"Nothing remarkable about this family at all," said John Simms introducing us to the Hugheses. "Except for one thing. They were asked if they'd be filmed round the clock for 100 days and nights to give an unprecedented portrait of family life – and they were brave enough to say yes." OK, let's just freeze-frame there a moment. Can we run a quick vocabulary check on a couple of words in that sentence? Let's take "unprecedented" first of all, perhaps not quite the mot juste for a series that knowingly name-checks the grandaddy of domestic fly-on-the-wall documentaries, Paul Watson's 1974 series, The Family. They could argue, I suppose, that actually sticking the cameras to the wall, so that you can see them lurking in every shot like big one-eyed bluebottles, counts as sufficiently ground-breaking to justify the term, but at that point you might begin humming the Big Brother theme tune and practising your Geordie accent for a bit of impromptu voice-over work. And what about the word "brave". I can think of a lot of words you might use to describe the decision to turn your privacy inside out like this, so that anyone who's interested can see the stains and tears in the lining. "Insane" and "inexplicable" would be among them, as would "naive" and "optimistic". But "brave" would come quite low on the list. "Brave" is the kind of word television producers use when they've persuaded a civilian to do something they'd never dream of doing themselves.
Like Big Brother, The Family creates a kind of human ant farm, so that we can gaze in as the inhabitants go about their daily business, in all its glorious banality. Unlike Big Brother, it doesn't poke the inhabitants with a twig, or maliciously destroy the tunnels of routine they've created. This is an entomologist's approach to ant inspection, trying to interfere with the object of study as little as possible and at pains to ensure that the magnifying glass doesn't accidentally frazzle any of the ants. If there is any nudging or poking going on here, it's aimed at us at home, coaxed down certain trails by the programme's opening character sketches or the brief voice-over remarks from Tom, the youngest in the family, who rather implausibly provides a framing narrative at the beginning of the episode. "Mum's in a really funny mood at the moment," he mused, as we saw Jane wandering around in her dressing gown. "Emily going out all the time isn't helping, but I think there's more than that. Mum's birthday's coming up and she really doesn't want to be 40."
What followed was, somehow, simultaneously dull and fascinating. Advance publicity made quite a bit of the rows between Emily and her exasperated parents. But for anyone familiar with the bursting domestic abscesses of Brat Camp – or indeed just familiar with teenagers – these came across as pretty minor inflammations, comparatively decorous in language and decibel level. What was engrossing was the utter familiarity of the confrontations. While Simon and Jane ran through the book of parental clichés ("Nobody lives for free, Emily", "You prioritise your social life higher than anything else"), Emily curled her lip, looked contrite for just long enough to take the heat out of the situation, and then did what she'd always planned to anyway. And part of the pleasure, I suppose, was being able to laugh ruefully at tactics that would make you flare like a welder's arc if you were more directly involved. "Let's hope I don't get attacked or summink!" shouted Emily, slamming the door as she headed out for yet another late night with her parents' protests ringing in her ears. Quite brilliant, knowingly driving a little spike of anxiety under the fingernails and simultaneously coating the spike with the kind of stinging illogic that makes you want to bite the stair carpet. Sullen, dishonest and selfish, Emily was a monster –and then, quite suddenly, not one at all – lying on the bed cuddling her mother as the two of them sang Kate Nash's song "Foundations" together, its lyrics perfectly aligned to their situation. Until directors put a time-code on their transmitted pictures, we'll never know what degree of artistry has gone into such moments, but if The Family fails to match up to its own self-description, it undoubtedly captures the intimate flavour of family life.
Axe Men, another Five series about hairy men doing hairy things, also drew on the technology of remote-control fixed cameras, in this case to deliver a pine's-eye view of a tree-felling. One moment, the hillside was sitting there minding its own business, then this fat guy with a chainsaw turned up and the ground swung up and smacked us in the face. It looked very dangerous, anyway, which was the point, because Axe Men is a razor-blade commercial by other means, full of gravelly male melodrama. Quite interesting once, but I can't think what would get you back for another 12 hours.Reuse content