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Summer Heights High (2007 - 2007)

8 episodes x 30 minutes

Series synopsis:

This eight-part mockumentary series follows three characters at fictional school Summer Heights High for the duration of a school term; Year 11 student Ja’mie King, visiting from a prestigious private girl’s school for one term; Tongan student Jonah Takalua, an 'at risk’ year 8 boy pushing his luck at Summer Heights High after expulsion from a string of other schools; and Greg Gregson, better known as 'Mr G’, a drama teacher struggling to realise his unique visions for the school musical and a proposed 'Centre for Performing Arts’. The series’ writer and creator Chris Lilley plays all three characters.

Curator’s Notes:

Update from the curator (3 June 2020):
These notes, written in 2008, do not adequately address the use of brownface in the portrayal of the character Jonah in this series. The curator recommends further reading on this topic, for example Morgan Godfrey’s Blackface in a white nation (2014) and Winnie Stubbs’ It’s time for Australia to boycott brown-face (2019).

Original Curator’s Notes
There’s an intriguing moment at the very beginning of Summer Heights High before the opening credits roll; interview footage with two schoolboys that could be real, improvised or scripted – it’s hard to tell. One boy opines, 'The canteen’s crap this year. They turned the bad food into the good food.’ His friend jokes wryly about being in 'special history’ class: 'I’ve been in every “special” class since I started high school.’ This particular incarnation of the word 'special’, belonging to educational jargon, is one whose real meaning he clearly understands.

The two boys aren’t major players in the story that follows. Nonetheless it’s a moment that underscores something comedian Chris Lilley is particularly adept at observing – those amorphous areas in human communication where one thing is said but another is intended. Lilley is a master of uneasy detail – exploring human quirks and weaknesses, manipulations and prejudices, cultural and social sensitivities and taboos. In Summer Heights High we see these through the prism of the school environment and the contrasting characters and story arcs of Ja’mie, Jonah and Mr G. This world provides rich raw material for Lilley to work with, with its official and unspoken codes of behaviour, its educational language and teen-speak, and its microcosmic social relationships and power struggles.

Summer Heights High and Lilley’s earlier mockumentary series We Can Be Heroes (2005) have fast established their creator as a uniquely talented performer and writer. Lilley convinces as characters that run the gamut of age, class, gender, nationality and personality. Although comic, they do not read as straight impersonations: indeed the detail and realism he brings to characters that are often also inherently absurd or exaggerated can be strangely unsettling. Lilley even delivers some genuinely poignant moments.

As with We Can Be Heroes (2005), Summer Heights High is the product of what producer Laura Waters calls a 'hybrid’ documentary-mockumentary approach. In both cases Lilley and Waters set out to make their fictional world as real as possible, then recorded it like a documentary, improvising much of the action. Waters and many of the camera crew were also experienced in straightforward documentary production.

In a brave move, the team filmed Summer Heights High on location at Melbourne’s Brighton Secondary College, while term was underway. Some students and staff from the school performed as extras in the cast. Larger roles were formally cast from a mix of actors and non-actors. The latter included real-life Camberwell High School principal Elida Brereton, playing Summer Heights principal Margaret Murray, and Jonah’s gang of friends, most of whom were discovered at a rugby club.

Summer Heights High was originally broadcast on ABC in a Wednesday 9.30 pm timeslot, following popular satirical comedy The Chaser’s War on Everything (2006-current) and the music quiz show Spicks and Specks (2005-current). It proved to be a critical and ratings success for the broadcaster, premiering to the largest audience for an ABC comedy launch since Mother and Son (1992).

Initial audience interest could in part be attributed to the cult popularity of We Can Be Heroes (2005) and a flow-on effect from The Chaser and Spicks and Specks. The numbers did not wane, however: the show earned strong ratings throughout its run and consistently won its timeslot in the 13-17 and 18-39 age groups. The series DVD release added to its success, breaking records for its first six months of sale.

Online and viral marketing fed into this ongoing success with younger audiences, including clips uploaded to YouTube, vodcasts, Facebook and MySpace pages belonging to Ja’mie, Mr G and Jonah, the release of pop song 'Naughty Girl’ by Mr G (which reached the Top 10 on the national singles chart), and a detailed official website. 'Sorry Ranga Day’ was particularly inventive – a tongue-in-cheek online campaign to stop discrimination against redheads that ultimately received some mainstream media coverage. 'Ranga’, short for orangutan, is Jonah’s derogatory term for redheads: his apology via 'Sorry Ranga Day’, was used to promote the series’ DVD release.

Word-of-mouth among high school students also suggests itself as a natural form of viral publicity. Media reports noted students’ mimicry of Lilley’s characters, including the adoption of terms like Jonah’s 'ranga’ and 'puck you’. It is perhaps small wonder that Summer Heights High struck such a chord with this age group. Its irreverent, unpatronising and observant take on school life, complete with challenges like racism, bullying and bitchiness, is quite a rarity for Australian television.

Summer Heights High received 2008 Silver Logies for Most Outstanding Comedy Program and Most Popular Actor, and AFI Awards for Best Television Comedy Series and Best Performance in a Television Comedy. Chris Lilley also received the 2008 Byron Kennedy Award at the AFI Awards. In 2008 it sold to HBO in the US and the UK’s BBC3 and in 2009 Lilley commenced work on Angry Boys, an international co-production involving the ABC, BBC and HBO.

Titles in this series

Summer Heights High – Episode 5 2007

Summer Heights High follows three characters at a fictional school, Summer Heights High, for the duration of a school term, each played by Chris Lilley. In this episode, Ja’mie and her friends campaign for a year 11 formal at the ...