There is an unmissable irony in the fact that the Melbourne family home that was saved from developers in the ultimate feel-good Australian suburban comedy-drama in real life is now threatened with demolition.
In the 1997 film The Castle, the Kerrigan family, led by resolute and kind-hearted patriarch Darryl and aided by the (improbably) saintly QC who takes the case on their behalf for free, went all the way to the High Court to protect their home located on the outer reaches of the urban fringe.
In the film the Kerrigan house is situated on a desolate cul-de-sac next door to an airport and worryingly close to electricity pylons. The filmmakers craftily have us cheering for the Kerrigans, even if the family had any sense they’d take the money and leave the neighbourhood for health reasons alone.
Nevertheless, Darryl fights hard for what he believes belongs to his family. Notwithstanding the eventual triumph of the ordinary person in the film, the real house used in the film is reportedly being replaced by its owner to make way for two town houses. The decision apparently was made after a bad experience the owner had with a tenant who trashed the place.
Sometimes Australians choose to preserve houses of historical and/or cultural importance, and sometimes they don’t.
The plan to demolish one of the most celebrated houses in Australia is set to be put into action despite calls for the property to be granted heritage listing because of its significance as the setting for one of the nation’s favourite films. The very reason The Castle is so beloved is because the story is about fulfilling the egalitarian dream of home ownership, which was once supposed to be within the grasp of any working family no matter how modest their circumstances.
Sometimes Australians choose to preserve houses of historical and/or cultural importance, and sometimes they don’t. Dame Nellie Melba’s renowned Coombe Cottage outside Melbourne was reopened for public tours recently. The impressive home and studio of the artist Norman Lindsay in the Blue Mountains has been preserved, as has the Ballarat cottage of the colonial poet Adam Lindsey Gordon. Both the birthplace and death place of Ned Kelly have survived, and Don Bradman’s childhood home in Bowral was restored, including the famous tank he battered incessantly with a golf ball smacked with a cricket stump.
The homes of our most influential politicians have fared less well – a house that belonged to Robert Menzies and a childhood home of Gough Whitlam were destroyed despite protests, muted though the objections may have been. Meanwhile, the splendid birthplace of Stanley Melbourne Bruce has been preserved and even sports a brass plaque out the front. The long-term fate of Julia Gillard’s former home remains to be determined.
The unpretentious weatherboard house featured in The Castle arguably merits preservation not because of who actually lived there but because of all that it stands for, including the lack of pretension. If we don’t feel the need to save this particular house then why bother to preserve anything of cultural significance in the built environment?
In commenting on the 5-4 council decision to abandon a previous bid to preserve the house, Moonee Valley Mayor Andrea Suraco was reported to have said the council would write to the planning minister to withdraw its previous request to place a heritage overlay over the property. “An important debate went on, but we have to remember this is a private person’s property,” Ms Suraco was quoted as saying.
It could be argued that by constructing two dwellings where once there was a single house means that an extra family can have the opportunity to live under their own roof, an aspiration becoming increasingly difficult to achieve during the current, seemingly intractable crisis in housing affordability in this country.
A further reason quoted for why saving the house was not considered vital by the majority of councillors was less concrete. “And the significant heritage or sentimental side is from the movie — and the house was supposed to be in Coolaroo — no one would have known it was in Strathmore.”
The fact that the filmmakers gave a fictional name to the area does not detract from the fact that the house exists and could be preserved and visited in situ perhaps as a museum dedicated to suburban life, such an essential aspect of Australian national identity and social history.
On another level, though, the mayor is quite right to think of the house in imaginative terms, as belonging in a world of make believe – a bit like Kansas farm house in The Wizard of Oz. And indeed the currently owner reportedly has said she is happy for the old weatherboard house to be taken away.
The charm of Darryl Kerrigan’s single-minded desire to keep his house is not that he sees it for what it really is or what others think of it but for what it means to and for his family. No matter how long it survives, with or without heritage protection and in its original location or elsewhere, the house immortalised in The Castle won’t last forever yet at the same time it is destined linger on in the Australian cultural imagination.
A castle in the air, so to speak.
UPDATE: The Kerrigan family home is set to be saved and relocated to New South Wales. It will become a tourist attraction and museum paying tribute to Australian comedy.