Meet 'The Family': A new reality

After the attention-grabbing antics of programmes like Big Brother, can a deliberately low-key reality show captivate the nation? And should it even try? Robert Hanks reports
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In the summer of 2002, the journalist Ron Suskind met a senior adviser to George W Bush to discuss an article he had written that displeased the White House. In the course of their talk, the adviser explained that he, Suskind, was part of "the reality-based community", who believed that solutions to problems emerge from the "judicious study of discernible reality"; this, the adviser informed him, was a mistake: in the new dispensation "we create our own reality".

In retrospect, that conversation seems very zeitgeisty. Though the White House man was talking specifically about the extent of American power – and at this point in history, I probably don't need to rub in the irony – the idea that reality is something you create rather than observe was evidently in the air. Hence the seemingly bizarre term "reality television" for programmes that worked by placing people in highly artificial, often stressful situations and watching them struggle to cope. These programmes have dominated television schedules, and the imaginations of the people who draw them up, for years: Big Brother, Survivor, Faking It, Wife Swap, I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, The Apprentice, The Secret Millionaire... Meanwhile, the old-fashioned documentary, the kind that involves trying to capture ordinary life on camera as it happens, was pushed to the sidelines.

On the surface, The Family, which starts an eight-week run tonight on Channel 4, looks like a return to first principles, quite consciously returning to territory pioneered by Paul Watson in his 1974 BBC series of the same name. Back then, Watson and his camera crew spent three months, 18 hours a day, filming the Wilkins family of Reading – Margaret, Terry and their children Gary, Marian, Heather and Chris; the resulting series, broadcast over 12 weeks, gained audiences of 10 million, made a star out of Margaret, and filled the columns of the press with controversy. Many thought – as Watson intended they should – that this was an extraordinary moment of liberation: for the first time, television was showing us people like ourselves, leading fractious, untidy, imperfect lives. For others, including Mary Whitehouse, the Wilkinses were a terrible example to the nation, with their foul language and loose living (Marian was, shockingly, allowed to live at home with her boyfriend). Margaret and Terry's divorce, shortly afterwards, was widely taken as evidence of the destructive power of television, though Margaret remained friends with Watson until her death, last month.

This time around, the cameras are trained on the Hughes family of Canterbury: Simon and Jane, and their four children, Jessica (who lives down the road with her fiancé and their year-old baby), Emily, Charlotte and Tom. They were filmed for 100 days, using 21 tiny cameras dotted around their semi-detached house. The director this time is Jonathan Smith, whose CV includes a Bafta for Make Me Normal (2005), a serious and very moving film for Channel 4 about a school in south London for autistic children; and he has explicitly disavowed any ambition to jazz things up, praising the Hugheses as "pretty unremarkable" and "an antidote to some of the larger-than-life characters we see on television today."

But in many ways, this stab at filming the family is very different. Some of the differences reflect the way society has changed: in particular, you notice just how much better off the Hugheses are than the Wilkinses were. Where the Wilkinses were poked into a small flat, the Hugheses' house is spacious and cluttered with desirable stuff – CDs, soft furnishings, hatboxes, antiques – which reflects, in part, the extraordinary material comfort that most of us enjoy compared with previous generations. But there have also been important shifts in the way film-makers approach their material. In theory, every new advance in filming technology should allow film-makers to achieve a closer approximation to reality – smaller cameras let them get closer, without obtruding on the scene; digital storage lets them film for longer. In fact, it's been the cash machine all over again: cash machines were supposed to give bank staff more freedom to attend to customers' needs; instead, they gave banks more freedom to sack staff. There is a danger here that new video technology, rather than allowing us to transcend familiar narratives, has made the narratives easier to control.

At any rate, it's hard, watching The Family (2008) to resist the sense that you are being told what to think. An introductory voiceover informs you that Emily, 19, is "the wild child", that Charlotte, 17, is "the clever one"; Tom, 14, gives little snatches of scripted-sounding narration, explaining that his mother is depressed – she says because Emily goes out so much, "but I think it's more than that." Music is used to add emotional resonances – at one point, a recording of Neil Diamond singing "Sweet Caroline" plays over the household's early morning preparations, timed so that the climactic line "Touching me, touching you" matches Simon and Jane's goodbye embrace as he sets off to work.

Of course, documentary makers always shape their material, always editorialise, even when they're trying not to; a recognition of that is implied in John Grierson's famous definition of documentary, "the creative use of actuality". Watson himself acknowledged in an interview a couple of years ago that, as a "boring young lefty", he had an agenda when he made The Family (1974). To some extent, the changed emphasis of Smith's film reflects changes in the nation: we are far less interested in politics than we were 34 years ago, in the era of the Three-Day Week, power-cuts, earth-shaking conflicts between government and unions. The Family (2008) is much more soft-centred – the Hugheses are a very affectionate family, in which the parents may scream at the children (mainly Emily, who screams back with equal force), but they also lark about, dance, sing, and cuddle with them; Simon, in particular, is a modern father, very different from the Seventies models, cooking meals and offering warmth rather than discipline.

It goes further than political apathy, though: the fixed cameras mean that The Family (2008) is weirdly shorn of context – we don't find out, at least in the first episode, what the job is that Simon is setting out for, or what Jane does, or where the children are at school, or who their friends are; we don't even have much sense of what time of year it is. The family, the message seems to be, is the be-all and end-all. But the effect is strangely like watching the inmates of the Big Brother house. That's not coincidental: the whole filming set-up, with fixed cameras wired to an editing suite in the house next door, is based on Big Brother. The Family (2008) is a valuable and, I'm sure, honestly intended portrait of modern life; but its limitations prove that whether we like it or not, reality TV has changed the way we view reality for ever.

'The Family' starts tonight at 9pm on Channel 4