Kath & Kim: articles

Patterson Lakes home

The heart of the 'burbs, in Patterson Lakes, home to the cast of Kath & Kim, was on the market a few years ago.

The house Kath built

Kath and Kim share their secrets to creating and maintaining the perfect home, including tips for the Good Room, with Ray Cassin.

WHEN THE HOUSE used in Kath & Kim was placed on the market three years ago, a property writer puffed it this way: "If Kath and Kim were the picture of suburban-Melbourne chicks, then this Patterson Lakes home must be 'burbs central."

'Burbs central? Maybe, but before each new series is recorded the ABC's art department arrives to give the house a makeover. It's one thing being an instantly recognisable piece of Australian outer suburbia, but to be recognised as Kath's home requires something more.

It needs, well, Kath's touch. And that in turn means more than piling up satin and flounces in the bedroom, distributing family photos over whatever benchtop seems appropriate, and shuttling the Pilates equipment between Kim's room (if she's going to be in residence) and the "Good Room" or another bedroom (if she isn't.).

The details that add up to Kath's touch include the building of fences, front and back, and replacing all the owners' paintings, crockery, utensils, and nearly all of their furniture, with Kath's things. "The house is normally decorated in a more antique style," explains the production designer for the show, Penny Southgate.

"Whereas Kath's preference is for things that look modern, Australian, and, of course, very feminine." Jane Turner and Gina Riley - the "girls", as the ABC crew refer to them - involve themselves directly in the design team's work. "The look has to be neat," says Turner, "because Kath's very neat, but it has to be homey at the same time. And we avoid those awful comedy cliches - too many little knick-knacks, dogs with wobbly heads and that sort of thing."

It takes Southgate and her team four days to build Chateau Kath, and another four to restore the house to its previous state for the owners' return (they take holidays for the duration of the recording period, and the ABC pays them rent).

But still there is more. Kath's touch extends to things that many viewers might never notice unless a character refers to them; for example (and here is A2's shock revelation about Da Kath & Kim Code, the telemovie that screens tomorrow night), the Donna Hay cookbook that used to adorn the kitchen shelf has been replaced by a Kylie Kwong.

This sort of fine adjustment is one measure of Kath & Kim's standing as the sharpest of suburban satires. Kath now takes her culinary advice from Ms Kwong because the girls have decided that this is how a woman of Kath's sensibilities is likely to have developed. "Kylie Kwong does a different sort of chickens' feet," confides Riley. "And Kath's quite interested in that sort of thing."

It is not so much a matter of whether the Kylie Kwong book is materially relevant to the plot (you'll have to watch Da K & K Code to find that out). What matters more is that Jane Turner/Kath is aware of it being on the shelf - it feels right. And the same applies to other props that viewers either might not notice, because they're seen in passing but not named: Kim's successive junk-food fads, for instance, which Southgate and the design team always stand ready to resupply. If the girls decide part-way through filming an episode that Kim ought to change her brand of crackers and dip, a crew member will be dispatched on a supermarket run.

But this finessing of props is about matters of appearance. What really gives substance to the " 'burbs central" label is the structure of the house itself. It too, and again in ways that viewers might never think about, becomes part of the exchanges between the characters.

Kath's "townhouse" is a four-bedroom, two-storey villa. Only the two upstairs bedrooms - Kath's room and Kim's room - are ever seen on the show, because the others are used to store props and costumes and as make-up rooms.

The domestic scenes in Kath & Kim are about the flow of action between these upstairs rooms, the open-area kitchen and family room that connects with the backyard, the less-often-seen but extremely important "Good Room" and, not least, Kath's laundry. (A frequently used room in any home, and dedicated laundry rooms are characteristically Australian. Yet in Australian television only Kath & Kim has accorded the laundry the place it really has in our lives - the numerous soap operas seem to think laundry scenes are too undignified.)

When Kath & Kim was still an idea in Turner's and Riley's imaginations, their production team began a search that eventually discovered the Patterson Lakes house, but it was not a matter of the house conforming to a precise preconception in their minds.

"The house gave us information," says Turner. "Yes, we had never written in the script about the Good Room or the kitchen," says Riley.

"But once we got the house all that just happened. That sliding door (from the backyard to the family room) is like an entrance, a theatrical entrance. Those sorts of things were just so fantastic to use. The entrance always seems so theatrical to me, but also really real." And so it is, of course.

Each time an exasperated Kath looks up from perusing Donna Hay or Kylie Kwong to behold a sullen Kim or glum Sharon, newly arrived and in search of footy franks, we know that the plot has turned. This is quite different to the almost incidental use of suburban scenes in, say, Neighbours.

In the soap, the exterior views of Ramsay Street (actually Pin Oak Court, Vermont South) are location shots, but most interior scenes use sets. Whereas in Kath & Kim the house is more than a prop: it imparts the flavour of the characters' lives.

And the action flows both ways through that sliding door: the signature exit of each Kath & Kim episode - and presumably of Da K & K Code too - is the "wine time", with the girls lolling in the outside spa tub or seated at the garden furniture, and Kath lobbing insults over the back fence at her prying neighbours.

The fence is erected for each series to conceal that the house backs on to one of the lakes that give the suburb its name. "We blocked it off because, even though Kath and Kim aren't quite as wealthy as Noelene in Sylvania Waters, they're in similar territory," says Turner.

"So we just didn't want it to look like too much of a parody of Sylvania Waters, especially four years ago when we started and memories of it were still fresh. But they're very much that kind of aspirational, classless group of people who have got money."

Kath's garden, like her kitchen bookshelf, has been given a facelift for Da K & K Code, with the addition of, among other items, a paved area. Is she then under the influence of Jamie Dury as well as Kylie Kwong? "Oh, yes!" interjects Riley, "They're both (meaning Kath and Kim) right into Backyard Blitz and all that stuff."

And what of that Good Room? Australian suburban homes have always had such a room, yet not so long ago it was simply the lounge or living room. But in newer suburbs formal living rooms are now typically set well away from family or rumpus rooms, which may, as in Kath's house, still be continuous with, but divided from, the kitchen space.

Less and less living is done in the room called the living room, which in its function increasingly resembles the formal drawing rooms that once only the rich could afford. And Kath and Kim are aspirational in this respect, too.

The Good Room, when not a temporary repository for Kath's pump and Pilates equipment, is where special things happen: such as Kel's 50th birthday party, or events that mark the time of year (Da K & K Code is set at Christmas time, and the Christmas tree is set up in the Good Room). And Kath's Good Room contains the best television in the house, the plasma screen on which, say Turner and Riley, you would watch the shows that are really special. Such as? "The Idol final, or the (World Cup) soccer."

What about Da K & K Code, then? Perhaps out of modesty, the girls did not include it among their examples of really special shows. But I trust it will be worth watching on any screen, in any room you care to place it, even the much-maligned laundry.

By Ray Cassin
November 26, 2005
Photo: Rodger Cummins
The Age