TV documentary film-maker Paul Watson, who has just died, is being described as the “father of reality TV”. But the truth is he didn’t quite invent the genre and his biggest hit, Sylvania Waters, was more soap than reality TV, in what was an obvious attempt to do a real-life Neighbours.
Although Watson’s 1974 docuseries The Family was the first of its kind for UK television, it was likely based on successful US series An American Family, which screened in 1973 and shocked viewers when the parents decided to divorce on-camera and their 19-year-old son Lance came out as gay.
By comparison, The Family was much more tame, following a working-class family in Reading. Viewers were fascinated, but nobody thought about doing it again until 20 years later when the BBC asked Watson to return to the format, but in an Australian setting.
During the 80s, two of the UK’s biggest shows had been Neighbours and Home & Away. When Sky Television began in 1990, they crammed their schedule with a slew of other Aussie soaps like E Street and Chances.
The BBC, who had been trendsetters with Neighbours, wanted to claw back some of the Aussiemania and went into a co-production with the ABC for a real-life version. The call went out for a “lively family” and listening was Noeline Baker, who lived in the southern Sydney suburb of Sylvania Waters with an extended family that fit the bill.
The Brady Bunch-type clan included her teenage son (and secret narrator) Michael; his older brother Paul, who lived nearby with pregnant girlfriend Dione; Noeline’s de facto, Laurie Donaher; and his son Mick, daughter-in-law Yvette and their two small daughters.
Like lambs to the slaughter, the family signed on and camera crews began to film their every move. The shoot lasted for five months; over a hundred hours of footage was collected and then edited into twelve episodes.
Sylvania Waters exploded on to Australian TV on 21 July 1992. The link to the fictional soap that inspired it was clear in the tagline: “Could these be your neighbours?” Aussie critics immediately fired up, with the Daily Telegraph Mirror writing it was “a vicious putdown tailor-made for British audiences”.
The Sydney Morning Herald agreed, arguing that Watson was pandering to “every British preconception about Aussies” with a family that was “materialistic, argumentative and heavy-drinking”. Unsurprisingly, Sylvania Waters attracted a huge audience and the morning after it aired everyone seemed to have an opinion on it.
Typically, the family member to cop the most abuse was the woman. Noeline was described as a “racist, drunk, crass blonde”. Incredibly, even the deputy prime minister, Brian Howe, felt the need to talk about her during a health conference, saying that “Noeline has a drinking problem, wants to give up smoking, has a close relationship with the TAB, and is constantly vacillating between Gloria Marshall [weight clinic] and cream cakes”. Noeline was furious and demanded an apology, which she later got in writing.
At the heart of this ongoing controversy was Noeline’s claim that the show was misrepresenting her family. Each episode had a name, like “Sex” and “Alcohol”, with various events that had happened over five months spliced together to fit each episode’s theme. The end result wasn’t pretty.
But Watson would for ever be unapologetic, saying he had produced a “serious look at contemporary life”. Noeline insisted that he never spoke to her again after the series aired, and the only thing she probably ever agreed with him on was when he said: “You have to be an absolute bastard to be a documentary film-maker.”
Noeline fought back by doing endless talkshows and writing her own book, The Sylvania Waters Diary. She revealed that the crew often arrived around 4pm, just in time to film her sitting down to have a pre-dinner drink with Laurie. She was particularly upset that she was shown getting her hair done as Dione was giving birth, despite the hair appointment having happened several days beforehand. She insisted it was done to make her look “hard, harsh and unthinking”.
As the series was coming to an end, some Australian viewers began to see through the ruse. If Noeline had a “drinking problem”, then surely most of the country did too? What viewers were less eager to discuss was the show’s casual racism and homophobia, some of which is too awful to repeat here.
Sylvania Waters screened in the UK in 1993 with one critic saying it was “Neighbours gone mad, Home & Away on drugs!” English fans seemed to love that and they lined up to get Noeline’s autograph when she visited, prompting her to say: “After the fuss in Australia, this is a dream come true.”
In 2001, as Big Brother and Survivor were becoming worldwide phenomena, Watson defended his version of reality TV, saying he “didn’t make things up. I don’t give people booze or drugs or tell them lies in order to get a reaction. And many of those techniques are used in these new so-called reality series.”
These days, much like Sylvania Waters, Big Brother in Australia is taped months in advance and the footage is re-arranged to tell whatever story needed. Sadly, none of the contestants are as interesting as Noeline Baker, who went on to release a single called “No Regrets”.
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