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

 

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.

twitter.com/tds153

Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice