TV family saga offends sensitive Australians
Saturday 25 July 1992
Since the first episode was shown on Australian television last week, Sylvania Waters has caused a furore and is criticised as likely to do more damage to Anglo-Australian relations than anything since Gallipoli. Following the BBC's success in the Seventies with The Family, a series about the lives of an ordinary British family, and trading on the popularity in the Eighties of Australian soap operas such as Neighbours, the BBC producers of Sylvania Waters set out to document the turmoils of a typical Australian family in the Nineties.
But many outraged Australians wonder how typical the portrayal is. The 12-part series, which British viewers are expected to see later this year, takes us into the lives of Noeline Baker and Laurie Donaher, a couple in their 40s who live in Sylvania Waters, a nouveau-riche suburb of Sydney in which developers have reclaimed a swamp to give every resident a dream home with a water frontage. Noeline and Laurie live together with children from their previous marriages. They have become millionaires through their business which supplies contract labour to the metal industry. When not entertaining on their yacht, they are having blazing rows, usually about money. Noeline admits to a drinking problem and to being lonely. She livens up a party for her women friends by hiring a male stripper, but Laurie disapproves because the stripper is black. The reaction to Sylvania Waters in Australia goes to the heart of the country's effort to be seen as more than a beer-swilling, materialistic cultural desert.
Paul Keating, the Prime Minister, said last week Australia had sold itself short by projecting a Paul Hogan image of a nation of 'ockers' and oafs. 'We should be increasingly building our image overseas on the subtleties and diversity of Australia, on the wide band of our achievements.'
There is nothing subtle about Sylvania Waters. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC's collaborators in the series, received hundreds of calls protesting that it would harm Australia's reputation. In a recent opinion poll, 85 per cent of those questioned said the programme was not a fair representation of family life in Australia.
The ABC initially advertised for families as subjects, and the BBC chose Noeline and Laurie from 100 responses. One of the chief complaints was that the British producers had deliberately chosen a family who would fulfil every British preconception about Australians, deliberately ignoring more ethnically diverse contenders.
The Sutherland shire, which includes the suburb of Sylvania Waters, is the most Anglo-Saxon part of Sydney. Only 15 per cent of its 200,000 residents were born outside Australia, and most of those are from Britain or New Zealand. Ian Swords, the shire president, said: 'The general reaction here is one of embarrassment, and a feeling that not many people would want to be identified with the programme. It showed a very materialistic, hedonistic lifestyle, people who have a lot of money and don't know how to use it constructively. There's also unhappiness about their racist comments.'
Brian Hill, one of the BBC directors, defended their choice. 'We chose this family because they're lively and there's lots of them. I don't think any script writer would have dared to write the lines that these people come out with,' he said. Noeline's son Michael, 16, said: 'I don't know if we're a typical Australian family - but this is our life.'
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