It seems somehow fitting that the TV documentary maker Paul Watson should have died, aged 81, in the year of a major movie about J Robert Oppenheimer.
Both men were responsible for a development that revolutionised their profession but was then exploited by others in ways that they had not fully anticipated, causing them moral qualms and to be blamed for horrors that were not their responsibility. In Oppenheimer’s case, it was the atomic bomb; for Watson, reality TV.
On 3 April 1974 at 9.25pm, BBC One launched an observational documentary series, The Family. “The Wilkins Family of Reading have a BBC film crew living with them,” teased the press release. “Prejudice, pressures, the politics of living in an urban society. Will it be a national disaster or a petty squabble that the Family must face this week?”
Watson, who produced the series, did not invent the concept; he was aware of a similar so-called “fly on the wall” show, An American Family, recently broadcast in New York. But the US had some history of “public access TV” (which put cameras in communities) and lacked the UK’s rigid social system.
Watson, always combative and politically engaged, deliberately challenged the hard class strata by choosing for the family the sort of Britons who, at the time, were rarely seen on TV except as momentary vox pops in news reports about food prices. Terry, a bus driver, and Margaret, a mother of four, lived above a greengrocer’s shop in Reading, with their children, one grandchild and a prospective son-in-law.
Their contract with Watson allowed him to film for 18 hours a day for three months, with a proviso that the family could be shown doing anything except “making love and using the lavatory”. (Watson grimly noted how soon these taboos were removed by shows that expanded the genre.)
Even so, by alluding to what was then known as “sex before marriage” and evidence of what is now called a “blended family”, the show appalled many. As The Family ran on Wednesdays opposite Jeremy Isaacs’ magisterial ITV history series The World at War, Watson’s show became ammunition for one of the periodic crises over the BBC losing its values. There were newspaper and political calls for the show to be cancelled.
And, because Watson edited many hundreds of hours of footage into 12 half-hours, The Family began a furore that has continued to haunt the genre over the misrepresentation of actuality by compression and editing. The official history of the BBC by Asa Briggs records: “The members of the family … felt that what had been used had been contrived to achieve dramatic effect.”
Yet, by subsequent standards in the genre it parented, The Family, revealing genuine truths about everyday life and social dynamics, was popular anthropology, seriously made: the director, Franc Roddam, went on to make movies including Quadrophenia. Intriguingly, though, the official BBC history reports that the show was notable, in audience research surveys, for being described as “boring”, a sign perhaps of how unsensational it often was, though later real-people series by other hands – such as Driving School (1997) – reduced the risk of tedium with storytelling closer to drama.
Certainly, later Watson projects proved far more controversial than The Family. Going to the other end of the British class spectrum, he persuaded a group of rich Tory chaps to be filmed for a 1986 documentary called The Fishing Party. Rightwing and racist banter was captured. The subjects claimed they had been stitched up and filmed while drunk, which Watson rejected, and the Conservative party that the film was calculated to demonise Thatcherism, which the producer would have found harder to deny.
The Australian family he signed up for Sylvania Waters (1992), an Antipodean version of The Family, also complained of distortion. But, unexpectedly, the documentary subjects with whom Watson had the closest friendship almost brought his career to an end.
Two films he made for ITV followed a wife caring for her husband who was living with Alzheimer’s – Malcolm and Barbara: A Love Story (1999) and Malcolm and Barbara: Love’s Farewell (2007). The sequel appeared to show Malcolm Pointon’s final breaths but, when it emerged he had died two days after that scene was filmed, Watson became involved in a broader row over “fakery” in TV and was suspended and investigated by ITV.
As Watson pointed out, even a few years earlier there would have been outrage if he had shown the actual moment of death on TV and, helped by praise and awards for another project of that period – Rain in My Heart, a BBC documentary about alcoholics that was among his best work – his professional reputation survived.
Watson, though, almost didn’t. It feels typical of the eventful life of this boisterous and amusing man that this tribute marks his second death. Many years ago, while hospitalised, he was pronounced lifeless and was being wheeled to the morgue when he began to revive. He liked to claim that he telephoned his wife to tell her urgently to stop spending the insurance money. Though continuing to work in documentary, he slowed down somewhat, writing four plays for Radio 4 and spending more time on the art and tapestries that were his relaxations.
Documentaries and articles to mark the 50th anniversary of The Family next April are already in progress. Watson may have been relieved to miss them: for him, The Family was always the equivalent of a massive No 1 hit for a singer who personally preferred some of the lesser-known album tracks.
But, for good and ill, the Wilkins films were one of the hinge moments in TV history, though their complex inheritance is shown by the news of Watson’s death breaking on a day when the media were dominated by the participation of a controversial populist politician, Nigel Farage, in the 23rd season of the jungle insect-ingestion contest, I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! – one of the directions in which reality TV went.
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