In 1992, the most famous house in Sydney was a suburban one: two storey, of multi-coloured brick with white shutters and a smooth, neatly mown lawn in front. People went on drives to view it, hoping they might catch a glimpse of the notorious inhabitants, an ordinary family who had come to sudden fame as the stars of Australia’s first reality tv show, Sylvania Waters.
Before the show went to air Sylvania Waters was a little-known bayside suburb on the southern, Dharawal side of Tucoerah/Georges River, between the two bridges which span the waterway. It had been constructed in the 1960s, its designers taking their inspiration from the Florida Keys as they planned its artificial islands, and lots designed to maximise their waterfront potential. The waterside land that had once been mangroves was filled in with rubble and sealed by concrete retaining walls. The houses built here were described in ads of the time as ranch-style, or ‘cape cod’, or triple-fronted bungalows, and ‘every home a waterfront (or within 100 yards of water)’.
In the credits to Sylvania Waters there’s a swooping aerial shot of the city, then a cut to the waterfront McMansions with their palm trees and boat ramps. Then we are in the Donaher’s kitchen, where Noeline and Laurie argue across the marble countertop, with its glass ashtrays and framed poster of Elvis on the wall. The show had been intended to be a real-life version of Neighbours, a co-production of the BBC and ABC that built upon the success of Australian soaps in the UK. On that account it was successful: the reality of the fractious family shocking viewers into either dismay or voyeuristic fascination. Then reality tv was a new phenomenon, and that it showed the family’s life so candidly was startling. Watching it now it still seems so, shockingly real and raw, for it was made before reality tv morphed into a performance of reality, rather than a reflection of it.
The Donahers moved out of their house in Sylvania Waters in 2003, but it looks barely any different now to how it appeared on the show. I sit in my car across from it as many others must have done in its more famous days, unsure what exactly to do apart from stare at it.
The garage doors are down, nothing stirs. I leave the car and cross the street, walk over the springy lawn with a sprinkler at the ready at the centre. Lawns are important in Sylvania Waters, as are driveways, which should be smooth and wide, and the styling of each house, which should be distinct from its neighbours.
I start walking, first along the main road, which has the houses that are ‘within 100 yards of water’, the kind of standard large brick houses that are found in the southern suburbs. Soon I come to the side-road that leads to the central artificial island, which is C-shaped and named after James Cook. It is a 1960s-version of colonialism, in which the paramount claim upon land is that it provide opportunities for leisure, within the neat demarcations of street, house, jetty and canal.
A breezeblock wall marks the point at which the road crosses to the island, and I stop beside two abandoned shopping trolleys to look out over the stretch of water and the boats moored to either side of it. Beside me is an olive tree, laden with fruit, and a green electricity box hums as I look over the rippling water and the bulky white boats.
The road connects with the island at the centre and the two arms of the C stretch in either direction. I’m halfway along one side when I realise how quiet it is. All I can hear is faraway traffic and the palm trees rustling in the brisk wind. A tarpaulin over a boat crackles (the boat’s name is ‘Mariah’). From a nearby letterbox, a plaque with the street number on it swings back and forth. An eerieness comes over me, in which I feel as if I’m walking through one of the fake towns used for nuclear tests in the 1950s. I shake it off: I’m just walking through a suburb on a weekday afternoon, when most people are at work or school. The houses, with their ostentatious architectural and landscaping details, have a still, monumental presence, their neat exteriors giving nothing away.
Occasionally I come across a scrap of trash – a sodden local paper on a driveway, or a McCafe espresso cup in the gutter – evidence of past activity. For most of the time it’s just me and the magpies, who strut over the lawns, perusing for grubs. Finally a car comes past, a prestige model with tinted windows. It pulls into a driveway and is swallowed up by a garage, the door swiftly closing after it.
Each front lawn is a gallery for ornaments, the older houses displaying wishing wells, fountains and statues, the newer ones giant urns. Out of all of these there’s one I am particularly fond of, for it is out of tune with the meticulous displays that characterise the suburb. This front yard is overgrown and cluttered. Grass and weeds grow tall and wisteria vines send out their tendrils. At the centre of all this, on a concrete plinth, is the dream that underlies this and all the houses of Sylvania Waters.