TELEVISION / Welcome to a town called soap: Giles Smith on domestic harmony cruelly exposed in Sylvania Waters

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The Independent Culture
LAST night on Sylvania Waters (BBC 1), we met the Bakers. We're going to be seeing a lot of them over the next few weeks, so it was good to get our perspective sorted out early on: the Bakers are a perfectly ordinary family unit. And like any perfectly ordinary family unit, they were happy to let Paul Watson's film crew shoot their most intimate moments.

One of the excuses regularly offered up for this kind of voyeurism is that, as the camera noses round someone else's living room, we see ourselves reflected somewhere. That argument was frequently in the air when Watson made The Family in the 1970s. But Sylvania Waters is a rich suburb of sunny Sydney, well-stocked with swimming pools and ornate ranch-homes, where social life revolves barbecues and surfing. For a British audience in, say, Ipswich, the moments of self-recognition were going to be slightly hard to spot. Still, this freed us up to sit back and concentrate properly on laughing at the furniture. The turquoise lounge suite] The mauve sunset painting] The overhead oil-style lanterns]

The luxuries weren't confined to the Baker's million-dollar home. In their free time, Noeline and Laurie plough off up the river in a motor-launch the size of a warehouse. Noeline explained that these material comforts might look fun, but they brought along an undertow of anxiety. 'You're always frightened someone's going to come and take it off you.' Not those white moulded breakfast-bar stools, surely?

The house would have to be enormous, though, to accomodate Noeline's raised voice, an instrument capable of boring through the cheaper types of masonry. Last night alone, she and Laurie shouted at each other over their son's 16th birthday party and, setting a new benchmark for domestic spark-points, engaged in a loud and detailed row about biros. We can expect the series to honour the premise that families are really only interesting to the outsider when they're busting up.

Actually, occupied as it was with essential scene-setting and introductions, the first programme was more word-in-your-ear than fly-on-the-wall. Everyone chatted to the camera. Noeline said that, despite a few foibles, Laurie was essentially a dependable chap. 'OK,' she allowed, 'he can drink as good as the average Australian . . .' Ordinarily, if you were expressing this kind of reservation, you would be looking for a phrase like 'he can drink with the best of them', but this was Australia, where exceptional drinking is completely unexceptional. It was one of the few genuine cultural insights Sylvania Waters offered, and it wasn't an especially new one.

Noeline also gave us some of her enlightening political views ('the dreaded yellow peril' from Hong Kong should 'go back to their own country and stay there'). She explained many things, in fact, except the central matter - why she had agreed to feature in this programme. Noeline burnt a tape of Sylvania Waters on a primetime Australian chatshow recently, which suggests that she wasn't entirely happy with the results. But then, what did she expect - some kind of visual record to supplement the family photograph albums and re- screen each Christmas? Perfectly ordinary family units have their predictable ways - and perfectly ordinary television film units have theirs, too.

Comic Strip's television detective spoof (C 4) was really just an excuse to bring back the old parody cop team, Bonehead and Foyle. But the old ones are the best. And anyway, we also got a prize performance from Jim Broadbent as George, whose lines chiefly boiled down to 'Got it?', 'Shut it]' and 'guv'. And as if that wasn't enough, a cruel parody of Jimmy Nail exposed the lie at the heart of Spender. A philosophical policeman? Pigs might fly.

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