There’s nothing real about “reality” TV these days. Which is why we should just let Supernanny loose on The Family and see what happens
Now that ten year olds can shoot, edit and distribute videos on YouTube from their own bedrooms, the makers of television programmes are confronted by extremely savvy viewers. They know all the editing tricks and have a shrewd understanding of how television is heavily manipulated to produce entertainment. There has been a shift of power from programme makers to the audience.
At the same time, intense, multi-channel competition has meant that “factual” programmes have become more and more heavily formatted in order to guarantee a strong narrative with a resolution. Instead of shooting a documentary about marital relationships, we make Wife Swap. Instead of following new entrants into an industry, we set up The Apprentice. This is why the latest Channel 4 offering, The Family, is interesting. The producers have wired up the Hughes family home in Canterbury with cameras for 100 days. The idea is that they will simply follow whatever happens. It’s an attempt by the channel, sometimes derided for the likes of Big Brother, to regain a certain lost innocence. But is it possible to turn back the clock? And is The Family, in any sense, innocent?
There have been somewhat parochial comparisons with the BBC documentary series from 1974, also called The Family, made by Franc Roddam and Paul Watson. In fact, a Canadian documentary maker, Allan King, shot a series called A Married Couple back in 1969. And in 1972 an American director, Craig Gilbert, followed a Californian family for a year. All directors at the time were highly manipulative (they preferred the word “hauteur”) and frequently suggested what their subjects should do, where they should go and what they should talk about. Indeed, John Grierson—the pioneer who invented the term “documentary” and who in 1933 set up the GPO Film Unit, the first company dedicated to making them—had done much the same. But we, the audience, thought we were watching spontaneous, unmediated, real life. The fact that all the couples in the three earlier “family” series later got divorced is a measure of how interventionist television was. Did the act of filming bring out sentiments that were always buried in the participants and that would have emerged anyway? Or did the producers decisively alter their relationships?
The stakes are high for The Family—not only for the Hughes family (will they emerge unscathed?) but also for us, the viewers. Do we believe what we see? Does the presence of fixed cameras yield the reality of their lives to us, or are we watching some other drama that would never have happened had Channel 4 not descended on their cottage? What’s new in this Big Brother era is that the producers’ manipulations are now set out up front. Even Big Brother’s “rushes” are broadcast live on E4. For the first time in history, television fans are able to form their own view as to whether the edited programmes are done fairly and accurately. What they discover, of course, is that no two people would ever edit a show the same way—the choice of footage and the narrative constructed is an entirely subjective process. Given all this, can a new incarnation of The Family satisfy us and offer a true portrait of its subject?
The sting at the outset raises an expectation: “documentaries on Four, sponsored by the beautifully engineered Passat.” We’re being told what follows is a documentary (an old-fashioned word with a lot of baggage). Then a voiceover tells us what to think about the children in the Hughes family: “Emily, 19, highly strung, family wild child… Charlotte, 17, easy-going and the clever one… Tom, the youngest and a typical 14 year old.” Fortified by these pen portraits, we then witness their family life solely via what happens in the cocoon of their small home. Emily doesn’t want to go to work and concocts “sickies,” much to her parents’ disgust. Charlotte decides to leave school, much to her parents’ alarm. Tom—well, his traumas are yet to be revealed. A good deal of shouting goes on, followed by a good deal of hugging. And there are moments of charm, like when mother Jane dances with her daughter, Charlotte, after she’s decided to go back to school, all to the sound of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s irresistible take on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
But when father Simon goes around all the bedrooms asking them what they would like for dinner and proceeds to the kitchen talking to himself about pasta versus rice, it’s all a bit arch. When Jane, after one of the many shouting matches, coos over the family photo album at her infant progeny as they used to be, we wonder for whose benefit it’s really being done. Then there’s this interchange between the parents in bed. Jane: “I don’t want to be 40, can we turn the clock back?” Simon: “What are you proposing—suicide?” This almost amounts to performance art. They are playing up to the cameras. But perhaps this “heightened reality” still reveals a good deal about their lives.
As it happens, the Wednesday television schedule also contains two examples of the more modern formatted documentary shows. Supernanny precedes The Family on Channel 4 and Dog Borstal repeats are running on BBC3. Perhaps we should be pleased that television can offer so many different takes on reality at the same time. Ideally, though, I’m itching to merge all three programmes. I want to let Supernanny’s Jo Frost loose on the Hughes family so that I can see daughter Emily put on the naughty step until she agrees to go back to work. And I’d like Dog Borstal’s Rob Alleyne to sort out Jane and Simon’s parenting skills too. With dogs, we’re told, you have to train the owners, not their pets. Isn’t it the same with children?