Back in July 1992 when the TV series Sylvania Waters first aired on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), the anticipation and excitement stirred amongst my friends and family was unprecedented. It struck a particularly personal chord at the time as I was in my last year of high school and living a mere stone’s throw from the affluent suburb of Sylvania Waters – where Laurie, Noeline and Michael resided in their waterfront mansion. In the other direction was Mortdale where Paul and Dione were raising baby Kane in a more ramshackle neck of the woods. My after school job was in a donut shop at Hurstville train station where I caught glimpses of this celebrity world as Paul Baker from the series would buy his regular combo of donuts and coffee, presumably en route to or from his Telecom job. My co-workers and I would do our best not to be wide-eyed with excitement during this recurring low-rent celebrity sighting. (In retrospect, it’s tempting to smirk about Paul’s homophobic description in episode eight of gay men doing unimaginable things to donuts; clearly as I knew from my then line of work, he enjoyed donuts and had reason to defend them).
The legacy of Sylvania Waters still figured prominently in my mind when I took up the position of curator at Hazelhurst in 2007 – this exhibition was one of the first projects I pitched to gallery director Michael Rolfe while still a new recruit. The Gallery’s focus on celebrating artists, stories and historical events of local significance provided the impetus for this sensationally site-specific exhibition examining the impact of Sylvania Waters both nationally and internationally. Sylvania Waters might have been made for the small screen, but for better or worse it loomed large in the national psyche. It also figured prominently in the colonial psyche of British audiences, prompting them to reassess their view of Australians, when the show burst onto UK screens in March 1993.
Could these be your Neighbours?
Sylvania Waters came about when the BBC commissioned controversial documentary producer Paul Watson to create a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ series that documented a modern Australian family, ‘warts and all’, for a British audience. It was conceived of as a real-life version of Neighbours and Home and Away – two Aussie soaps that have enjoyed phenomenal success in the UK. The ABC came on board with the BBC as co-producers, assisting in the quest to find the perfect family for the series, and the rest as they say, is history. Five families were shortlisted for the series but the Donaher/Baker clan were ultimately selected after Sylvania Waters housewife Noeline Baker contacted ABC producer Chris Pip to put her family forward. Of the 100 families that applied, clearly the BBC/ABC could see that the Donahers had all the right ingredients for compelling television. On one side was de facto couple Noeline and Laurie who resided in their nouveau riche canal style mansion and whose hobbies included racing cars and cruising in their luxury boat christened Blasé. They were pitted in contrast to the battler image of Noeline’s son Paul and his fiancé Dione, who were expecting a baby any day while making feverish wedding plans despite not being able to afford a fridge. Noeline’s cheeky teenage son Michael and the family of Laurie’s son Mick were thrown into the mix, along with neighbours and friends as featured extras, and a hit show was born.
What the family didn’t think about was how ripe for manipulation they would be in the hands of a documentary producer. The ‘reality’ of a documentary is never as real as the unedited banality of life lived off screen and shielded from the voyeuristic scrutiny of a mass viewing public. Surely Noeline didn’t expect a Warholian treatment of their lives as seen in Sleep (1963) or Empire (1964) where Andy Warhol’s static, unedited and very long portrayal of a stationary scene comes as close to ‘reality’ as the real thing? While the Donaher/Bakers were under the impression they would be paid much more money than they were for allowing cameras into their lives for five months, ultimately they agreed to participate thinking the show wouldn’t air in Australia and that the portrayal of their lives would be a sunny endorsement of Australian life to the Brits. The family were forbidden from seeing the finished program before it was broadcast nationally on the ABC. They were only granted access to a 20-minute showreel of the series which consisted mostly of crass family feuding. After the screening, Noeline in particular realised how misled she had been for serving her family up for mass scrutiny, ridicule and humiliation.
Having been excluded from seeing the series in advance, the family watched along with the rest of the country when broadcast commenced on Tuesday 21 July 1992. Over the following twelve weeks they witnessed their lives implode in the process. Though Noeline emerged as the star of the series, her fame came at a price as the media consistently ridiculed her. In The Sylvania Waters Diary (1993) – Noeline’s book-length “apology” for any harm or hurt she may have caused her family or “the people of Australia”
The slippage across television genres that occurred with Sylvania Waters was further compounded by the way each member of this real life family had been carefully constructed as ‘characters’. As Noeline remarks: “I felt we had been chosen to do a soap series without the actors”.
