Modelled on the 13-part observational series, An American Family (US, d. Craig Gilbert, 1972), producer Paul Watson's 12-part The Family (BBC, 1974) is credited with creating the concept of the 'fly-on-the-wall' documentary in Britain. Regardless, Watson's cinema verité-style, warts-and-all portrait of the working-class Wilkins family certainly popularised an 'observational' style still seen as the defining characteristic of British documentary some twenty-five years later.
The Family follows the daily lives of Terry and Margaret Wilkins, their children and their partners, as they all struggle to live together in a small flat in Reading. The series sets out to reveal to viewers the reality of family life in Britain as never shown before. "No TV family ever has dirty pots and pans," says Margaret in episode one, and the Wilkins demonstrate a remarkable candour in their on-camera conversations with one another.
Watson and his small crew spent two months with the Wilkins prior to filming. After this the team filmed the family eighteen hours a day for three months. The result was an extraordinary portrait of family life: honest, hilarious and painful, an instant classic the impact and influence of which (on both fiction and non-fiction television) it would be difficult to overestimate.
The Family divided critics and viewers alike, and the Wilkins were villified by the tabloid press for all manner of imagined transgressions: their 'acting' for the camera or their 'real' behaviour in front of it, their use of bad language and public airing of previously taboo subjects. Watson explained that he "wanted to make a film about the kind of people who never got on to television," and clearly the sight of a powerful and opinionated woman like Margaret Wilkins, or the challenge of daughter Heather to the casual racism of 1970s middle-England, was shocking to a certain section of the British public (Mary Whitehouse was among those who called for the series to be banned, lest this 'representative' family be seen as a model to imitate).