1 9 7 4 (UK)
12 x 30 minute episodes
Based on a similar US documentary called An American Family, this show was really the beginning of ‘reality television’ in the UK. The Wilkins family of Reading consented to a film crew in their house – and lives – so their daily existence could be laid bare for all to see.
Margaret, the mother, was a vicious old cow with a rolling pin whose attempts to subjugate the rest of the family were usually met with apathy or stubborn resistance. Her hen-pecked husband, Terry, drove a bus to provide for the kids.
Surly blonde daughter, Heather, was engaged to a dodgy local lad with bad habits and a Zapata moustache, and one of the sons looked like a monkey.
Mrs Wilkins said; “we are not a problem family, we are a family with problems”. The problems included those of her daughter Marion, aged 19, whose loping live-in boyfriend Tom was rarely seen without a pint of beer in his hand and seemed comically reluctant to fix the wedding; those of her younger daughter Heather (15) who wanted to be a hairdresser, sulked at having to stay on at school and had an uninhibited manner with Melvyn, her half-caste boyfriend.
When the lad whispered affectionately to her during their holiday in Majorca, she replied: “Get lost, yer stinking smelly pig”.
Margaret’s son, Gary (18), had married his girlfriend Karen when they were sixteen because she was pregnant, and the series coincided with the couple’s move to a council flat where Karen proceeded to mope. Her second son, Christopher (9), was the love child of an affair, she revealed in one episode.
Her husband Terry (39, like Margaret) had accepted the boy as his own and sat patiently in the scruffy kitchen of their crowded maisonette over a greengrocer’s for most of the series, ignoring the peeling paint, smiling through the rows and quietly munching meals of mash and beans.
Filmmaker Paul Watson and his small crew spent two months with the Wilkins before filming. After this, the team filmed the family for eighteen hours a day for three months. The result was an extraordinary portrait of family life: honest, hilarious and painful.
Debuting on 3 April 1974, the Wednesday night screening attracted 6 to 9 million viewers, many of whom watched slack-jawed with amazement. This was no modern-day Waltons, and the British pubic reacted badly to the show, leading to daily debates about invasion of privacy and questions in the Houses of Parliament.
Paul Watson admitted it had been a mistake to screen episodes while still recording others. The pressures of ordinary family life, which the series had set out to reflect, had become pressures of coping with extraordinary publicity.
Terry Wilkins’ workmates believed he was doing it for the money, but it turned out the whole family received only £1,500 after tax for putting themselves on show (with no right of veto), not to mention putting up with Paul Watson as a lodger for almost three months and stepping over four cameramen around the flat (they’d taken rooms in the pub opposite).
Poison-pen letters came by the sackful after Margaret spoke of the affair with a dustman which led to Christopher’s birth. They had to change their phone number. But none of this upset Margaret for long.
Paul Watson went back with his cameramen in 1977 and again in 1988, but the new episodes were primarily a vehicle for Mrs Wilkins to slag off everything within reach.
Margaret and her husband had parted after 24 years, and each had remarried. Gary and Marion had both divorced their partners and remarried. Marion was on her third husband.
Heather the rebel had four children but had not married; Christopher had an illegitimate son; and Tom, who had cursed and belched and downed his pints with such glee for the cameras, was still a family friend. Margaret, still chain-smoking, still highly opinionated, regretted nothing.
When Margaret Wilkins died in 2008, Paul Watson remembered her as “a truly wise woman”.
The concept was repeated in Australia – with Noeline and her clan in Sylvania Waters – and ultimately became a bona fide TV genre, a la The Village, Back To The Floor and millions of other “fly on the wall” programmes.