Andrew Mercado’s “Reality Soaps”, from his book Super Aussie Soaps (2004), outlines how Sylvania Waters shocked and entertained, at a time when the language of Reality TV had not fully developed. “Reality TV is now a staple on our screens but when it first started, nobody knew quite what to call it” writes Mercado. “Not surprisingly, the first big Aussie reality TV series (Sylvania Waters) was called a soap because it had so much in common with its fictional counterparts”. Mercado outlines at length how the Donaher/Baker family came to be TV stars, their subsequent treatment by the media and viewing audiences, and the celebrity status they enjoyed for a time after the show first aired.
Academic Joy Hooton believes the series most directly mirrors the domestic sitcom, in that it is constructed “according to a simple, perennially popular outline which often involves nothing more than a ‘simple funny “thing”’ which happens to a set of characters in an episode”.
The ‘plotting’ or ‘scripting’ of reality, under the auspices of documentary filmmaking, meant that it was difficult to classify Sylvania Waters in terms of its genre. At the time, journalists primarily referred to it in relation to soap – classifying it as a ‘soapumentary’, ‘docusoap’ or ‘kitchen sink drama’. That the family were repeatedly seen in the kitchen with Noeline ruling the roost, with drink and cigarette in hand from the theatre of the breakfast bar, makes the latter description a perfect fit. The family were often at war with each other, mouthing off racist, sexist, classist and homophobic views on the ‘box’ in a series confused for a ‘soapie’, making it the ultimate ‘soap box’.
Up until that time a living, breathing Australian family had not been documented on TV in such a way. The show provided cause for heated critique about documentary ethics as well as the politics of representation, seeing that for many, they were being made out to be a ‘typical’ Australian family for a British audience. The ‘fly-on-the-wall’ model, upon which Sylvania Waters was based, was not however new. In 1973 An American Family aired on PBS in the USA, documenting the Loud family from Santa Barbara for several months. When the show finished screening the parents divorced and the son, Lance Loud, came out of the closet.
Almost 20 years before Paul Watson produced Sylvania Waters, he replicated the format of An American Family for UK audiences as seen in The Family in 1974. A similar breakdown of that particular nuclear family occurred throughout the course of production and beyond. Fighting against the growing possibility that her own family could derail, Noeline became an outspoken critic of Watson claiming her family’s excessive consumption and constant fighting had been exaggerated through selective and manipulative editing. Watson frequently denied manipulating Noeline and her family’s depiction but never denied having an agenda: “[Australia] is the land of opportunity. Let’s look at people who have made their money. After achieving their dream, what happens?”
In their scholarly essay on Sylvania Waters, Jon Stratton and Ien Ang note: “As television has historically been central to the rhetorical articulation of ‘the family’ in the construction of national imagined community, it is not surprising that it was the perceived (lack of) realism of the series which was the major concern in the reception of Sylvania Waters by Australian audiences”.
The constructed character of the family unit and its complex and often explosive interpersonal relationships are based for the most part on class stratification; the supposedly newfound material wealth of Laurie and Noeline and Mick and Yvette is contrasted with the lack thereof for Paul and Dione. But amid the delicious confusion over what the series was saying in terms of genre, ideology, reality and ‘Australian-ness’ the family became paradigmatic of a kind of ‘cultural cringe’ that extends to other excessive or grotesque examples of Australian popular culture. This was most famously embodied in Barry Humphries’s character Dame Edna Everage, who went on public record in 1992 for being a fan of “Dame Noeline”.
Noeline felt betrayed by Watson, partly because she thought the show would be less concerned with her family’s identity specifically. She had been convinced by ABC/BBC executives that the show would be called The Family – like the British counterpart – and that their street name, Macintyre Crescent, was not to be divulged. Not only did the media announce their address – which meant their street and private waterways were bombarded with journalists, fans and curious onlookers – the show ended up being called Sylvania Waters, which “follows the (predominantly British) soap convention of using the name of a fictional local community to construct a sense of place”.
