Review: ‘The Family’

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Channel 4’s much-hyped new documentary, ‘The Family’ has arrived.

Arrived, that is, after one of those long teaser-trailer style ad campaigns. We saw shot after shot of families glued to something utterly compelling on TV, talking about it among themselves.

It turns out that what they were watching was a new, down-to-earth take on reality programming. Some nay-sayers criticised Big Brother when it first appeared almost a decade ago – they said things like, ‘We’re just watching a bunch of people in a house. It might as well be some family down the street. Or us.’ It looks like Channel 4 were listening. But this isn’t the first time it’s been done – not by a long shot. 34 years ago film-maker Paul Watson gripped the country with a documentary of the very same name and premise.

Still, the style of things must have changed. The introduction to the first episode of the new show was succinct, informing us that we were watching the Hughes family, that they had agreed to be filmed non-stop for 100 days and that this was the result. With barely a chance to grab a bowl of popcorn we were launched straight into, er, scenes of normal everyday family life. The first quarter of the hour flew by affording shots of a woman complaining about her imminent 40th birthday, a rebellious teenage daughter, and a man getting ready for work. I’ll admit, as the first ad-break rolled, I asked myself whether anything interesting had actually happened.

However, the rest of the episode unfolded into a gripping incendiary outing for the Hughes clan. At the centre of the tension was our main plot-device – second-eldest daughter Emily (19). The rebellious one. An argument quickly erupted and in the cluttered, intimate space of the Hughes family home we were invited to be as voyueristic as TV audiences have ever been and view all the gnashing of teeth, the repeated inquiries, the awkward pauses and clashes of character that contribute to a good old family melt-down.

Thinking of this programme as a reality show is unavoidable, but perhaps it’s unadvisable too. Because, we won’t – we can’t – watch this as pure unadulterated footage. 100 days of filming? The swathes of mundanity which have been edited out must be monumental. No, this is, in the sense of production, a scripted show. Little touches around the carefully chosen shots we see (musical interludes, subtitling and an occasional, bemused narrative from son Thomas) create a subtle but important framework around the images and audio which have been accrued.

In fact, I want to call this show a soap. Not a conventional one, I’ll grant you, but this is the stuff soaps are made of. That antagonism I mentioned above is something we all can relate to, and the reality of the individual moments comes through thick and fast. We’re not waiting to see if the actors will play their parts with appropriate finesse – they’re simply being themselves.

So OK, the interest is there, but it remains to be seen how the ‘series’ will progress – and what anyone (besides a few giddy social anthropologists) will actually learn from this. Indeed, the hard-editing of the footage might take its toll on us all. The first episode thrived on the arguments between parents and daughter – but these were lumped together to form a good two-thirds of the show. Watching these bouts of emotional wrestling one after the other was actually quite difficult. Off-screen, the Family may have had time to re-group, but we didn’t.

And one other thing: the cameras, of course, are everywhere in the house, with just a couple of shots available of the front-door and the patio. Otherwise, the ‘characters’ in this highly-strung drama are free to come and go as they like. There’s a weird, spooky feeling that we, the silent viewers, are part of the ever-static house, a place which simultaneously shelters and exposes the Family to millions.

I’ve got to say, I’m hooked.

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