The family who chose to reside under surveillance

Television director Jonathan Smith wanted to persuade an ordinary family to allow 21 cameras to be installed in their home so that he could watch them for four months. Here is how he managed to do it.
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On 16 December last year, I watched the Hughes family walk back into their home. In the week and a half that they had been away, it had been transformed, fitted with 21 cameras and 16 microphones. There were cameras everywhere except the bathroom. I watched from next door – a cottage converted into a temporary TV gallery – as the normality of family life unfolded on a bank of high-tech screens.

That surreal experience of watching the Hughes wandering around their Kent home was the culmination of 15 months searching for the right family. We met families who were desperate to be on television – everything from the family with psychic kids to the wannabe Partridge Family. We met families we really liked but who didn't want cameras in their home. As the weeks went by, our search became less about what we didn't want and more about looking for a family whose life included the issues we hoped the series would reflect.

I met the Hughes family for the first time in September last year. They were full of questions, eager to know more but far from being committed to taking part. I was desperately hoping that Simon, Jane and their family would say yes: they were funny, intelligent and sometimes loud. And there was so much going on in their lives. Tom was growing up fast, Charlotte was starting sixth form and about to learn to drive and Emily was the most open, wilful and funny teenager I had met. To top it all, Jessica, the oldest daughter had just had a baby and was due to get married in the summer.

But how do you condense four months of ordinary family life into eight films? When Channel 4 first spoke to me about directing The Family, I could see it was an opportunity to bring fly-on-the-wall documentary up-to-date with new techniques. I'd use modern camera technology for a forensic examination of family life in what we hoped would be a groundbreaking and innovative series. But since no one had done it before, there was no guarantee it would work.

By the time I met the Hugheses, I had been in what felt like a constant conversation about family life for over a year. From talking to all those families, I'd become convinced that the detail and intimacy of our approach could capture something new about family life. It's nearly 35 years since Paul Watson's original groundbreaking series The Family, and so much has changed since then.

I told the Hugheses I wanted to make documentaries that were true about their own family and would resonate with the audience. Instead of wandering around the house with a camera crew, we would sit in the cottage next door where we had created our gallery and watch life unfold...from Simon making his first cup of coffee in the morning through to Emily creeping home in the early hours of the next morning after a night clubbing. There would be no director asking people how they felt and the place of long interviews would be taken by conversations between members of the family.

We wanted their home to remain their home and for the 21 cameras not to turn it into an artificial environment. So there were certain times that the family could have the cameras off in their bedrooms and there were no cameras or microphones in the bathrooms. And since we weren't in the room with them filming on a day-to-day basis, we also made time to see them in person – having a takeaway in their house every week or just going to the pub for a drink.

As weeks of filming passed, the surreal feeling of sitting next door in the gallery receded and we became used to watching the family's routine.

A shift of 10 people would start at 6am, waiting for the family to wake up, and another shift would take over until the early hours of the next day. And every morning the tapes were carefully transported to a storage room. In the end, we'd have 5,000 hours of footage on nearly 2,000 tapes.

Although we used technology similar to that used on Big Brother, that didn't mean we should assemble the programmes in the same way. Our aim was to present true stories that came out of our observations of this family's life, not to provide Big Brother-style hour-by-hour accounts of what happened while we watched them. This involved painstaking effort, carefully compressing time lines, intercutting and interweaving narratives.

The technology has been great to use and has opened up the possibility of a new kind of intimate and considered film making. Sometimes storylines occurred neatly over a few days. Sometimes they were spread out over months. Sometimes the family seemed to be wrestling with a problem and they'd go round and round with it for weeks before it was finally resolved.

From the thousands of hours of footage, eight films emerged. I hope they show not just the essence of the Hughes family, but something everyone will recognise. There are landmarks like turning 40, as well as seemingly small issues like bedtime or trying to decide whether it's time for one of the children to move out. It's a series about the universal themes of family life.

Jonathan Smith is director of 'The Family', which starts on Channel 4, on Wednesday 17 September, 9pm.