First Night: TV family makes Australians cringe: Sylvania Waters
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Friday 23 April 1993
'It is,' says Ian, 'a real embarrassment.' Watching the first transmission in Britain of Sylvania Waters, the fly-on-the-wall series about an 'ordinary Australian family', in a room full of Australians makes one understand what intruding on private grief really means.
Now they can look back with sentimental nostalgia on the days when Britain thought Australia was Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan, with Rolf Harris the thoughtful representative of the older generation. Henceforth it is the Baker- Donahers, common-law husband and wife, who drink hard, quarrel hard and seem to have collected enough children to make Mia Farrow the model of a nuclear family.
They have worked their way up, live in a million-dollar waterfront house in the Sydney suburb and own a cabin cruiser in the series that has become a cause celebre in Australia and infuriated the country's tourist board. At the Drifters Club in Bayswater last night young Australians squirmed in embarrassment, burst into hysterical fits of laughter, but also nodded more than once in recognition. If the portrayal of an ordinary Australian family was inaccurate, it was not always because it was exaggerated.
The opening scene on BBC TV last night showed Noeline Baker yelling at her common-law husband Laurie. 'Wrong,' muttered 29-year- old Belinda from Canberra. 'A typical Australian man wouldn't just sit there reading the paper. He would have walked out by now.' Laurie's male chauvinism - 'Driving a racing car is like going to bed with a good woman . . . very exciting . . . when you get out you say 'Jesus, I gotta do that again' ' - provoked bursts of laughter; but usually accompanied by knowing looks, especially among the women. There was no such recognition for the drinking, smoking, swearing Noeline.
'All she needs is chewing gum . . . I certainly don't have a mother like that . . . she's scary . . . yes it does embarrass me to think people here will think we're like that . . . Neighbours is a much better representation; there really are houses and streets and people like that.'
Belinda's comment was perhaps most incisive: 'What they have done is they have depicted the very rich and the lower class. They have missed out the middle class, which is what most Australians are. The average Australians don't have million-dollar homes. We don't all have pool tables and plush furniture. A normal Sydney home is Adollars 200,000 ( pounds 94,000). But yes, we do have this 'tall poppy syndrome' in Australia. We can't stand to see people succeed. We like to cut the poppy down to size. And we're doing it now.'
Television review, page 15
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