Collection: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
The Aquatic Suburb
Developer and builder James Goyen purchased the privately owned Gwawley Bay – the original name for Sylvania Waters – in 1960, seeing its potential for reclamation as a canal style suburb. The previous owners of the Bay acquired it in 1917 and you can see how the land on Gwawley Bay was subdivided into residential waterside properties in the 1922 Holt-Sutherland House Subdivision map of Sylvania. Going further back to colonial times, the Bay’s first recorded non-Indigenous owner was Thomas Holt, a visionary developer and entrepreneur who owned most of Sutherland Shire in the 1860s. Of all his land, Holt saw unique industrial and aesthetic potential in the mangroves of Gwawley Bay, especially for farming oysters in the long canals that he dug in the tidal marshes. Named after the word ‘sylvan’ – meaning “abounding in trees” – Sylvania was thick with trees and scrub that was cleared for the development of a residential suburb that housed Holt’s own 39 bedroom mansion Sutherland House.
If Holt had been alive in the thoroughly modern 1960s instead of the colonial 1860s, it’s certainly possible that he may have shared James Goyen’s more contemporary vision for a canal style residential oasis. Inspired by similar waterway estates in Florida and specifically modelled on the luxurious Florida Keys coast project in Miami, the Sutherland Shire Council approved the plans for the reclamation of Gwawley Bay, with the first sale of some 800 planned homes occurring in 1961. The initial construction of the Bay involved the erection of concrete retaining walls and the use of two million cubic meters of shellstrewn sand to reclaim the mangrove swamps where oysters once grew. Three islands were created: Murray, Barcoo and the horse-shoe shaped James Cook Island with properties that backed out onto privately owned waterways. The suburb, which was now primarily referred to as Sylvania Waters rather than Gwawley Bay, was finished in 1973.
Charles Foreshaw, the chief surveyor of the Sylvania Waters project, told an open meeting at Cronulla in August 1961 that it was the intention of the company to “maintain the area on a middle or better class level” primarily due to fact that properties on the water were architecturally designed.
Despite the bourgeois standards set by the location, cynics speculated that within 30 years the “aquatic suburb” would become a “slum” as retaining walls occasionally collapsed due to erosion causing cracking in concrete slabs, footpaths, lawns and even the walls of some homes.
Making Reality Art
The impact of Sylvania Waters is undeniable, especially for folks living in the vicinity of the real location, but strangely difficult to measure as it has faded into relative obscurity. It is only occasionally repeated on Australian TV and has never been released on VHS or DVD. Evidence of its impact on TV and film is seen in early sketches of Kath and Kim, produced as part of the short-lived sketch comedy series Big Girls Blouse (Seven Network, 1994). Through obvious references to Sylvania Waters, Kath and Kim creators Jane Turner, Gina Riley and Magda Szubanski lovingly caricature the ‘bogan’ vernacular of Australian everyday suburban life. As Jill Singer writes in the Herald-Sun: “the first cashed-up bogans to hit our TV screens were not Kath and Kim, but a real-life family featured in ABC TV’s 1992 hit series Sylvania Waters”.
While Kath and Kim and The Castle are considered classic works of art for many, there are more direct precedents set by visual artists influenced by Reality TV. UK artist Gillian Wearing produced an innovative installation called Family History in 2006 that was inspired by the impact Paul Watson’s The Family and particularly its participant, Heather Wilkins, had on her as child in the 1970s. One part of the installation features a video of talk show host Trisha Goddard interviewing Wilkins about the show and her life after the series. In another room, 1970s domestic life is represented in a video showing a girl cast as young Wearing watching The Family on TV in a replica of a dress the artist wore at the time. Another significant UK artist to examine Reality TV is Phil Collins, who for the Turner Prize in 2006 created a project called The Return of the Real, where he filmed interviews with Reality TV participants who felt their experience had left them exploited or damaged in some way. Like Noeline Donaher, whose book The Sylvania Waters Diary attempted to tell her side of the story, Collins offered traumatised victims of Reality TV a right of reply.
