Step inside the gated home of Sydney’s new millionaires and see what all the fuss is about with Here Come the Habibs. By Caris Bizzaca.
Waves lap against a private beach as we pass an outdoor pool and the carefully manicured hedges of a sprawling beige mansion.
Not a bad first impression, thanks Here Come the Habibs.
It’s November and the social media storm of January has yet to hit (more on that later). Instead, production is chugging along nicely at the idyllic waterside location for Channel 9’s new comedy, about an Australian-Lebanese family who move from Sydney’s west to an exclusive Eastern suburbs mansion, much to the horror of their neighbours. Think Beverly Hillbillies in modern Australia.
For production company Jungle, who made ABC TV’s A Moody Christmas and Stan’s No Activity, this series presents something different to their past efforts.
“It’s an ensemble cast show. It’s much bigger in terms of its scale and the locations,” says producer Chloe Rickard.
“We’re shooting mostly on location with two houses side by side, so basically we’ve had to take over two properties for an extended period of time.”
Here Come the Habibs has not only taken over the two houses, but transformed them. We’re told how the interior of the Habib’s home was completely changed from the owner’s design. Walls were painted, and colourful (sometimes garish) decorations added, along with various mirrors and artwork.
Sitting on a couch in the Habib loungeroom, Camilla Ah Kin, who plays the house-proud Habib matriarch Mariam, gestures around. A zebra print chair sits nearby, heavy curtains drape the room, and there’s a lot of gold and purple to be spotted, along with an enormous big-screen TV.
“This is very Mariam. She didn’t get a stylist when they got all the money. Everything that you see in this house, she has chosen and bought and placed herself,” she says.
“These people are robust, and you can see it in the choices they made in the house, in the food that they eat. There’s movement, there’s colour, there’s sex, there’s love, there’s fighting. There are all of those things in huge amounts in the Habib household, which is really fun to be in.”
The set is relatively quiet at the moment after a buzz of activity just an hour earlier. The crew have moved next door, where they’re shooting a scene at the smaller (but still enormous) house, owned in the series by the posh O’Neill’s (played by Helen Dallimore and Darren Gilshenan).
Ah Kin is mulling over her first reaction Here Come the Habibs, recalling how funny and unique even those early scripts were.
“There were a couple of pages I turned that I thought, ‘oh my god I can’t believe you just did that’,” she says. “The comedy is subversive, black, smart and accessible and that just rang out at me as soon as I read it, so actually I couldn’t wait to get on board .”
Fast-forward to January and not everyone agrees. Some people who have yet to see the series have been offended by its advertisements, calling it ‘racist’ in social media and publications.
Co-creator and actor Rob Shehadie, who is of Lebanese background himself, has since come out and told people to watch the show before they make any judgment.
During filming, Shehadie told Screen Australia how he and Tahir Bilgic of Fat Pizza fame wanted to tap into Australia’s multicultural audience with Here Come the Habibs.
“There’s no religion or politics in this show, but it allows people to come inside the house of a Lebanese family and just see how we are and how to laugh with us,” he says, likening it to one of his favourite shows growing up, Greek comedy Acropolis Now.
During the casting process, Rickard says they tried to be as authentic as possible, making sure the actors playing the Habibs had Lebanese heritage.
For Ah Kin, Mariam was based on half a dozen Lebanese women she knew, including her grandmother. However while there are lots of nods to Lebanese culture, this family will be recognisable to many Australians, she says.
“They’re a modern Australian family and I use the term knowing that there’s a Modern Family reference there, because there are elements of that comedy in this,” she says.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a Lebanese family on television before and I rarely play a Lebanese character without hijab. It’s just a refreshment of what we think we understand about Lebanese culture in Australian-Lebanese people.”
Over and above these issues, Ah Kin hopes that it just broadens people’s idea of what is ‘Australian’.
“The Australians we see walking down the street up until now have a much more diverse flavour than we’ve been seeing on television. That’s why this is so exciting,” she says.
“I think it’s the exact moment for the lives of these people to be on Australian television.”
Here Come the Habibs premieres on Channel 9 at 8.30pm on 9 February.