Working from home one day, I took my lunchbreak away from my laptop and flicked idly through the TV channels, hoping for a midday movie with Reese Witherspoon or, even better, an old episode of Cheers. What I found was beyond my wildest dreams. I excitedly texted my mate Alison.
12:45pm – Round the Twist is on ABC3!
12:46pm – OH MY GOODNESS IT’S WUNDERPANTS!!!
That’s right, while we’ve all been at work like a bunch of chumps, ABC3 has been secretly screening Round the Twist. A bout of tonsillitis later and I had binge-watched the entire four series on ABC iview in a delirious stupor, telling anyone who would listen that this was the greatest thing that had ever happened to me since I was voted most popular girl in kindergarten.
For those of you who somehow made it to adulthood despite being deprived of this rite of passage: a widowed dad and his kids – teenage twins Linda and Pete and little brother Bronson – move to a lighthouse and weird stuff happens. All the time. Like, more weird stuff happens in Port Niranda than murders happen in Midsomer. Now do yourself a favour: Netflix has got it all, so you can dedicate the next 1196 minutes of your life to becoming a better version of you.
When I was growing up in Sydney’s southern suburbs, we were a SAOs-with-plastic-cheese, cat-poo-in-the-sandpit, bushwalks-over-pool-parties kind of family. We were also a half-an-hour-a-day-of-TV-because-TV-rots-your-brain household, and whenever Round the Twist was on it trumped The Smurfs and Ninja Turtles. I mean, that 30 minutes had to be spent wisely, and as superb as those cartoons were, they just couldn’t hold a candle to the ABC’s greatest programming decision. My brother and I knew the theme song by heart, the characters made their way into backyard games, and the lines became part of our family vernacular. (I’ve been saying ‘Come on, come on, I haven’t got all day’ in a watered-down Scottish accent for 23 years and may have actually squealed with delight when I watched Bronson saying it again this year.) Everyone watched Round the Twist, as far as I knew.
And it’s still glorious. Yes, the special effects are quaint (we’re talking 1989 and 1992, folks; none of us knew any better – and despite the gap until the last two seasons were made in 1999 and 2000, there wasn’t any discernable improvements to the special effects budget.) But the stories are a timeless testimony to the quirky brilliance of Paul Jennings’ tales and the efforts of the team that collaborated in bringing them to the screen. The show weakens after season 2, when Jennings left the writing team, but to be fair that was also when I morphed from life-loving child to obnoxious teen who scorned everything, Round the Twist included, so my judgment may have been slightly impaired.
Rewatching it was like stepping back into a childhood home that had remained untouched by time. Everything was exactly where I’d left it, familiar and comfortable. Gribble’s earring. Bronson’s disgusting milkshakes. A Daddo brother playing a ghost. And as I watched episode after episode, I felt the joy of rediscovery.
And the girls! Oh my goodness, the girls. I never would have credited teenaged Linda Twist as an early feminist role model, but there she is standing up for herself, her friends and her family. She’s never reduced to her appearance but valued for being loving, generous, defiant. She’s braver and smarter than her brothers and she gets dirty, she loses face, and she quickly gives up on dreamboat Hugh when he turns out to be a dork, a dag and a total dipstick (yeah, okay, so maybe the language has dated a bit.) She calls out everyone, quickly correcting the term ‘best man’ at a wedding to ‘best person’, and she fiercely defends the rights of ladies to be clowns, referring to pioneering lady clowns as the Germaine Greers of the circus. Seriously. To an audience of six-year-olds.
I’m kind of ashamed to say that while Linda was out rampaging her way through small-town expectations of what a girl should be, I wanted to be her best friend Fiona, or the mermaid, or the tree dryad, because they were the characters the boys liked.
Now that my teens are far behind me, though, it’s Nell I want to be. Cantankerous old Nell, neighbour to the Twists, who deeply loves her community and her corner of the world, and runs for local politics against marina-development-hungry Mr Gribble. Nell’s wisdom and resilience, as well as her devotion to the Twists, fit seamlessly into the world of Port Niranda.
There’s also a refreshingly frank approach to depictions of bodies, one that takes me back to a time before I was conscious of my body being deficient in any way. Pete’s magic undies shrink while he’s swimming in the ocean and he gets stranded there with no clothes. Bronson has a propeller penis that means he can swim faster than a torpedo and beat the bigger guys. There’s plenty of farting, and deliberately-cultivated smelly feet, and a how-high-can-you-wee competition in the boys’ toilets. Pete has to finish every sentence with the words ‘without my pants’. Linda breaks her nose and is hideously ugly for an episode. Dad’s pants fall down repeatedly in front of his crush. Pete gets pregnant to a tree dryad and gives birth to a burp. Bodies are disgusting, uncomfortable, funny and curious, not battlegrounds of distress and self-doubt.
There’s also an open acknowledgement of the way people need people. The twins are encouraged in their pursuit of other teens/mermen/wood nymphs/ice cream machines they fancy. But beyond that, there’s Dad – widowed, eccentric, and obsessed with schoolteacher-then-firefighter Fay. When Bronson resists this new mother figure, Pete matter-of-factly explains that Dad needs someone at night.
Watching Round the Twist is sprawling in a soggy chloriney cossie in front of the telly, fighting with my brother, eating spag bol, riding bikes, throwing a tantrum when Mum donated my pink Barbie convertible to kids in need. There’s no other show that takes me back to who I was as a kid and lets me identify the parts of me that have remained intact, and reliving it really has been the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. Because it taught me that if ladies can be clowns and penises can be propellers and Daddos can be actors, I can really be anything I want to be, and that’s just as important for me to hear now as it was when I was six.