Documentaries often have their "are we there yet moments" just like long-car journeys, and it's particularly true of documentaries like Wonderland – Travels with My Family, meandering affairs in which the destination isn't immediately obvious and a substantial part of the trip appears to be along B-roads. The idea of Zara Hayes's film was very simple – to fit cameras inside family cars and record what happened on four long journeys – a daring assault on a notoriously enervating and exasperating feature of modern life. In fact, it turned out to be a diverting excursion, largely because someone had taken care to ensure that all four sets of passengers were following roughly the same route map, their conversations travelling in loose convoy through the big issues of family life in a way that cannot have been coincidental.
I wondered for a while whether this nudge was a problem. After all, the point of such raw observational films is that they capture the reality of mundane life rather than shape it into convenient forms. That invisible presence, prodding the participants to talk in a slightly unnatural way about marriage, and parenthood and dreams of the future, seemed like an improper intrusion. But after a while I decided to stop back-seat driving and just enjoy the view. For obvious reasons, the opportunities for spectacular visuals were limited, since the cameras steadfastly pointed inwards. But the human face is a landscape of a kind, and there was enough variety of experience here to make the thing workable. If you felt you'd had enough of the Lewises, a father taking his three sons to scatter the ashes of their mother on the Isle of Wight, then you knew that the Hennesseys would be along soon (trip to the Laurel and Hardy Museum in Ulverston) or the Kimptons, on their way to a narrowboat holiday.
They were scarcely representative families, selected for their universality. Kerry, for instance, had separated from his wife before her death from liver cancer, and one of her son's suggestions that they pour a libation of Foster's lager as part of the ceremony hinted that alcohol might have played a part in dissolving the marriage. The Hennesseys, meanwhile, included 16-year-old Liam, who, thanks to his Asperger's, combined an encyclopediac knowledge of the Laurel and Hardy filmography with an inability to go to the local shops on his own. And – despite the constraints of her set-up – Hayes had found ways to spring surprises on you. The Kimptons – a Terry Pratchett lookalike and his tattooed wife – were presented initially as a determined twosome. "Because I hated my mum and hated myself, I'd have hated my own child," said Mrs Kimpton. "I can't get over that feeling that any child of mine would have been horrible." Probably a good thing you left it too late to have one, you were thinking, at which point the edit revealed a little black girl in braids sitting on the back seat, an adopted daughter who seemed remarkably cheerful despite her mother's brusquely unsentimental approach to life. "I really don't know, but I think I wanted black," she said later, as if choosing a child was a bit like ordering an iPhone.
Ian and Alison were the only pair who didn't have a child in the car, though they were on their way to visit one, Ian's son Scott, who was on remand in a Leeds prison after setting fire to his house while his mother was still inside. Ian suggested that it must have been a cry for help. "It's a very desperate cry for help," said his sister Alison pointedly. And matched, one assumes, by a rather more urgently conventional one from Scott's mother. In common with all the other travellers, we briefly saw Alison and Ian outside their rolling confessionals at the end of the film, though their stroll through a prison car-park wasn't quite as touching as the cliff-top valedictory for the Lewis boys' mum or Liam's dazed glee at finding himself entirely surrounded by Laurel and Hardy memorabilia. Those scenes were there to give the film some sense of arrival, I suppose, but the truth was that everything that preceded them had reminded you that the real journey lasts a lifetime, and the travelling is the whole point.
Sitcom Punchlines R Us. Product 17 "You say that like it's a bad thing". Usable in a wide range of situations in which one character is being criticised by another (e.g. in response to... "You've never done a hard day's work in your life"). Ten per cent discount if purchased with "No need to thank me" or "As the bishop said to the actress". The presence of Product 17, in In with the Flynns, BBC1's new family sitcom, was a little bit depressing. But the honest truth is that if you're looking for another Life of Riley or My Family this will do the job perfectly well. I don't know why you would be engaged in that search when Outnumbered and Lead Balloon are available to give a far sharper account of family life, but some like to travel down the middle of the road and In with the Flynns has its moments if you're in an indulgent mood. There was a painfully good sight gag involving an eyebrow piercing and a bead curtain, and I also liked the wife's dismissive description of the challenges of driving a fork-lift truck: "It's basically go-karting with a bit of Tetris thrown in." If you find that joke crosses the line, complain to the BBC, not me.Reuse content