Developed over a two-year period, the exhibition Reality Check: watching Sylvania Waters takes its cues from these moments and more. One artwork directly inspired by Sylvania Waters at the time was Kathy Golski’s portrait of Noeline Donaher, painted for the 1993 Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It was well documented in media coverage then that the portrait was not selected for the prize but presented with a “patronising explanation from the gallery, saying that the trustees had not picked the painting but people wanted to see it, ‘… so here it is’”.
Ten artists/collectives were commissioned to make new work responding to Sylvania Waters and invited to undertake a residency at Hazelhurst throughout 2009 to assist in the development of the work. For research purposes the ABC generously granted access to episodes of the series, as well as archival media material that included news and current affairs segments pertaining to the show. The artistic outcomes interpret Sylvania Waters from various perspectives and in ways that reveal how visual arts practice often blurs with popular forms of media and entertainment.
John A. Douglas grew up in the Shire and recalls how his family considered moving to Sylvania Waters when he was a child, but they settled in Engadine instead. In Ask Noeline... (not the ogre) Douglas revisits his fandom of the series by contemplating Noeline as the first casualty of Reality TV in Australia. Through selective editing he reveals qualities in Noeline that were somehow missed in the series. In reference to Sylvania Waters homes being “awash with the swimming pools”
For art collective The Kingpins, Noeline is also their point of fascination because they see her as an exemplary figure of “female masculinity”. Noeline may be an alpha matriarch at heart, but she also engages in the normative performance of feminine styling needed to keep up one’s appearance. The Kingpins pick apart and question the ‘realness’ of Noeline’s complex gender coding across various media forms through the inventive use of bodily veneers and prosthetics such as false nails and wigs and the brands and logos consumed in the series.
Carla Cescon examines Noeline as a conduit for the way family communication is performed in the series, showing how all information and communication is filtered through her. The installation Camps and outposts, an exercise with communication presents a scaled down kitsch (or perhaps ‘camp’) replica of Noeline in her kitchen, which via a walkie talkie sitting on the shelf, acts as a portal for communication with two ‘outposts’ situated in the Hazelhurst garden. Both outposts represent Noeline’s children, with one being dedicated to Michael and the other to Paul and Dione. Viewers can interact with the outposts by using walkie talkies to communicate with the ‘mother camp’ located in the gallery.
By observing how family and interpersonal dynamics are constructed in the series Mitch Cairns identifies material and behavioural differences between various family members. By wryly referencing Paul’s exclusion from family boating trips, Cairns’s painting Big Jobs, Dig Deep reflects on how Noeline and Paul’s relationship is dominated by their perception of labour and how hard one works for what they have. Sculptural work Lazy Susans/Bistro Foooood refers to the politically incorrect understanding of race relations in Sylvania Waters, which during the early 1990s coincided with the emergence of the term ‘multiculturalism’. Through an exaggerated stack of masonite Lazy Susans, Cairns reveals how systemic these attitudes still are today.
The Macintyre Crescent mansion in which the Donaher family lived was the key inspiration for Luis Martinez. As source material for a meticulously detailed pencil drawing, Martinez photographed the exterior of the house (meeting the current owner in the process) and matches this drawing with another of the Cabramatta house where he resided while the series was on TV in 1992. Martinez also contributes three paintings based on stills from Sylvania Waters where the families are seen watching TV. Martinez shows how television went from being a relaxing activity to a damaging invasion of their reputations and privacy in the media frenzy they endured at the time.
The world’s more interesting with you in it by David Lawrey & Jaki Middleton re-creates the Sylvania Waters house as a miniaturised three-dimensional scale model. Recessed into the gallery wall, the model references anthropological museum display conventions, where important historical events and scenes from the natural world are represented. By rendering the famous house in this way, comparisons are drawn between the voyeurism the family experienced with the ironic manner in which these constructed worlds are intended to depict animals in their natural environment – but are by design highly manipulated. The artists appear in the work as ghostly figures that intermittently appear and disappear around the house, haunting the implied inhabitants. The ‘ghosting’ is achieved by employing an effect called Pepper’s Ghost where an object is reflected into the scene through the use of reflective glass and specific lighting.
