'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."