'Wife Swap' stars bite back at reality TV

The Jukes Maxeys, stars of the Channel 4 show, are less than enamoured of their 15 minutes of fame. Nicholas Pyke reports

A family of environmental campaigners who outraged middle England with their bohemian lifestyle are to appear at a film festival next week complaining that the Channel 4 Wife Swap programme was a distortion of the truth which left their reputation in tatters.

The Jukes Maxeys, who live in a log cabin and survive without a fridge, a television, a dishwasher or mains electricity, were portrayed using state benefits to fund their eccentric way of life. When they were filmed living alongside a family of Liverpudlians who keep a television in every room, a clash was inevitable.

Now Canadian-born Emily Jukes Maxey and her partner Larch have attacked the programme's "selective editing", which they say presented them as scroungers even though, at the time of filming, they were financially self-sufficient. They are considering a formal complaint.

The Jukes Maxeys will mount their criticism in a special presentation at the fifth Beyond TV Film Festival in Swansea, in which they describe the process of appearing on reality TV as a journey into the "twilight zone". Not only were their views portrayed as extreme, they say, the other family were made to come across as TV junkies, even though they were happy to spend several evenings without television.

Participants in the Wife Swap series agree to exchange families for 10 days, with every move followed by a film crew. For half that time they are allowed to impose their own rules. Last July, Emily Jukes Maxey was shown living alongside Bernard Kingston, a drug company salesman, and his daughter Talia. The episode proved popular.

At one point in the show, the Kingstons complained that their hard-earned taxes were going directly to fund the Jukes Maxeys's environmentalism. "This was even though Larch and I never stop going from the moment the sun gets up," said Emily Jukes Maxey. "We had been through a six-month programme to get us off benefits. I had been teaching while Larch had been writing articles.

"It was a bizarre experience even for the film crew, who were as much in the dark as we were. It felt as if it was all for the benefit of some boss. We didn't complain because we were exhausted."

The Jukes Maxeys live in a forest near Swansea with their daughter Rowan and son Sage. Larch Jukes Maxey, 31, who now teaches at Swansea University, was once a full-time roads campaigner and spent a year living up a tree. They agreed to be filmed though they had never seen a complete episode of Wife Swap.

"Our friends said they'd never do it - but that's the point, that no one like us would ever be represented in mainstream society," said Ms Jukes Maxey. "We don't use the car much, and we live off the main electricity grid. I hoped to show that although our life seems radical, we're normal people."

The Jukes Maxeys believed their campaigning had given them enough media experience to cope. But even hardened broadcasters have struggled to control reality TV. Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell are famously said to regret Michael Cockerell's BBC documentary of 2000, The News From Number 10, a behind-the-scenes look at the relationship between the Prime Minister and his press secretary. One off-guard moment made the PM seem wholly in the shadow of his adviser. Earlier this year Kevin and Amanda Charles complained that Channel 4's Supernanny portrayed them as feeble custodians of a monstrously behaved child.

A spokesman for Channel 4 rejected the criticism of Wife Swap, saying: "We believe that both families were represented fairly in the programme, which was informative and heart-warming."

Additional reporting by Severin Carrell