For better, for worse

If you're having doubts about tying the knot, then Brian Hill's documentary, The State of Marriage, could confirm your worst fears. James Rampton reports
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Charles and Diana (right) will, on balance, probably not be celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary too wildly on Monday. Instead, they have left it to television to mark their decade and a half of wedded un-bliss.

The BBC is offering anniversary gifts in the form of The Mating Game, a dissection of four marriages, and The Day That Changed My Life, in which Christina Hance, a single mother and Cambridgeshire council worker, discusses her career as a Di look-alike. Not to be outdone, Channel 4 is presenting a complete "Wedding Night". I Camcorder, The Real Wedding Show and Roseanne go the altar with couples marrying in varying degrees of style, but the showpiece of the evening is The State of Marriage, an hour-and-a-half long scrutiny of nine couples who, like Charles and Diana, got hitched in 1981.

Brian Hill, the documentary's director, made his name with Sylvania Waters, the controversial 12-part series about a fantastically over-the-top Aussie housewife-superstar - no, not Dame Edna Everage, but her close cousin, Noeline Baker Donaher. When the show went out, the Australian Deputy Prime Minister pilloried Noeline - who was on first-name terms with the bottle - for embodying the nation's working-class health problems. Yobs daubed the Baker Donahers' luxurious waterside Sydney suburban home with grafitti and cat-called them in the street. As she undertook a dizzying promotional tour of her book, video and single (called - yes, you guessed it - "No Regrets"), Noeline maintained that she had been stitched up by the film- makers.

Hill remains sanguine about her reaction. "It's what I would have expected of her really," he reasons. "She says what she thinks and doesn't always think what she's saying... If you make the kind of films I make, you can always expect some fall-out. I still think it's a good series. It's the only documentary-soap that has ever been done successfully."

Now he claims that there are no hard feelings. "I'm going to Australia later this year [to make a three-part Channel 4 series about Brits in Oz], and I'll give her a call. I saw her at the Edinburgh Festival three years ago. Despite giving me a public slating, in private she was warm and friendly. She said, 'how about a second series?', so she can't have been that scarred by it. I say good luck to her if she can con people."

Hill's relationship with controversy did not end there. With Kate Woods, his co-director on Sylvania Waters, he went on to make "The Club", the Cutting Edge documentary which famously exposed some eyebrow-raising goings-on at Northwood Golf Club. "We thought it was a decent film about a suburban golf club that was not that interesting," Hill recalls, "but it struck a chord. It raised certain issues about class and closed communities and snobbishness and the position of women. For a lot of people, it was a view of a world that was alien to them and not very likeable."

The irony is that when the club members had been shown the film beforehand, they had "loved it", according to the director. "They laughed all the way through. At the end they were clapping me on the back and saying, 'jolly good, old boy. We'll make you an honorary member of the club'. Afterwards, I didn't hear anything from them, but I think I was persona non grata. Later, I heard that the entire committee had resigned and that women had got the vote." He adds with a laugh: "Kate and I now regard ourselves as campaigners for truth and justice."

The State of Marriage adopts a similarly questioning attitude to its subject. Christine, a single mother whose husband ran off with a (former) friend of hers, proffers her view of the holy estate of matrimony - "Every young girl's dream is to get married and have a baby. It's a bed of roses. But it's not like that... men are pigs" - over a slushy montage from the Royal Wedding, to the accompaniment of suitably romantic music.

Later in the film, a businessman, rhapsodising about Lady Thatcher and the money he made in the 1980s, is juxtaposed with the wife of a striking miner recalling that "we used to get pounds 9.10 a week". "People have selective memories," Hill contends. "They say, 'Oh, the Eighties were wonderful', but they weren't for everyone. A good way of saying that was to intercut yuppies with the destruction of mining communities. It's not subtle, but subtlety doesn't have much place in television documentaries."

For Ruth Pitt, the producer of The State of Marriage, the film is an attempt to answer the question: "Why do people still get married in 1996? I'd say that they do it because that's what you're supposed to do - that's most depressing. It's absolutely fascinating that so many people do it, yet it's such a singularly unsuccessful institution. It's not a question of the right person so much as the right time, the right place, the right circumstances. People do it for the sake of convenience or respectability, or because they think they'll end up on the shelf."

The producer hopes the couples' tales make for entertaining viewing: "People's lives are inherently fascinating. It's like gossiping. People like talking about their own lives as much as other people's."

Pitt remains, however, a mine of cautionary tales. "Our researcher said making this film has put her off marriage," she continues, "because married people seem to be leading such drab lives. Marriage is often based not on realism but on a romantic delusion. People enter into it lightly. Like buying a car or a house, it is seen as just part of the package. Hundreds of people's marriages are cheap and tatty. Some marriages are made in heaven, some marriages are made in hell, but most marriages are made in Hong Kong."

If only Charles and Diana had listened to her...

'The State of Marriage' is on Monday 29 July at 9pm on Channel 4