Australian Documentary

Sylvania Waters, a documentary television series which followed the lives of an Australian family, premiered on Australian television in 1992. A 12 part co-production by the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the controversial program chronicled the existence of couple Noeline Baker and Laurie Donaher and their largely adult offspring. The series took its name from the wealthy harbourside suburb in southern Sydney where Noeline and Laurie reside.

Billed as a "real-life" soap opera, Sylvania Waters was shot over a six month period by a camera crew who lived with the Donaher/Bakers. According to an agreement struck with the family, the crew was allowed to film "anywhere, at any time--except when family members were using the bathroom or making love". While ABC publicity for the documentary series emphasised the couple's new found wealth and luxurious lifestyle, the tightly edited result ruthlessly scrutinised the entrenched interpersonal conflicts which lay beneath the surface of the blended family's easygoing facade.

Like its 1978 British prototype, The Family, which brought instant infamy to the Wilkins family of Reading, and the 1973 U.S. program An American Family, which chronicled the lives of the Loud family in Santa Barbara, California, Sylvania Waters focused a national microscope on the values and behaviour of the Donaher/Baker family. Noeline and Laurie's unwed status, Noeline's drinking problem, Laurie's racism, their materialism and the family's routine domestic disputes, all became issues discussed widely in the Australian media.

A particularly passionate public debate erupted over the question of whether executive producer of Sylvania Waters, Paul Watson, who also produced The Family for the BBC, had chosen an Australian family which pandered to a British stereotype. Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald popular cultural critic Richard Glover summed up these concerns when he wrote that the family were "hardly a surprising British choice: in Noeline and Laurie, every British preconception about the Aussies comes alive...Meet Australia's new ambassadors: a family whose members are variously materialistic, argumentative, uncultured, heavy drinking and acquisitive".

The debate intensified when the series screened in Britain and became the subject of widespread commentary in the press there. The tabloid newspaper The Sun headlined a story on the series "Meet Noeline. By Tonight You'll Hate Her Too," while The Guardian criticised "Noeline's bigotry and gruesome materialism." Critics of Sylvania Waters argued that this adverse publicity was proof that the producers of the series had effectively "set up" the Donaher/Baker family to feed British prejudices about Australians.


During the screening of the series, Noeline Baker, Laurie Donaher and their extended family, also became the subject of intense media interest. While a number of family members claimed that the series had caused a family rift, they continued to give numerous press, radio and television interviews and guest hosted radio and television programs, both in Australia and in the United Kingdom.

On the level of genre, Sylvania Waters was also widely understood as representing a new trend dubbed "reality" television. This ambiguous term--generally identified by the use of unembellished documentary style footage of ordinary people for entertainment purposes--has been used to describe a number of programs which debuted in Australia in the early 1990s, including Cops, which showed footage of police arresting suspects, and Hard Copy, a current affairs program which made frequent use of amateur video material.

-Catherine Lumby

Paul Watson, Pamela Wilson

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 12 Half-hour Episodes 21

July 1992-6 October 1992                  Tuesday 9:30-10:00


Cunningham, Stuart. Contemporary Australian Television. Sydney, Australia: University of New South Wales Press, 1994.


See also Australian Programming