Archie Moore also uses the Pepper’s Ghost effect in Doppelgänger, a video installation informed by how concepts of reality and representation were contested in relation to the production and reception of Sylvania Waters. Through direct participation with a live camera stream, a viewer sees their image manipulated onscreen to grotesque effect. Moore poses questions relating to identity and identity theft, the relationship of public to private, and the debates over the ownership of the individual’s image once it has been digitised.
Most contemporary Reality TV shows entertain by incorporating game show elements to force participants into direct competition with one another. ‘Reality’ it seems is best staged in an arena where the stakes for being a winner are high, as most participants end up losers. Holly Williams uses the concept of family as a game by using the iconography of Sylvania Waters to create a new version of the popular card game Happy Families. Williams also presents Family Feud, where publicity stills of the Donaher/Baker family are incorporated into the found board game box to ironically show how Sylvania Waters constantly pitted family members against each other. Paul is not depicted on the box because he always claimed to be excluded from the family.
An exciting aspect of Reality Check is that it brings together artworks alongside the very archival material that has helped shape it. Ms & Mr (Richard & Stephanie nova Milne) are an artist couple who through “Retroactive Collaboration” manipulate their personal archive to create alternate realities and parallel universes where both artists interact with each other’s former archival selves. For this exhibition, Ms & Mr apply these principles of alternate realities by casting one of the families that were shortlisted to star in what became Sylvania Waters. The Archibald Family of Glebe become the conduit in Ms & Mr’s work to explore what happens when known history collides with glitches from a parallel world.
Delving into personal and media archives also guides the work of Elvis Richardson. For the Hazelhurst garden billboards, the artist has created images that reference the popular media format of the time – VHS – as a way of showing how archives are constructed to reflect fact as well as fiction. Anagrams of “Sylvania Waters” are used to title the VHS spines in much the same way you might keep taping over the same program, revealing something about how an archive is never complete and is as self-generating as the self-obsessed stuff we call Reality TV.
Directed by Daniel Marsden, ABC TV, 'Artscape Series', 2009
- Academic David Rowe argues: “Any Australian text in Britain immediately engages, either electively or involuntarily, with the legacy of colonialism”. Cited in Rowe, “The Federal Republic of Sylvania Waters”, Metro Magazine, vol.98, 1994, p.21
- Noeline Donaher, The Sylvania Waters Diary, Bookman Press, Melbourne, 1993, p.71
- Donaher, ibid. p.69
- Donaher, ibid. p.76
- Donaher, ibid. p.73
- Donaher, ibid. p.98
- Joy Hooton, “Laurie and Noeline and Sylvania Waters”, in Headon, Hooton & Horne (eds) The Abundant Culture: Meaning and significance in everyday Australia, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1995, p.63
- Paul Watson cited in Miranda Devine, “Stormy Waters”, Daily Telegraph Mirror, 21 July 1992, p.11
- Louise Bishop, “I’m Paul Watson, Trust Me”, The Journal of the Royal Television Society,December-January, 1994, p.11
- Jon Stratton & Ien Ang, “Sylvania Waters and the spectacular exploding family”, Screen, vol.35 no.1, Spring 1994, p.9
- Stratton & Ang, ibid. p.11
- Sue Williams, “Noeline takes over where Edna left off”, Daily Telegraph Mirror, 6 October1992, p.34
- Stratton & Ang, ibid. p.5
- “News from the Branches: Cronulla-Sutherland”, Real Estate Journal, August 1961, p.546
- “Official Probes Sought on Sylvania Subsidences” in The St George and Sutherland Shire Leader, 13 October 1971, p.1
- Jill Singer, “Mr Mayor, the bogans are OK”, Sun Herald, 4 December 2008, p.34
- Elisabeth Wynhausen, “Portrait of the artist as a woman”, Sun-Herald, 26 September 1993,p.32
- Be Bonham, “Awash with swimming pools”, Sun-Herald, 11 August 1985, p.98
Curatorial catalogue essay for Reality Check: Watching Sylvania Waters at Hazelhurst Arts Centre, 10 October – 29 November 2009.
Published by Hazelhurst Art Gallery in 2009.