TELEVISION / The year of the over-extended family

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The Independent Culture
IF, THIS MORNING, your first act on landing from some distant and as yet unnamed galaxy were to buy the Independent and turn to this column, there'd still a slim chance that you wouldn't yet know that AD 1994 was the UN Year of the Family. It's always the year of something or other, and in this acme of culture and civilisation we call 'the United Kingdom' you can check up on what we're celebrating in any particular year by switching on your television at any random moment of any day or week. Go on, try it: portraits of mother and baby haven't been so in vogue since the Quattrocento in Tuscany.

How did they celebrate the Year of the Horse in China? You can wager it wasn't with saturation documentaries about Red Rum, the chariot race in Ben Hur and the crossbreeding of skewbalds and piebalds. One of these days we'll get round to the Year of the Natterjack Toad, the Year of the Dimmer Switch, or the Year of the Large Piece of Corrugated Cardboard, and commissioning editors will have to think a little harder before they wallpaper the schedules.

Actually, in Faces of the Family (C 4), the Year of the Large Piece of Corrugated Cardboard seems to have come early. This six-part series aims to portray the extended family, that modern unit shaped by new-fangled concepts such as divorce and extramarital procreation. There's only one extended family in this series, which, given its size and the varieties of hardship and joy that have been experienced within its confines, is probably enough.

Our guide is Mavis Nicholson, part of whose reassuring aura as a broadcaster derives from a Christian name which is a cross between Ma and Hovis. She referred to the series as 'our saga', which is a breach of the Trades Descriptions Act, because the format so far consists of one member of the family being interviewed on a sofa in the hotel where the whole clan is celebrating a reunion.

Just when you were wondering why the researchers selected this extended family instead of all the others, it emerged that Mavis already knew the subject of last night's opener. 'I was full of admiration for you in the Fifties,' she said to the family matriarch, Pauline Crabbe. And well she might have been, because since she arrived from Jamaica in 1919 Pauline appears to have played the role of Everywoman - she has been an immigrant, a single mother, a working mother, one half of two mixed marriages, a divorcee, a stepmother, and this country's first black woman magistrate.

It has, in short, been a life packed with pioneering, but it's not the stuff of stimulating television. When you think of two grandmothers gently chatting about the century on a sofa, you don't automatically think: peaktime Friday night slot on Channel 4. You think: Monday mid-morning slot on Radio 4. As Mavis's camera team skirted the dining table where this model extended family celebrated, the adults ignored them while the children stared as if to say, 'What in hell are you doing here?' A good question.

They haven't heard about this at the UN, but the BBC has declared 1994 the Year of the Alexei Sayle. In a recent interview in this paper Sayle explained how he hadn't been seen on television for a year. He omitted to explain that soon he wouldn't be off it. Last night he was fronting the BBC Design Awards 1994 (BBC 2). Why they drafted in a comedian for this job is an interesting question, because on the evidence shown here design in Britain is not a laughing matter.

The designer of a brilliant new vacuum cleaner - look, no bags] - touted his invention round the country for three years with no joy. He called it a 'Cyclone' but still no one bit the bait. A prophet without honour in his own land, he took his invention to Japan and promptly signed a deal with a manufacturer who is now turning over pounds 90m. Any Tory MP would classify this as talking Britain down. They wouldn't like all this positive publicity for non-nuclear families either. But then it isn't their year.