Why The Jacksons went househunting in Devon

Earlier this year, the Jacksons decided to move... to Devon. It made for some surreal encounters – and one unmissable documentary. Meg Carter reports

'Blame it on the scrumpy," the press declared back in May when it reported that the quiet seaside village of Appledore in north Devon was preparing for the arrival of new neighbours: the Jacksons, one of the best-known families in showbusiness. What happened next was an unseemly snapshot of celebrity "culture" at its worst. The paparazzi descended, the family fell out with their longtime friend and self-appointed British fixer, Michael failed to show and then – after six long, damp weeks – the singing superstars abandoned their plans and went back home to LA.

The unlikely saga is the subject of a candid and unexpectedly endearing documentary by British film-maker Jane Preston on Channel 4 in which the naivety of the family of singing superstars is as striking as their sweetness and dignity. "The phone call from their agent came during a family holiday to Rome," she recalls. "The voice at the other end of the line said, 'Would I like to make a film about the Jacksons' move to Devon that would show the family as they really are?' 'Jackson who?' I thought – I was completely floored."

Even more shocking, however, was Preston's first meeting with the Jackson family, who before filming began, invited her to the US to visit Hayvenhurst, the home where Michael and his eight brothers and sisters were raised and where his parents, Joe and Katherine, still live. "Without exception they were the sweetest people I'd ever met," she reluctantly admits, conscious of how what she is saying might make her sound star-struck at best despite her years as a documentary maker and, before that, a Fleet Street journalist. "Even Michael sounded normal when I spoke to him on the phone."

The film's premise seemed relatively straightforward, if not somewhat bizarre. The Jacksons were planning to buy their own place in England to act as a base when family members visited Europe. They had already earmarked Devon on the suggestion of family friend Matt Fiddes, a pony-tailed martial arts instructor from Barnstaple who worked as Michael Jackson's bodyguard after being introduced to the singer by Uri Geller, a mutual friend. Fiddes, a Brit with an ample collection of home videos and photographic evidence of his close links with the Jackson family – a number of whom had visited him already in England – rented a holiday home on their behalf. And now the Jacksons were offering a film-maker unlimited access – and editorial control – to make an observational documentary about their stay.

How could Preston refuse? So she set out with only an assistant producer in tow to shadow the family 24/7 as they got to know Devon, met the locals and set about finding a property to buy. Seven family members would be on the trip, including 78-year-old Katherine, her sons Jackie and Tito and Tito's three sons, Taj, Taryll and TJ, members of the Nineties boy band 3T. While Janet was in regular phone contact, meanwhile, Michael planned to pop over once they'd settled in. From the moment the family arrived in England, however, little if anything went according to plan.

"It was clear from the moment we touched down at Heathrow something was wrong," Preston explains. "They'd wanted to come in under the radar – to get down to Devon with minimum fuss. Yet at the airport there were cameras, film crews, paps and journalists, none of whom had turned up spontaneously: someone had tipped them off." It was the same when they arrived in Appledore, too. Rather than keeping the visit low-key as the family had requested, Fiddes had organised an array of local media appearances with a 20-strong battalion of nylon-jacketed martial arts experts on hand to act as their as minders, while reporters and news crews jostled for position at the end of the front drive.

Preston's documentary captures these early weeks of madness from the family's perspective, focusing in particular on Tito, a shy, softly spoken man with a penchant for bowler hats. "Maybe Devon will be my heaven," he muses optimistically at the outset, admitting to being tired of the phoney world of LA. But that's before it appears his British friend cares more about his own business interests than honouring the family's wishes.

The Jackson family policy is not to criticise people publicly, apparently, which is why for a while Tito tries to make the best of things – cooking steak-and-eggs breakfasts for the family, eating fish and chips, and visiting local estate agents. Amid the ongoing frenzy of media attention, however, his patience wears thin. Things take a slight turn for the better once Tito stops talking to Fiddes, who, it seems, is eager to exploit their association for his own business interests. The minders go home, for a start, and the Jacksons' remaining stay in Devon is a quieter affair as a result, with cream teas, fishing trips, and barbecues with the neighbours, and on one occasion – sadly cut from the finished film – Tito spontaneously jams with the local pub band.

That the Jackson family agreed to having a film-maker accompany them throughout this curious episode is, of course, extraordinary. But then nothing about the Jacksons and the attention they attract has ever – or ever will be – anything but. "You've got to remember they are people who have lived in the public eye from an extremely young age. Their motivation was to show themselves as they really are – a down-to-earth, close-knit family – and their intention was genuine," Preston insists. "They had no qualms, because they have nothing to hide. They don't swear, they don't drink, they don't smoke. They play Scrabble and Pictionary, for goodness' sake."

The most difficult part of filming was watching what it's like to be a Jackson – the not being able to trust people even if you think they are close and dear friends because of the Jackson name, she adds. Which explains the underlying seam of vulnerability and sadness that runs throughout the film. "Sometimes it seems like you don't even belong to yourself – you belong to the public," Katherine sighs at one point as she slumps into a chair, exhausted by the madness of it all, before picking up the phone to ring Michael and advise him not to come.

"The overriding thing for me whilst making this film was the idea of trust and betrayal," Preston observes. "Everyone that comes into their lives seems to have their own aims and objectives. It might not be fashionable to say it, but the Jacksons really have been used mercilessly over the years."

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?