25 years on, a new family lets cameras enter their lives

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The Independent Online
IN 1974 when Marion Wilkins, the 15-year old daughter in television's first fly-on-the-wall documentary The Family, brought home a black boyfriend, a very different Britain was scandalised. Now, 25 years on, ITV is making a modern version using a mixed-race family from Leeds as a positive archetype for Nineties Britain.

We are about to get to know the Henry family very well. They were followed around by film-makers for eight months last year to make Family Life, which will be shown in April.

A two-person crew - compared to the five who filmed the Wilkins family in their crowded home - recorded arguments, job problems, money worries and a regular Sunday lunch headed by the family matriarch Kay Henry, 61.

The team even captured the break-up of a 13-year relationship between daughter Jane and her partner Laurie over money worries.

Alison Lowe, 34, and a Labour councillor in Leeds, said her family wanted to take part because they were proud of what her parents had achieved. "I felt that it was very positive for other people to see that all the discrimination and poverty that my parents put up with didn't have to mean that there wasn't hope.

"My dad came from the West Indies in 1956 and was forced to work sweeping up in a petrol station even though he was qualified, and my mum was kicked out of the house when she was pregnant at 20, but they have achieved so much. I think we're really good kids, we've been successful, however you may define success.

"I was the most nervous. There are some secrets I don't want to come out and still don't. My dad is shy and retiring and he took a lot of convincing, but we are a matriarchy so he does what he's told.

"We agreed a contract with the film-makers, we were quite specific about what could be included. My sister Karen's husband did not want to be included and that relationship has broken down, in fact both my sisters relationships happened to breakdown during the filming but that was nothing to do with the programme."

Alison is confident that the family will be able to handle appearing on television: "It's a worry that some people in the media could give us a negative slant, it's a warts-and-all documentary, but we're not bank robbers or murderers and we felt so strongly that it's a positive family story. Now that we've seen a couple of the programmes I actually just think that it's very funny, we're all a bit mad, we're not a run-of-the- mill family, but we come across as normal human beings."

Ben Gale, a producer, insists that Family Life will be nothing like as harrowing as The Family. "There may be a bit of shouting but that makes them just an ordinary family. This is much more upbeat, not down in the depths with a problem family. The Henrys are proud of the successes they have achieved. It is a formerly working-class family where three of the four children have degrees, they are in successful jobs, and one of the children is a city councillor. They were proud to be held up as an archetype for Britain."

The Family, produced by Paul Watson who also made Sylvania Waters, showed the Wilkins family constantly battling with each other, and viewers saw a nine-year-old boy reduced to tears and told he was illegitimate. The series sparked massive media interest and Margaret Wilkins, the head of the family, later said she regretted participating.

The Henrys have received counselling by the ' producers to help them deal with their imminent fame. Other docu-soap stars have had former lovers sell kiss-and-tell stories about them to tabloid newspapers.

The producers filmed three days a week with different family members so they would not interfere too much with their lives. Ben Gale claims the film is much more observational in style than the recent glut of docu- soaps: "You cannot ask people to go back and walk through a door when you're with them for eight months, you would get under their feet too much. They did get irritated with us, but I took it as a compliment because it meant they were treating us as members of the family."

Mr Gale says he will "listen with open ears" to requests for changes from the Henrys who saw the first episodes at the weekend, but admits: "It is a massive act of trust on their part."