TV review: Happy Families, ITV Eye Spy, Channel 4


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The Independent Culture

I'm guessing that the title of Happy Families – ITV's panopticon documentary series – is meant to be ironic. Or at least that it understands there may be a little friction between the childlike innocence of those two words and what you see on screen. Because they don't look at all happy – or at least not in any uncomplicated way.

True, Kris, the out-of-work welder who now stays at home looking after five children, summed up the programme with the words "Love and happiness is everything." But even that couldn't pass without an internal contradiction. No it isn't, Kris, as you've just amply demonstrated. There's a lot of other stuff in there providing texture. It's one of the reasons you can recognise happiness for what it is when it eventually comes along.

The method – pioneered by Channel 4 in this country – is many flies on many walls. With every space wired for sound and image the set-up fulfils a weird fantasy I've sometimes had during tense family moments myself. "If I could just replay a recording of the last five minutes," I think to myself, "I could prove I was in the right." You wonder if Kris and Mel watched and found themselves feeling any different about the spat that ended up with Mel flinging shepherd's pie across the room, or if Keith might spot something about his prickly interactions with his stepson Will that he can't see from the inside.

From the outside it's a doddle, of course. Although even here I suspect that responses might differ according to age. I was with poor Keith, besieged by the limitless solipsism of the six semi-adults he had living with him and reduced to a string of weary pleas for baseline civility. Someone younger might have felt for his son Ben, who at one point was subjected to the stiff paternal tenderness of his father: "Dad! You're so awkward! You make me feel sick," Ben protested, writhing away from an embrace. Such is fatherhood.

There was happiness too, in the lovely Tahir family, though here benevolence itself had become a problem. So obliging was Mr T to the customers at his newsagent, so dutifully supportive of his extended family back in Pakistan, that he was worn to a ravelling. What made him happiest – an uncomplaining generosity of spirit – was also stressing him out. And that's what's best about Happy Families – that it's observational method allows you to see that nothing is as simple as its title.

The technological panopticon is applied to slightly different ends in Eye Spy, a new Channel 4 series that sets out to conduct a moral audit on the nation. The received opinion that the country is going to the dogs is wrong, insists Stephen Fry in the voiceover. And to prove it a number of ethical tests have been set up. A racist waiter insults a mixed-race couple in a restaurant: they're plants and he's an actor, but everyone else in the joint is unaware of what's going on. So... will they intervene? In another stunt, £30,000 was left in a telephone box, in what appeared to be a drug or blackmail payoff. Will passers-by hand the money in or simply help themselves?

The programme presented its findings as heartening proof that we're decent at heart, but this seemed a rather wishful interpretation of the results. Only one in three people were prepared to help a wheelchair-user up some steps, and of 50 wallets deliberately dropped on the street, only 12 were returned (and all but one stripped of the cash it had contained). What it did prove – in the different responses of London and Manchester diners to the racism – was that it only takes one bold soul to crystallise a suspended decency in others. Once one person spoke out, others followed energetically. It was as if they'd suddenly seen what their reticence looked like from the outside.