssa Jane-Cook taking over hosting duties.
The show pushed the boundaries when it came to very public, national sexual education, not only for teenagers, but for young adults, Baby Boomers or even our older generation.
They also helped Australians become more aware of what was a scary time, with the HIV/AIDS epidemic still very much at play.
HOW SEX/LIFE BEGAN
Early in the 1990s, producer Tim Clucas was kicking goals as a producer on A Current Affair when he was offered a job at Business Sunday.
He wasn't sure working on a dry, finance-focused morning show was really his thing, so he sat down to write a proposal for something completely different: a prime time series about sex and relationships.
This is how Clucas pitched the idea to Nine's head programmer Ross Plapp: "If there is a place on television for a weekly show about backyards (Burke's Backyard), then there is a place for a show about sex because more people have more sex than people have backyards.
Clucas recalled: "He looked at me across the big desk and said, 'You've got a show son.' And that was that."
Kerry Packer was running Channel 9 at the time and the show - through his loyal lieutenants David Leckie and John Stephens - had his support.
"There was no obstruction on that level, in fact there was no obstruction at all," Clucas said.
"It was more a dance with the censors."
When it made it to air, the show certainly had its critics.
The famous Christian warrior, Reverend Fred Nile, was almost a weekly critic of the show - he even appeared on one episode - and the program lit up talkback radio.
The shock jocks had a field day.
Clucas said that, despite the critics, every story was ran by the Channel 9 censors, who had a very direct line to him and the production team.
"It wasn't all about sex positions or that sort of thing; it wasn't that," he said.
"In fact the Channel 9 censors made it very clear that the show had to be informative, and if we bordered or entered into the world of titillation, then they would have put a stop to the story.
"We were very medical in our approach, otherwise we would have been stopped by the censors at Nine.
"If you thought you were going to turn that show on and get porn, well, you were sadly disappointed."
Take this segment, which was probably the riskiest that ever went to air.
"We were the first show to show the female clitoris on television, but in an extreme tight shot that also had the colour removed from it," he said.
"So there was no way you were watching anything but something similar that you would see at a medical students' lecture theatre."
There was male nudity as well, which some critics objected too, but Clucas said they got it wrong.
"The irony was that the titillation was in the eyes of the critics," he said.
"They thought it was titillating, but an extreme tight shot of a man's testicle to explore how to check for cancer is no way titillating.
"It's not an attractive sight at all, but it was a very important piece of television to us."
Initially the show was a huge ratings success, pulling a massive 32-point share in the old OzTam system,
Clucas remains proud that the show educated Australians about the HIV/AIDS crisis. he said Lee should be given a lot of credit for that.
"Sophie was passionate about educating and helping young people," he said.
"She once said to me 'ignorance is death' in the age of AIDS.
"I thought, that is brilliant."
Clucas, who went on to be one of Australia's leading television executives, said Lee was the perfect host.
"She was certainly important to the show because Sophie is an extraordinary character," Clucas said.
"I remember once walking into her dressing room one day to talk to her about the upcoming episode, and she was reading the Asian Financial Review.
"People never gave her the credit for the intelligent reason she chose to do the show, and that was (that) information is power."
Clucas was also a big supporter or a young medical reporter who worked on the show, Dr Kerryn Phelps, who is running in the Wentworth by-election this weekend.
THE SWITCH TO CHANNEL 10
Channel 9 axed Sex at the end of 1993 but, for Clucas, it wasn't the end.
Plapp had moved to Channel 10, and they relaunched the show with a new title, Sex/Life.
For new host Tottie Goldsmith, now 56, it took a bit of convincing to sign up.
"My biggest fear at the time was, I knew that it would make me a household name and at that time I had kind of gone under the radar," she said.
"I knew it was going to be controversial.
"Was I up for it?
"I told my agent to go and tell the producer 'double or nothing', thinking they would say no, but they said yes."
In the end, it was her grandmother who convinced her to do the show.
"I thought, I'm a single mother, I've got to do this, it's great money," she said.
Goldsmith lasted year, leaving over creative differences.
"I wanted it to get deeper, and I didn't want to do the same thing over again, so a second series wasn't for me," she said.
Alyssa-Jane Cook signed on for one last year and, in 1995, Sex/Life was axed for good.
A show as bold as it, has never returned since.
JUST A NORMAL SUBURBAN GP
Before Sex/Life raised eyebrows, there was another controversial show that had people listening under the covers with their Sony Walkmans on a Sunday night: radio program Pillowtalk, hosted by Dr Feelgood.
Dr Sally Cockburn was working as a GP in the inner-city suburbs of Melbourne when she was first approached to host the show, which ran nationally from 1992 to 1998 on what now is the Southern Cross Australia radio network.
"It was one of my patients who worked at the station (Fox FM in Melbourne) who suggested me to the general manager, and I said 'I don't know anything about sex,' and she said, 'oh come on, you're my doctor, you know everything,' and it went from there," Dr Cockburn told news.com.au.
"Initially they wanted to go in the direction of the American programs, which were a bit 'snigger snigger, let's kind of take the mickey out of the caller'.
"I said I wouldn't do that.
"I wanted to make sure we treated every caller with respect.
"There is no such thing as a silly question."
Pillowtalk went to air at 10pm on a Sunday, after Rick Dee's American Top 40 show.
Later, it was so popular it ran during the week on some stations.
To this day, Dr Cockburn gets approached by people from all walks of life telling her just how important the show was to them.
"It's really gratifying, especially the number of people in their young thirties, who tell me they lived in the country, and couldn't get any advice about sex," she said.
She is proud of bringing education about same-sex relationships to the mainstream public arena, which wasn't talked about at the time.
"Some of the shows we did were incredibly groundbreaking," she said.
"One of shows that I remember very well was when I had two friends of mine, two guys who had been in a relationship for 25 years, come on the show.
"They came on and they were willing to talk about their relationship.
"That didn't happen much in the 1990s."
Could Pillowtalk exist now?
Dr Cockburn believes things have changed, but in many ways, such a program could work - but for the older generation.
"I'd like to see a show that was more directed towards middle aged to older people," she said.
"I think you still need to cover issues that affect young people, but I'd like to see a show that can help relationships last.
"How to rekindle it, put the fun back in the relationship.
"I think there is a place for that kind of program, a Pillowtalk for an audience who has grown up."
WHERE ARE THEY NOW
● Dr Sally Cockburn: Based in Melbourne, Dr Cockburn hosts a weekly medical show for Melbourne radio station 3AW. She still is a practising GP
● Sophie Lee: The actress is based in the United Kingdom with her husband Anthony Freedman, and is raising three children. She is active on social media, and has a blog.
● Tottie Goldsmith: Still incredibly busy in the entertainment business, Goldsmith tours Australia with her band, The Chantoozies. She is also a marriage celebrant and an actress of stage and screen.
● Tim Clucas: Now an independent television producer, Clucas has had a huge career in television in Australia. He was the man who brought reality TV juggernaut Big Brother to life for Channel 10 in 2001.
● Dr Kerryn Phelps: From president of the Australian Medical Association to tireless campaigner for marriage equality, Phelps has done it all. She faces the polls as an independent candidate in the seat of Wentworth this weekend.
- Luke Dennehy is a Melbourne based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @LukeDennehy