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Sylvania Waters – Episode 5 (1992)


This documentary series follows the lives of Noeline Baker and Laurie Donaher in their waterfront home in the south of Sydney, over a period of several months. Noeline and Laurie have been in a de facto relationship for 14 years but are now making marriage plans. The show also revolves around their extended family: Laurie’s son Mick and his wife Yvette, childhood sweethearts married for 11 years, with a couple of young kids; Noeline’s son Paul and partner Dione who, during the series, become parents for the first time; and Noeline’s youngest son Michael, a teenager still at school who lives at home and acts as sometime narrator for the show. In this episode, Laurie and Mick are both changing their diet to lose weight and improve their fitness and new parents Paul and Dione are struggling with Noeline’s interference.

Curator’s notes

Sylvania Waters looks like it might have been made yesterday rather than back in 1992. This is partly because of the improvements in the late ’80s in Betacam and non-linear digital editing, and partly because the subjects were so sharply observed; human frailty is eternal, universal and instantly recognisable. The crew were given virtually unlimited access to the Baker-Donaher family for six months, with the footage edited down to 12 absorbing half-hour episodes.

When it first appeared the program was widely criticised for pandering, as humorist and commentator Richard Glover put it, ‘to every British preconception about the Aussies … a family whose members are variously materialistic, argumentative, uncultured, heavy drinking and acquisitive’. Today it seems hard to believe that Sylvania Waters provoked a sense of outrage in the early ’90s, but we have since been exposed to much worse behaviour by Australians in reality TV. Perhaps we also know ourselves a little better than we did back then. Whatever the reason, Sylvania Waters still makes for interesting, entertaining and thought-provoking viewing.

The series has been credited by fans and critics alike with giving rise to the plethora of reality television programs we have had since. In fact, the Australian show was neither the first nor the most controversial of its kind; both An American Family (1973), about the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California, and The Family (1978) in the UK were similar in style and subject. Paul Waters, executive producer for the BBC on Sylvania Waters, was also involved in making The Family.

While the fashions and the cars in might have changed, the subjects raised during Sylvania Waters are debated today more than ever. They include the Australian diet and its effects on health (see clip one); the difficulties and desirability of buying a home; how much responsibility and freedom should high school-age children be allowed; and material rewards as a measure of happiness (see clip two). There is also tenderness, irony and humour, and much to empathise with. Laurie’s attempts to get fit, for example, are likely to be funny to some viewers but painfully familiar to others.

We may cringe at the thought, but the family so acutely observed in Sylvania Waters is at least as Australian as any family depicted in fictional accounts such as Neighbours (1985–current) or Packed to the Rafters (2008–current). Hopefully our national delight in the wonderful adventures of Kath and Kim (2002–07), characters who would be as at home in Sylvania Waters as they are in fictional Fountain Lakes, is an indication that we are now better able to laugh at ourselves.

Sylvania Waters first screened on the ABC from 21 July to 6 October 1992. Successful both here and in the UK, this BBC-ABC co-production has been repeated in Australia as recently as 2007, in a prime-time 8 pm Sunday night timeslot.