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Pioneering documentary maker and ‘father of reality TV’ Paul Watson dies aged 81 | Documentary

Paul Watson, the acclaimed British television documentary film-maker – known as the “father of reality TV” – has died aged 81.

Watson, who was behind documentaries including The Family, Sylvania Waters, and Malcolm and Barbara, died on Saturday after suffering from dementia, according to his son.

A statement from Daniel Watson said: “Dad travelled the world, meeting a huge number of people and gathering stories with his camera as he went.

“He, and the windows his films opened into the often overlooked lives of those he encountered, will be sadly missed. Wherever he is now, as in life, I’m sure he’ll have the same, inexhaustible fascination in his surroundings and those that inhabit them.”

Watson was born in London and started his career working as a researcher for the BBC’s Whicker’s World in the mid-1960s. He later went on to make hundreds of films.

For his work, he received multiple awards including a Bafta, a Royal Television Society award, a Prix Europa, and a Broadcasting Press Guild award.

His most memorable work included 1974’s The Family, a BBC One documentary widely regarded to have invented the fly-on-the-wall serial.

The programme, about the Wilkins family from Reading, caused a stir for the way it honestly depicted the living conditions and lifestyles of working-class people. “Back then, working-class people weren’t directly presented on TV,” Watson once said of the show. “You’d have experts standing in front of them; the great and the good referring to ‘these people’.”

During the broadcast of the series, the film-maker also reported that “we had lots of obnoxious letters from the middle classes saying how dare you show these people … here were the Wilkins, with a love child, living in overcrowded conditions, teaching their children to fib to the council about getting housing points. These things had never been discussed on a popular mainstream channel like BBC One.”

Meanwhile, Watson’s 1992 BBC One documentary, Sylvania Waters, is thought to be the first reality show in TV history. The series, about the domestic life of an Australian family from Sylvania Waters, a well-off Sydney suburb, made headlines when one of the family members revealed she’d faced harassment as a result of the programme.

One of the most controversial moments in Watson’s career was around the release of his 2007 ITV film, Malcolm and Barbara: Love’s Farewell. The film followed the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in a middle-aged man, Malcolm Pointon, and its impact on his marriage. But there was a backlash when advance publicity for the film misleadingly suggested it included footage of Pointon’s death.

Malcolm and Barbara: Love's Farewell.
Malcolm and Barbara: Love’s Farewell. Photograph: ITV pictures

Watson’s other notable works include The Fishing Party, a 1985 documentary about four young city commodity-brokers who go on a fishing holiday in Scotland to see if they can break the world record for a catch of skate, as well as 1997’s The Dinner Party and 2006’s Rain in My Heart.

Speaking in a 2006 interview, Watson said: “Reality television broke all the rules – there’s nothing wrong with that … The impressionists did it, the cubists did it, that’s the nature of art.

“Look at me. When I came into television I was a boring young lefty and I was tired of the Oxbridge brigade talking to camera. Out of the way. Let me film it. Let people speak for themselves.”

However, he added that reality TV had become “such basic film-making”. He said: “The condescending bastards who made it think the public knows nothing about film-making, but the public watches more TV than the people out at dinner parties networking. We are dealing with a precious commodity – one of the great inventions of the 20th century. Television can get you into any home.”

In 2008, when presenting Watson with the Bafta special award for outstanding creative contribution to the industry, John Willis described him as “one of the giants of documentary film-making. Over several decades he has created a string of memorable and often controversial documentaries, always striving for innovation in both form and content and invariably succeeding.”

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